“Is it ignorance, arrogance or just greed?” Former chief planner laments City of Vancouver’s current developer behaviour

Vancouver’s popular former director of planning (1973 to 1989), Ray Spaxman, sent this e-mail to colleagues in the city’s urban planning and development community on Friday, lamenting the state of affairs in this city. A copy went to Vancouver’s mayor and the head of the Urban Development Institute. Much of what he mentions is behaviour we have witnessed in the West End, especially since the West End Community Plan was adopted in 2013.

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Hello Dear Colleague,

As time goes by and more and more “spectacular” high rise proposals appear in the newspapers, as do the anxious cries of affected neighbours, I become increasingly appalled at the lack of neighbourliness in our development processes.

Surely, no sensitive and respectful person would propose to shove a high rise slap in front of an existing high rise whose residents obviously enjoy some of our gorgeous views without trying as hard as possible to minimize the impact on those views. Surely, you would think, the City would require, at the outset of any proposal, that the proponent account for how they intend to address such issues?

Instead, residents wake up one morning to see in the local newspaper another iconic “world class” tower, and then suffer the dreadful shock of noting that it is proposed on the site right in front of them. It gets worse as they attend the public open houses to review the details of the proposal. There, at significant expense, the proponent has prepared a lovely, gallery-quality display to describe the proposal. (Visitors may be asked to take no photos to ensure that the proposal is not misrepresented by people who may be unable to recognize the real values of the design proposal!). At the open house there may be no description, discussion or recognition of the impact these “internationally attractive” icons would have on their neighbours. Instead poetic descriptions of the wonder of the creativity of the architecture and carefully crafted statements that the building will meet all the city’s requirements are provided. It takes some knowledge of the city’s bylaws and development processes to find out that the real and vital issues of good neighbourliness have been hidden in the imperative of persuasion.

What has happened to clear and honest explanation? Why aren’t developers required to describe accurately all the implications of their design on the neighbourhood? You’d think they might want to meet their neighbours when they start thinking about what they intend to do on the site.

It is so disappointing to know that such practices and requirements used to be common practice in Vancouver. It was those principles that helped to create the neighbourly city. It seems that while consideration of growth, density, height, variety, iconicism, value uplift, international recognition and investment is relevant, they should not be pursued at the expense of good neighbourliness.

While this discussion focusses on the need to improve the processing of major high rise proposals, we need to get the processes of respecting neighbourliness in order if we are to be successful in densifying other areas of the city.

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Spaxman is highly respected as the City of Vancouver’s Director of Planning from 1973 to 1989, and today runs Spaxman Consulting Group Limited. He is renowned for his balanced approach to development, for listening to all sides, and he has left his mark on the Vancouver we know and love today. He played a major role in decisions during that period which shaped the West End as we knew it until recently. But much of that is changing now, with the new West End Community Plan adopted in 2013.

For further reading, here is an interesting article in the Georgia Straight.

Ray Spaxman: Regarding Vancouver’s next director of planning and the pursuit of truth
by Ray Spaxmam, in Georgia Straight, 11-Sept-2015
http://www.straight.com/news/528481/ray-spaxman-regarding-vancouvers-next-director-planning-and-pursuit-truth

Here is a link to a report on a public forum in 2011 where Mr. Spaxman spoke on the need for partnership of all stakeholders in urban planning. Video included.

VPL Panel summary (Spaxman, Toderian and others)(June 2011)

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