In the past 30 years, Vancouver has added enough people to its downtown peninsula to fill a city the size of Prince George or Port Coquitlam.
About 69,000 new residents moved into the towers and occasional homes that sprouted everywhere after the city aggressively promoted its downtown living strategy, more than doubling the area’s 1991 population of about 48,000.
This kind of transformation is about to hit Vancouver again — only bigger and farther — as the city council prepares to approve sweeping plans that will reshape many parts of the city in the next 30 years.
“It feels like a time of generational change,” said Gordon Price, a former city councilman who has been a lot of a political advocate for the ’90s plans and continues to analyze city planning. “It’s building for a new generation in a new way.”
It would be more of an adjustment to Vancouverfruit than previous remanufactures, Price said, because of how the plans won’t limit new development to former industrial land or relatively empty enclaves, as has been the case in the past.
At the time, he said, development was quite far from the 80 percent of the city’s land that was set aside for detached homes (except, in recent years, a few small incursions like basement suites or road homes). In the “grand bargain” that worked politically for many years, any new intensity of developments was piled up in the remaining 20 percent.
“We’ll walk away from the big deal and see the transformation of the old town,” Price said.
The promise of such a major change provokes intense debate. Many young people who feel deprived of everything except basement suites and expensive studios prefer anything that seems to make more space for them. They have been joined by representatives of the nonprofit housing, YIMBY advocates and organizations ranging from the VGH and UBC Hospital Foundation to the local French-speaking association and business owners.
But the many plans for the city’s future have also generated a wave of annoyance, anxiety, and outspoken opposition among others, including former Prime Minister and Vancouver Mayor Mike Harcourt, former city planners, and various resident groups on the city’s east and west sides.
A new civic party, TEAM for a Livable Vancouver, is focused almost entirely on the issue, raising questions about how much new housing is really needed and what form it should take.
The city’s master planner agrees that the looming changes are in fact a dramatic shift—a needed change.
“This is clearly a generational change. That kind of shift started when we became one of the most unaffordable cities, after the Olympics,” said Theresa O’Donnell.
The Broadway plan, which is now being discussed in Council with a possible resolution next week, envisions adding 50,000 new residents and office space to the nearly 500 already packed blocks surrounding Broadway’s central corridor, where a subway line runs.
The Vancouver plan, which is due to be voted on sometime before the October 15 civilian election, goes further, proposing a miniature city center around Oakridge Mall and denser forms of housing on many of the high commercial streets across the city, but also Rename detached home areas as “multiplexed” areas. It plans to increase the population by 260,000 – about 70,000 more than the city saw between 1991 and 2021 – with as many as 210,000 new jobs.
All in addition to mega projects being planned in different areas of the city, from indigenous-led developments in Jericho Lands, Heatherlands, UBC and Sinaco in the West to the remaking of BC housing in Skena Terrace and a real-life REIT redevelopment For Safeway on Broadway and Commercial in the East.
If the Vancouver Plan were to be passed as proposed, it could produce the kind of neighborhoods we often see in the middle of old North American cities—a mixture of detached houses, row houses, duplexes, triplexes, and perhaps six stories and small apartment blocks.
It all represented a profound and uncomfortable change for some in Vancouver.
Tram lines in the 1920s created a housing boom and the city expanded rapidly, but that created little backlash because it was all on empty land.
Post-war Vancouver city councils, with City Manager Gerald Sutton Brown at its helm, opened the doors to a redevelopment of the West End, transforming it from a neighborhood of former mansions converted into townhouses into a mix of low-rise towers and apartments. A few taller towers were also allowed in other areas – West Point Gray, Kitsilano, and Langara – during that time.
The 1970s saw the new TEAM Council, backed by activist neighborhood groups, outlaw high-rise apartment buildings in residential neighborhoods, which are widely approved by today’s voters, if not renters. At the same time, the council introduced a new industrial land redevelopment concept for a denser central city living in South False Creek – once again, land where no one or relative would complain.
The post-Expo 1990s created a modern downtown peninsula full of apartments, with two mega projects elsewhere, as well as some new options for four-storey apartments on commercial streets.
Dan Garrison, the city’s chief housing planner, said the ideas in the Broadway plan and the Vancouver plan are now progressing because all of the easier options have been used.
He and his colleagues see it as a more practical and equitable step than in the past.
“A lot of the growth was previously in areas where low- and middle-income people lived,” Mr. Garrison said.
City planners say housing needs to go to areas already rich in parks, schools and community centers and experiencing a declining population.
“You can’t leave those quarters empty. It’s a very large part of our land base,” said Mrs. O’Donnell.
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