City Workshops Hear Calls to Protect Existing Affordable Rental, Control Pace and Scale of Change

Affordability and pace of change were dominant themes at two recent sub-area workshops on the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan.

At the November 29 event, covering the Cedar Cove neighbourhood north of Hastings Street, protecting existing affordable private housing stock was a central concern. In general, there was a very cautious approach to change, with the interests of the area’s most vulnerable residents at the forefront. However, many participants were also willing to consider allowing additional density on Nanaimo and Dundas streets and particularly at the junction of Powell, Dundas, Wall and Semlin streets.

Yet while about 67 percent of area residents are renters, only 27 percent of participants who responded to a survey said they rent, and the most disadvantaged weren’t much in evidence. Registration information showed a total of 17 area residents and another 14 public registrants who live outside of Cedar Cove.

At one of the of two tables where housing was the theme, there were four representatives of the city, three people who own or represent owners of income properties, and one young area resident. At the other table, there were more residents, but most of the registrants were also there as representatives of area social service organizations.

At the first table, conversation quickly turned to the city’s “rate of change” policy, which requires one-for-one replacement of rental units when rental buildings with six or more units are redeveloped. “My question is whether there is any stipulation on the cost of new units versus the cost of what’s there now,” said the table’s area resident. The City of Vancouver planner Matt Bourke acknowledged that the tools are limited, but that the city tries to get some units below the cost of what a new unit would be, and can require a relocation strategy for displaced residents. He also said the rate of change rules don’t affect how many building permits can be issued in a given area. (The 2013 draft document Grandview-Woodland Community Plan: Goals, Directions and Emerging Policies proposed a tenant relocation process for any redevelopment of an existing rental, to maintain existing rental stock, and to implement a mechanism to moderate the pace of redevelopment.)

Concern was also expressed about the potential for “renovictions” in the area. “People are going to buy up all the apartment buildings, they’re going to renovate them, and they’re going to double the rent,” said one registrant, who lives outside of Cedar Cove.

Bourke said the city’s policies regarding renovictions are under review, given that the city issues building permits related to such work. He added later that the city can require social housing in new developments [underwriting the cost by allowing additional density for sale], and that eight storeys is a height where it becomes economically possible to replace existing rental housing at existing rents.

However, one workshop participant, who represents an area property owner, said concern may be overblown that Cedar Cove redevelopment would result from proposed upzoning in the RM-3A area to six storeys from four. He said his client did an informal survey of 18 blocks in the neighbourhood and couldn’t identify a single candidate for prompt redevelopment, because the buildings generally have lots of life left in them. “He’s not seeing the three-storey walk-ups being demolished anytime soon.”

He also argued that “there’s a real desire to maintain the affordability” of the area, and the city should maintain and even tighten the rate of change rules to protect that, and focus on providing development opportunities elsewhere.

Another participant, a landlord, argued that Cedar Cove would benefit from a greater mix of housing types, such as housing for families, and called for zoning that would make it easier to build a courtyard townhouse project. “The odd condo project is not a bad thing.”

The lone resident reiterated her cost concerns. “I do live in the neighbourhood,” she said. “What’s important to me is that we do maintain the affordability of the rental stock.” Those who are neither owners nor beneficiaries of social housing need to have their needs addressed, she said, adding that the city should ensure that if the neighbourhood becomes denser the percentage and not just the absolute number of affordable units should be maintained.

At the other housing table, concern about affordability was even more pronounced. The table talked about the need to obtain more information to understand affordability and demographic shifts in the community. “We want to make sure that this neighbourhood accommodates affordability over time.” One participant expressed particular concern that the aboriginal population in the area (which the city’s community profile pegs at about 8.75 per cent) is markedly declining. (The City of Vancouver’s demographic statistics for the Cedar Cove area are based on 2011 federal census data, which extends the boundaries south to Venables, instead of Franklin, and east to Penticton Street, instead of Kamloops.)

When conversation turned to housing types, one Cedar Cove resident said she lives in an eight-unit row house built on an ordinary city lot. “It’s a great use,” she said. “It’s attractive, too.” Another key request was a focus on encouraging buildings “that create a sense of community for the people that live there.”

One of the planners at the table said the city is looking at allowing six-storey buildings as the apartment stock is replaced, with mixed use in some cases, because the size allows flexibility, including the opportunity to create open space. The city staffer acknowledged the predominant concern: “I’m hearing your caveats — you’ll only allow increased density for social housing.”

“I get that this is complex,” observed one participant. “I get that the building stock is getting old.” However, she wants the city to wait until it has a more detailed inventory of rental housing stock that includes specific information on rents before it makes changes. She said she is concerned that changes in zoning will encourage speculation, drive up land value and create a ripple effect that increases taxes and rents.

Some argued that increased density should be allowed near parks and schools, but only if there are clear and enforceable goals to ensure a significant social housing component. One argued that new density should only be permitted if it’s social housing. Community agencies are in the early stages of planning projects that would enhance services for vulnerable residents. The southwest corner Commercial Drive and Hastings, just outside the neighbourhood boundary, may provide expanded services for aboriginal youth. Near Victoria Drive and Dundas, an established Cedar Cove social services organization hopes for 16 units of transitional housing for aboriginal mothers, as part of a larger residential development that includes family-oriented rental.


Industrial uses are valued, but loosely

While affordable housing was the predominant theme, many other issues were discussed. The day began with small group conversations about what people like about the neighbourhood, and what issues concern them. Grandview-Woodland planner Andrew Pask then gave an overview of the planning process and its context: “We can’t veto the [city-wide] housing and homeless policy, for example, or the transportation policy.”

Then the discussion groups reformed around specific issues. These were housing, local economy, arts and culture, heritage, transportation, public realm, energy and climate change, and community health and well-being. A third of the participants chose housing, and another 20 percent chose the local economy. Then the groups reported on their conversations.

Heritage/Arts and Culture: This combined group wanted to maintain and enhance the pre-1940 industrial heritage, as well as the natural heritage of the neighbourhood, and suggested a pedestrian “walkway” that reflects the historic geography.

Local Economy: The group wanted to continue to encourage artists’ spaces in the industrial zone, and allow some office space, particularly along Dundas. (However, landowners and businesses in the areas zoned for industry weren’t evident in the day’s conversation.)

Community Health and Well-being: Buffer zones were desired between industrial and residential uses. Stronger retail (particularly food) and community services were requested along Dundas and on Nanaimo north of Hastings.

Public Realm: There was a call for steps to improve public safety in the industrial zone, and for uses that bring more people into the area. As with the heritage group, there was interest in creating improvements that acknowledge area history and lost natural features, such as streams. Pandora Park was identified as a key area that needs very careful discussion and planning. (Earlier in the day, views of the city and Burrard Inlet were identified as precious and worthy of enhancement, and there was a call for more “parklets.”)

Transportation: Congestion during rush hour is a problem that creates shortcutting, and there is desire to keep the through traffic on key arterial roads. (Earlier in the afternoon, there was a firm call for better controlling port-related truck traffic on Dundas, Nanaimo, and McGill streets.)

Housing: Affordability dominated, or course. There were specific concerns about the needs of seniors and young mothers, and a desire to protect and enhance services and access to affordable food close to home. The junction of Powell, Dundas, Semlin and Wall streets was identified as a key area to provide additional density. Modest density increases along Wall Street were seen as desirable by some, although there was debate about where to locate higher buildings.


Can values be expressed in the form of height?

The last exercise of the day involved locating additional density and variety of housing types on the area maps. Again, this was done in small groups, which reported out on their work and saw their ideas integrated almost immediately into a single map on the wall.

Andrew Pask noted that the values of the attendees were clear, with emphasis on ensuring affordable housing, but there was diversity of opinion on what built forms were appropriate in the neighbourhood. The preoccupation with housing issues reflected, Pask said, past input on the plan for the area.

Although groups worked with their prior themes in mind, some grumbled that placing cards featuring various new building types on the maps was a bit reductive. “Social housing is the issue, not the form.” One participant described the process as “Lego-like.” Participants were encouraged, however, to write conditions on the cards, and to create cards that reflected their desires.

Most groups favoured increased residential density at the aforementioned Wall and Dundas node, along with more retail and other services. More density along Dundas was another common request, with some asking for mixed use at street level and public realm improvements. Density around schools and parks was generally favoured, particularly Pandora Park, but there were many qualifications, including the amount of rental, the form of the buildings, and careful attention to what’s already there.

These were some of the other ideas presented by the various groups:

  • Retain the three-storey apartment area, and bring artwork to the industrial area as has occurred with the concrete silos on Granville Island.
  • Increase density on Wall, up to six storeys, with a sawtooth profile. Traffic calming and small public greenspaces were requested, along with maintaining the rental apartment zone as such.
  • Improve the public realm in the industrial zone, particularly along Franklin.
  • Provide access to the water (challenging because of the intensive use of Grandview-Woodland’s port lands) and improve views in locations such as the foot of Nanaimo.
  • Increase the number of area gathering places.
  • Add benches so residents with mobility issues can more easily reach grocery stores and other services on Hastings Street, and ensure that the Hastings retail environment meets low-income needs.
  • Ensure higher quality materials on new buildings, and limit their width.

Cedar Cove’s mix of industrial buildings, apartments and, along Wall Street, some higher-end residential development make the community unique, and workshop participants wanted to see the diversity respected: “People have a lot of love and sense of ownership of this neighbourhood.”


Britannia-Woodland faces similar concerns

As with the Cedar Cove workshop, affordability and diversity were dominant themes when the Britannia-Woodland sub-area workshop convened at the Vancouver Opera rehearsal space at East Third Avenue and McLean Drive.

Garth Mullins, a veteran community activist and an organizer of Grandview-Woodland’s Our Community, Our Plan initiative, said he does not want the traditional residents of the neighbourhood to be excluded from the community. “I’m particularly worried about the neighbourhood becoming more expensive.” Mullins said a gentrified neighbourhood will be more homogenous and “you’ll get less innovation.”

Mullins also argued that constantly planning for improvement of the neighbourhood is not necessarily a virtue. “I’m not against decrepitude,” he said. “A little decrepitude is a good thing.”

While the value of rough edges and unlikely juxtapositions came up often, the open-ended conversations at the beginning of the day covered much additional ground. The following were among the items identified as the neighbourhood’s virtues and vices.

  • Limited access to affordable family rental housing.
  • The inadequacy of the city’s rate-of-change rules, which apply in the RM-zoned multi-family areas, in protecting affordable private housing.
  • Uncertainty about the tenure of arts uses in the industrial zone.
  • Awkward transitions between residential and industrial use.
  • The impact of through traffic, particularly East First Avenue’s “highway to hell.”
  • Clark Drive’s connection to/isolation from the community.
  • The importance of Britannia Community Services Centre as a hub.
  • The diversity at Grandview Park.
  • Friendly people and strong community participation.
  • The importance of better engaging First Nations.
  • An overload of moneylender businesses on the Drive.
  • The heritage elm trees on East Sixth.
  • The views of the city and the mountains.
  • The need to link the Britannia-Woodland plan to what is planned around Broadway and Commercial.
  • A process that is community driven and not developer driven.

The issue of the potential impact of towers on the neighbourhood was also discussed. At one table there was some debate about what the City of Vancouver meant in July 2013 when it withdrew its proposal for 18- to 36-storey towers around Broadway and Commercial and said it would look at other built forms.

One facilitator said the city withdrew the existing proposal, causing one participant to express disappointment that towers are still possible: “A few weeks after the election we’re seeing towers creep back in among the options.” (The city conducted workshops for the community in July 2013 after it withdrew the proposal, using Broadway and Commercial: Exploring Options for a Transit-Oriented Community as a basis for discussion.)


Past input outlined, gaps identified

Andrew Pask then recapped the planning process, results and feedback so far. He also outlined the objectives of the process now: to refine what works, identify gaps, and explore new ideas. He said the plan needs to be developed to reflect broader city goals, including climate change, reduced auto dependence, public health and affordability. “Neighbourhood plans can’t solve all the world’s problems, but they are meant to respond to them.” He said the plan should become a “statement of intent” to create good change in the community.

Goals that have been proposed so far include protecting existing affordable rental, moderating the pace of change, supporting port-related uses, protecting industrial uses, creating additional art production space, and encourage the conservation of designated heritage resources. Pask said there’s concern about resources that aren’t protected, such as the Frances Street cobblestones, which are “mostly cherished.”

Specific density proposals that emerged in the prior planning process included more multi-family along East First and more height toward Clark, while stepping back 5th and 6th stories of higher apartment buildings. The proposals also allowed for more height when properties south of East Third are redeveloped. Renewal of the Britannia centre and the completion of the Woodland (Mosaic) greenway are also proposed.

A half-dozen members of the Citizens’ Assembly then introduced themselves. “We take our role very seriously,” said Dorothy Barkley, adding that the Assembly wants to hear alternative ideas and came to the sub-area event to listen. “We’re about to begin addressing options.”

Participants then broke into themed tables. Public participation was higher than at the Cedar Cove event, with 23 from the neighbourhood and 27 from outside of it, plus a few walk-ups.

There were three housing tables, and conversations quickly turned to what’s affordable, what information the city has on affordability, and how best to maintain it. “Affordable housing is a suite in an old house, where the owner paid his mortgage off in 1952,” said one participant. “One of the main ways you get affordability is a smaller suite,” he added, pointing to the recent demolition of an old house with nine units that rented for $500 each, to be replaced with front-and-back duplex units that will sell for perhaps $900,000 each.

(The city’s 2011 Housing and Homelessness Strategy doesn’t provide particularly precise definitions of affordability.)

Another participant argued that allowing a greater income and demographic mix around Grandview School would bring more life into the institution. He argued that the neighbourhood wants to keep the character while creating new density. “For affordability, we have to have density.

Planning goals, such as the city’s past commitment to 20 percent social housing on the North Shore of False Creek, were also questioned. While a city facilitator said land for social housing in the area was sold to make even more social housing possible elsewhere, the concern reflected common scepticism about the City of Vancouver’s resolve to follow through on some planning commitments.

The issue of what is Grandview-Woodland’s reasonable share of new city-wide density was also discussed. Many are sceptical of the city’s contention that it does not have specific targets for the neighbourhood. One planner said the city avoids it because it’s potentially simplistic, given that new density should be created near a variety of services. One participant suggested the city should aim to keep population growth consistent with the neighbourhood’s existing demographics, rather than create growth that changes the community’s makeup by providing mainly for those with higher incomes. (The city’s Grandview-Woodland Development Capacity document analyzes the absolute and likely capacity of existing zoning.)

A wide range of fine-grained issues were discussed.

  • Building on the area’s role as a hub for co-ops, and rules that encourage multi-family use of existing homes.
  • Careful attention to any potential redevelopment around Woodland Park so that the low-income area residents are not displaced.
  • Attention to creating truly green buildings.
  • Looking at the impact of existing small towers in the neighbourhood, which are often social housing, as a measure of the potential impact of new development.

When the tables reported out, these were some of the key priorities.

The two public realm tables wanted Woodland to serve as a strong pedestrian corridor, as well as a bike route, that better connects community park and social service assets. “All pathways lead to Britannia,” said a participant. One table also wanted better treatment of the seam between residential and industrial use. The other table wanted to enhance the laneway west of Commercial for the benefit of residents and businesses, including allowing commercial use fronting on the alley. The group wanted to recognize the importance of East Second as an east-west connection. Creating a cohesive plan for protecting the historic character of Francis Street was another goal.

The transportation table ventured into the realm of city-wide policy — and outside the bounds of the community planning process as the city defines it — by proposing more B-Line style commuter buses on east-west arterials as an alternative to a subway. Participants also wanted better management of east-west through traffic, with particular attention to improving and calming Venables. The table suggested that the city activate the laneway west of Commercial and strengthen Woodland Drive. The spokesperson said the table was divided about more density around Woodland Park.

The heritage, arts and culture table’s key issues were maintaining the existing housing stock, preserving existing arts production space, and protecting views down the slope toward the city. The group also called for balance, but said they “did not resolve what that really means.”

The local economy table said it focused mainly on the “interstitial” area near Clark Drive, and the fingers that extend east to the multi-family residential area. They expressed a desire for more residential mixed uses, allowing more variety of use in ground floor commercial space, and improving neighbourhood walkability, especially along Adanac.

The community health and well-being table said it wants to build on existing success, reinvest in parks, use industrial parking lots for farmer’s markets, and improve lighting to help activate and increase safety in the industrial zone.

There were three housing tables. The first said diversity across the income spectrum needs to be maintained proportionally. They added that the city should create incentives to increase density in the character zone, and that just as green building requirements address energy efficiency the city should develop codes and policies tailored to the needs of heritage buildings. Finally, they wanted density up to six storeys in some areas, especially along East First, with development oriented to the lanes and activation of the lanes.

The second table began with the issue of process, and a call for earlier and better community engagement. “If change is going to happen, there needs to be a more inclusive process around that change.” The group said six storey buildings in some areas “might be OK” if they are designed well, and wanted the city to create incentives for smaller scale change. There was real concern about the potential impact of change on affordability, and the group asked why change would be allowed in the southeastern corner of the community when there is already affordable housing in the area. “What is affordable? Who is it affordable to?”

The third table also emphasized protection of existing rental and affordable housing: the key should be protecting low rents that are there now, and avoiding displacement. There was disagreement on whether four or six storeys should be the maximum height in some areas. The group also wanted incentives to protect heritage housing. Encouraging co-ops and creating affordable home ownership options were secondary considerations.

Many people focused on East First as a location for new density, and creative approaches to minimizing the impact of the street traffic. Modest increases in density toward the Drive and the Grandview Cut were also suggested.


How many people are coming for dinner?

The afternoon began with a question regarding city growth expectations. “If I were inviting people for dinner, I would want to know how many people are coming,” said one participant. Andrew Pask said the city expects growth overall of at least 160,000 in the next 20 years, but it takes a neighbourhood by neighbourhood approach without specific targets, because good planning principals suggest that new density should be located near transit and commercial centres.

The groups then moved into the concluding map-making exercise, which included locating suitable building types in locations where they see opportunities for new density. Pask said he’d been asked if the large number of the cards was a psychological nudge, and told the crowd that they don’t have to use them.

In conversation and in the reporting out, the housing groups talked about a sawtooth approach to new density along East First, with courtyards, and some potential neighbourhood-oriented retail near Clark Drive, but there was also concern that the group needed more information on what development could look like. There was also concern about the lack of tools to express a desire for smaller scale interventions that really take each site into account. For example, one participant who owns a heritage house with 15 residents, argued that it’s desirable to extend the rear of existing heritage houses to increase square footage and create new rental units. Infill housing was also deemed a desirable form for new density.

The health and well-being table wanted modest change, with six storeys near the Drive and otherwise nothing about four storeys. They wanted a plan that creates service hubs (for seniors and parents) near schools, and attention to how “in-between” spaces can be activated (a wall for a movie, pop-up spaces). Seniors housing and heritage protection were also cited as a key goals, and the group wondered if the Woodland greenway could be car-free.

The first public realm table’s comfort level on building height was four storeys maximum for apartments and townhouses, and they wanted new housing oriented to the greenway on Woodland. They also proposed limiting property assembly in the neighbourhood, possibly to a maximum of two lots, to control the scale of redevelopment.

The second public realm group focused on activating the some light industrial areas, particularly along Venables west of Commercial Drive, where the activity creates discontinuity between residential areas on either side. The group acknowledged it was breaking a cardinal rule regardingthe protection of industrial land. They suggested that the two blocks of lost industrial use could be replaced through upzoning on Clark. In terms of potential uses, “beer was really popular.”

The group wanted to allow five or six storeys toward the SkyTrain station but less around East Third and Fourth, and infill only with heritage houses. On East First, the group wanted buildings oriented north-south, to keep the faces away from traffic on the busy arterial.

The local economy table also broke the cardinal rule on industrial land along Venables, proposing artist space at street level and residential above. They wanted four storeys of residential and mixed use around Woodland Park, and identified East First, Venables and Adanac as key gateways.

The transportation group wanted public realm improvements along Grandview and McLean, a coffee shop at Woodland and Charles, and benches near the mural at Britannia. On housing, they said the existing zoning is sufficient, and took their own swing at cardinal rules. “Our group felt transportation corridors shouldn’t be the organizing principle for additional density.” Instead, they wanted more laneway and infill housing where it’s not currently allowed.

Arts, culture and heritage wanted to maintain industrial uses along Clark, allow six storeys near the Grandview Cut and around Pender and Hastings streets, plus four storeys or multi-family conversion of heritage buildings, along with policies that favour co-housing and co-ops.

On the big-picture issues like protecting existing affordable housing stock, there was little disagreement among the participants. On the finer points of what goes where, there were quite a few different ideas jostling to occupy the same spaces on a map.

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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.