Observers hope the new urban plan will allow for more wide variety of buildings in Vancouver. At the moment, the landscape is limited to condo towers and single-family homes, which reinforces the housing crisis.
If it comes to fruition, the Vancouver Plan, which aims to establish a coherent planning strategy, would turn the page on a planning approach that was implemented almost 100 years ago.
The old plan, which dates back to 1927, produced a context that made all housing in Vancouver “a diamond,” according to renowned urban planner Michael Mortensen. What could the new plan change for Vancouverites struggling with significant challenges from climate change and housing shortages?
The changes proposed in the plan are much needed, says Michael Mortensen, founder of Liveable City Planning. Everything produced in housing has become so rare that it has become a target for the luxury market.
The Vancouver Plan, adopted by City Council last Wednesday, is the culmination of three years of work by the City and more than $10 million in consultations and more. The city's director of urban planning, Theresa O'Donnell, has herself recognized that the urban planning practices of the past are no longer sufficient to meet today's challenges and wishes to break with this legacy moving forward.
Michael Mortensen hopes that the new plan will make it possible to move away from what was established by the urban planner Harland Bartholomew in 1927 by reviewing the zoning and developing the densification of the territory.
“Are we still wearing the same clothes as a 1927?” No. But our zoning regulations are still very similar to those established in 1927.”
— Michael Mortensen, founder of Liveable City Planning
Same echo from Peter Waldkirch, a lawyer who has followed all the city councils of Vancouver for four years. We need to expand the areas where apartments can be built to be able to provide affordable housing and deal with climate change, he says simply.
The City of Vancouver proposes in its plan to develop new housing in all neighborhoods that are not dense enough, but many believe that it does not go far enough.
However, he feels that the Vancouver Plan does not go far enough in expanding these areas.
“Is the Plan a success in terms of radical transformation? My answer is no”
— Peter Waldkirch, lawyer
He would have preferred to see a more radical proposal than a rezoning that is limited to certain areas to allow construction of apartments. He nevertheless recognizes that the plan creates interesting bases for future actions.
Stuart Smith, director at Abundant Housing Vancouver, hopes to see the 1927 zoning plans thrown into oblivion. He points to several elements of the plan that are absurd to him today: In 1927, they decided that north of 16th Avenue there could be apartments and to the south, none, just houses. To me, that's a ridiculous line in the sand and no one took the time to debate it!
The City's antiquated zoning regulations have created low building diversity, with a significant shortage of low- and mid-rise multi-family residential buildings.
Vancouver's previous city plans left little room for the construction of “missing middle” buildings. There are only condo towers and single-family homes in the landscape.
Vancouver's landscape is therefore mainly composed of condo towers and single-family homes, creating a gap between the two for housing, especially tenants, a phenomenon that urban planners call the missing middle.
The plan proposes to build on the construction of a second floor in low-density neighborhoods in order to to create new housing.
We want to push the densification, but in some cases we want it to be as discreet as possible, analyzes Jean-Philippe Meloche. It is a form of so-called soft densification, which does not disfigure the neighborhood.
Peter Waldkirch goes a little further in his analysis: We still seem to be talking about slightly larger houses, which does not at all correspond to the extent of the housing crisis we see in Vancouver.
Although many observers welcome the city's effort to propose a new vision that should be achieved by 2050, this effort is seen as too little for some, too late for others.
The Plan offers nothing concrete. It's a plan to make a plan to make a plan. There are a lot of steps left before anything happens, denounces Peter Waldkirch.
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart proposes a plan whose timeline and finances don't cannot be clarified before the next municipal elections in October.
Stuart Smith insists on the urgency of acting immediately and regrets to see the ball going into the court of the next administration. If you want reforms, affordable housing can't be a hot potato, he says.
Jean-Philippe Meloche, professor at the School of Urban Planning and Landscape Architecture at the University of Montreal, believes that the city's desire to leave the realization of the plan until later reveals a political will: We are not going to not hide it, it is a political tool. What he's saying is if you don't vote for us, this plan won't happen, he simplifies.
Michael Mortensen would also have preferred to see faster zoning changes: It's a vision document at a very high level, it will take time to materialize.
He explains that the delays in administrative procedures to obtain a permit to build new buildings create a bottleneck for the creation of affordable housing.
According to Peter Waldkirch, the possibility of building new housing should be facilitated rather than making each request for a permit complicated, as is the case in Kitsilano.
He cites as an example the case of a rezoning application for the construction of a six-storey building in Kitsilano that would have created 35 new rental units. The owner of the land struggled for eight years to get permission to build.
In his opinion, a real action plan should have been adopted earlier, because we are already seeing the serious consequences of a development policy unchanged for decades. It affects the soul of this city, it affects the economy of this city, he laments.
Urban planner Michael Mortensen warns of the risks of seeing families leaving neighborhoods, like Point Grey, which is seeing its commercial artery slowly dying out.
He says we shouldn't not be surprised to see the commercial arteries of certain neighborhoods slowly dying out, such as in Point Grey, which has been empty of its residents for a few years.
“It's a phenomenon I see in certain neighborhoods. I call it doing Point-Greyism. I see the complete population loss in Point Gray as a pretty big warning”
—Michael Mortensen, Founder of Liveable City Planning
Until now, City by-laws have given a lot of power to neighborhood associations. Many of them have blocked changes in their neighborhood, which has created a lot of problems in the last 30-40 years, illustrates Michael Mortensen. According to him, we need goals and aspirations that are common to all neighborhoods.
Each change proposed by the city has always met with enormous resistance from housing owners, explains Peter Waldkirch.
There was a time when Vancouver's urban development was a universally envied and celebrated model. It was touted for its car-free urban lifestyle where rich and poor lived side by side, a context that had been fostered by Vancouverism, a concept that was attracting global attention.
A Radio-Canada report on Vancouverism in 2010
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But Stuart Smith hopes to see the end of this model for the rest of the plan. When you look closer at what Vancouverism was, it was the status quo. Apartments were growing where they already are, densification was going to where poor people live. It was never a movement of reform or questioning, criticizes the director of Abundant Housing Vancouver.
Michael Mortensen, for his part, had contributed enormously to the elaboration of vancouverism in the 90s. It was an incredible success, taking downtown, abandoned industrial land and turning those areas into residential neighborhoods for families first. We were admired by everyone, he says.
He sees this new turn as Vancouverism part 2. It's not a break, he believes. But he acknowledges that this second stage is likely to be more complicated, since changes have to be undertaken in areas that have already been built on, whereas the original concept involved unoccupied land.