April 1, 2022

The Grand Bargain Repeated

When I coined the term “Grand Bargain” in this post back in 2019, I wasn’t sure if it would be picked up.  So it was nice to see it referenced in a recent motion by Cllr Christine Boyle.

Long-standing Vancouver housing policy has limited new rental and multi-family housing to arterials, putting added speculative and development pressure on commercial stretches including many culturally significant small and local businesses and cultural food assets ….   Planner and past Vancouver Councillor Gordon Price refers to this intentional political and policy choice as the “Grand Bargain”.1

Not quite.  First, I’m not officially a planner.  An honorary one, but that’s not the same.

And secondly, most of the intentional high-density development is not along arterials but in megaprojects (there is a half century of them around False Creek) and most intentionally of all in Burnaby’s regional and municipal town centres along SkyTrain lines.  But the idea is basically correct: councils have concentrated higher density development in limited, largely industrial or commercial places to take pressure off the single-family lower density areas of their municipalities and leave them untouched.  The quid of highrises for the quo of traditional suburbia – and we’ve been doing it since the regional plan of 1975.



Hence many pro-housing advocates argue that Grand Bargain is past its time and, given the limited land available for megaprojects or the unfairness of putting higher density along noisy polluted arterials, it needs to be discarded.  They may be correct and the time may be right.  For instance, Danny Oleksiuk argues that the privileged elites who have successfully defended their grassy retreats are in decline.  Hence the city’s single-house neighbourhoods will be rezoned as the Grand Bargain is broken down.

But here’s a previous Viewpoint post that I think is newly relevant to this contemporary debate: The Grand Bargain in Action: Vancouver and Seattle.  

Allow me to extensively quote myself:

Don’t count on (the Grand Bargain being discarded), Danny. The Bargain isn’t just about values expressed as housing prices; it’s about stability and certainty too – the desire by those who have lived in a place long enough to want to keep it more or less the same, regardless of their tenure.

You’ll fine the renters, leaseholders and homeowners, seemingly with different interests, will all unite around that basic desire, as illustrated most recently in neighbourhood plans and politics, whether in the West End and Grandview-Woodland or the South Shore of False Creek.  They will fight for both security of tenure (like rent controls, the rollover of leases, or low residential property taxes) and slow rates of growth with maintenance of ‘character’ even as they rhetorically call for more affordability and diversity.  They may not like the scale or character of the designated growth areas, whether downtown, in regional centres or along transit/arterial corridors, but they’ll accept it so long as it doesn’t infringe on their green streets or involve the displacement of lower-income renters.  (Ed: That’s why Colleen Hardwick and Jean Swanson end up as unlikely allies.)

As for local elites and the growth machine, it’s easy to diss the developers; it will be more problematic as First Nations – notably MST Corporation – become the biggest developers in the city in alliance with existing real-estate interests to carry on with the Grand Bargain a la Senakw and Jericho. …

Whether because of political expediency or demographic realities, the Grand Bargain has performed well enough over the last half century for leaders across the ideological spectrum to sustain it, retreat to it or defend it.  Anyway, it’s effectively built into our regional visions and neighbourhood plans.  That’s a lot of inertia.

Critics of the Grand Bargain (an easy target in the face of unaffordability) who argue that this particular bargain ain’t so grand still have to come up with something better, something that acknowledges the near universal desire for certainty and stability by present residents, whether expressed as the value of their house, the cost of monthly accommodation, the maintenance of character, or the rate of change over time.  It won’t matter whether you’re a NIMBY or a YIMBY, a supply- or a demand-sider, a homeowner or a renter, an east- or west-sider, you gotta come up with a bargain.


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