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Neighbourhoods Fight Against Vancouver’s Densification Plans

VANCOUVER -- Mount Pleasant resident Stephen Bohus has been tracking the controversy over a proposed highrise in neighbouring Grandview-Woodland with a watchful eye and a mounting sense of déjà vu.

For the past two years, Bohus has been part of a group fighting the City of Vancouver over its plan to put a highrise tower at Kingsway and Broadway. The Rize development, originally intended to be 26 storeys, seemed to violate the neighbourhood character and fly in the face of an extensive community visioning process completed in 2010, just months before the proposal surfaced.

Mount Pleasant’s draft community plan had allowed for some “iconic” buildings at key sites — such as the fire-ravaged lot at Kingsway and Broadway — but community representatives thought they’d been clear they wanted building heights limited to between eight and 12 storeys. The city interpreted the plan differently, paving the way for the development — now slated to be 22 storeys — to go ahead.

So when Bohus heard residents of Grandview-Woodland were blindsided by the suggestion they might get their own highrise — a 37-storey tower near the Commercial SkyTrain station — it cemented his feelings the city’s consultation process around accommodating density in residential areas is in serious decline.

“I think the city is being even less responsive, so they’re going more to the top-down model (of decision-making),” he said.

Bohus isn’t the only one noticing a pattern.

As the city moves forward on its plan to increase density at 20 key sites in the city, focusing on transit hubs and major corridors, neighbourhoods are balking. The so-called “thin-streets” pilot proposed for Marpole was recently scrapped due to community pushback. And Grandview-Woodland and Mount Pleasant have added to a chorus of communities, such as the West End and the Downtown Eastside, where residents have united to speak out against increasing building heights. Each of those neighbourhoods is in the process of developing a community plan to determine development guidelines.

But the pushback doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the city’s consultation process, it’s all part of it, said Gordon Price, director of the City program at Simon Fraser University.

“Just because there’s controversy doesn’t mean the process is bad,” he said.

Price said his six terms on Vancouver city council from 1986 to 2002 taught him that community outcry is inevitable when the planning process goes from discussing generalities — desired amenities and possible locations for density — to specifics — a 37-storey tower proposed for a traditionally single-family neighbourhood.

“You always have to realize that by the time you get down to specifics, something hits the fan.”

That fallout tends to be much larger in established neighbourhoods that aren’t accustomed to change, he added.

Still, with demographic forecasts predicting 150,000 more people within Vancouver’s city limits in the next 30 years, and the cost of housing out of reach for most families, the city must find some way to accommodate growth and encourage affordable housing in every neighbourhood, Price said.

Achieving that goal requires a deft hand, creative design proposals and a realization many Vancouver residents are averse to highrise towers, said former Vancouver head planner Brent Toderian.

“Frankly, height is more controversial than density in many cases,” he said,

That realization prompted staff under his direction to highlight ideas for “hidden” and “gentle” density, Toderian said, noting townhouses, laneway homes and secondary suites are much more palatable than monolithic buildings.

“I think we have to get away from a myopic focus on towers, yes or no, and have it be a discussion of where towers are appropriate and by definition, where they are not.”

That’s something the city’s current director of planning, Brian Jackson, admits has not yet been done. The reaction against the thin-streets plan in Marpole and the tower in Grandview-Woodland are indicative that the city needs to communicate more clearly how growth will affect specific communities.

“What we haven’t done is make a clear case for where growth is going to occur,” he said, noting neighbourhoods can be assured that even as growth does occur, “the vast majority of the land-use space is not going to be changing.”

City staff have been responsive to concerns they are hearing, he said, noting the thin-streets plan was scrapped in Marpole and further consultations have been held in Grandview-Woodland, where residents have expressed a desire for more mid-rise density, similar to what’s been seen in the Olympic Village.

But for residents like Bohus, who feel the city has a history of ramming through plans for towers and one-size-fits-all designs in spite of community wishes, the fight against City Hall shows no signs of slowing. Bohus plans to attend a city-run open house on the Rize development tonight along with other members of the Residents Association of Mount Pleasant, who’ve vowed to keep challenging the city to demand a more responsive design.

“We’re still fighting the Rize,” he said. “There are big problems.”




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