News of proposed plaza redevelopment lost among tax announcements

Last week was a memorable week in Vancouver. Three important things happened.

Two have been highly publicized: the announcement of a 15 per cent tax on residential real estate purchases by foreigners effective Aug. 2 and a provincial legislative change to allow the City of Vancouver to tax vacant properties.

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While there is no doubt foreign buyers have been having a significant impact on Vancouver’s real estate market, I have always had mixed feelings about the benefits of imposing special taxes to address the problem. This is because, as Milton Friedman once said, the government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem.

Two years ago I wrote about London, England’s experience with restrictions on foreign buyers and potential lessons for Vancouver. While I believe the government was wise to start taxing capital gains, we may never know the full impact of these taxes given the normal cyclical nature of real estate markets.

I am particularly troubled by the way the Vancouver tax was imposed. I am also intrigued by possible legal challenges on the basis that it violates NAFTA, and Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of, among other things, national origin.

Now as for the tax on vacant homes, this is a politically astute initiative by both the province and the city.

It allows Mayor Gregor Robertson to demonstrate he is trying to address what many see as the social injustice of thousands of vacant homes at a time of a severe shortage of rental housing.

The province can be seen as cooperating with the city to address the housing crisis, even though provincial officials, along with many other government officials and real estate experts, question the probable effectiveness of the tax.

The third important event that happened last week has nothing to do with housing. It has to do with how we plan our downtown.

The story started with a call from CBC’s Early Edition inviting me to comment on a proposal to replace a glass rotunda and plaza with a new commercial development.

I assumed we were talking about the corner of Seymour and Hastings streets where a small, domed public plaza, created in the mid-’80s as part of a rezoning, was being redeveloped with a 20-plus storey office building.

But I was wrong.

The researcher wanted to talk about the plaza and rotunda at Howe and Georgia streets, part of Cadillac Fairview’s Pacific Centre, for which a proposal was going to the city’s Urban Design Panel (UDP) later in the week.

I was embarrassed to tell her I didn’t know anything about this proposal, but suggested she speak to Ray Spaxman, the former director of planning who might know something. As it happened, he didn’t know anything about it either.

I subsequently attended the UDP meeting where I was shocked to see plans and a model for a three-storey retail complex on the plaza. However, I was told the proposal was in accordance with a 2006 rezoning.

When I subsequently asked why a proposal for such a prominent site was proceeding without any community input, I was told by an official city spokesperson that this was standard procedure for a development permit application in accordance with zoning, and staff would be seeking public feedback through the neighbourhood notification process.

Surprised by this response I decided to review the 2006 rezoning decision myself.

While it confirmed council had approved a deal to allow the plaza to be redeveloped in return for a developer contribution towards the cost of the nearby SkyTrain station, council also decided “in the preparation of a development application, the public should be consulted about proposed land use and design concepts, through workshops and open houses.”

Compared to most world cities, Vancouver has few public open spaces and plazas, and sadly we seem to be losing many of the spaces we do have.

Before we lose another plaza at Howe and Georgia, I urge the mayor, council and the city’s planning department to instigate a proper public consultation process to find a better solution to retain all, or at least a portion of this important downtown open space.

I hope Courier readers will join me in this endeavour.

Allen Garr is on vacation.

@michaelgeller

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