Einstein solved a puzzle or two. “If I had an hour to solve a problem,” he said, “I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” Chair Rachel Magnusson opened with that often-cited quote, as the Citizens’ Assembly on the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan began its sixth meeting, on Saturday, January 24, at the Vancouver Opera’s McLean Drive rehearsal space.
It’s taken some patience on the part of the 48-member Assembly to spend five meetings hearing from community groups, planners and planning critics without defining its own solutions to the neighbourhood’s challenges. The work of writing recommendations took its first tentative steps on Saturday, with some themed small-group work.
Tables built on work they’d begun at past meetings, where they reviewed the June 2013 City of Vancouver document Grandview-Woodland Community Plan: Goals, Directions and Emerging Policies. Groups had identified policy directions they supported, those that needed work, and areas where new directions are required. The day’s work mainly involved developing early drafts of new recommendations to complement those that the Assembly supports. The group work will be reviewed by the whole Assembly, and after the recommendations are refined input will be sought from the community. This will take place in part through a public meeting on Thursday, March 5.
Yet while developing recommendations was the day’s most important work, there was also a lively conversation featuring two very different visions of the neighbourhood’s future, and it included some discussion of the controversial plans around Broadway that first galvanized community opposition to the city’s draft proposals for Grandview-Woodland.
Early in January, the City of Vancouver released draft maps and drawings, mainly of the Broadway area, in response to a freedom-of-information request and calls from both the community and the Assembly members. The documents are available under the heading “Maps and drawings”, reached through the Documents tab on the city’s website.
The documents show a range of preliminary plans, including one that included 22 towers around Broadway and Commercial, as well as an earlier staff plan that included just two towers — of 22 and 28 storeys — on the Safeway site next to the SkyTrain station. The Goals, Directions and Emerging Policies plan included about 11 tower sites at maximum heights ranging from 18 to 36 storeys.
Some of these images were shown during the panel discussion, which featured UBC urban design professor Patrick Condon, SFU city program director Gordon Price, and Lon LaClaire, the City of Vancouver’s manager of strategic transportation planning.
Transit hub is city’s busiest
LeClaire began by describing the city’s transportation challenges, and made his case for the importance of increased transit funding. He noted that the Broadway Skytrain station is the busiest point on the Expo line, and added that the Broadway bus line is, as best the city can determine, the busiest bus line in North America. He said that other extremely busy bus routes, the Millennium Line through Burnaby, and its upcoming integration with the Evergreen Line to Port Moody, make the area an extremely challenging transit hub.
LeClaire said the Broadway corridor is one of the top regional travel destinations, particularly the area around Vancouver General Hospital, and that half of the people bound for UBC and Broadway come from outside Vancouver. He said extending rapid transit toward UBC, initially to Arbutus, will not only benefit the corridor as a whole but reduce street congestion at Commercial Drive by allowing transfers to take place within the station.
LeClaire also said that while the expenditure for Broadway rapid transit is huge, the high capacity means it has a lower cost per boarding, and that alternatives don’t have the same potential for capacity growth.
However, LeClaire acknowledged in response to a question that beyond increasing station capacity and access, the city doesn’t have “a really good plan” to deal with traffic the Evergreen Line will generate, beginning in 2016. Rapid transit along Broadway, of course, is contingent on the referendum result.
Transit, of course, is a key driver of how cities are planned.
Patrick Condon has been an outspoken critic of Vancouver planning, and an advocate for what he calls a “streetcar city.” Yet he acknowledged during his presentation that on rapid transit “the train has left the station,” and his belief in focusing big capital expenditures on a less rapid, more pervasive transit system has been overtaken by events. That said, he still argues it’s possible and beneficial to substantially increase population less through high-density nodes focused around rapid transit and more through increased density throughout the city served by an adequate street-level transit network.
Gordon Price, conversely, sees high-density development around transit hubs as an escape valve that spares existing neighbourhoods from redevelopment, and spares the city planners and politicians from divisive debate and intractable neighbourhood opposition.
Double density without towers?
Condon — who noted that he’s a colleague and friend of Scot Hein, a former Vancouver planner who worked on elements of the initial Grandview-Woodland proposals and has criticized the introduction of additional towers at Broadway and Commercial — argued that the City of Vancouver’s senior managers believed that without towers it would be harder to make the public case for a Broadway subway.
Condon showed some of the maps and computer drawings released by the city. He said the city’s insistence on introducing a large number of towers into the plan around Broadway and Commercial has set back planning by years. “I hope you can overcome it,” he said to the Assembly.
However, Condon also argued in favour of a huge increase in the density of the city, by allowing new multi-family and infill building forms, subdivision and strata-titling, and increased low-rise density along arterials. “I’m a believer in doubling the density of the city,” he said, arguing greater livability and affordability are the potential benefits. He said that over several decades the use of cars could decline enormously, and we should plan with that in mind. “If you reduce the use of automobiles by 80 percent, that frees up a heck of a lot of road space.”
However, Condon argued that unique aspects of Vancouver planning make the process of accommodating growth unduly difficult. In the past, he’s pointed to division created by community amenity contributions, such as social housing, which are negotiated with developers during rezonings of certain sites. In his brief presentation to the Assembly, he also cited the lack of a city-wide master plan, a quirk of the Vancouver Charter that governs the city’s operation. Other municipalities, which operate under different provincial legislation, are required to renew their city-wide plans every five years.
Condon later acknowledged that such master plans aren’t perfect, but they provide a context for local decisions. Otherwise, he said, “every neighbourhood ends up just like your neighbourhood: ‘Why us?’ ” In fact, one of the questions frequently asked of city officials by Grandview-Woodland residents regards the city’s population goal for the community. The city says it has no specific local goal but wants to use good planning principals to locate growth in the most appropriate locations. Some residents, who say they want to accept a reasonable share of growth but would like a guideline regarding what that share might be, remain uncomfortable with the uncertainty.
Condon and Hein’s planning and architecture students at UBC, where Hein now works full-time, developed a city-wide plan for a Vancouver of 1.2 million residents [2011 population was 603,000]. A Convenience Truth: A Sustainable Vancouver by 2050 is available online.
Condon and Hein’s introduction succinctly outlines the dilemma — for Grandview-Woodland and Vancouver as a whole. We’ve succeeded by developing mainly on industrial land, but that supply is exhausted, and new density must come to existing neighbourhoods. “How can we become a more equitable, more social, more efficient, and more affordable city? Virtually every citizen in the city agrees that these are worthy goals. Where it gets tricky is when you ask ‘How can we reach these goals?’ It becomes even trickier when you ask ‘Where can we reach these goals?’ ”
The introduction argues that greener streets, naturalized recreation networks, and more abundant services will create a “convenient city” that “can and should be financed by the gradual growth, conversion and re-conversion of the city itself.”
Because the tricky questions are contentious, transparency in planning is another central concern for Condon, who said a city-wide master plan should spell out how the city sees future population being distributed. “You should really show people what’s going to happen, with every building,” he said. As such, chapter six of A Convenience Truth provides detailed maps and illustrations of a city of 1.2 million.
Save neighbourhoods with towers?
Price, who was for many years an NPA city councillor, began his presentation by talking about the challenge planners and civic politicians face. “The longer I’m out of office, the more people are nice to me,” he began. He said change is driven by external factors, and cities have to respond, but it’s not easy. “We never, or rarely, go into a community and say ‘How would you like to change your community — we’re here to help.”
Then there’s the issue of cost. “Everyone wants affordability, but they do not accept or expect that it will lower existing [property] values,” he said, arguing that as such all new housing must be seen as expensive.
Price said that neighbourhoods can effectively bring change to a halt, as occurred in the West End in 1989, where he lived at the time. “In communities like the West End, the tolerance for change is practically zero.”
As for Grandview-Woodland, Price has friends who live on East Eighth near Commercial. “You’re not changing the scale of their community,” he said, arguing that the neighbourhood developed as a suburb, and that the suburban model still underpins our culture. “It’s who we are.”
The political cost of trying to change that culture is high, and so planners choose to leave existing residential streets largely untouched and focus new density more intensely on the areas of least resistance.
“What’s your relief mechanism?” Price asked the Assembly. The West End, he said, was spared from change by such development east of Burrard along False Creek. In the case of Grandview-Woodland, he sees relief in major redevelopment of key locations such as Broadway and Commercial, from which the City of Vancouver can extract community benefits, including public spaces, community services and social housing.
‘No program’ for low- and middle-income earners
On the question of affordability, there were also no easy answers. Price said that externalities such as immigration and interest rates are driving up the price of housing. He added that while you can subsidize the creation of social housing, low- and middle-income earners are left out. “There is no program for that.” He said solutions lie in good design that allows people to live well in less space.
Condon said that the federal government’s exit from its housing programs means housing can only be subsidized by tapping money from development, but that this in turn requires trade-offs between community services and affordable housing.
Condon also argued that global factors have skewed the local market: “I don’t believe the laws of supply and demand are in operation here anymore.” He argues that part of the solution is smaller, denser parcels, and believes this will happen legally or illegally, pointing to the past proliferation of secondary suites, where zoning arrived after the fact to legitimize change that the city did not plan.
“When I came into office in 1986,” Price said of the secondary suites issue, “it was untouchable.” People didn’t want to grant permission for their neighbourhood to change, even though they might have a suite themselves.
Today, the emotional heart of our planning questions isn’t really much different. What kind of change would existing neighbourhoods accept? What circumstances will best foster complex conversations about change?
Would a city-wide plan make it easier, or harder?
Condon argued that in Burnaby, major towers are under development without major controversy. “The politicians were able to say this has been in the plan for 25 years,” and as such they were able to have constructive conversations about the details.
Price said it’s not worth spending political capital on a city-wide plan, and that it’s better spent having neighbourhood-based conversations like the ones now taking place in Vancouver. He argued that the quality of Vancouver’s urban landscape is a result of our way of doing things.
Of course, there are some who reject both Price and Condon’s visions of a much denser city. Others would argue that it’s not either-or but both — and to a more limited extent. How great are the externalities? How inevitable is change? Much of what the Assembly has heard suggests it’s pretty hard to avoid, in an increasingly global world where climate change affects us all and pressure on regional industrial and agricultural land constrains our city.
So the question becomes partly one of process. In managing growth, what system fosters an open conversation that encourages trust as we all try to understand each others’ challenges? Returning to Einstein’s words, how can we best use our time to understand the problem — as politicians, planners and citizens — so that we arrive at the best solutions?
Assembly balances big context, small details
After a conversation that effectively outlined the Assembly’s key dilemmas, the members spent much of the rest of the day considering much more fine-grained policies and proposals. Magnusson, who reviewed the likely structure of the report and the meeting schedule early in the day, explained that the afternoon would focus on creating the rough drafts of new recommendations that are neighbourhood-wide, and that sub-area recommendations and mapping would take place during subsequent meetings.
Two sub-area workshops seeking community input were held in January, and three more (on Commercial Drive, Broadway and Commercial, and East Hasting Street) will be held in the coming weeks. Summaries of the results of the workshops will be provided to the Assembly. One Assembly member asked about concern that the Assembly might pre-empt community input, and Magnusson noted that draft recommendations will be taken to the community for their feedback at two public meetings before the report is finalized. Neighbourhood-wide recommendations will be considered at the first meeting, and sub-area recommendations at the second.
Other questions at the beginning of the meeting were also about process. Is the demographic mix of the 48-member Assembly being maintained in the face of three withdrawals and absences due to sickness and other unavoidable factors? Is the Assembly adequately considering impacts on areas just outside Grandview-Woodland’s boundaries? A possible extra meeting to allow time for the Assembly report to be refined was discussed; the idea received some of support, and Magnussion said she’d survey the members.
Then Andrew Pask gave a brief outline of the maps and illustrations the city has released. “There’s some interesting stuff that focuses not on how much but on structure.” That includes material focusing on arterials as key areas for density and public realm improvements.
“What we’ve been doing in the sub-area workshops is revisit the idea of neighbourhood structure,” he said, adding that the city has tried to build on feedback from the early Grandview-Woodland workshops and make sure that the community is shaping the results. He said the city is working to finalize some documents for the assembly, and loosely summarized some of the results of the Grandview and Nanaimo workshops as follows:
- Maintain and even modestly increase commercial activity on Victoria Drive, consider it as a potential bike route, better control the traffic, but acknowledge there are no alleys behind its housing so parking is an issue.
- Consider some change on East First, although there was some discomfort with four storeys and much discussion around form.
- Consider additional strata-titling options, and extending the duplex zone into the single-family zone to the east.
- Activate the laneways.
- Improve parks, such as McSpadden and Salsbury.
- Taming traffic and improving on its broad and unwelcoming expanse was a universal goal, but solutions varied.
- New density on Nanaimo, generally at three storeys, was acceptable but with careful attention to transitions, alley locations, and topography.
- There was a lot of concern about the types of housing that would be allowed around the greenspace “fingers” west of Nanaimo.
- Four key commercial nodes should be enhanced, with comfort at varying heights. At Broadway, some wanted up to four, others up to eight. Comfort was generally around six at Hastings and at four storeys at First and at Charles Street.
From the global to the local
Then the Assembly waded into two sessions, morning and afternoon, where they began the messy business of synthesizing what they’ve learned. Sometimes conversations turned to representation and process. “Renters put real money into the neighbourhood, as well as social capital,” observed one Assembly member, who said that they weren’t adequately represented at the sub-area workshops. Sometimes they turned to the practical desires of existing residents. “The one thing we don’t want is to have existing parking reduced,” said another, adding that people have this great idea that they can get by without a car and then they have a kid.
At the end of the first session, a wild card table was created on issues that don’t fit. Youth was one, the impact of a Grandview-Woodland plan on other communities was another, improvements to public schools was a third. First Nations relationships, ongoing community engagement, and monitoring the execution of the neighbourhood plan were among the rest. “We’re trying to create an independent republic,” said one member, perhaps only partly in jest. “How can we take control?”
The elements of an effective recommendation were discussed. “The absolute key is that the intent of your recommendation is clearly communicated to city council,” Magnusson told the Assembly, adding that they can’t be overly general or excessively proscriptive.
When conversations began at the Transportation table, some members were refining their understanding of the terms they had been hearing for months. Are greenways appropriate on Venables and Powell Street but without bikes? What’s the difference between a greenway and a bike route, and how do they overlap? Options for bike lanes on Commercial Drive were vigorously debated, and sometimes criticized.
How much of a say does the community really have on new local transit options? “The tool that the city has,” said Pask, “is being an advocate on behalf of the community.”
In the afternoon, members sometimes struggled to find homes for the new ideas — a district energy system at the Broadway Safeway site, a call for a ward system — that they wanted to integrate into existing proposals.
At the end of the afternoon, Peter MacLeod, whose consultancy is working with the City of Vancouver to support the Assembly, introduced himself and said he thought the group was doing great work. “It can feel really messy,” he said. “It can feel like you’re working at cross purposes.”
But MacLeod, who has overseen a wide range of citizens’ assemblies and reference panels across Canada, said he’s very impressed by the group’s work so far. “It gives me every confidence that you’re going to land this in an incredible way.”