Ralph Segal was the senior architect/urban designer/development planner in charge of the Planning Department’s Urban Design and Development Planning Centre comprised of eight architects/urban designers and support staff. The task of his group was testing major rezoning and development permit decisions against the City’s urban design and architecture parameters. His team also provided critical urban design thought behind the comprehensive design guidelines for the downtown precincts and neighbourhood plans. Ralph cares deeply about this city, and shares the following commentary.
With the City’s current Zoning Map as an initial regulatory reference, Vancouver’s
contemporary approach to planning, urban design & sustainability, ever-evolving
since the 2000’s, has pursued comprehensively planned and designed
neighbourhoods, districts and precincts to achieve complete communities while
addressing an array of city-wide planning objectives.
Image: Heather Lands, a comprehensively planned and designed precinct incorporating leasehold strata and market rental units, 540 social & 100 affordable rental units, a child care facility and school site.
This approach to city building, responding to major development initiatives, “mega-project” sites and
long range policy and economic issues, has focussed in the last decade on
integrating significant rental and affordable (including social) housing throughout
the city. It is as valid an approach today as it was in the past in its delivery of
notably increased housing density at well-served locations able to absorb in
terms of urban design, greater building scale while creating enhanced public
realm and parks with integrated community facilities.
Just a few examples of
several hundred outside the downtown are:
Cambie Corridor -pursuant to subway station precincts:
Cambie & 41st. station: Oakridge Park + Oakridge Transit Centre site + Heather
Lands + Little Mountain + Oakridge Town Centre = “Municipal Town Centre”,
Cambie & 49th & 57th stations: Pearson/Dogwood & Langara Gardens sites,
Cambie & Marine Dr. station: multiple high density housing developments; plus-
Olympic Village; East Fraser Lands; Skeena Terrace; Rupert & Renfrew Station
Area Plan underway.
A list of all such examples, many pages long, would reveal
the inherent value of best urban design practices in housing development. But
the glaring absence of senior governments’ essential financial contribution to the
pursuit of such affordable housing solutions has been a huge impediment.
The tailored-for-Vancouver core planning, urban design, sustainability and
housing policy principles that produced the above body of work can be further
strengthened, focussing on affordable housing solutions while still maintaining a
suitably compatible “fit” within neighbourhoods into which new development is
inserted as well as minimizing tenant displacement.
An unforeseen outcome of Vancouver’s internationally lauded urban design and development has made Vancouver a highly attractive destination for domestic and foreign real estate investment, generating repercussions both positive (increased development activity and housing supply) and negative (counter-productive land speculation).
But now Council has approved the Broadway Plan (Vine Ave. to Clark Dr./1st
Ave. to 16th Ave.) and the Vancouver Plan (effectively the entire remainder of the
city), both of which pursue a substantially different approach that appears to
come from somewhere else.
This new approach designates expansive areas of the city for major densification and increased heights based primarily on a significantly stretched interpretation of current Transit-Oriented Development
(TOD) policy whereby transit proximity criteria will now include widespread new
areas, most more than 8-10 blocks from arterial bus routes, to be added to
present rapid transit (subway, Skytrain etc.) station precincts.
Both Plans dismissively abandon established neighbourhood contexts and scale based on
the false narrative that our housing affordability crisis can only be solved through
major pervasive density and height increases that create an over-supply of units
but imposes a far more impactful tower built form on liveability of many areas of
the city, not to mention the dubious environmental sustainability of tall towers.
While the Broadway Plan correctly calls for notable densification on Broadway
proper around subway stations to further enhance this street’s already important
role, most disturbing is the Plan’s significant densification and height increases
north and south of Broadway, promoting an influx of 20-storey towers to replace
existing low rise apartments.
This puts at serious risk many of the existing 19,600 rental units which constitute 25% of the city’s inventory, most of which are affordable.
If only a quarter of these existing units (4,900) were lost to
redevelopment, then assuming (generously) under the Plan an average of 35
affordable units in a typical new rental development (20% required to be
affordable), it would take approximately 140 new rental developments
(4,900/35 = 140) just to replace those existing affordable units lost in these areas
alone, without a single NEW affordable rental unit added!
Did this rudimentary calculation factor into Staff’s forecasting of possible Plan outcomes?
Ironically, it is such rampant, indiscriminate densification and height increases
that would trigger far greater land speculation, undermining the intended
delivery of substantive affordable housing as a result of predictable
skyrocketing land costs.
The planning and urban design dictum, “Form Follows
Function” (Function benefitting all) would degenerate into “Form Follows
Finance” (Finance benefitting land speculators and developers).
To be clear, in my 25 years dealing with development proponents in my role with the Planning
Department, I gained a healthy regard for developers’ practical common sense,
often inventive (surpassing City aspirations!) approach to their developments.
But they are in business and when handed a huge density bonus under the
Broadway Plan (eg. 4+ times the present zoned density) which they surely have
had a voice in influencing, they will take it!
The Vancouver Plan devotes but a half page (Direction 1.7 p.88), with two terse
paragraphs of text, to this issue of land speculation, giving short shrift to the
reality that the Vancouver Plan’s pervasive increased density and height
provisions would seriously accelerate the resulting escalating land costs.
This phenomenon, already commenced, would encourage the development
community to seek even further up-zoning to cover such additional up front costs.
Indeed, numerous projects already approved under existing policies with
sites long ago assembled, appear to be on hold. Are these developers, taking
note of the greater density incentives in both Plans, strategizing how they could
re-negotiate further increased density and height, citing these pervasive new
Plan provisions as precedents?
No one disputes the desirability, indeed the need for a comprehensive
Vancouver Plan. And two components of this present Plan, originating from work
commenced almost a decade ago, should be acknowledged and reinforced.
The Plan’s “Municipal Town Centre” (MTC) precinct surrounding the Cambie & 41st
Cambie Line station (see p.1 above, first para. for description) accommodating
high density, mixed use development is one of our best examples of Transit
Oriented Development (TOD) already approved, simply re-named in the
And the Plan’s Direction L1.8: Multiplex Areas (p. 67 of
Vancouver Plan) which replaces city-wide RS zoning’s low density single family
housing with “gentle densification”. Increasing density to, say, 1- 1.2 FSR to
improve viability of small project pro-formas, allows for a more advantageous
mix, including secondary suites, of up to 6 units per lot.
This would expand on duplex and laneway infill units now permitted, creating a substantive increased housing potential throughout the considerable land area now zoned RS.
Further,a streamlined development permit process with well illustrated development
guidelines would provide the incentive for timely delivery of highly “green”
ground-oriented housing in a compatible 2-3 storey “neighbourly” built form on
existing lots, avoiding (precluding?) land assembly with its predictable crippling
land speculation and eliminating the costly elevators, exit stairs, common
corridors and underground parking required for apartment buildings.
This harsh critique of the Broadway and Vancouver Plans has nothing to do with
Rather, it is about the short-sightedness of Staff and then Council
discarding a number of highly relevant neighbourhood plans.
It is about failure to acknowledge that increased housing density in the right locations,so many of which are already identified in existing rental policies (eg. “Secured Rental Policy”), numerous neighbourhood plans that can be further expanded, and a multitude of approved major spot rental rezonings that, taken all together, have been shown to exceed all housing supply targets to 2050.
It’s about addressing this city’s long term future with workable solutions to affordable housing that maintain the liveability, urban design and public open space attributes, left
undefined in both Plans, that are to serve Vancouverites, including those arriving
in the future who would have chosen our city for its high quality urban
environment and neighbourhoods as well as its affordability.
We can do better.
Ralph Segal MAIBC APA (ret.)
Former City of Vancouver Senior Architect Urban Designer Development Planner