One of the interesting challenges of writing a regular newspaper column is deciding what to write about.
Two weeks ago, there was just one topic on my list: the city’s proposal to add bicycle lanes to Commercial Drive. I spent the following week vowing not to write about bicycle lanes again as I responded to the overwhelming number of complaints, primarily from cyclists.
This week, I am faced by an abundance of topics I could write about:
- Mayor Gregor Robertson’s address to the Urban Land Institute in which he acknowledged that a neighbourhood made up of perfect $5-million heritage homes with no children in them is “the sign of a failing city.”
- Chief planner Gil Kelley’s sudden announcement that the city will no longer pursue its proposal to downzone many older single-family neighbourhoods in an effort to prevent demolition of character homes.
- An impressive report to council by the new general manager of Development, Buildings, and Licensing, Kaye Krishna, on how to improve the processing of planning and development applications at City Hall.
- The provincial government’s announcement of changes coming to the taxi industry along with legislation to allow ride-hail companies such as Uber and Lyft to operate in British Columbia.
Rather than choose, let me share a few thoughts on each.
Task Force ignored
When I heard about the mayor’s speech to ULI architects, planners and developers, my first thought was if only he had acted on more of the excellent recommendations set out in the 2012 Affordable Housing Task Force that he co-chaired with Olga Ilich.
As the respected Ilich was quoted as saying at the time: “The question the task force repeatedly came back to was, ‘Where will our children live in Vancouver? To answer it, the city needs to enable a range of housing that is broader than condominiums and single-family homes. People want choice — the opportunity to scale up if they are starting a family, and downsize as they retire. The report we’ve produced aims to cover a wide-range of needs, and I’m hopeful that City Hall will act on it to address a problem as urgent as the lack of affordable housing.”
Two key recommendations were to “pre-zone” properties along arterial roads to allow for more multi-family housing choices, along with a “transition zone” behind, for townhouses, duplexes and triplexes.
Sadly, this did not happen. Instead we continue to see expensive new single-family houses being built along Dunbar or West 41st instead of the broader housing choices unanimously endorsed by Task Force members.
View to a Gil
Fortunately, it did not take Gil Kelley long to realize that reducing allowable densities to what one might find in the suburbs was not going to address housing affordability in older Vancouver neighbourhoods. Instead, he committed to explore how the city can offer more affordable housing choices along with incentives to conserve character homes.
I should add that the number of deserving character homes should be significantly less than the 80 per cent identified by staff, from the 800 properties submitted for consideration, in the past two years.
Kaye Krishna arrived in Vancouver six months ago from New York to “assume leadershipof our efforts to transform our permitting and licensing processes and improve service and turnaround times for applicants.” Based on her recent presentation to council, she might just succeed if given the support she will need.
One of her proposals to help anyone trying to get permits at city hall is a SPOC (single point of contact). Currently, there is no one person who can help an applicant work through the system and address the oftentimes conflicting requirements of different departments.
Krishna also advocates more standardized legal agreements, rather than “bespoke” agreements. For those not familiar with the term, think readymade suits vs. custom made-to-measure suits. This should both speed things up and save money.
Drive to succeed
Speaking of saving money, the province’s announcement to improve the taxi system, and allow Uber and other ride-hail programs to operate by Christmas should the Liberals win the next election, will do just that.
As I wrote two years ago, our taxi system needs a complete overhaul. Many of the province’s proposed changes could benefit drivers and passengers alike.
Not only will improved taxi and ride-share programs help us to get around, they could also contribute to more affordable housing as unnecessary parking spaces are replaced by laneway and coach houses. Now that would be a real win-win-win.