June 22, 2022

David Ley on Vancouver & Broadway Plans: Tower Densification Does Not Mean Affordability

David Ley is a thoughtful and well known  urban geography professor emeritus at University of British Columbia who is just about to publish a book on “Housing Booms in Gateway Cities”. This week Dr. Ley wrote an editorial for the Vancouver Sun that hits at the heart of the Broadway Plan proposed by Vancouver’s  City Planning Department.

It’s similar to what Michael Geller has stated: you just can’t densify yourself to affordability, despite what national newspaper writers based  in Toronto say.

Acknowledging that upzoning around rapid transit stations makes sense, he cautions that allowing for the increased densities and broad brush upzoning of the Vancouver and  Broadway Plans will “raise land values, and as developers pay more for a site, their cost is passed on to owners and tenants. The result is unaffordable housing.”

Calling the City Hall  plans a  “fixation” on huge density concentrations to conjure up  pockets of affordable housing,  Dr. Ley notes that increased density did not make housing more affordable in False Creek North or along the Cambie Corridor.

Dr. Ley talks about the fact that there is little acknowledgement of the  “destruction of the existing built environment and the widespread displacement of businesses and city residents scarcely acknowledged.”

He also delves into what rents will be in those 20 percent of units designated for low income renters, and for those that don’t get a subsidized  unit. With average rental prices now at $2,100 for a one bedroom and $3,000 for a two bedroom, those rental units assume that people are employed in high salary positions.  Dr. Ley writes:

“Even now, with a rent in the Broadway corridor of say $2,400 for a new one-bedroom unit, an annual household income of $96,000 would be necessary if rental costs were at the standard of 30 per cent of gross income. For a new two-bedroom unit at $3,400, the equivalent necessary household income would be $136,000.

These incomes are well above Vancouver’s median household income, and beyond the reach of most workers in local businesses and health care services around Broadway.”

“Once up-zoning occurs, the genie is out of the bottle, and the housing stock faces inflationary pressures the city cannot control.”

Dr. Ley notes that all types of housing have become an investment asset, not just a place to live. While it appears that offshore speculation slowed with Provincial levies, prices still increased with Canadian investment.

The rezoning of the PCI tower at Granville and Broadway (which apparently is being shopped around for a new buyer now that the density has been decided) will ripple property values around it, making it tough for existing rental commercial and residential properties to remain. The flagship store of Chapman’s near the tower location  at 2596 Granville  has just folded after 134 years in business.

Dr. Ley also directly addresses the tenant displacement policy proposed for the Broadway corridor, where the City has touted that displaced tenants will be rehoused in a new building at the same rent. He notes that in London England developers were able to get rid of affordability promises by using “viability assessments”, saying that fluxing market conditions meant they could not go through with the agreements. It will be for future Mayors and Councils to make these decisions, but London offers the  precedent.

Look for future developers in Vancouver that will  argue that they want to  build the Broadway density if they are allowed strata units, with a negotiated smaller percentage as affordable rental or with a buyout to the city.

Future City Councils will have to decide how to address this, and the discussion takes away from the supposed policy goal of this density being solely for rental housing.

Dr. Ley feels that that in a housing emergency sites should be found throughout the city, and innovative partnerships explored on vacant railway lands and near new job anchors, like the proposed St. Paul’s Hospital replacement. He points out that there are schools and institutions in neighbourhoods that have space that could house teachers, and opportunities in detached neighbourhoods to provide housing close to where people would also work. He feels the Federal government must also pony up to deal with the much needed “massive immigration plan”anticipated, and the need for more housing.

The last word goes to Dr. Ley:

“These suggestions are illustrative and schematic, and are intended to prompt imaginative policy-making that thinks beyond the current obsession with densification alone. Such policy-making would certainly embrace soft densification, but not the widespread and massive destruction/reconstruction envisaged in the Broadway and Vancouver plans.

It was the threat of massive destruction and displacement that brought an end to the freeway era. The freeway system advocated by the NPA council in 1967 was decisively rejected in subsequent civic elections. This fall’s civic election will provide a similar survival test for the policy of massive densification.”

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Comments

  1. Many thanks for posting commentary especially from Michael Geller and David Ley. It’s totally relevant to the entirely new direction taken by Vancouver’s planning department since its more progressive actions beginning in the late 1960s that did result in a more livable city.

  2. Thanks to David Ley for his informative and thoughtful article! Vancouver planning and real estate staff seem to be obsessed with promoting the demolition of existing affordable housing for densified redevelopment, as in the Broadway Plan, False Creek South, and various co-ops. As Ley points out, there is plenty of vacant and under-developed land that could be developed first. The City’s approach doesn’t make any sense at all. Existing affordable housing is the most affordable housing possible. It should be treasured, and the City should be encouraging it to be maintained for as long as possible.

    1. I find complaints about affordability to be wholly disingenuous. The “A” Word is only trotted out to oppose change because unfortunately the hollow charge works. We can’t build enough units to turn back the clock to 1996’s average prices, or whenever one feels prices were appropriately “affordable” – in essence to flood the market with so many units as to make them nearly worthless. You can imagine how much these same champions of the common man would rage if that came to pass.

  3. Once more, David Ley’s is a voice of reason in the febrile conversation around development in Vancouver. Despite community concerns, the Broadway Plan is predicated on well-intentioned but ill-thought-out high-rise tower densification across multiple blocks of established residential neighbourhoods. Many of those proposed blocks are located at some distance from the nearest (future) Broadway rapid transit station. So the transit-oriented development argument is tenuous at best. Whereas the negative impacts on such development in these neighbourhoods will be all too real. Yes, as Dr. Ley notes, the Broadway Plan should “certainly embrace soft densification, but not the widespread and massive destruction/reconstruction envisaged in the Broadway and Vancouver plans.” I am all for sensitively increasing density in established residential neighbourhoods and along major arterials. The operative word here is “sensitively”.

    If the Broadway Plan as currently proposed by Planning Department staff is approved by our City Council, I fear it will result not in the hoped-for increase in affordable housing stock but rather in even more property speculation across large swaths of our city, and resulting increases in housing costs. And the loss of well-established urban community amenity and human scale. There goes the neighbourhood. Mayor and Council, please reconsider.