West End fireworks are not just in the sky this summer
The West End is used to the noise and light that come with the Celebration of Light fireworks every year, but this year, the fireworks haven't all been in the sky. Accusations of NIMBYism, anti-renter prejudice and forcing changes onto an unwilling community have also been flying through the air.
"NIMBY", or "Not in My Backyard", is a phrase routinely used to disparage opponents of particular redevelopment projects, with the implication that the opponents are blocking much-needed social goals because of their own narrow, selfish concerns.
The NIMBY label is now being applied to people in the West End who are opposing two particular high rise development proposals. Those opposed are being told that because the new buildings include much-needed rental housing, they are prejudiced against renters and only concerned about their views and property values.
I am a West End resident. I am a tenant. I am also an advocate for affordable housing, having served on the board (including a term as Chair) of the Mole Hill Community Housing Society for seven years. And yet I too am opposed to these particular projects. I too want a community-based planning process before non-conforming towers are allowed to be built. If that makes me a NIMBY, then that is what I am. Here's why.
STIRring the pot
The seeds of the controversy were sown when the City adopted the Short Term Incentives for Rental Housing (STIR) program in 2009. STIR provides various incentives to developers to build rental suites, including expedited permitting, development cost levy waivers, parking requirement reductions, and increased density.
So far, two STIR projects have been proposed for the West End, an 18-storey tower at Bidwell and Davie (which has already been approved by council) which triples the allowed density, and a 22-storey building at 1401 Comox Street with five times the allowed density. The Bidwell project will replace a low-rise 1930s art deco building which most recently housed the Maxine's Hideaway restaurant, and some small shops around the corner, including a popular small greengrocer, which have to vacate the premises by July 31.
The Comox development would replace the former St. John’s United Church and its grounds. Its current status is uncertain as the architect, Henriques Partners Architects, have withdrawn the plans and will bring a revised proposal forward in the Fall of 2010.
The two projects have definitely stirred up the West End. Community meetings have been held, ad hoc groups formed, petitions circulated, websites created and posters plastered. And STIR has accelerated a much-needed debate about the West End, its future, and how much of Vancouver’s future population growth it should absorb.
A change is going to come
Situated between Stanley Park and downtown, the West End is one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in the city, with a population of over 40,000. It has a high proportion (80%) of renters. West Enders tend to be younger and less affluent on average than Vancouverites generally. The population is varied; and both young and old, singles and families, gays and straights, new immigrants and lifelong Vancouverites call the West End home. Architecturally, it’s mixed as well, with concrete high-rise towers coexisting beside detached homes, low-rise apartment buildings and trendy townhouses.
The mixture of building styles, ages and sizes contributes to the livability of the West End. There are towers that cast gloomy shadows on their low-rise neighbours and on the sidewalks, but there are also mature trees, generous setbacks, and many low and medium height buildings. The West End works -- it's a lively, safe, interesting neighbourhood, with a mixture of peoples and architectures.
For the past few decades, redevelopment in the West End has been low-key, consisting mostly of low-rise infill projects. The building frenzy of the 1960s and 1970s, when many detached homes were torn down in favour of towers, had abated by the 1980s, thanks to community activism and City zoning policies.
But the West End’s quiet period may be over. SFU City Program Director Gordon Price, a West End resident, points out that “dozens of wooden low-rise apartment blocks are nearing the end of their physical lives. Change, it seems, is inevitable.”
What will replace those apartment blocks? Will new development in the West End resemble the townhouse+point tower model so characteristic of the downtown south and Yaletown neighbourhoods, or lowrise multiunit buildings like those in the Olympic Village, or something completely different? Can the West End retain its livability, affordability and ambience while these changes are happening?
As the West End Residents Association (WERA) puts it in a recent report, West Enders are “passionate about their community and would like to see the West End grow in a manner that encourages, supports, and sustains its diversity. The mix of people, incomes, and housing types are key aspects of what makes the West End great.”
WERA, along with the ad hoc West End Neighbours (WEN) and others, is calling for a comprehensive community vision and community-based planning to ensure that changes to the West End will enhance, not harm, the West End. They’re concerned that the two STIR projects will cause permanent harm to the neighbourhood’s livability before a community plan is in place.
According to the WEN website: “We’re currently facing spot rezoning applications for buildings that do not comply with current zoning and the existing community plan and that will have a major long-term impact on our neighbourhood. We need to challenge these rezoning applications and ask what we envision for our community into the future.” WEN's petition calling for “No Rezoning Without a Community Plan” has been signed by almost 8,000 people so far.
Randy Helten has become the most visible spokesperson for WEN. He says he's not against change in the West End in general or more rental apartments in particular. But he wants more information and more dialogue with the city. "Part of the issue is that there has been no discourse with city officials regarding the options for the community. If the goal is to provide more rental apartments specifically in the West End, what are the options? What are the costs? What building forms are possible? How can various needs of various stakeholders be fulfilled? People talk about the aging three-storey walk-up apartments. Those could be built up to six storeys. No one has shown the math and pros and cons of upgrading such buildings."
Speaking at a crowded community meeting in April, WERA director Christine Ackermann said STIR will do little to alleviate the rental shortage problem while putting additional pressures on strained public amenities and resources in the West End: “The amount of supply we are getting out of the STIR program isn’t really going to make a huge drop in the bucket for affordability.”
But others in the community favour the project; Jennifer Breakspear for one. Breakspear is executive director for The Centre/QMUNITY (a resource and health centre for Vancouver’s GLBT community). Currently QMUNITY occupies desperately cramped and outdated quarters above a Money Mart at the corner of Davie and Bute. The STIR project at 1401 Comox would include a new home for QMUNITY. “I am also concerned about a comprehensive community plan in the West End," she said at the same meeting where Ackermann spoke. "But I'm also concerned about another form of housing, and that's the housing of this vital community resource centre."
Civic affairs blogger Jonathan Ross is harsh in his view of STIR opponents: “The anti-STIR forces in the West End (are) simply adverse to change or any kind of development in their neighbourhood," he wrote recently in his Civic Scene blog. "Believe it or not people, the entire City of Vancouver does not revolve around the prescriptions of those that live in the West End.... I hate these kinds of attitudes in Vancouver, and am sick of people not willing to think about the city as a whole rather than their little fiefdoms of comfort. NIMBYs unite in the West End, and everyone is supposed to bow down? Give me a break.”
Councillor Tim Stevenson, a West End renter himself, is more temperate, but does believe that some STIR opponents are being selfish: “These people really believe that as an owner, you have more rights, you have more at stake,” Stevenson told the Globe and Mail. “It’s not that they’re anti-renter, but they’re owners and that’s where their interests lie.” As for renters who signed the petition opposing STIR, Stevenson feels they have been “misled.”
Not surprisingly, WEN disagrees. "The opposition has nothing to do with the fact that these are rentals," says Helten. "The problem is that these proposals are so dramatically out of character with the neighbourhood."
West End artist Tiko Kerr concurs: “We are opposed to a system that is being forced through a community with no regard for dialogue with that community and careful examination of issues that range from public amenities already being stretched to inefficiency, public dollars subsidizing developers, buildings completely incongruous to the neighbourhood, relaxing of parking and heritage issues just to name a few.” Kerr is donating a painting, "A Night Full of Stars (Maxine's)," to raise funds to allow WEN to continue its advocacy for a community visioning process.
Tiko Kerr with his painting of Maxine's.
Dropping the Ball
Kennedy Stewart, an associate professor with Simon Fraser University’s graduate public policy program and longtime civic observer, has been following the controversy from London, England, where he’s currently on sabbatical. He says Vision has only itself to blame for the turmoil. “The city really dropped the ball on this issue by attempting to ram through these changes in the most politically sophisticated neighbourhood in the city. People in the West End know how to organize and have considerable political experience, clout and media access.”
He dismisses the criticism of WEN as a NIMBY group: “WEN is acting just like any other group of people concerned about protecting their interests and community from external threats. You can bet if someone was going to put a tower block beside (Vancouver Mayor) Gregor Robertson's house he'd have something to say about it, so why is it wrong for WEN to object?”
The City may have done more harm than good with its tactics, Stewart says. “These kind of tactics are counter productive as they only make WEN bargain harder and become more determined to stop these developments. It all seems very amateurish on the city's part.”
Community Consultation or Smokescreen?
On July 8, Robertson, Stevenson and council colleague Heather Deal had what they thought was a private, off-camera exchange at the end of a committee meeting where council voted to set up a West End Community Advisory Committee. As is now well known, their words were recorded and posted on Youtube. When the mayor used the “F-word” during the conversation, he was expressing his frustration that West End Neighbours members were opposing the plan.
The committee's goals are to:
- Develop and maintain a list of community priorities for the West End;
- Meet with developers proposing re-zonings in the West End prior to community open houses to ensure these proposals are informed by current community priorities;
- Provide advice to the Mayor’s Office on further initiatives to increase linkages between the West End and City in relation to development and policy.
Besides the mayor and Stevenson, the committee will include 12 community representatives -- chosen by the city to “reflect the demographics of the West End including single resident households, 40 years of age and under, families of young children, new immigrants and refugees, seniors, local business owners who live in the neighbourhood, and LGBTQ community.” The high number of renters in the West End will also be taken into account while forming the committee, according to the motion that established the committee.
While some West Enders welcome the committee (WERA has asked to be part of the process), others have not. Helten wants to find out more before endorsing the committee: “In the absence of further clarification, it would appear that this committee, hand-picked by Vision Vancouver, could potentially be used to manufacture the illusion that the community 'democratically' supports a site rezoning,” he says, adding that a committee is no substitute for true community-based planning and a freeze on what he calls "radical rezonings" until that planning has taken place.
Kennedy Stewart says Helten is right to be sceptical: “This is a standard tactic used by city governments when faced with local opposition -- create a stacked committee with little or no authority so the city can say it has consulted the neighbourhood but then do exactly as it pleases.”
Not in My Backyard
It's a complex issue. I can understand the mayor's frustration. I agree with him and his colleagues that Vancouver desperately needs new purpose-built rental housing. But I also agree with Christine Ackermann that the West End's resources are strained as it is, and that the STIR proposals will not do anything for rental affordability. And I agree with Helten and Kerr that the West End needs a community based planning process and that our elected officials should respect and uphold the existing area policy plan and guidelines.
The West End is already one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in Vancouver. Piecemeal approval of new towers -- whether strata, rental or a combination -- will alter the West End’s delicate livability balance and strain our overburdened community resources. And the damage will be hard to undo.
As Pete McMartin wrote in the Sun recently, “‘short term’ is a matter of perspective. To city hall, this short-term largesse being extended to developers is a stopgap measure. To West End residents, where many of the STIR units are expected to go, it's not short-term at all. The rental units are to remain for the life of the building, or for 60 years, whichever comes first. Or, if you prefer, West End residents will live with the STIR's increased densities for 60 years, or until their deaths, whichever comes first. For them, it's long-term.”
That's why we need a community visioning exercise. That's why we need to pause and reflect before proceeding with more of these high-rise projects. If that means I'm a NIMBY, then so be it.
West End Residents Association: http://www.wera.bc.ca
West End Neighbours: http://www.westendneighbours.ca
Kennedy Stewart’s thoughts on public participation: www.kennedystewart.ca
About the West End: http://vancouver.ca/community_profiles/west_end/index.htm
About STIR: http://vancouver.ca/commsvcs/developmentservices/stir/index.htm