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Consultation lacking in City’s plans for rental apartments in large areas of Dunbar, says DRA
By Carol Volkart, Newsletter Editor
The Dunbar Residents’ Association has spoken out against a city plan that would open big swaths of Dunbar to four-, five- and six-storey rental apartment buildings, townhouses and multiplexes if approved by city council this month.
“We urge you to vote against it and work with communities like ours in finding better ways to bring needed housing to Vancouver,” the DRA said in a submission to a public hearing now being held on the controversial “Streamlining Rental Rezoning” plan.
The hearing began on Nov. 2, but so many speakers signed up that it was continued Nov. 4 and resumes Nov. 9 with speaker No. 50 out of 97. About 600 pieces of correspondence have been received so far, nearly evenly split between “support” and “oppose” factions. The numbers may still grow, as people can still sign up to speak or send in correspondence until the public input part of the hearing ends and council members begin deliberations.
The DRA’s major concern about the plan, according to the letter by president Bruce Gilmour, was that neighbourhoods and their residents had not been consulted or properly informed about a proposal that would dramatically affect them. “The DRA has not had the courtesy of even an official notice of this plan, and we know many of our residents are unaware of it.”
The plan is aimed at dramatically increasing the supply of rental housing – although not necessarily affordable housing – along designated arterials where there’s easy access to amenities like stores and schools. It’s a city-wide initiative, focused especially on low-density areas such as Dunbar.
Under the plan, the entirety of the block on and adjacent to a designated arterial would be eligible for the new, higher-density forms of housing. Six-storey buildings would be allowed on the main arterial, with four- and five-storey rental buildings permitted in the rest of the block. Projects would require rezoning, neighbour notification, a public hearing and council approval, but the plan is expected to increase rezonings and result in full-block land assemblies.
Since one of the designated arterials is Dunbar Street, from Fourth in the north to Southwest Marine Drive in the south, the implications for Dunbar are significant. For example, apartments would be permitted in an area stretching from Highbury on the west side of Dunbar Street to Collingwood on the east.
Adding to the impact is the designation of stretches of arterials that intersect with Dunbar, such as West 41st, King Edward, West 16th, West 10th and Fourth, meaning that eligible areas run not only north-south but east-west as well. A summary of the proposal is at https://vancouver.ca/files/cov/streamlining-rental-summary.pdf.
Commenting this fall before the public hearings began, DRA board members questioned how such a sweeping plan could have come this far with so little public information, notification or consultation.
Gilmour noted that it took a Dunbar listserv posting by civic commentator Elizabeth Murphy for the DRA to learn some of the plan’s details and ramifications.
The Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods, which includes many of the city’s residents’ associations including the DRA, called the city’s consultation process “extremely flawed” and designed to ensure a predetermined outcome. The process emphasized special-interest groups, “and avoided most of the population of Vancouver,” the coalition said in a July 2021 letter to council.
Elizabeth Ball, a former Non-Partisan Association city councillor who serves on the DRA board and whose home will be affected by the plan, said: “There has been absolutely no consultation whatsoever with us.” She said council appears to be relying on online “push-pull” polls to tell people what it’s up to – “the polls where they tell you what they want you to say so that whatever you answer is a trap.”
DRA board member Bill Rapanos, a longtime Dunbar resident and former city planner in Burnaby, criticized the plan’s top-down, “big-bang, one-solution” citywide approach that ignores the peculiar characteristics of neighbourhoods. “What does the city have to lose by consulting with the people who live in Vancouver neighbourhoods instead of just the developers?” Smaller, more widespread solutions might be found through consultation, he said. “There is no one big solution to providing rental housing but there are many small steps that together could do more than the six-storey blockbuster approach.”
He suggested tax incentives or density bonuses to encourage duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes instead of single-family ultra-luxury homes. Tax incentives for small rental suites in all new detached buildings should be provided through zoning regulations, he proposed. He said current policies encourage “reverse affordability,” because older houses with secondary suites are being torn down and replaced by luxury houses for one family only. “I walk the neighbourhood and I can see how the new buildings are being built. They’re not putting suites in the basement. If you’re building a $5- to $6-million house, you’re not going to fool around with tenants.”
Rapanos predicted the plan will result in long stretches of neglected arterials because an oversupply of rezoned land will encourage land speculators to buy it up and wait for developers to buy them out. “You need only look at the south Cambie redevelopment corridor to see how the formerly well-kept homes on this arterial street now look like hell.”
Another board member said she understands the need for more housing “but I feel like we’re moving very fast without consultation. They don’t seem to be listening to the neighbourhoods.” A six-storey 109-unit rental project at 41st and Collingwood proposed under an existing plan, for example, “is not liveable housing, it’s very tiny spaces” and the building design doesn’t fit with the neighbourhood, she said. “We did meet with the developer but he wasn’t interested in listening to us. He just wanted to move ahead with his proposal.”
Architect and author Brian Palmquist, a Dunbar resident whose “City Conversations No One Else is Having” series on the CityHallWatch website https://cityhallwatch.wordpress.com/ frequently targets the disconnect between the city and its residents, said there’s already enough zoned capacity to meet housing needs for the next decade, based on the census and Metro Vancouver housing demand estimates. The problem is not lack of zoning, he said, but the slow pace of development for smaller projects, as the city prioritizes megaprojects over smaller, less-lucrative ones.
Palmquist agrees with the current zoning allowing four-storey condo buildings along arterials, and thinks six storeys for rental-only projects along arterials is reasonable. He suggests their impact could be tempered by rezoning one or two lots across the lane – not the whole block – to allow four-storey buildings, but “the farther we carry four- or six-storey development along side streets, the more we simply goose the land values. They will not create more affordable housing; it will just be condos that march down the street.”
Rapanos and Gilmour emphasized that changes are needed and that Dunbar is not opposed to adding people or housing. But the new housing shouldn’t be the ultra-luxury type that is turning Dunbar into another Shaughnessy, says Rapanos. Instead, it should be a variety of small-scale, relatively affordable housing types that will help shift Dunbar back to the diverse, busy neighbourhood it used to be, with kids, families, students, seniors and a mixture of low- and high-income earners popping in and out of thriving local stores.
Gilmour stressed the DRA is not against density “or saying change and development is forbidden.” Residents want a thriving, diverse community, but they also want to be consulted in how that is achieved, he said. “It is a process requiring planning and the identification of concerns and the remediation of those concerns – what all parties at the table can live with.”
Public Hearing Agenda: https://council.vancouver.ca/20211102/phea20211102ag.htm
Report for Public Hearing: https://council.vancouver.ca/20211005/documents/spec1.pdf Eligibility Map: https://vancouver.ca/files/cov/streamlining-rental-summary.pdf