This week with the introduction of a new Regional Growth Statement (RGS) City Hall signalled its intention to leach downtown tower urbanism into the first ring of historic neighbourhoods surrounding the Central Business District (CBD).
The intensification of Vancouver neighbourhoods has never been in question. Properly managed growth can become the engine of change. Communities across Canada can realize a healthy transition from the old suburban paradigm to a new paradigm of sustainable urbanism.
However, since Expo 1986 urbanism in Vancouver has tilted towards podium and tower, or large site redevelopment. With most of these large projects building in the downtown core, the neighbourhoods have been left behind. Transportation, social housing and the revitalization of the arterial street network has lagged. But so has the intrusion of building forms that most neighbours have clearly stated they don’t want. Our research shows that towers are not needed in the neighbourhoods to achieve density well beyond what is required to support a full century of growth.
Yet, municipal administrations in Vancouver have become ever more preoccupied with developer-driven initiatives than local-based planning. Clearly, this is a distortion of the planning system by which we regulate our city. In 2008 a new neighbourhood plan for Mount Pleasant showed municipal hall shifting the focus to the neighbourhoods. It was received with a fire-storm of resistance opposed to imposing towers in Vancouver’s venerable neighbourhoods.
The issue boils down to a debate over building excessive height and density on any give site, or achieving equivalent density with human scale product. Both building forms will net the same overall density measured at the neighbourhood level. But only the tower and podium model generates sufficient ‘land-lift’ to generate large profits to a small number of very large corporations, and sky-rocketing levies to City Hall. Sources inside the hall point to $160 million collected in Community Amenity Contributions (CACs) in 2012 and $85 million expected this year. This represents 5x and 3x more revenue over the base expectation of $30 million per year. Local media reported last month that the city had paid down an additional $160 million in Olympic Village debt.
The resulting imbalance of power in local governance threatens to distort our politics, break down the social functioning of our neighbourhoods, and destroy the livability of our city.
An overheated regional economy points to another grave concern. Families no longer seem able to afford purchasing a house and single workers report difficulties in buying one of the condominiums that are being built at a break-neck pace. It would appear as if the government’s role of regulating the economy to serve the people has been let go. We are generating profits but we are not creating opportunities to grow the middle class. Even in the area of financing of municipal infrastructure local governments raking in the CACs have neglected to put in use the Increment Tax Financing strategies that have been made legal by the Community Act, and have been a viable option for the City of Vancouver ever since it received its Charter in 1886.
Such misalignment of ends and means would be understandable in the face of a great crisis. Yet, the most cogent analysis suggests that all that is happening in our region is a long overdue transition from suburban planning to sustainable urbanism. The second part of that—the urbanism—has been building without much ado in western capitals for four centuries.