Saturday, October 19, 2013

What happens when an irresistable force meets an immovable object?

I thought of this classic paradox when I read about a rezoning application going to Public Hearing this Tuesday October 22, at 6pm.
While I may be out of town and unable to attend, if I am here I intend to address Council on this proposal since I fear Vancouver City Council and the planning department may be ruining the DTES with their good intentions.  Let me explain.

Atira, a very caring non-profit development group, is seeking a rezoning to develop a new building with a mix of 60% social housing and 40% rental housing on the former United We Can site at 33 East Hastings. Great you say. The site has been a bit of an eyesore for many, and there's a need for social housing and rental housing in the neighbourhood. Atira, led by Janice Abbott wants to do good and has done good in the past.

The architect is Perkins and Will (formerly Busby Associates) a highly regarded firm of architects. For three decades I have been a friend of Peter Busby and an admirer of much of his firm's work. So what's my problem?

I have two main problems. Firstly, I think the building, at 14 storeys and an 8.1 FSR is too big for this heritage frontage along Hastings.  You can find the rezoning package here:

The links to other renderings are  here.  I will let you also be the judge as to whether I am right with this concern.

Secondly, I worry that if this building, with its mix of 60% social housing and 40% market rental housing, is approved, it may become Council's prototype for the future DEOD. This is the Downtown Eastside Oppenheimer District portion of the city which comprises a 40 block area of what many consider to be the heart of the Downtown Eastside.  I have written about this concern in previous posts and in a Vancouver Sun op-editorial.

The report from staff notes that the building is slightly over the maximum permitted height of 120 feet and a 60% increase over the permitted FSR. They note the applicant claims a building of this size is required if it is to comprise 60% social housing and 40% rental. (I should add that in this particular case, the rental housing may be converted to ownership housing in 15 years.)

Now, some might question why I, a longstanding proponent of taller and denser buildings, should be worried another proponent's building height and bulk?

I do so because I think the building, and the 120 foot discretionary height limit established for this heritage strip is inappropriate. I would add that the building's overwhelming scale is exacerbated by the proposed 8.1 FSR which is 60% larger than the 5 FSR, (which is a very significant FSR) established for the area.

While I think the building is too large for its site, in this case, I will reluctantly side with the irresistible force (Atira's proposal).  I have told this to Janice Abbott. I do so on the grounds that the application has been in process for a considerable amount of time, with the support of staff and the Urban Design Panel, (although I would welcome the opportunity to debate with the panel whether this really is a good urban design for this particular heritage streetscape.)  Moreover, the staff report notes the project may have funding from BC Housing (not surprisingly to some) and the Street-to-home Foundation. It will fulfill an important need in the community.

However, I do hope that Council's approval of the project, (and it will be approved), will not mean this shall be the model for the future of this neighbourhood. While there is a need to improve or replace the disgusting SRO accommodation in the area, there is also a need to regenerate the area with a broader mix of housing, including ownership housing, in building forms that really respect and complement the heritage character of the area.  

Finally, in writing this post, I hope other architects, planners, housing experts and commentators will take a look at this and other forthcoming proposals for the DTES.

I would also urge more people who care about this neighbourhood to study the well-reasoned submission by a coalition of inner city organizations which I previously posted on my blog which makes an excellent case for a broader mix in the neighbourhood, and an emphasis on mid-rise, rather than high-rise buildings in this heritage area. (A 14 storey building is NOT a mid-rise, in my professional opinion.)

As I wrote earlier, I worry that a further concentration of social housing and rental only housing will reinforce this area as a ghetto. I don't think this is fair to the many residents who live there, especially those who are not on welfare or other forms of social assistance, and I don't think it is right for the city as a whole.

I would welcome your thoughts. You can post here, or email me  Thank you to those who read this far!

Beyond Let's Make a Deal -Western Observer

I know, I know...I've been going on about what I regard as the irrational approach to determining Community Amenity Contributions for years. However, the reality is most people have no real understanding of what I'm talking about. So thanks to Frank O'Brien of the Western Investor, here's another attempt at explaining my concerns.

New civic strategy - not gambling on land lift - needed to pay cost of real estate development
Beyond “let’s make a deal”
I was recently quoted in this newspaper as saying one reason for the development slowdown around Metro is excessive greed on the part of some landowners and municipalities. I would like to elaborate.

For years, municipalities across Canada have been struggling with how best to finance the costs associated with new development, especially residential development.

In 2004, Vancouver city council approved a report entitled Financing Growth, which identified two revenue sources in addition to the numerous permit fees that apply to all developments.

Development cost levies (DCLs) would be charged on most new developments to help pay for community facilities and community amenity contributions (CACs) would be charged when new development occurred as the result of a rezoning.

Who pays?

Today, these DCL and CAC fees are used to help finance a variety of amenities including child-care facilities, parks and social housing. However, the Financing Growth report raised an important question: Who really pays these fees?

While the developer writes the cheque, city staff concluded the fees are not paid by the developer or the "end user" of the homes or businesses. Rather, the city determined they are paid by the original landowner, since the fees have a downward pressure on land values.

Most Vancouver developers and economists do not agree with this analysis, contending that new purchasers and tenants ultimately pay the additional costs through higher housing prices and commercial rents.

So, is this a bad thing?
Many would say there is nothing wrong with a system that charges new homeowners or office tenants for the additional services they consume. While I might agree in principle, there is a serious problem with the city's approach, especially when it comes to rezonings and calculating CACs.

Land lift

Rather than establish a CAC related to the cost of providing services, the city calculates the CAC based on the anticipated increased value of the land. The city's policy is to collect about 75 per cent of the increase or "lift" from the developer.

In order to determine the lift, developers are required to submit pro formas forecasting revenues and project costs including anticipated interest rates, estimated material, labour costs, etc.

The City of Vancouver is not alone in this approach. The districts of North Vancouver, West Vancouver and other municipalities are involved in similar practices. However, there are many unforeseen problems with this approach.

First, it gives the city an incentive to improperly zone land, thus encouraging developers to bring forward rezoning applications that will hopefully be accompanied by cash or in-kind payments.
But, if developers are not prepared to accept the rezoning risks, there will be insufficient zoned land for certain types of development.

This is happening right now.

New townhouse develop-ments, for example, are both limited and expensive in Vancouver since there are few zoned sites available.

Second, if landowners price their properties too high, there may be no lift for the developer and the city to share. This is also happening - along the Cambie corridor and other arterials - where single-family properties have been priced well above their zoned value.

Further, when the amount of the city's payment is tied to the size of the development and corresponding land lift, there is a temptation to approve larger projects just for the money or other benefits. While staff and politicians vehemently deny this could ever happen, many of us suspect otherwise.

As an example, one of the more controversial Vancouver rezonings last year was a mixed-use, highrise proposal by Rize Alliance for a site at Kingsway and Broadway. Many in the community opposed the development, which they considered out of character with the neighbourhood. Others questioned the floor-space ratio, which was almost twice the permitted density.

However, city planners and council justified the rezoning, in part, because the larger development would result in a $6.25 million CAC cash payment.

Finally, if there are no rezonings there may be insufficient funds to finance needed community facilities, such as child-care space. No rezoning, no child care. This is no way to plan a city.


New developments should be required to pay for themselves over time through a combination of up-front, pre-determined fees and future taxes. Further, rather than an ad-hoc "let's make a deal approach," the city should pre-zone land through a proper community planning process. In exceptional circumstances, a negotiated approach may still be appropriate.

I am confident new procedures can be established so that properties are assessed on their current use, not their future development potential.

Ultimately, municipalities, landowners, consumers, neighbourhood associations and developers will be the beneficiaries of this more rational approach to financing growth.u

Michael Geller is a Vancouver-based architect, planner, real estate consultant and developer with more than 35 years' experience in the public and private sectors. He also serves on the adjunct faculty of Simon Fraser University. Follow his blog at and contact him at .

from Western Investor October 2013

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Future of the DTES: The submission of the Inner City Neighbourhood Coalition

Since offering radio/television/print comments on the City of Vancouver Planning Department's support for zoning amendments to effectively end any new condominium development in the Downtown Eastside Oppenheimer District, I have been inundated with emails and phone calls from people who want to support my position.

I also received a copy of a 12 page submission prepared by the Inner City Neighbourhood Coalition that was submitted to the City. It's a very long read, but it appears to be an excellent analysis of the problems in the community, along with suggested solutions.

The Coalition includes the following organizations: 
Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement Society (ALIVE), Crosstown Residents Association
False Creek Residents Association, Gastown Business Improvement Association,
Hastings Crossing Business Improvement Association, Inner City Safety Society,
Mission Possible, Network of Inner City Community Services Society
Ray-Cam Community Centre, Sacred Heart Parish
Strathcona Business Improvement Association, Strathcona Residents
Urban Core (information sharing), Vancouver Chinatown BIA Society
Vancouver Eastside Educational Enrichment Society

I have highlighted some of the sections that I think are particularly important.

The fact is, there appear to be a lot of people with very strong connections to the DTES and nearby communities who are very upset with the Local Area Planning Process and Planning Department recommendations. They are frustrated that their positions have not been listened to and believe, as I do, that the voices of Jean Swanson, Wendy Pedersen and a few others, on behalf of a select group of local residents/homeless individuals have had undo influence.

So if you are interested in the future of the DTES, I highly recommend that you take some time and read this:

Inner City Neighbourhood Coalition
24 September 2013
Submission to DTES Planning Staff
City of Vancouver
From: The Inner City Neighbourhood Coalition
Contacts: Judy McGuire,, 604-889-8430
Fern Jeffries,, 604-328-7097
Re: Emerging Directions:
Downtown Eastside Local Area Planning Program

In July 2013, City of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside Planning staff released their Emerging Directions report on the status to date of the Local Area Planning Program. The report is detailed, clearly reflecting the dedication of staff and the challenges they have faced in accommodating the area’s many, often conflicting interests and priorities.

There is much to like at this stage of the planning process – particularly staff’s commitment to maintaining the character of the area’s various neighbourhoods, the desire to protect and encourage local businesses and employment, and the priority given to maintaining affordable housing for local residents.

That said we have some very specific concerns which we will address in this submission. We find some of the language and terms used to be pejorative – more likely to add to conflict rather than lead to widespread adoption of the final plan. Of more importance, we believe that some of the strategies proposed will not in fact accomplish the intended goals.

In our view, there is a core problem that has framed the development of the DTES Local Area Plan – one which has too often served to disenfranchise local residents who do not fit a predetermined profile or adhere to a rather narrow political philosophy. While the City, rightly in our view, mandated that the LAP Committee and planning activities include vulnerable residents who potentially would be most affected by area changes, the Committee implementing this direction, with mandated support by City staff, seem to have interpreted the direction to mean that the vulnerable residents, often through self-designated representatives, have the only or overriding say in strategies and results. In too many cases, the effect has been to silence other opinions or to ignore the needs and priorities of residents not deemed by the LAP Committee to be ‘vulnerable’ – which seemed to be primarily equated to single individuals on welfare or in need of social supports. The result has at times led to less than innovative solutions being proposed to address generally acknowledged and accepted local priorities.

Although staff appear to have tried to move beyond these restrictions, and in a number of sections have done an admirable job of reflecting wider community realities, in other areas the so-called ‘vulnerable’ residents seem to be the only ones considered. In reality, the needs of vulnerable families, youth and seniors – as well as vulnerable singles who don’t agree with the LAP Committee’s positions – are too rarely discussed and at times are effectively ignored. As for other area residents who do not fit the vulnerable definition – many of whom have lived here for years – too often their thoughts and aspirations appear not to have been taken into account in any substantive way at all.

It is our aim – and we believe it is the ultimate aim of City Council and staff – to develop and implement a local area plan that will support and enhance healthy, productive lifestyles for all current and future residents. The City has wisely developed a Healthy City framework which applied properly can inform and direct this plan. This framework calls for A Health City for All. We concur and offer the following suggestions in the spirit of fulfilling this goal in a manner that supports all local places and those who dwell therein.

What We Are Hearing -- Framing the Issue:
The published reflections by DTES planning staff on What We Are Hearing in the Emerging Directions handout unfortunately frames the subsequent discussion in a manner that appears overly biased, based on personal opinion rather than research, and failing to reflect the larger contexts of many of the issues being discussed. Indeed, it is questionable whether many of the points stressed do indeed reflect the opinions of all with low incomes living in this area. For example, despite the fact that 52% of residents are noted as being over 45, with 22% seniors (2006 data – likely higher now), their needs are not specifically noted nor well reflected. Without delineating each specific demographic, the ‘key issues’ presented seem to primarily relate to the priorities of single, often street-involved individuals. While their needs must certainly be addressed, it is disingenuous to imply that these are the priorities of all local low-income residents. And it is ultimately self-defeating to even imply that the ‘Low Income Community’ constitutes the only are voices worth reporting. One would hope that the aim of a local area plan would be to unite the entire community behind a joint vision for future development, not to divide groups into those who matter and those who don’t.

The use of the term ‘gentrification’ in a number of contexts is unfortunate. This particular term has taken on significant negative political overtones and tends to be bandied about in highly pejorative contexts without any clear definition of what the term actually means. In the context of this document, it appears to refer to a negative development process that is victimizing low income residents. For example, the statement is made that: “Gentrification is compromising residents’ sense of inclusion, belonging, safety and connectedness of residents”. How was this determined? What does gentrification mean in this context? Which residents have expressed these thoughts? Unlike many of the other issues noted in this section, this appears to be someone’s political stance, NOT the framing of an issue which presumably can be addressed.

The term is further used in exactly the same fashion where it is stated: “Inappropriate land use and development are leading to gentrification”. What is considered ‘inappropriate land use’ and ‘inappropriate development’? How did staff determine this was leading to ‘gentrification’? What negative impacts were identified prior to making this assertion? Such obviously biased language serves only to heat up controversy and add to divisiveness. It has no place in a City planning document.
It is also asserted that there are: “A high number of homeless in the area due to gentrification <that word again> and loss of social housing programs.” How did staff determine that homelessness in the area was caused by ‘gentrification’? Was any research done on the numbers of individuals from other communities who voluntarily or on release from prison end up in local shelters, thus artificially inflating local homeless counts? Which social housing programs were lost? How does this compare with the increases in local social housing noted by the City in other publications?

Finally a number of issues are raised for which are either City-wide or Lower Mainland-wide problems, or which would require action by other government levels for solution. It might have been clearer and more useful to note this wider framework in discussing these concerns. Issues that fall within this category include:
 “Barriers prevent access to health and social services.” Access to health services is the responsibility of Vancouver Coastal Health; social services fall to the province.
 “Pace of change, rising rents and land values are displacing low income tenants.” This is an issue for all of Vancouver and most of the surrounding area.
 “The welfare shelter rate is too low” Absolutely true but up to the province to change.
 “Shortage of provincial and federal funding for required housing choices.” The lack of federal housing strategy is well known, however the province has been notable in their commitment to funding housing options.
 “Market developments are raising land values and displacing local residents and businesses.” Again, this is an issue for most of Vancouver and surrounding area.

We understand that the section is titled “What We Are Hearing” and is meant to represent opinions offered during the process to date. Overall we believe it would have been more productive in this context to categorize areas of concern identified by residents – eg, personal safety, traffic, housing availability and affordability, pressures from development, etc. – rather than choosing specific opinions as representing overall resident feedback.

Local and City Principles:
The Principles outlined by staff to be incorporated into the DTES Local Area Plan are by and large quite good. That said there are other points that we believe should be considered to more clearly and appropriately frame community development. In relation to the Principles as stated, we believe the following issues need to be addressed:
 The terms ‘existing residents’ and ‘low income residents’ tend to be used interchangeably but they are not necessarily the same. Planning based on accommodating the current, or a designated percentage, of low income residents has the potential to maintain the area as what might be termed a poverty ghetto without necessarily maintaining housing for those currently living in the community. For example, through local economic development strategies a current ‘low income’ resident might get a job and begin to earn a more robust income. Should that person live in a designated ‘low income’ residence, they might be forced to move with no guarantee of being able to remain in the area despite being a current ‘existing resident’. Planning based on accommodating existing residents should be flexible, dedicated to supporting individuals whose circumstances may change without forcing them to lose housing or leave the area against their will. We heartily agree with the staff recommendation to “revitalize the area without displacing existing residents” and encourage the Plan to build in the needed flexibility.

 Rather than demanding that amenities for the low income community be prioritized in new development, we think that such amenities should be developed to ensure equitable access for all community residents. Too often designated ‘low income’ amenities serve to label and further stigmatize those they are intended to benefit. Amenities open to all with supports in place to ensure access for all reduces stigmatization, builds community capacity, breaks down barriers, and enhances individual and neighbourhood resilience.
 It’s terrific that the Plan aims to foster “resilient, sustainable, safe, and healthy communities”. However City staff should be aware that planning for the area currently being done by VCH staff has the potential to severely undermine these objectives by effectively ignoring the health needs of over 50% of area residents.
 Under Parks and Public Open Space, staff note that as a matter of principle “Low income residents feel at home in their own neighbourhood”. We agree but believe this principle should be extended to all residents. In our opinion the City owes a duty to all citizens and should not publicly appear to take into account only the needs of part of the population.

As a coalition of community organizations and residents, we too are committed to providing formal input into the Local Area Plan. Our input is also guided by a set of core principles that we believe should be reflected in the ongoing process and final Plan. These are:
1. There should be no forced displacement of any resident.
2. Any new social housing should accommodate existing residents, rather than attract additional high needs individuals to the DTES.
3. Social housing should be built across the city, not just the DTES, enabling qualifying persons to have a choice in where they live. Required supports should attach to the person not the building.
4. Stable and secure housing should be our objective, not arbitrary quotas. Each building and each neighbourhood should accommodate a full range of residents. If residents have developed stability in their lives with safe secure housing, secured employment, or grappled successfully with their addictions, they should not be evicted to provide space for others in order to meet a quota.
5. Safe housing in safe communities. Empirical research advising on levels of ‘hard to house’ or high needs individuals accommodated in a ‘scattered site’ approach indicates that a safe balance in any one building might be closer to 10%.
6. Behaviour norms should be caring and law-abiding without a tolerance for destructive behaviours, acting out, exploitation, violence or bullying. All DTES residents should share the right to live in a safe community.
7. All social housing should include governance models in which residents have a say in the management of their homes, can take pride in the livability of the community, and enjoy a respectful and safe environment.
8. Relevant community amenities are required for a changing population. As safe and secure housing replaces unacceptable SRO’s, amenities should be developed that meet the needs of people who enjoystable housing, as there are in any other Vancouver neighbourhood, e.g. Pools, playgrounds, grocery stores, and theatres.
9. Sustainable businesses that do not require significant public subsidies are required to build a sustainable community. These businesses will require sufficient presence of working residents to maintain commercial viability.
10. The DTES is home to many children and families. This character should be preserved, protected and enhanced by ensuring that the Plan is family friendly throughout all neighbourhoods In the DTES.
11. Any plan must accommodate the health and social needs of all age groups.
12. All Vancouver neighbourhoods have a responsibility to contribute to the overall health of the city, accommodating special needs and high needs populations.

13. Currently over 70% of the housing in the DTES is social housing. There should be an assessment of the impact of this on existing residents, including low income residents and those currently in social housing, before any new social housing is built in the area.

14. There needs to be a mix of housing, not a concentration of any one type. As many are bought for investment purposed, condominium developments typically have 40% to 60% rental availability. Empirical research should underpin whether there is any need to designate an all rental zone.

15. Support services should attach to the individual, not the building or housing provider. Independent assistance, dispute resolution processes, ombuds services should be established to ensure that no one is exploited by the preponderance of high needs residents, pimps, dealers, or addicts and no housing provider (public or private) can operate without concern for the safety of all residents.
16. The City’s procurement policy should require at least 20% of all development projects be spent employing low income residents through employment agencies that can provide appropriate training and supports, with a higher percentage designated for DTES projects. This percentage can include working with social enterprises and/or secondary businesses which employ these individuals. Initial priority should be given to DTES residents but ultimately include low income residents throughout the city.

Neighbourhood Roles:
Planning staff have done a good job of differentiating neighbourhood roles and have made a valiant attempt to develop strategies that will maintain existing neighbourhood characteristics and ethos. However we have an overall concern that not enough housing flexibility is built into the various sub-designations. It seems to have escaped notice that families already live in most sub-areas of the community, including Gastown, the DEOD, and Chinatown, as well as the Crosstown area which should really be included in this planning process. The Woodward’s development already contains family housing, as do other condo developments in the area, and a school is about to be built in Crosstown. While we applaud supporting family housing in Strathcona, Kiwassa, and Hastings East, we believe housing flexibility should be supported throughout the entire community to provide better neighbourhood safety and stability.

The same argument applies to trying to designate seniors and singles into specific neighbourhoods. People choose where they want to live for a variety of reasons. Recognizing and supporting historical patterns and neighbourhood character should not so strictly enforce assumptions about future trends. For example, a focus on housing for seniors is only mentioned within Chinatown. Certainly many seniors live there, but they also live in Strathcona, Kiwassa, Oppenheimer, Crosstown – indeed throughout the entire community. In our opinion, designating one particular sub-area for any particular population too often leads to their needs being underappreciated or ignored in other neighbourhoods.

We think a better approach would be to ensure that flexible housing options exist throughout and that the entire area is safe and welcoming for all demographic groups. Mixed housing models with rent geared to income would enable people to live where they wish and seniors to age in place. Supports should be tied to individuals, not buildings, providing a more flexible model of addressing an individual’s often changing needs. This type of model – with an emphasis on affordable housing – could also facilitate more innovative approaches such as co-ops, rent-to-own options, and even suites with flexible walls which would support the changing space needs of families as children grow and leave home. The key principle to follow in our view is that housing options should foster capacity building and support individuals and families to maintain their housing through changing circumstances – thus fostering individual, building, and community stability.

Social Housing: As outlined above, we believe the Plan should mandate developing flexible housing options which support changes in individual and family dynamics and enable people to age in place. As has been clearly and consistently demonstrated by research and models developed in other locations, mixed housing models with supports attached to individuals are by far most effective in stabilizing people and communities. Emerging Directions shows some commitment to this idea – particularly in the discussion of subsidies as a form of housing support – but appears to leave some key questions unanswered. For example, the draft calls to “add new social and supportive housing units in the DTES wherever possible”. While this is balanced by a call to increase similar housing through the rest of the city, there is no evidence presented as to whether the DTES has already reached a saturation point for such housing or what such a saturation point should be. As the purpose of the DTES LAP is to improve the lives of all those who already live in the area, supported by the vision of the Health City Strategy, determining the housing balance needed to foster healthy people in a healthy community would seem to be a key question.

It would seem wise to augment the above research with a clear evaluation of current needs and future projections for such housing. While there appears to be almost universal support for properly housing and supporting area residents, certain individuals and organizations seem to be taking advantage of the City’s commitment in this regard. Some local shelters earn money by housing individuals just released from incarceration, although there are no prisons in this community. These now ‘homeless’ individuals then can claim priority for local housing. Others move to Vancouver from across the country for various reasons and again, as now homeless, claim priority housing in the area. While individuals absolutely should have the right to live where they wish, it seems rather self-defeating for the City to automatically assume responsibility for seeing that they are locally housed – often at the expense of longer term residents whose housing is substandard or at risk.

Tied to the issues above is the danger of producing unintended consequences by designating certain housing units as only for social housing or supported housing. As noted earlier, people placed in such housing will face the danger of losing that housing if they manage to improve their lives – particularly their income.

Concentrating groups of high needs individuals together also tends to work against the hopes of many to find stability and better health. There are equal challenges for housing providers – challenges which work against fostering overall community health. By contract they are bound to house and support individuals based on their problems and/or lack of income. These organizations only receive payment if they abide by those terms. Thus they are forced to evict those who have managed to improve and stabilize, then need to find others – not necessarily current area residents – to fill the required numbers. One might argue that providing housing on this basis actually rewards those who continue dysfunctional lifestyles at the expense of those who manage to find some stability.

It should also be noted that we have been unable to determine if any survey work has been undertaken to ask current residents where and how they would prefer to live. If the goal of the LAP is to better those lives, it would seem prudent to determine what that actually means.

Single Room Occupancy Hotels:
One has to applaud staff for outlining a commitment to improve SRO housing. Some of the recommendations, such as incentivizing upgrades and allowing for smaller self-contained units, show promise. There appears to be a distinction in the minds of Housing staff between SROs operated by nonprofits and SROs operated by private owners. In our experience, some providers from each group operate well and some operate poorly. Although one would expect nonprofits to be able to dedicate more funds to supporting residents, this does not necessarily appear to be the case. Some of the best SRO housing in the area is owned and managed by private providers. In the interest of incentivizing upgrading and keeping affordable as much as possible of this housing, we believe equivalent grants/forgivable loans/tax incentives should be made available to all providers with clear expectations for renovation and maintenance standards.

Staff also suggest regulating SRO conversions and even requesting legal limits to rent increases. While the aim of retaining SRO housing stock is laudable, mandating that building owners be personally responsible for covering costs increases without the ability to recover such costs seems at minimum unfair, if not ultimately self-defeating. 

 As is noted earlier in the Emerging Directions document, the welfare shelter rate is too low; in fact this rate has not increased for approximately 20 years. During this period of course, every other cost has risen. It has become virtually impossible for SRO owners to properly maintain, let alone renovate their buildings with the funds available through shelter rates. Unless a better economic strategy is developed, it would seem providers either must skimp on maintenance and staffing costs or charge higher rents. There seems to be little to gain by seeking to punish them for having to adapt to economic pressures.

Additional Opportunities – Affordability and Market:
The two remaining Housing sections, while less detailed than those on social housing and SROs, also show a commitment to innovative thinking. Strategies such as undertaking outreach to ensure all eligible are receiving rental subsidies and developing various types of rental housing (secondary suites, laneway, etc) could do much to improve local housing affordability.

We would suggest the planners consider other options to augment these types of housing. For example, rental subsidies often work on an either/or basis, providing a disincentive for individuals to earn beyond the designated ceiling. Wider application should be considered for models such as SAFER which augments rent as needed depending on income. Housing diversity could also include the development of flex suites which would expand or contract in size depending on family need. A number of local families have more than two or three children or live in multi-generational households, which means that even three-bedroom suites are too small. Finally, consideration should be given to working with local financial institutions to help individuals or families buy into co-ops or undertake rent-to-own commitments.
Health and Well-Being:
No single section is more disappointing than that purporting to outline plans to enhance community health and well-being. Despite featuring the Healthy City for All framework and stating the goal of “improving the conditions that enable all of us to enjoy the highest level of health and well-being possible”, every single recommendation relates to those deemed low-income and/or vulnerable. While we certainly concur that the needs of these residents must be addressed, we have to ask what about everyone else who lives in this community? There is no mention of health care for seniors, for families (other than affordable childcare), or for youth (except those deemed vulnerable). There is nothing to address the specific health needs of immigrants and refugees, despite their strong presence in this area. And unfortunately the recommendations made don’t even comprehensively address the challenges faced by vulnerable residents, except in the most superficial way.

Despite the inclusion of diagrams on health indicators such as changes in life expectancy, we can discern few indicators that recommendations were informed by objective research and community demographics, rather than opinions and feelings. While promoting belonging and a sense of inclusion is a laudable aim, prioritizing that over addressing the complete lack of family medical facilities and primary care in the entire community seems an odd priority.

We’re not sure how providing City staff with awareness training on dealing with sex trade workers actually would change much of anything, unless staff have more interactions with this group than is apparent. On the other hand, no mention is made of developing strategies to protect the safety of vulnerable residents from predators, nor of how to protect local children from ‘johns’ who frequent the area and pedophiles who are released from custody into local shelters.

One has to ask if staff even referred to the Healthy City for All framework in assessing strategies which would enhance resident and community health and safety. It is also baffling that no mention is made of enhancing strategies to work with Vancouver Coastal Health and the Vancouver Police Department, despite the overwhelming role both play in this area. We have separately responded to Vancouver Coastal Health on their plans for community health services. This submission is also included for reference.

The deficits inherent in this section forcefully underscore the problems inherent in the LAP Committee and process as they were constituted and have unfolded. It would seem that due to the Committee’s narrow focus, most aspects of community health and safety for most of the population are not really addressed. To be successful, a comprehensive community plan must truly include everyone.

Local Economy:
The recommendations in the Local Economy section seem reasonable as far as they go. We applaud the commitment to retaining current businesses, fostering new enterprises, and facilitating local employment. Maintaining the local industrial sector is crucial for the City’s economy and could potentially provide more stability and jobs for the local community. We would like to add some further thoughts for consideration in developing the final Plan.

The City is in a unique position to undertake policy changes which will truly enhance business retention, entrepreneurship, and affordability. One clear example is the role played by property taxation being based on assessment levels, which in turn are based on property development and usage. In essence, business success leads to high property taxes leads to high rents which in turn leads to high prices.

If the City’s aim is truly to support businesses catering to lower income residents, staff might want to consider recommending changes to the taxation regime. For example, utilizing a system of Land Value Taxation might serve to provide more predictability and stability, while not penalizing small businesses which are very much the lifeblood of the local retail sector. Such a system has a further advantage of encouraging owners to develop derelict buildings, rather than rewarding them for negligence as in essence is what currently occurs. This is only one change which might be considered and it would need provincial support. However the current movement by BC municipalities to revisit local tax systems could make this a timely discussion.
We would also suggest bringing more of a business lens to bear to the specific neighbourhood development recommendations outlined later in the document. The DTES contains most of Vancouver’s existing heritage buildings and neighbourhoods. These are assets which can and should be enhanced for both cultural and economic reasons. Characteristic neighbourhoods like Gastown, Chinatown, Victory Square and Strathcona add enormously to the ethos, style and liveability of Vancouver. While it is important that a strong business community exist that can cater to and employ those with lower incomes, it is equally important that residents of other neighbourhoods and tourists feel attracted to spend money in the community. Coupled with robust local procurement and employment policies and supports, this type of vibrant retail sector could add enormously to the area’s and the City’s economies while enhancing, rather than destroying the local character. While the City cannot mandate distinctive enterprises to establish in the community, it can certainly set up a supportive climate which will encourage their success.

Staff should also recommend removing barriers to business expansion, such as the 20% social housing requirement on anything over 1FSR expansion. While the intent of such a policy is understandable, in reality it has served to stymie business growth while not appreciably increasing social housing.

Land Use, Built Form and Development:
First, we would like to recognize the work and dedication of staff in attempting to delineate and communicate land use planning guidelines on distinct neighbourhood levels. While we believe more detailed work must be undertaken to adapt built form and height recommendations to reflect existing neighbourhood norms, we appreciate that some initial steps have been taken to honour these sensibilities.

We have three major concerns with this section: the limited applicability of the Social Impact Assessment, the rigidly prescribed approach to housing types and locations, and the proposed changes to development heights. A number of these concerns have been discussed at some length earlier in this submission. Once again we find the discussion on context and social impacts relating almost entirely to what is considered the vulnerable community, which is tied to a great extent to those on social assistance. This limited focus serves to disenfranchise many other residents, including families and seniors who are indeed vulnerable but don’t fit the common DEOD profile.  

We find it frankly unfair that so little consideration is given to long-term residents who invested in buying local housing and indeed newer residents attracted by the area’s culture. It should not be necessary to determine how best to lessen impacts on one class of residents by denigrating and ignoring the impacts on others. Everyone who lives in this area is invested in preserving the best of what now exists and supporting developments which will enhance their lives.

We don’t believe that setting up mini-ghettos of social housing and even rental housing will achieve the City’s desired outcomes. There are inherent dangers to combining social engineering with community planning.

While mandating specific levels of and locations for social housing for example – including specifying where singles, families and seniors should be located – may seem on the surface to provide manageable solutions, we have not found any research to support the overall success of such approaches to providing long term stability for individuals with low incomes.

By housing people based on their problems, the City runs the risk of further entrenching such problems within the community ethos. Research from multiple jurisdictions has clearly demonstrated that mixed housing models with supports attached to individuals lead to far more successful outcomes for individual residents and for neighbourhoods as a whole. As previously outlined, we believe a more flexible approach is needed which will support capacity-building in individuals and in the community as a whole, enabling people to maintain long-term housing while encouraging them to undertake expanded work opportunities, live with their families through growth and change, and when the time comes to age in place. We envision building a long-term community, not simply solving a short-term problem.

Of primary concern are the proposed changes to height allowances. Should these recommendations remain in the final plan and be adopted by Council, ensuing developments will drastically and irredeemably change the character and liveability of the entire area.

Research by local architects, planners and residents – among others – have determined that there are better, less destructive means to achieve the goals of increasing available housing while preserving and enhancing local streetscapes and affordable small businesses. Specifically:

We recommend a 6-story maximum height be established for all developments in the Hastings corridor. Developments proposing greater heights would require rezoning, which we believe should only be considered if the development backs onto the industrial lands and does not interrupt resident view corridors. It should be noted that establishing this height zoning as automatic for all Vancouver arterial roads could lead to massive increases in affordable housing availability while still maintaining the integrity of individual neighbourhoods.

 There should be no change to current RT-3 zoning.
The current M-1 zoning on the north side of East Hastings between the street and the backing alley should be amended to allow for on-street retail, as well as housing development above.

Lot consolidation should be severely limited and the need to provide parking should be abolished – both of which will encourage the development of smaller buildings and smaller scale, affordable businesses.

 Priority should be given to revitalizing the East Hastings retail corridor through increasing local safety and mandating that public access facilities and retail enterprises must exist at street level.

 Planning should include the preservation of all local green space, including trees on streets and alleys; the increase of local park and green space; and traffic modifications to support safe access for all to Strathcona Park.

 The entire area’s heritage buildings and character should be protected and enhanced
. This is Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood. Preserving its character not only preserves vital links with the area’s history but also adds to Vancouver’s economy through appealing to tourists, enhancing the business character of the area, and providing an attractive venue for movie and television productions. Such efforts should include preserving specific buildings such as Seymour School, while mandating that any new buildings must fit architecturally into the area’s ethos.

Looking to Tomorrow:
As much as we have concerns about earlier sections within the Emerging Directions proposal, we are pleased to be able to support some the innovative thinking evident in the Looking to Tomorrow section. We fully support enhancing parks, adding green space, and upgrading local community centres. We do find a couple of the Transportation recommendations rather puzzling. While we agree that access to affordable transit should be improved, we are unclear how a Local Area Plan could address this issue. We do find the recognition of Walking as a means of transportation , along with Biking, to be commendable. It should be remembered that over 52% (at least) of residents are over 45. Certainly some bike, but many can’t or don’t. We believe it’s imperative that planning for this area prioritize safe walking as the area’s primary means of transportation.

Although there will certainly be details to work out and competing interests to address, as the recent Union Street bikeway has made clear, we believe fulfilling this vision will do much to enhance life in this community.

While mandating such is not the purview of a community plan, we believe the controversy around a number of local planning processes should argue for establishing earlier, more widespread, comprehensive consultations which involve residents prior to the establishment of planning solutions. While the DTES LAP process has not been particularly successful, the intent of the City to involve residents in all aspects of plan development has been laudable.

Public Benefits:
The discussion of Public Benefits appears to be reasonably comprehensive and seems to encompass most community needs. That said there are no recommendations on how to determine resident priorities and reflect these in spending decisions. Over the past number of years, the vast majority of public benefit funds have been directed to increasing social housing stock while other pressing needs have been left aside. This issue is compounded by the problem that, unlike in New Westminster for example, CACs and DCLs are not charged to social housing developments, while similar funds raised in other areas such as the Downtown Core are not by practice redirected to communities such as this where needs are more pressing.

We highly recommend that Planning staff consider how such funds could be more effectively directed to ensure equitable availability of community amenities, as well as developing a comprehensive strategy to ensure widespread community input into setting spending priorities.

Social Impact Assessment:
Our only comment on this issue – as stated previously -- is that the whole Social Impact Assessment process effectively ignored a rather wide swath of community residents not deemed to be “existing low-income”. While we appreciate that the direction for doing so came from Council, we believe the resulting process and outcomes effectively skewed achieving a truly comprehensive and representative understanding of overall resident priorities.

Anyone living or working in the DTES is impacted daily by the area’s myriad problems and will feel the brunt of ongoing development decisions. Affordability is an issue for the vast majority of local residents, not just those somehow determined to be low-income. In a fair City process, every citizen has a right to be heard. The City should amend and update the Social Impact Assessment process to ensure it truly reflects the needs and priorities of all local residents.

As we stated at the beginning of this submission, we believe DTES Planning staff have done a commendable job of attempting to reflect the at times conflicting views of area residents, while responding to a LAP Coordinating Committee which seemed more intent on controlling the process than on fulfilling their mandate to ensure widespread resident inclusion.

Overall, the resulting Emerging Directions document is a reasonable first attempt to move the discussion forward. However as noted in our analysis, we believe a number of issues should be revisited and that more comprehensive resident involvement is needed before finalizing the Local Area Plan. While our participants do not all agree on best next steps for the planning process itself, we are all agreed that a substantially different, enhanced community involvement process is essential.

We commit ourselves and our organizations to working with Council, staff and a reconstituted and considerably broadened LAP Committee to address our concerns. As stated earlier, it is our aim – and we believe it is the ultimate aim of Council and City staff – to develop and implement a local area plan that will support and enhance healthy, productive lifestyles for all current and future residents.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

My Vancouver Sun op-ed criticizing the City plan for the Downtown Eastside

I wrote this after reading the City report recommending that the DTES plan be approved as soon as possible so that a new zoning bylaw could be implemented in the DEOD, (Downtown Eastside Oppenheimer District) which is the heart of the DTES and the neighbourhood most desperately in need of regeneration, as compared with Gastown, Chinatown and Strathcona.

Opinion: City plan for DTES ill-conceived

 Proposal to allow only social housing and rental units will keep area crime-ridden and impoverished
Opinion: City plan for DTES ill-conceived

Downtown Eastside poverty activists and their supporters rally to decry the gentrification of the DTES and to protest against the impending construction of condominiums and high-end restaurants in the area.

Photograph by: Jason Payne Jason Payne , PNG

Do you think there should be neighbourhoods in Vancouver where new rental housing is not permitted?

Do you think there should be neighbourhoods in Vancouver where new ownership housing is not permitted?

I pose these questions because the recent Vancouver city council report on neighbourhood planning proposes zoning changes in the Downtown Eastside to effectively prevent any new ownership housing for the foreseeable future.

More specifically, new residential developments would require 60 per cent social housing and 40 per cent rental units. This would be a departure from the current policy allowing a broader mix of tenures with 20 per cent social housing and 80 per cent rental and/or affordable ownership housing.

According to the staff report, this recommendation follows extensive planning consultation in the community that has involved the city manager, general manager community services, general manager planning and development services, director of social policy, and assistant directors of housing and planning and staff.

In my opinion, this proposal is outrageous and ill-conceived from a community social planning perspective.

It is extremely poor social engineering, and if approved, would allow the DTES to remain the worst crime-ridden and impoverished ghetto in any Canadian city.

A zoning bylaw prohibiting home ownership would be a contradiction of everything planners know about creating healthy neighbourhoods. To the best of my knowledge, it would be the first time in North America that a municipal bylaw creates a rental zone, where residents are not allowed to buy a new home.

This proposal is also wrong from various financial perspectives.

Today, there are limited senior government funds for social housing, and increases are unlikely. Rich Coleman, the provincial minister responsible for housing, recently told an Urban Development Institute luncheon he intends to limit funding for new social housing projects to only those in greatest need, namely the homeless and others suffering from mental illness and addictions.

Coleman prefers to see provincial funding go toward shelter allowances for needy households so they can be better integrated into existing buildings, without everyone knowing who is living on government assistance. He adds this approach will also house four times as many people for the same dollars.

I also question how much rental housing will be built under the new zoning. While Vancouver politicians boast about the recent increase in new rental housing starts, in nearly every case, these projects have proceeded because the city has granted exceptional density bonuses and/or forgiven the development cost charges that are normally collected to pay for much-needed community amenities.
So one might ask, given the questionable economics and contradiction with professional planning wisdom, why would city staff be recommending this approach?

To answer this question, one needs to examine the politics of the DTES.

From my experience as a founding director of the Building Community Society, a DTES non-profit organization formed to improve living conditions for local residents, a very small number of activists have a remarkable level of influence in the community.

While I was volunteering, they opposed a neighbourhood spring cleanup, which I hoped would have had a positive effect like the successful “broken windows” initiative in New York.

They even opposed asking the government for an increase in the shelter component of welfare, claiming this would simply put more money in the pockets of landlords.

More significantly, they consistently opposed any new condominium housing, even in mixed tenure developments like Woodward’s.

They claimed it would lead to gentrification and attract new residents who would make local residents feel uncomfortable.

Sadly, these same activists appear to have convinced city staff that condominiums should be banned, despite the reality that there is so much government-funded social housing in the area, low-income households will never be forced out to make way for the gentry.

While local residents should have a say in the future of the DTES, I believe the rest of us, especially those who like me are disgusted and ashamed of what continues to be allowed to happen to this neighbourhood, should speak up as well.

Council has now agreed to extend the DTES community consultation until Jan. 31.

Meanwhile, I would encourage every Vancouver resident to take a walk around Hastings and Main and consider whether a ban on allowing people to purchase homes in this neighbourhood really seems like a sensible planning approach.

If you agree it is not, you should instruct council to direct city staff to come forward with a more thoughtful, considered, and positive plan; one which might hopefully contribute to the transformation of the DTES into a truly healthy and diverse community.

Michael Geller is a registered architect and planner. From 1974-77, as manager, social housing for CMHC, he helped create a number of social housing projects in the DTES.

Planning the Downtown Eastside: The start of a conversation

Last week Vancouver City Council considered the future planning of four neighbourhoods in Vancouver. Grandview Woodland; the West End; Marpole; and the Downtown Eastside (DTES). While I have thoughts on each of them, over the next few blogs, I want to focus on the DTES, an area of the city in which I have had a longstanding interest.

It dates back to 1974 when as a young architect with CMHC, I was involved with the planning and development of a number of social housing projects in the DTES. These included the first SRO renovations and new projects including Antoinette Lodge, Cordova House and a City sponsored project on Dunleavy.

34 years later, after traveling around the world for almost a year, I became involved with a diverse group of people who like me, wanted to do something to improve the living conditions in the area, and help turn it into a truly healthy community.  I subsequently participated in numerous discussions in the community, and on line, relating to the appropriate form of development in the neighbourhood, the appropriate mix of social and market housing, etc.

After a couple of years, I became so fed up with the politics of the area, and so disliked working with some of the key community activists that I withdrew...I resigned as a Director of the Building Community Society, and generally stayed away.

However, last week in preparation for my regular CKNW Civic Affairs Panel discussion, I had the occasion to read about the planning department's proposed zoning changes for the neighbourhood, following an extensive community consultation process. 

I was astonished and upset by one of the Planning Department proposals, namely that all future development in the DEOD zone of the DTES, which is essentially the heart of the community, should be 60% social housing and 40% market rental housing. No condominium development would be approved.

I believe the City is proposing this zoning arrangement in large part because this is what many of the local community activists have been demanding for years (as evidenced by the articles below). 

However, I just know it is the wrong solution for a number of reasons.  But before setting out my concerns, I thought it might be interesting to post some background stories including a Frances Bula column about the formation of the Building Community Society organization; a blog post by Jean Swanson of the Carnegie Community Action Project which sets the stage for the current situation, and another blogpost by Jake Tobin Garrett, someone I don't know, who took the trouble to record some of my views on building heights and social composition in the neighbourhood when the issue of building heights was at the top of the community agenda.

Here are the three background posts....more to come over the next week. 

Businessmen, activists join forces to help developers find solutions for Downtown Eastside
Saturday, May 3rd, 2008 Frances Bula  Vancouver Sun
An unusual group of businessmen and community activists has waded into Vancouver‘s most contentious neighbourhood to try to help developers, the city and low-income advocates agree on a new common vision for the Downtown Eastside.

It’s one that Milton Wong, the businessman and philanthropist who is one of the leaders of the group, along with former Carnegie Centre director Michael Clague, hopes will be open to business while respecting the existing low-income residents.

The group has proposed the city consider designating the Downtown Eastside a “special development zone,” creating a special trust fund paid by development fees, and/or establishing a community development corporation, as a way of helping realize the new future for the neighbourhood.
They say those unique mechanisms — or something else equally unique — are needed because the Downtown Eastside, the traditional inner-city home for more than a century to the city’s poorest residents, is facing its most severe development pressures ever.
That pressure showed the first visible signs of erupting into conflict last week, when Downtown Eastside groups halted a Concord Pacific development permit temporarily for a 154-unit on Hastings Street in the heart of the neighbourhood.

That stall — caused when someone discovered city planners hadn’t sent out the required notice about the project to local groups — is unlikely to permanently block the Concord project, since it has been designed for existing zoning and doesn’t need any special city approvals. But the mini-skirmish does provide an early glimpse into the kind of bitter stand-offs that could emerge on a regular basis down the road.

It would be wrong to say the city has no rules or ideas at all when it comes to the Downtown Eastside.
There are zoning policies and a housing plan and any number of initiatives underway in the 40-block area. But people like Wong, Clague and local advocates say there’s a sense that no one is overseeing the big picture. Certainly, no one is making the case forcefully that development has to be done in a way that’s respectful to existing residents, something Wong and Clague say is the foundation for whatever happens.

“The Downtown Eastside is balkanized with plans and good intentions but there’s nothing integrated,” Clague said.

Some people, including influential condo marketer Bob Rennie, have said the city needs a “Downtown Eastside czar,” and there were rumours that the provincial government was going to appoint one.
But Clague and Wong, who met in 2003 when Clague was looking for people to help put on the Carnegie Centre’s 100th birthday, have opted for a more communal approach with their Downtown Eastside Community Land Use Principles project (Declup to insiders). That project has attracted senior city planners, architects, development consultants, housing activists, and former premier Mike Harcourt to its meetings and workshops over the past 18 months. (The core group includes architect Joe Wai, retired Jewish Community Centre director Gerry Zipursky, former city planning director Ray Spaxman, Tim Pringle of the Real Estate Foundation, researcher Andy Yan, Maggie Geiser of the activist Citywide Housing Coalition, and the man who developed SFU’s UniverCity, Michael Geller.)
‘We do want business to come in’ Wong makes it clear that he is advocating for both business and the low-income community.

“We’re not neutral. We do want business to come in, but it has to be on the condition of respect and accommodation for low-income people. We champion the low-income group, making sure they have space, not just physical space, but spiritual and other space.”
Declup is seen by activists as a way to ensure the neighbourhood continues to feel like home for low-income residents, and is seen by developers as a way to do projects that will be accepted by the community. It may even evolve into a community development corporation to achieve its goal of creating more low-income housing.

“This is exactly the kind of planning process we have to have. They’re filling a void,” said David Eby of Pivot Legal Society, the legal advocacy group that has emerged in recent years as one of the most vocal champions for the Downtown Eastside.

Wendy Pedersen from the Carnegie Community Action Project says Wong and Clague do something that she and her groups can’t, in spite of their vocal protests.
“They’re the missing link. We do need our champions.”

Geller, who has worked in development most of his life, also says he believes the group is doing critically important work.  “If we don’t start to do something, I fear we could have some real battles between the middle class moving in and the poor who live there already.”
For Wong, the most important part of what they’re doing is helping the community understand how development works and what it can do for them, while talking to developers about what they need to do differently.

“Developers look for rules, but they are accustomed to a certain development approach,” Wong said. “They’re not used to taking into account the needs of the homeless and low-income.”

A former city planner working with the group, Michael Mortenson, has developed a spreadsheet that lets people figure out the finances of building housing, letting them see in an easy-to-understand format what happens when you put in X dollars of government funding, X dollars of income from a retail business, and X dollars of welfare-level rent payments to finance housing.
At a workshop in January, everyone who attended got to play around with it, looking at how to finance a building under different scenarios.

One of the things that exercise showed people, said Clague, is that people shouldn’t count on paying for social housing in the area by allowing developers extra density for market housing in exchange. That concept, one that former city councillor Jim Green has advocated for developers he’s working with in the Downtown Eastside, has been used a couple of times in other parts of the city. But the exercise indicated it would take eight or nine extra units of marketing housing to pay for one unit of social housing, Clague said. And that would mean having to stuff an incredible amount of development into a small area.

The whole notion of towers coming to the Downtown Eastside is already a contentious point since Coun. Suzanne Anton added a new twist to the city’s EcoDensity plan earlier this year by suggesting that increased height be considered for Gastown, Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside.
That’s provoked a clear-cut negative response from the Declup group.
“The notion of extending the False Creek and Marathon models here is a disservice to the community,” Clague said.

To figure out what physical form people do want, Geller is helping organize a neighbourhood design workshop so community groups can do some physical planning, as a follow-up to earlier workshops on a general vision for the area.

Finally, the group is being watched with interest by city hall senior managers and planners, who have spent a considerable amount of time meeting with the group and going to its events.
While city planners don’t exactly embrace the idea that their department has left a void, they do say the group can play a role that city officials can’t always do.

“They bring a lot of folks together,” says the city’s head planner, Brent Toderian.
The biggest issues the Downtown Eastside faces are: What is the ultimate mix of people the neighbourhood should be home to? And what kinds of businesses can and will work for the neighbourhood?

Pedersen, expressing the views of many, says people want to feel like it’s still their home. That means not feeling like poor people living next to yuppies or feeling out of place in upscale stores clearly meant to serve only part of the neighbourhood.  “People are really attached to stores like Army & Navy here, where the staff all look like you, so it doesn’t make you feel poor. This is a bit of a safe enclave from poor-bashing.”

To her, that means the community has to maintain a balance of about 70 to 75 per cent low-income housing, with 25 to 30 per cent living in private housing. But even the private housing should be geared to people at the lower end of the market, artists and lower-paid workers who will blend with everyone else. Then the business mix has to match that.

Area has been ‘discovered’ in the last two to three years
The city’s official policy, expressed in its 2005 Downtown Eastside housing plan, is that the neighbourhood “remains the primary community for the low-income singles in the city and region while new market housing is integrated.”
That plan said in 2005 that the city’s aim was to “stabilize” the 10,000 units of low-income housing that have been at the core of the neighbourhood for decades. It envisioned there would be 4,000 units of market housing by 2014.
But there are now 1,750 market units in planning or under construction, almost double the amount of market housing that existed in 2005.

“This area has been discovered and it’s all happened in the last two or three years,” Geller says. “The land down here is currently selling for more than prime sites in Burnaby.”
The city’s new Downtown Eastside senior planner, Jessica Chen, said her planners can’t even project what the proportion of market units is likely to be with that pace of construction.
To have an impact on that rate of development, the group is going to have to decide what kind of mechanism it wants in place.
So far, that hasn’t happened in spite of its creative suggestions.
Wong said it’s an evolving process.

It could be the community-development corporation. It could even be something like the Shaughnessy or Gastown advisory committees, two city panels that vet any developments that come to their area.
Geller said one possibility is that the fees currently collected from developers on any new construction in the city could, in the case of Downtown Eastside projects, be turned over to the community corporation to manage. That would give them money to invest in housing or local businesses or whatever they decided would help preserve the Downtown Eastside they want.
But nothing is decided yet.

At the other end, the city is waiting to see what the group might come up with.
“I’m trying to understand their aspirations and then match their tools to that,” planning director Toderian says. “We don’t know what that is yet, though. But I see them as a force for the good. Every once in a while, the best people for a job are not in city hall.”

© The Vancouver Sun 2008

October 24, 2009. 5:52 pm • Section: Community of Interest Jean Swanson CCAP
Last month I wrote about the Carnegie Community Action Project’s (CCAP) Downtown Eastside (DTES) community mapping process. The DTES, it turns out, has lots of good qualities like acceptance, empathy, 5000 units of good social housing, needed and appreciated services, and a sense of community that other neighbourhoods would die for.

Michael Geller responded, basically saying, yes but what do residents say about the public perception of the area as “four blocks of hell”; what should be done with drug dealers and to increase safety, other than to build more housing?

Last Monday CCAP assembled about 30 low income DTES community leaders and asked them what they thought the bad things in the community were and how they would address them. What was interesting to me is that Geller’s perceptions of the bad things about the DTES were not the same as the 30 DTES residents at our workshop. According to these residents, who live in SROs, social housing, co-op housing, and on the street, the two worst things in the DTES were gentrification/condos and police brutality—two things that the average person who motors through the area on the way to work probably wouldn’t even think of.

To deal with the gentrification issue, they suggested that we “lobby like crazy,” and get the city to agree that condos couldn’t be allowed unless affordable housing was built. Maybe then developers would add their voice to the need for social housing in the DTES. They also wanted to create a community story to educate developers and buyers and to have community solidarity to push all levels of government to provide more social housing.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Two Debates in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside Posted by Jake Tobin Garrett

I've been following two debates recently going on in Vancouver related to the Downtown Eastside--one was triggered by the city's Historic Area Heights Review and the other by future locations for social housing--and thought it would be helpful to compile some of the discussion in one place.

Historic Area Heights Review

The Historic Area Heights Review sought higher building height limits in the DTES and Chinatown. You can read the document here (I know it looks long, but after page 16 it's appendices only). If you don't want to read all that, you can check out the presentation version, which also discusses view corridors and height reviews in other areas of the city. It also has the benefit of looking very slick.

Basically, what the study recommends is rezoning in the DTES and Chinatown to allow for higher buildings of around 120 - 150ft at certain locations. The study also notes the distinct character of this historic area should not be compromised and that the higher densities should bring public benefits.

(image taken from the HAHR report)

This prompted a slew of Vancouver professors, planners and politicians to write a letter to council expressing their concern that the added density and height would compromise the low-income nature of the DTES, ultimately contributing to higher rents that would push out at-risk tenants. Mike Harcourt, former premier, wondered why there was a "height-only" study when the needs of the DTES required a broader social and economic study. Sounds like a reasonable request to me.

Michael Geller argued on his blog the real issue was preserving the heritage nature of the district, something that higher buildings would encroach on.

Ultimately, city council cancelled the public hearing set for January 20, 2011 (which had a large number of speakers signed up) in order to call for a social-impact study to be completed and a community committee to be formed with the intent to create a local area plan for the DTES. A Georgia Straight article noted the public hearing led to an outcry against council for anti-democratic tactics, but that it was ultimately seen as a victory (for now). The Vancouver Sun's Jeff Lee wrote that city council had simply split up the area, so that while the DTES height reviews are on hold, the Chinatown ones will proceed with public hearings in February. Local action group Fight the Height used the headline: "Council strikes down the heights review...sort of."

Concord Pacific Social Housing Swap

As if that wasn't enough, a deal being drawn up with Concord Pacific (that ubiquitous developer of Vancouver's forest of glass towers) to have the developer turn over two DTES sites to the city for social housing development instead of including those units in the development of the North False Creek area, has triggered another debate. This time about where future social housing should be built--mixed with the rest of the city or located to the DTES?

On the one hand, the city has found it extremely difficult to build social housing units in developments in other parts of the city, the most publicized recently being the problems at the Olympic Village site. Compounded with this is the fact that the DTES has an established community and network of services for low-income citizens so it makes sense to provide social housing there.

On the other hand, you have Michael Geller's argument that we shouldn't be relegating Vancouver's poor to the DTES and should instead be including them in other areas of the city.

A pretty hateful and vitriolic article by The Province (no surprise there) takes the view that the Downtown Eastside should be destroyed and social housing should be built outside of the DTES, but totally ignores the fact that in Vancouver NIMBYism on such projects is quite high.

I have no idea what is best. My instinct tells me that we should be providing low-income citizens with opportunities to share in the wealth of the city by including them in these mega-condo projects. While many residents of the DTES feel a connection to the community and wouldn't want to leave (nor should they have to) there are probably some that would rather live in other areas of the city.