Did you know that towers approved or under review for a small area of the West End along West Georgia Street, Alberni Street, and Robson Street, if stacked up, would be nearly two kilometers high, rise 618 storeys, and house 6,000 people?
The West End Community Plan adopted in November 2013 phrased the overall direction for the Georgia and Burrard Corridors and Lower Robson as follows:
Strategically locate opportunities for new growth through increased heights and densities along the Georgia and Burrard Corridors and in Lower Robson to help deepen housing affordability and to contribute public benefits.
What do these words really mean? What does this translate to on the ground? How has implementation “deepened” housing affordability? How has it “contributed to public benefits”?
West End Neighbours tallied the tower developments (rezonings and development applications) in this part of the West End for the just more than five years since the plan was adopted, and here are some of our statistics:
- 618 storeys (cumulative)
- 6,240 feet (cumulative), equivalent to 1.9 kilometers high
- Floor space ratios (FSRs, a measure of density) ranging from 7.7 to 14.95
- 2,948 units, with space for an estimated 6,000 residents (for comparison, the implementation of the WECP over a period of thirty years envisioned 9,000 residents across the entire West End)
- 3,346 parking spots
Now that over five years have passed, the West End has seen a huge amount of change in some parts of the neighbourhood and more is on the way. West End Neighbours wrote to City Council in January 2019 calling for a five-year review and report on WECP implementation. (We’re still waiting for a response from the Mayor and City Hall.)
Meanwhile, since no comprehensive summary is available from the City, we have been doing some tracking of numbers based on media coverage plus various documents on the City’s website. More comprehensive analysis is needed for the entire West End, particularly for Davie Street plus the Burrard corridor (including Thurlow Street) where a demolition and construction boom was triggered by the WECP.
Here is an image from the WECP.
The WECP contained coded wording for the Georgia-Alberni corridor: “Strengthen the urban frame” and “intensify … towards greater clarity.” Also, peppered throughout the WECP is the concept of “deepening” housing affordability, though no clear definition was provided.
Residents affected by the large amount of demolition and construction may feel that the City of Vancouver has failed to communicate adequately regarding all this development, and failed to provide the coordination and institutional responses to mitigate the cumulative and inter-related impacts on the community, including noise, traffic disruptions, parking. It is not too late for the City to improve on this.
It seems reasonable to ask the City to be tracking and monitoring these changes. Are these consistent with the spirit and the letter of the WECP?
Here is a table showing our tally.
Now let’s have a look at various aspects of the process of that led up to the adoption of the WECP. Plans for the Alberni-Georgia corridor and Lower Robson were introduced in the last months prior to approval of the WECP. From the perspective of residents these changes were injected into plans by the City rather than having been based on any popular request from the community. Many of the residents who had provided comments and input during the WECP likely did not even know about the last-minute changes added for the area. Also, when the draft plans became available, a 30-year “roll out” was anticipated, but in reality, the roll-out depicted in our statistics here has occurred within just the last five years. And more is on the way.
There are many other issues to consider as well. The extreme level of densification within a relative small area was not clearly explained to the general community during the consultation process. Neighbourhood impacts already include increased traffic during and after construction, loss of views, loss of light, noise, vibration, and impacts on air flows and air quality. There has also been a loss of office and commercial space through demolition. Many of the projects in the area involve demolition of some sort of residential, office or commercial space. When the City eventually reports publicly on the implementation of the WECP it will be important to look at the net changes in each area of the West End — the new units or space minus what was lost. Another impact of the WECP has been significant losses of local retail businesses due to increasing value of land along Robson and demolition (without replacement) of space.
Is the West End being overbuilt? When built, these towers will contain units that (in principal) could house a majority of the proposed population increase stated in the WECP for the entire West End. Who is monitoring progress towards housing goals stated in the plan?
In recent months, media reports have indirectly shown that the City planners have significantly increased their population estimates for the West End. But as of August 2019, the City had offered no public explanation for the revised, increased estimate of population growth or whether the WECP approved in 2013 is even still relevant.
As for the WECP commitments to “deepen housing affordability,” although some new rental units are being built along Robson, the majority of housing stock (80%) proposed within the entire area described (including Georgia, Alberni and Robson, between Denman and Broughton) is for market-priced strata units. Existing affordable rental units are being demolished. There appears to be no net increase in the number of rental units along Alberni (where rentals are demolished, there is only a one-for-one replacement). One existing mid-sized rental building (1640-1650 Alberni) is slated to be demolished and a large market strata tower to be built.
As for timeline for implementation in this area, if all proposals are approved, the level of construction and disruption in this small area will be enormous over the course of the next five to ten years. How will this be organized, monitored and controlled?
Regarding Vancouver’s claim to be the world’s “Greenest City” by 2020, the demolition of existing buildings (residential, commercial, and combined properties) appears to be the norm. It was not long ago that existing buildings were re-purposed (e.g. Cube, Pacific Palisades). Why has this changed?
Regarding the WECP commitment to “contribute public benefits,” how much revenue has been brought in with all this development? What are the public benefits so far? What public benefits are coming in the future? What is the monetary value of those benefits? And who are the “public benefits” for?
As readers will see, the developments under way or proposed in the Georgia-Alberni corridor and Lower Robson are significant. Just five years have passed since the West End Community Plan was adopted. It is time for a review of implementation and for reporting back to the community, and then for the City to get some further feedback on what happens next.
How well does the City of Vancouver consult and communicate with residents before, during and after adopting a community plan, and how does it perform when it comes to implementation?
All of this is very significant for context, just as the City embarks upon a four-year process to develop a city-wide plan.
Note – WEN welcomes volunteers who are wiling to help with further writing and analysis like for other areas and the entire West End. Submissions are also welcome for publication. And donations are welcome to help defray website and newsletter costs. Write firstname.lastname@example.org.