West End fireworks are not just in the sky this summer

The fireworks over the West End this summer aren't just those set off in the Celebration of Light. (Photo courtesy of Telemark Systems' Live Kat Kam).

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?

Community passions

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.”

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