Panellists’ Presentations

The Year in Review – A Panel Discussion on January 26, 2016
Transcribed highlights edited for clarity. For complete remarks, please refer to the video.

“What were the defining decisions, actions and events in planning and development in 2015 that could prove to be transformative in Vancouver’s evolution?”

Noha Sedky
Jennifer Marshall
Frances Bula
Bob Rennie

Noha Sedky


  • As you can probably guess from my bio, I have more of a social perspective. There were a number of very interesting issues identified from the previous workshops and I’ll draw on them a bit, but I’m also going to step away and mention three events or issues that happened last year that I think are worthy of some discussion, and are prominent and potentially transformative in the city.
  • First, the “Don’t have a million dollars” (#DontHave1Million) campaign and the protests that came out of that, and even more so how that is tied to the question of foreign ownership. That’s been front and centre in the news, among our politicians, and among residents over the last year. The question is really: to what extent does foreign investment inflate land values and how should we track this process, what’s a fair mechanism, and should we be taxing foreign owners. We even looked as far as having a database in the city so that we could rat on our neighbours about it.
  • Personally, I believe this issue of foreign ownership is actually a distraction from the real issues of housing diversity, densification and affordability in our city. Sure, it’s probable that non-residents have had an impact on the luxury real estate market in Vancouver and some single-detached homes on the west side, and maybe in high-end condominiums in certain sub-markets like Coal Harbour and UBC’s Westbrook Village. But is this really the issue affecting the housing market and housing prices? Or is it really more about the fact that we live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, constrained by mountains and greenbelts, and that we’ve got increasing housing demand from changes in the demographic makeup of our city, low interest rates, a limited supply of new construction, and all the other factors.
  • So I think we need to be a bit clearer about what we’re referring to with this #DontHave1Million campaign. And even more importantly, what should the policy response be? We’re mainly talking about single-detached homes. That type of housing is becoming inaccessible to moderate income households in Vancouver, and that really is the driver behind these protests, because when we look at other housing types, like condos and apartments, across different neighbourhoods in Vancouver, they haven’t necessarily seen the same appreciation in value.
  • So, I think where we should be looking at other issues. We should be looking at diversifying the housing mix, intensifying land use in the single-detached neighbourhoods. Vancouver’s done a pretty good job in certain neighbourhoods at allowing intensification. I’ll use Norquay or Kingsway-Knight neighbourhood centres as an example, where they’ve pre-zoned to allow for higher intensification. These areas are seen as a sort of transition area. They allow townhouse development or low-rise apartments around the SkyTrain station, or infill. And in all those cases, that new housing still maintains the character of the existing neighbourhoods.
  • So I think we should be exploring ways to expand this type of infill and intensification in a more widespread way throughout the city. Look at transit stations as a start, and then – at major corridors and intersections; in the long run look at implementing these practices more city-wide. An example that has been successful in the city in the past is the laneway housing policy that was implemented city-wide. So there is a precedent for doing that elsewhere.
  • A second major event from last year that was even more urgent in my mind is the plight of the homeless and those that are at risk of homelessness. This wasn’t in the list but we’re spending a lot of energy trying to figure out how many luxury units are owned by foreigners while I think we should be focusing on policy responses that address the most vulnerable. The event from 2015 was the homeless count that occurred last year in March. The count showed a very small drop in the number of homeless, 58 people or three percent from the 2014 count, but we’re still talking about almost 1,800 people that were homeless in the city of Vancouver last year. The policy response to that that should include continuing to prioritize the temporary winter shelters as well as looking at low-end of market rental and supportive housing.
  • We know from talking to shelter providers that many of the people that were counted this year or last year were also counted in 2014 and 2013, and as far back as ten or 15 years in some cases. So a lot of the same individuals are cycling in and out of emergency shelters year after year, and the housing and supports that are available are not meeting their needs. This is the most complex group with the greatest number of barriers. The rental housing that is available in the city, if it is available at all, is not appropriate or affordable to them.
  • From that perspective, homelessness is not just a rental housing supply problem, it’s also about poverty, mental health, substance abuse, a range of complex issues that people are facing. We know that the responses need to include more integration, more partnership, and more collaboration between agencies to ensure that when there is housing that it’s supported. To be fair, this is not a planning or policy issue that the City of Vancouver can address on its own. Homelessness is a regional issue, it’s a provincial issue, it’s a federal issue, but the City does have a critical role to play. The City has stepped up in many ways in the past, but from a land use and planning perspective there is an important role that Vancouver plays. We need to provide more leadership to allow supportive housing to be developed in all parts of the city, not just in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. And they should be looking at facilitating developments through pre-zoning and partnerships.
  • My third event is related to the first. It’s still about the most vulnerable. It’s the single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels and SRO bylaws. There are bylaw amendments that were approved last summer. The SRO hotels have been in the press a lot in the last year. The conditions that we’ve heard about are just not acceptable, and deplorable in some situations. The City has implemented some changes trying to protect the tenants and the stock, redefining what ‘repairs’ means and looking at tenant relocation plans, and also what the permit costs would be to replace or take the SRO rooms out of the stock. So now a developer would have to pay $125,000 per room instead of $15,000 that they would have paid previously.
  • All these things are commendable in many ways, but I think there is a risk that these changes may result in a moratorium on development, on redevelopment of buildings that potentially really warrant redevelopment where the neighbourhoods might benefit from the change as well. So we could be preventing much needed upgrades from happening. We need to be mindful of the potential impact of these amendments and make sure that we’re not perpetuating a stock of housing that is substandard or obsolete. The future of our residents and our city and our neighbourhoods is depends on it. Thank you. Bio

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Jennifer Marshall

  • MarshallHaving sat on the Urban Design Panel for the last two years, when invited to participate in this event I asked myself: what’s the purpose of taking stock if not to learn from these events and to envision of the trajectory of where they are going and to have some positive aspirations and potentially cautionary observations about where we might be going? I think it’s really a wonderful opportunity. For me this is the value in what we’re doing.
  • So what it really is about is  questions that arise from the events of the past year. I feel that right now we are at this critical tipping point for the city where what’s in the balance is quality of life, and the built form legacy we’re going to leave the next generation.
  • For me, the big question that comes up is: Does density equal affordability? Do they have anything to do with each other? Density, you might say, has something to do with sustainability. But this is a question I have for the audience – what is the relationship to affordability? Often at the Urban Design Panel, we’re asked to look at project where we are told that two additional floors of market rental mean this will drive the cost down, and make it more affordable and available for people.
  • Next, what is the value of our heritage areas? How valuable are they? Are we prepared to accept incursions into them for the sake of density? What are we prepared to give up? And what is the value of our urban realm and how much do we value daylight on the street? I think if we can ask ourselves those very fundamental questions we might approach the excitement of things like having starchitects come to town and build 50-storey towers with maybe a little more trepidation. They may be really cool, interesting things but we really are beholden to ask that question: What is the space that’s going to be left over?
  • And finally, I think the biggest question is in wanting a sustainable city. We want a livable city – what is that going to take? We have the will, I think, but what is the holistic vision? I would tie that to the loss of our director of planning, who was in fact not a director of planning but the general manager of planning and development services. There’s a huge opportunity with that going forward. I don’t know how much impact we will have on that decision, but there’s a real potential turning point with who that next person will be and how they can affect and steer change and evolution in the city. And I hope that the next director of planning will have strong vision and be prepared to really work in a positive way with all the people here in this room and the people who do affect change so that we can create a really positive development atmosphere for everyone. I think that could prove to be the key little thing that will really affect change for planning in the city.
  • With respect to the ‘don’t have a million’ protests, there is this issue of ‘does density equal affordability?’ After the two years on the Urban Design Panel, it has really started to kind of eat at me that we’ve accepted incursions into the urban realm and the and livability of the city to support density because density is going to make it more affordable. I re
  • And with respect to the waterfront tower, I think that that speaks to lack of vision at the City. There is a waterfront plan but it’s just been sort of put in place. It really needs to be designed as a proper district designed, working with all the developers and interests that are down there to resolve how that’s going to happen before any significant building gets built. That also touches on the issue of heritage incursions. For me, our heritage areas are our last frontier, the seat of the city’s beginning and both the space and the buildings that make up this space are just so important.
  • With respect to 555 Cordova, that space may be privately held and there are development rights. But in heritage issues, we come to a place where these spaces and buildings are held in the hearts of the public, too, and that that’s where we come into conflict because there’s a an emotional resonance for the city. And it’s also a huge economic driver. These are our tourist zones. I think we have to be very, very careful because you can’t get it back. Once it’s gone, it’s over.
  • And then with respect to starchitect towers, particularly down at the foot of Georgia Street, I’m really all for the idea of having a really sexy gateway as you come into the city. I think that’s really exciting, but at what expense? I think we have to be very, very careful about the daylight and the kind of canyon we might creating out of Georgia Street with the height of the towers that are being proposed.
  • I’m going to let Bob talk about the Vancouver Art Galley building which is being done by another starchitecture firm. The proposal was really out of touch with who Vancouver is in the end.
  • On the False Creek Flats planning, the public realm development is really going to be key here. We should be looking to see what kind of public realm is being proposed. It will be key to being more than a business park. I haven’t seen anything to indicate that it’s going to be more than a business park and there’s a real opportunity to create a place here. We have an opportunity to get it right in terms of orientation, public space, streetscape, the network that’s created. It’s a whole city-making affair. Thank you. Bio

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Frances Bula

  • Bula-95x105I’m mostly interested in hearing what the audience has to say. This is a really educated, informed group. About 40 people got together over a couple of nights and came up with these ideas on the posters of what was significant. I’m really interested in hearing whether what was picked out resonates with people, or whether you think it’s all BS or we left out something important.
  • My big overarching comment would be that resentment I feel in the city toward outsiders, whether they’re foreign investors; suburbanites who won’t pay for transit; urbanites who think everyone should pay for their transit; or office developers from Toronto. It has driven almost every debate, almost every point that you see in this chronology, and particularly the concern about the price of real estate, which I have to agree has overshadowed everything else.
  • I spent 20 years writing about homelessness and housing, and that meant working class people and how they were being priced out of the city. No one seems to talk about them anymore. The fact that young professional couples can’t buy a house in Vancouver has turned into the giant social policy issue of our time. And the conversation is dominated by a few select groups of people whose reality has come to pervade the discussion.
  • How many of you have been able to go to a dinner party in the last six months without getting into a fight with people about what’s really happening with real estate in the city. People living in townhouses in Mission will claim that Chinese buyers are having an impact all the way out to there.
  • That conversation is taking over the city even though it’s not a reality for everyone. I live east of Main. We’re actually having a great time. Everybody’s moving over there. They’re fixing up houses. We’ve got more kids in strollers than we know what to do with. The whole place is going through a revival.
  • But you can’t address any other policy issue because this one is sucking up all the oxygen in the city. So looking forward to hearing what you have to say. Thank you. Bio

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Bob Rennie

  • Rennie-95x105I came at this as John Mackie from the Vancouver Sun writing 50 years ago, asking if those are the 2015 game changers that we have to look at. So I’m going to jump ahead to 2016 first. The conversation that Frances, Noha and Jennifer are having about density – I think in 2016 we’re going to have to start to look at a regional solution to affordability.
  • Vancouver dearly wants to hang onto to 56 percent of our land as single-family homes. We can’t build another single-family home in my lifetime unless we tear one down, but we constantly talk about why we can’t. We can’t push those prices down. We don’t have supply. So it’s going to be about supply in the region. I’ve asked the provincial government about putting a task force together to really look at how we can talk about the region. Cities change. I don’t think the Rockefellers can afford to buy in Manhattan right now. We don’t want to change those neighbourhoods, but we have to admit what we’re doing.
  • Moving back to 2015, I think the transit referendum was really a game changer. We did our own pollings two months before, just before Jim Pattison announced that he was going to be softly involved, and heard 38 percent [for]. We advised the government. There was no real leadership on this. But with a change in the federal government I think we’re going to start to see some real discussions with the province, the city and the federal government on transit.
  • I’m urging that we should not put in transit unless we’re going to put a lot of density at each station. That density can be for rental, condos, office or retail, and it can happen over ten years. But, 50 percent of the density that will be at transit stations should go to pay for transit. Taxpayers have said they don’t want to pay for it. Here’s a chance to put in density with no parking and be less reliant on the car. Let’s look at getting some affordability and housing in the city where it belongs.
  • What’s going on at Commercial and Broadway is a really tough situation because the neighbourhood was told they would have this density, and now the neighbourhood group has a really strong say, and that ties in with the Brenhill development. The neighbours got in an uproar. There was a political advantage to fight development through the courts. It cost the city a lot of money, but neighbourhood groups have a heck of a lot of say.
  • I don’t think neighbourhood groups represent the demographic of the neighbourhood. A community group should register; it should represent the tenants, it should represent the homeowners, it should represent the ethnic diversity and the socioeconomic backgrounds of the neighbourhood, and then come out and fight. In The Independent development at Fraser and Broadway, which took three and half years of fight and taxpayers’ money to get through, 60 percent of the buyers lived within ten kilometres, 40 percent of buyers in that same group were within five kilometres, and only 2.2 percent of buyers were offshore. Nobody who wanted to live at Broadway and Kingsway came out to take on a neighbourhood group to say ‘I want to buy here,’ but that was badly needed housing.
  • I put St. Paul’s Hospital, the Viaducts, and False Creek Flats, along with Emily Carr, all into one. I think that’s a huge game-changer. There is resistance to having housing stock on the False Creek Flats, yet we’re going to put a hospital in there. We’re going to have hospital workers and we’re going to need some housing down there. It’s terribly controversial, but we’re going to have to rise above it and understand that 27,000 homes are needed in greater Vancouver year for the next 25 years. And it’s a fact, not wishful thinking. But just how do we deal with it?
  • We need a planner with a vision who says: this is the amount of density that we want to see happen over the next 20 years and overarch the teflon coating of election dates.
  • The largest cultural endeavour in our city isn’t mentioned in the list. We have the City giving approximately two acres downtown, a $150 million value to the Vancouver Art Gallery, and we have the Vancouver Art Gallery coming up with $23 million as opposed to the $40 million that they were to have raised, and a starchitect like Herzog and De Meuron, and a $500 million building excluding the top two boxes. Philanthropy is very tough in this city. We have no head offices. I would like to see a cultural mecca downtown, but I don’t think we should spend all the money on one box. Let’s worry about the contents and not do one at the cost of all others. Thank you. Bio

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Discussion among panellists

Links to more highlights from the panel event
Panel event description
Panel event videos
Community perspectives
Audience member video interviews
Audience comments on poster boards – post-its
Draft list of 2015 significant events – as reviewed at panel event
Panel bios