Planners alarmed at Vancouver city hall contempt

Last week, an unprecedented meeting took place behind closed doors at the UBC School of Community and Regional Planning.

In attendance were former City of Vancouver planners, professors, planning consultants and associated professionals. I was one of them. They had gathered because of a shared concern over a number of recent Vancouver development approvals and what they saw as a diminishing respect for the importance of urban design and city planning within city hall.

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“The respect for planners and planning is gone. Urban design is too often seen as a luxury or a constraint rather than a prerequisite for a well-planned city,” noted one of the participants.

Attendees also shared a desire for a better city plan to guide future development decisions. While some saw this as updated neighbourhood plans, others believed it was time to prepare an overall city plan, something which most cities have.

During the two-hour discussion, a number of related concerns were expressed. These included what many described as an increasing lack of trust between the architectural and planning professions and the senior administration at city hall.

One attendee observed that it is heartbreaking to see many of the urban design principles that have made Vancouver internationally famous, now being ignored or sometimes viewed with contempt. “Building design is no longer as important as it used to be.”

He criticized the growing practice of negotiating project designs and Community Amenity Contributions (CACs) behind closed doors in the mayor’s and city manager’s office. Examples included 1403 Comox, Kingsway and Broadway, 70th and Granville, 900 Block East Hastings, Shannon Mews, Oakridge, and the Brenhill project.

One former city planner noted that in the past it was important to establish a building’s overall size and density before calculating the CACs.

Now the city has become so addicted to CAC payments, the money and social benefits too often determine the building design.

Some lamented how many older planners have left the city, sometimes due to retirement, but also due to what they described as a toxic working environment. As a consequence, the city is losing its “institutional memory” essential for future planning.

One respected voice observed the city has a vision, namely to increase the supply of affordable housing. But unfortunately, this seems to be driving too many poor planning decisions.

Others decried the “us and them” relationship that seems to have developed between city hall and the neighbourhoods. “Consultation is a charade,” he said, adding too often the city staffer taking meeting notes decides what he wants to be said, rather than what was said.

At the conclusion of the meeting, the discussion turned to the Brenhill project which proposes an almost six-fold increase in density compared to the zoning.

While all acknowledged the proposal results in replacement social housing and rental units, the consensus was that this building was much too big for the site.

Apparently this had been confirmed by the initial Urban Design Panel (UDP) review which rejected the design 7-0. After some very minor changes the project returned to the UDP. This time the vote was 5-3 in favour; however some panel members privately complained they felt coerced by the planning department to change their vote.

This project was scheduled to go to a new public hearing Tuesday night. Customarily it would go to the UDP before public hearing. The group therefore decided to send a letter to council urging proper due process by referring it back to the UDP before final consideration.

While it was acknowledged council will make the final decision, those present thought it was particularly important that the UDP have the opportunity to offer its comments to council, especially in this particular instance.

While I, like everyone present, did not agree with everything that was said, I share many of the concerns articulated.

Regardless of the final decision on the Brenhill project, we need to have a broader public discussion on just how far city planners should depart from accepted zoning, planning and urban design guidelines to achieve the administration and council vision of more social and affordable housing.

I hope this conversation will continue, but not behind closed doors.

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