September 22, 2022

Former City of Vancouver Senior Architect Ralph Segal on Broadway & Vancouver Plans: A Rejection of Core Vancouver Planning Principles?

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
Vancouver Plan.

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
Nimbyism.

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

images:globe&mail,cityofvancouver

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Comments

  1. Mr. Segal’s positions are well worth reading. I haven’t worked for Planning in the City of Vancouver since 1982 when Local Area Planning was in full flower. I came to Vancouver with experience elsewhere in BC municipal and regional planning. I was surprised that there was no City Wide Plan for Vancouver at that time to guide Local Are Planning and to connect it with Regional and Senior Government transportation and land use initiatives. BC Housing was established in 1972-74 but faltered soon after with a change in the political stripe of the BC Government. Federal support also suffered. (Other Canadian Cities took advantage where they could and Vancouver itself carried on to its credit with its own programs). I do not know the number of truly affordable multiple family homes in Vancouver but I am suspicious that some of the “affordable homes” that critics of the Vancouver Plan reference are privately owned (who were once now scorned developers). Rent increases are often market-based when vacancies occur, and are affordable to the current tenants thanks more to Provincial rent control policy and because older rental homes lack amenities like elevators, seismic upgrading, fire safety separations, private and semi private outdoor space and many other conveniences. Housing affordability policy and its implementation was and is a hot rock thrown amongst all Government levels and that game continues in spite of the clear need for a concerted response. Such an organized response requires clear direction not a “muddling through” approach. The first comprehensive plan for Vancouver has been adopted 136 years after Vancouver was incorporated and 4 years after Council unanimously resolved that it be created (first order of business for the new 2018 Council I recall). Some of that Council unanimity were lost at adoption when the Vancouver Plan was submitted, some major initiatives were deleted and and some Councillors and long term observers of Vancouver were critical that the adopted Plan didn’t serve all or their particular needs. (Only one Official Plan that I have helped prepare had a split Council vote at adoption — a Plan is never perfect and, by law, it can be changed, and plan elements need not be pursued by a subsequent Council.) Others feel the Plan will be ignored. I don’t. Council may not have been wise wise to rewrite portions of the Plan on the fly, and I suspect that observers are too quick to criticize something new for the City but standard everywhere else in BC if not Canada. I am no critic of this Plan.
    (If I am allowed a sidebar — it was great to see Skeena Terrace mentioned in the Expert Opinion — that small community in the City has has abundant aged public housing [60-70 years old], underdeveloped public land and underused community services, great transit, including a SkyTrain station opened in 2002, and superior road access. A Local Area Plan for its improvement should have preceded the Skytrain and informed Station planning. It is just now being undertaken — was this great little part of the City forgotten? — a comprehensive land use plan will bring these opportunities to light for the City in a comparable way.)
    Good work Vancouver. A Plan prepared by dozens of Vancouver experts with 100s of years combined years of Staff and outside agency experience, 1000s of individual and group input and more than 100 years of City and regional data to consider should be given time to be understood and applied.

  2. My impression of supposedly transit oriented developments along the Cambie corridor is of 6+ storeys buildings with double loaded corridors and central elevators that lead to 2-3 levels of underground parking, which actually prioritizes coming and going via auto, confirmed by casual observation. I don’t see these buildings contributing to a village like pedestrian realm around these stations.

    While many larger scale developments such as the Olympic Village are well thought out in many ways, they miss the opportunity to develop district parking as called for in Transportation 2030 (now Transportation 2050) that is disconnected from individual buildings, so as to reduce costs and encourage mobility modes that we want to see people using. Also, large scale schemes take longer to create much needed affordable housing, requiring land assembly and a long approval process.

    What is missing from the Broadway Plan is the development of a series of building typologies at various scales especially medium and small, that are dense, have thoughtful relationships to busy streets like Broadway, adjacent streets and lanes, and prevent the construction of vast areas of multi-level parking that are the unfortunate legacies of much Vancouver development of the past decades.

  3. I understand the feeling that the Broadway Plan may feel like a repudiation of a life’s work, but let’s not get carried away. The city we currently have is the product – for better and worse – of the incremental, context-sensitive approach to planning that’s been applied for the past 50 years. Clearly it’s provided benefits, but at the expense of allowing robust housing options because it might encroach on “neighbourhood context” and residents’ existential comfort.

    The Broadway Plan is imperfect, of course. But it’s an attempt at something new and a recognition that “Vancouverism” isn’t quite getting the job done with regards to sustainable housing options – at least for those who don’t benefit from the privilege of already living here. To those fretting over change, I say, “It’ll be OK. Of all the things out there that’ll kill us, the Broadway Plan ain’t one of them.”

    1. Dan, just so you know, every day, every hour I and my colleagues involved in Vancouver’s planning was focussed on future intended positive results, not past. That’s one reason you see the many 30, 40 and 50 storey high density hi-rises (some would say too many) in the downtown. And I say, let’s see a good chunk of that directly on Broadway itself as called for in the Plan as the city’s principal E/W artery south of False Creek, delivering over time thousands of new rental units.
      But the criticism I raise to the Plan’s densification north and south of Broadway has nothing to do with nostalgia or contextual sensitivity. Rather, it is the extensive demolition of existing affordable rental units that the Plan’s promotion of 20-storey towers would generate in spite of promised tenant protection measures. City policy requires a mere 20% of new rental development to be “affordable”. In rough terms, for every 5 new units created, only one would be “affordable”. And the Plan’s significant development incentives which the private sector would eagerly engage would result in hundreds..no, thousands of existing affordable units demolished. This is simply not how we’ll solve the housing affordability crisis. You’re correct that the Broadway Plan is not perfect. The best way to improve it is to roll back the densification of areas north and south of Broadway, noting that the majority of those existing apartments have a future life expectancy of 10, 15, 20 years or more.