Rize Fiasco

Vancouver City Council approved the Mount Pleasant Community Plan on 18 November 2010. In March 2012 a Public Hearing convened to approve re-zoning of a 19 storey tower in the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood attracted 295 speakers. Most rose to denounce the tower as the wrong building form for their neighbourhood. On 17 April, with one abstention and one vote against, Council approved the re-zoning citing the $6.25 million cash contribution from the developer as the decisive factor. The community plan, and a two-year community outreach and consultation process, were over ruled. Many felt that the special role accorded to the public sector to collect tax, oversee the growing wealth and prosperity of the city and its neighbourhoods, and stand as the regulator of the  market economy was trumped by a one-time cash injection.

The Vancouver Historic Quartiers study was designed to flesh out grey areas surrounding high density, and good city form. However, the 2012 re-zoning decision in Mount Pleasant clearly shows us that financing neighbourhood amenities is an equally important issue requiring further study. While that issue is not directly addressed in this study, we offer a general outline of a workable approach under “Recommendation 7: Tax Increment Financing”:

Build-out is envisioned as 1/3-market; 1/3-assisted; and 1/3-non-market units. Assuming an indexed residential property tax rate of $1/sq. ft., we calculate the build out of the Charrette Plan delivering new municipal revenues in the order of $17.75 million per year. This is only an index of residential intensification. We cannot index municipal tax revenues flowing from new businesses locating in the area because we can find no reliable precedents. Yet, the combined Tax Increment from new residential and new businesses points to the liability of having the Historic Quartiers under performing their full potential. The 16,000 units required to house a population increment of 35,000 amount to 12.8 million square feet of new construction, and building re-use. This is a significant result in terms of capital investment, and employment. Tax Increment Financing strategies set aside a portion of the new tax revenues to service the provision of neighbourhood amenities through municipal bond issues.

Comprehensive Development 1 Re-zoning (CD1) will ravage the neighbourhoods and destroy the built, cultural heritage of the city. Calculated to net the municipality new fees from re-zoning land to tower densities, this approach runs into difficulties outside the downtown core where large projects are a bad fit. In the neighbourhoods questions are raised about the possibility—and the desirability—of building density incrementally, with human-scale product.

Erecting point towers in human-scale districts exposes a lack of capacity in our planning. It has been known since the 1950s and 1960s that the same podium-and-tower form that can work downtown will destroy the fabric of our neighbourhoods. The Charrette Plan demonstrates that we can achieve tower densities through incremental development using with 3.5 storey urban houses and 5.5 storey streetwall buildings. Thus, the real reason for building hi-rise in the neighbourhoods must be sought elsewhere, outside considerations of ‘good’ city form.

The re-zoning in Mount Pleasant puts the ability to charge additional fees for hi-rise development front and centre. Land lift charges are new ‘policy context’ driving planning decisions in the Vancouver neighbourhoods. The push for ‘height above 6 storeys’ and for ‘provisions of public benefits’ is explicitly stated in the Mount Pleasant Community Plan:

…additional height above 6 storeys serves to trigger redevelopment, and leads to improvements in site development and street character, and provisions of public benefits, without compromising urban design considerations (including overshadowing), and important public views. (Mount Pleasant Community Plan. 18 November 2010. P. 31).

It has always been possible—and far more sustainable—to build walkable, high-density, residential districts, or quartiers, with fee-simple, human-scale houses. In contrast, the luxury condominium market looks for ‘additional height above 6 storeys’ in order to rise above the rooftops of street-oriented, walkable neighbourhoods or quartiers. The luxury market targets views and exclusiveness, in place of neighbourhood values, street orientation, and social mixing. Making a play for the luxury market, CD-1 re-zoning is in conflict with the neighbourhoods, ‘compromising urban design considerations (including overshadowing)’ to net the municipality fees that under City Charter regulations as currently written may not be collected any other way.

It is becoming crystal clear that the focus on land lift revenues may be distracting planning attention from other pressing neighbourhood issues. For example, left out of the planning agenda is the need for the revitalization of Vancouver’s arterial streets; affordable housing; and the connection between mental health and homelessness.

The over reliance on private automobiles for transportation has eroded the livability of our streets, and is threatening the health of people living in houses fronting the arterials. These houses face between 40,000, and 60,000 average daily trips (ADT). We quote studies that show that the livability of the street erodes after 16,000 ADT. Streets carrying over 20,000 ADT fail to support social functioning. We worry about the effects that high levels of pollution and noise may be having on residents and their children. The remedy that is called for, i.e. removing 20,000 to 40,000 car trips from our streets, is not just a question of better architecture, or street design. It will require switching commuters from cars to fast and efficient transit.

We believe that neighbourhood form will play a decisive role in achieving that goal. The walkability of a place also builds incrementally.Transit implementation plays a key role extending the reach, revitalizing the arterials, removing cars from the road, and returning livability to the streets. Working in tandem, urban houses, streetwall buildings and surface transit can deliver hi-density, human-scale, livable streets and walkable neighbourhoods. In turn, the walkable neighbourhoods, or quartiers become the building blocks of the new, affordable region.

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