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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Much ado about the Drive…

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An artistic rendering of the condo towers proposed for Broadway and Commercial

An artistic rendering of the condo towers proposed for Broadway and Commercial

This evening is a meeting of the Grandview-Woodlands association.  On the agenda: the new community plan drafted by the City of Vancouver, one that has rarely been so contentious.

The key part of the plan (available here; see map here) is a series of condo towers over and around the Broadway-Commercial Skytrain station, which would markedly increase the density of the area.  But this has created such an uproar that the plan is now dead on arrival; the city has already backed away from it.

And with good reason; as former councillor (and urban planner extraordinaire) Gordon Price wrote:

I learned as a councillor that the City never goes into a neighbourhood to say, “Hi, we’re here to help change the character of your community to accommodate the growth we are forecasting.”

As Price tells it (in his blog here):

As they get used to a declining rate of change, in fact, people who have resided in a community for some time become increasingly sensitive to any change that does occur, no matter how relatively modest it is compared to the change that created the character of the community in the first place.

In the West End, when the rental tower was proposed for Comox and Broughton, some residents condemned the ‘unprecedented’ change it represented.  Think about that: a highrise, in the West End, was felt to be unprecedented.

Towers are more legitimately the argument in Grandview…next to the SkyTrain station, where hardly any significant development has occurred since the opening of the line in 1985. Change that Burnaby wouldn’t blink at is the focus of mobilization in this community.  Already the whiff of hysteria is evident.

In an interview to the Georgia Straight, Matt Shillito, Vancouver’s assistant director of planning, Matt Shillito, said that Broadway and Commercial is “one of the most important regional nodes of transit already, so there’s an existing planning rationale for increased density in the area.”

According to the Straight, the city has forecast that Grandview-Woodland’s population, based on existing zoning, could conceivably rise from 28,380 to 37,370. The document states that this “assumes the maximum residential floor space could be built on each site”.

Shane Simpson, the area’s MLA, mentioned in an email that there are other contentious areas.

The plan calls for significant development especially along the Hastings corridor, with areas like Hastings and Nanaimo being zoned for mixed use buildings up to 8 storeys, and the area near Hastings and Commercial zoned for mixed-use building up to 12 storeys. Not only will this dramatically change the character of the community, it also raises serious concerns for the survival of many of the small shop owners along Hastings who will face significant property tax increases under this plan. I have also had concerns raised to me about potential towers and other density issues along the Commercial drive corridor.

These are certainly legitimate concerns.  It seems to me, though, that the logic is backwards; an increase in density should not imply higher taxes; in fact, if the city wants to increase livability, it should do the exact opposite.  The purpose of increasing density is to create more space, both for accommodation and for commerce.  With more shops around sharing the tax burden, the net income to the city would remain the same with lower taxes.  Or would even increase, with a tax rate that remains untouched.

Keeping a lower density is no guarantee that the character of an area remains untouched. With little retail space available for rent, landlords have free rein to gouge commercial tenants; the Little nest eatery is just one in a long list of independent shops that closed on the Drive because of high rents.  Indeed, a density increase could be part of a strategy to keep the independent shops that give character to the area around, by using lower taxes (such as a density rebate).  This would make a density increase much easier to swallow.  The fear, obviously, is to see the Drive and East Hastings turn into another soul-less Robson or Fourth Avenue.

I suppose the city planners thought that the locals would be happy, since there is no change planned for Commercial Drive itself between 8th and Venables, the area that most people think of when one says “the Drive”.  I’m not even sure that this approach makes sense.  There is a higher (six stories) block going up at 7th, where the old theater used to be, and this isn’t causing any ripples.

My main objection to the plan is transit.  It’s true that Broadway and Commercial is a key hub, but that’s precisely the problem.  The system is already strained beyond capacity, be it Skytrain or buses.  Things are better, but not much, on Hastings.  Despite the absence in the plan of high towers for Hastings, the considerable density increase would also strain transportation there.  Transportation is key in any planning exercise, but the powers to address this issue have been taken away from Metro.

Which is a shame.  Me, I actually like the plan.  I think density, if well done, brings like, amenities, and character.  Despite its character, the Drive area has a population density that is more typical of post-war suburbia, rather than truly urban.  What can I say, I like urban.

That’s also why you won’t see me at the meeting tonight.  There is so much opposition to change in my neighbourhood..and I don’t want to be run out of it.  Whiff of hysteria, Price calls it?     


Written by enviropaul

July 8, 2013 at 8:19 pm

One Response

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  1. […] the ruckus of last week’s planning meeting in Grandview, one is left with this quandary: is it possible to accommodate growth without changing the […]

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