Assembly tackles sub-area issues as public roundtable approaches

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As the Citizens’ Assembly on the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan works through its many draft recommendations, the trade-offs often involved become more prominent. When meeting number nine began at the Croatian Cultural Centre on Saturday, April 11, Assembly chair Rachel Magnusson asked members what they’d learned and thought about in the two weeks since the previous meeting.

Trade-offs was the first word to arise. “What do you really want to see,” said one Assembly member, explaining her view of the issue. “What would you be prepared to give up to get that?”

Compromise was another word that came up. One member said he’d talked to his barber about separated bike lanes on Commercial Drive south of East First Avenue. He said the barber had been skeptical, but was more accepting when he understood that there had been compromise in proposals for Commercial Drive bike lanes.

Another member talked about assumptions, in particular the assumption that the new community plan will result in significant population growth. She added that she’d talked to one Commercial Drive business owner whose message was to maintain current zoning — and no towers.

Others talked about more specific concerns. One said she’d recently biked to Confederation Park in North Burnaby, and wanted to see more contiguous bike lanes in the Cedar Cove area of Grandview-Woodland. Another said she’d talked to a lifetime resident of the community who shared her view that “we need to do more for the youth in the neighbourhood.”

Magnusson then outlined the task for the day: to discuss and refine sub-area recommendations and mapping as small working groups, post the ideas for feedback from all Assembly members, and then discuss and refine them some more. The form for the day was simple; the content was complicated.

Magnusson framed the discussion by returning to the Assembly’s mandate from council. “City council wants to know from you what is appropriate neighbourhood growth,” she said, adding that this includes direction on sticky issues such as Broadway and Commercial. She said the work will continue at the next meeting, which also includes revisiting neighbourhood-wide recommendations, in preparation for the Assembly’s May 5 meeting with the public to garner feedback.

“We know that we have some different opinions in this room,” she said, on issues ranging from height to bike lanes. But she said the Assembly has established shared values, and she encouraged the working groups to ground their discussion in those values. You could battle all day long, she said, about four storeys versus eight in a particular area. She asked people to think about their underlying concerns and ambitions, and said agreement will come through that. “When you dig down, you’ll find that you do agree about more than you think.”

Magnusson also reminded people that they are not just making decisions for themselves, but for the whole community, and the recommendations will be tested in the community. “It’s not just you who is making this decision.” She also reminded people that they must balance pros and cons. “There is no perfect recommendation.”


Where, how much and how fast?

Grandview-Woodland lead planner Andrew Pask then provided some reminders about the planning context, including connections between communities and civic objectives such as addressing affordability, auto dependence, health and demographic concerns. The neighbourhood is walkable, he said, but planning can build on that principle.

Pask also showed a chart that demonstrated, except for a brief period in the early 1980s, Vancouver’s population has grown steadily, and he suggested the trend is not likely to change. “Grandview-Woodland has the distinction of actually having a population decrease,” he said, based on federal census figures. The decline of children and youth was a key factor, and the static number of seniors suggests some people are not able to age in place.

Pask also noted that heights deemed acceptable by the community for the Safeway site have come down repeatedly through the current planning process. Data from two Broadway and Commercial public workshops in 2014 and 2015 suggests a consensus upper limit between 22 and 28 storeys at the first meeting and about 16 storeys at the second. He wondered if that trend would continue or reverse.

Pask cited the debate between Gordon Price and Patrick Condon, where Price argued for nodes of density and Condon for distributing density throughout the neighbourhoods, as exemplifying a key question for the Assembly. Where does the community want redevelopment?

One factor to keep in mind, he said, is that various impediments mean strata apartments and social housing buildings are not likely candidates for change. Pask showed two maps of such sites, and they indicated concentrations around Woodland Park and in the triangle of land between Broadway and the Grandview Cut.

Pask also argued that, historically, redevelopment takes place at a pace of about one percent per year. He said the city’s experience suggests that about 40 percent of potential redevelopment will take place during the 30-year life of the new community plan.

Drawing on this information and on community input on what redevelopment might be acceptable, Pask said a scenario with new density on Dundas, portions of blocks on Nanaimo where housing and alleys don’t run east-west, and 16 storeys at the Safeway site would likely add about 11,250 people to the community over the next 30 years, at an average of 375 per year. Grandview-Woodland’s population in 2011 was 27,297, down from 29,085 in 2001. The number 375 would involve a townhouse, one or two apartments and one or two mixed-use buildings a year, he said.

One Assembly member noted that change has been quite rapid in some parts of the city. Concern about land speculation and pace of change are central concerns for many residents, and brief discussion followed regarding the tools that might control this, such as limits on the number of permits issued in a given year, and whether constraining redevelopment in one area can force rapid change on others.

Another member noted that demographics in the area are changing quickly, with more families and children, and asked if the city has tools beyond the census to measure trends. Pask said those tools are limited, but school statistics provide some indications, and he noted that Grandview-Woodland schools operate at about 70 percent of building capacity.

Yet another member wondered how the city monitors rental accommodation that’s not purpose-built. “The city does not have the resources to run an ongoing database of everyone who has a suite in a house,” he said. Pask also noted that in the single-family and duplex zones perhaps 25 percent of households consist of renters. (City-wide more than half are renters, and the percentage is increasing.)

Pask was asked how much growth could be accommodated with existing zoning. He said such figures can be misleading, because build-out doesn’t always occur: three storeys generally won’t be demolished to create four, and there are less than 20 laneway homes in Grandview-Woodland, despite broad opportunity to build them. Existing zoning, he added, might push a lot of new development into areas like Commercial Drive, because there’s a lot of unused capacity there.

And with that extra layer of complexity, Magnusson turned the process over to the Assembly members: draft some recommendations, draw them on a map, and post them on the wall for others to review.


Lots of work, some agreement

Many Assembly members worked through lunch, and by mid-afternoon most groups were ready to report out to the room.

First up was Britannia-Woodland, which said it discussed prioritizing the retention of existing housing and maintaining the RM-4 zone as it is. Draft recommendations the group posted for feedback aimed to protect the significant number of affordable rental and co-op units, and maintain their ratio in the community as new development occurs. The group also wanted the city to consider in its long-term planning the feasibility of a tunnel under East First Avenue from Clark Drive to Victoria Drive to return the thoroughfare to the community as a neighbourhood street.

An improved Mosaic greenway and better bike-route linkages, greater safety where Grandview Highway meets Woodland Drive, transit on East First, consultation on the Georgia Viaduct removal proposals, and additional side-street sidewalks were the focus of other recommendations. They also said they wanted to encourage the Grandview group to increase allowable height at the south end of its zone.

The Grandview table said it generally considers four storeys of townhouses or apartments suitable on East First, with a portion of units reserved for rental, and attention to shadowing issues north of East First. The group wanted to spread other new density throughout the neighbourhood, through infill and secondary suites. On Victoria Drive, the group wanted a 30-kilometre speed limit, other traffic-calming measures and safer crossings, including some for new east-west bike routes.

Parks were also a key focus, and the group wanted improved drainage, native plantings, public art, fitness infrastructure, and lighting and garbage disposal in existing parks, as well as new micro-parks in the parks-deficient neighbourhood.

Cedar Cove’s table wanted to improve the bike routes in the Powell/Dundas area, extend transit down to Powell Street, continue attention to mitigating industrial odour issues, improve the public realm in industrial areas, provide historic information and public art (including art on the port lands modelled on the Granville Island concrete plant silos), work long-term toward public access to the waterfront, and study traffic patterns to improve safety from Wall Street east to Nanaimo.

On Hastings, the group wanted attention to transitions from heavy to light industry and then to “makers” spaces in the let-go industrial land along Hastings. On density, they were prepared to consider 15 storeys on Hastings, scaled down to much lower residential buildings at Nanaimo. They said they wanted the proposed plaza at Hastings and Commercial to have an aboriginal focus and possibly a longhouse.

When the Commercial Drive group reported out, they said they had difficultly reaching consensus. “Instead of tackling the can of worms, we just cut all the worms in half, so now there’s more of them.” That said, there was some agreement around design guidelines to maintain the sawtooth character of the Drive’s building setbacks and stepping height back where it’s allowed above four storeys. As well, there was support for increasing the amount of office space above the ground floor, and allowing more height south of East Sixth Avenue.

On the Kettle Friendship Society project, one member said there’s concern that the project might become a precedent used to lever density elsewhere on the Drive and that connecting the height of any development to benefits provided to Kettle and its clients is problematic. There was some discussion about whether the project would better connect the Drive to Hastings — the wish of many residents — or create a break.

The Nanaimo group reported that it favoured more four-storey mixed-use development than had been proposed, with offices on the second storey as traffic (and particularly truck route) noise would have less impact than it would on residential development. The group wanted to model Nanaimo development along the lines of Commercial Drive. Restricting lot assembly was suggested. Six storeys with community amenities at key nodes was proposed.

The group wanted to calm the street, and make its off-kilter street grid safer for pedestrians, particularly near schools and parks. It also wanted to connect with the Cedar Cove group’s planning. And it proposed setbacks from the street, prompting a discussion about whether on a very wide street such setbacks were appropriate. Some planners argue that in certain circumstances bringing development closer to the street, while still widening sidewalks, can make streets more pedestrian-friendly and slow traffic.

The Commercial and Broadway group was the last to report, and it allowed that some of its ideas were “subject to evolution.” One discussion involved creating a number of 10-storey nodes of development, surrounding a plaza open to Broadway at the Safeway site. Suggested sites included the northeast corners of East 12th and Commercial and Broadway and Clark, and the southeast corner of Broadway and Nanaimo.

Promoting the development of office space near the SkyTrain was another theme, as was six-storey development along Broadway. The group wanted to limit development on other arterials to four storeys and promote retention and development of rental stock. If rapid transit does not proceed west along Broadway as proposed (it’s expected to contain more traffic within the station), the group wants action to better manage pedestrian congestion.

The day ended with some discussion about the trade-offs involved in considering the Kettle project at Commercial and Venables, which was one subject in an informal survey conducted by an Assembly member. One member described the objections in the survey as “sad.” Another member felt that characterization was inappropriate.

“We need to try and listen and see where others are coming from,” said Assembly chair Rachel Magnusson, as she wrapped up a constructive day of wrestling with planning’s trade-offs. The most contentious occur where density, affordability and community services intersect — and that’s where the Assembly’s hardest work remains.

The day concluded, for some members, with a walking tour of nearby low-rise and infill density created in Kensington–Cedar Cottage, in the Commercial Street area and west to Knight Street, where the community plan is more than a decade into its life cycle. Some were of the courtyard townhouse variety. Others were infill projects (some with lot consolidation, and some without).

All of them were considered on a beautiful April afternoon. It was a thought-provoking and peaceful end to a day of complex deliberation.

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The Grandview-Woodland Citizens’ Assembly put local residents at the centre of the community planning process. Forty-eight randomly selected local residents and business owners met eleven times over nine months to learn, listen and put forward their recommendations concerning the future of the Grandview-Woodland neighbourhood. Download their final report here.