Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Eco Density fight continues

with 9 comments

A Group of Vancouver Neighbourhoods is continuing to oppose the proposals for EcoDensity® . The third draft goes to Council on June 10 and a letter writing campaign is being ogranised to set out the concerns of the citizens and members of this alliance of neighbourhood groups.

The text that follows is the suggestion of material that the Mayor and Council need to consider. I think many people will probably be tempted to cut and paste, but of course if the recipients start to notice that the communications are all the same that will probably reduce the impact a bot. Much better for citizens to use their own words I think, but I do recognize that takes time and effort. Which, of course, is exactly why more personal communications work better.

And, for what it is worth, I find these arguments compelling – especially the bit about public input. It seems to me to be a very risky strategy to upset a lot of people just before an election.

We support the letter from Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver (NSV) dated May 28, 2008.

Please post this letter to the City’s website for public access as soon as you receive it, as per Council direction at the meeting of April 15, 2008.

The previous six main concerns remain:  EcoDensity is not required for the ‘eco’ part, EcoDensity is not required for the ‘density’ part, EcoDensity is not required for implementation, concerns about density bonusing, advantages of reusing existing buildings for increased density; and protection of rentals.  The third draft fails to address these concerns and in many cases, increases our concerns because of new language in the draft.  We especially emphasize our third concern (EcoDensity is not required for implementation) because of new language that undermines the work of CityPlan Community Visions and residents associations.

1.  EcoDensity is not required for the ‘eco’ part.

The Community Climate Change Action Plan can handle the ‘eco’ part .  In 2005 Council passed the Community Climate Change Action Plan (CCCAP), which covered all aspects of environmental sustainability including smart growth through implementation of CityPlan Community Visions for more compact neighbourhoods.  The Community Climate Change Action Plan needs the City to put more resources into implementation, not to waste more time on EcoDensity.

2.  EcoDensity is not required for the ‘density’ part.

The third draft contains misleading density projections.  EcoDensity continues to create an illusion of scarcity of density which is simply not true.  Based on the City’s own estimates, there is easily enough existing zoning capacity for well into the next few decades.

3.  EcoDensity is not required for implementation.

CityPlan Community Visions and local area plans are how smart growth have been planned through a neighbourhood grassroots process of consultation and implementation, which should be respected by the City.  New language in the third draft undermines this community consultation and implementation.

4.  Concerns about density bonusing.

The role of density bonusing, and how this is being managed, is of continuing concern.  The third draft still facilitates governments to use density to fund an ever widening list of under-funded programs.

5.  Advantages of reusing existing buildings for increased density.

There needs to be more explicit action to craft zoning so that additional infill and secondary suites are used as an incentive to retain and upgrade existing character buildings.  In areas like the Downtown Eastside and Heritage Districts, zoning needs to be used more creatively to make retention of the existing buildings the highest and best economic use.  This means outright zoning heights must be lower than the existing building heights.  We note that ‘Action 12 – Increased building height and density in Gastown, Hastings, and Chinatown Districts’ in the second draft has been changed to ‘Action B-1 – Historic Precinct Height Study’ which continues to promote increased height and density in these areas.  Therefore, we continue to oppose this action which will undermine heritage retention and put increased pressure on land values that make affordable housing options less viable and increase evictions.

6.  Protection of rentals.

We are pleased that the third draft acknowledges that existing purpose-built rental buildings are more affordable than new and need to be retained.  But there are no actions to protect these buildings from redevelopment.  Recent development applications show that the Rate of Change Policy is not adequate when affordable market rental older buildings are redeveloped with less affordable new rental units at a rate less than 1 to 1 replacement and developers are given 50% density bonuses to do it.  Replacement should be required at no less than a 1 to 1 rate, (based on equivalent sized units) and not bonused.  The Rate of Change Policy should be improved, expanded and extended indefinitely. There should also be tax incentives for owners to upgrade and maintain the existing purpose-built rental stock.

New Concerns in the third draft:

The previous concerns raised by NSV remain, and new wording raises fresh concerns about the rights of neighbourhoods to be involved in shaping their future and includes significant proposed changes to zoning and land use policy which we do not support.  The third draft:

  • proposes an Interim EcoDensity Rezoning Policy that would allow direct implementation of housing types that Visions had labeled ‘Not Approved (Uncertain)’ because they had relatively small neighbourhood support (Action C-2 of the draft Initial Actions),
  • allows the creation of ‘a new city-wide plan, that builds on … the many Community Visions’ and would ‘build on existing density and population potential under existing policy and zoning’ (Action C-1), but ‘build on’ seems to mean ‘take as a starting point’, allowing Visions and local area plans to be overridden,
  • defines consultation as including ‘future or un-represented voices’ (Part VII. a. of the draft Charter) that could be used to override the actual voices of the existing community, and
  • allows Visions and local area plans to be overridden (‘consciously reconsidered’) by Council ‘after appropriate process and consultation’ (Part VIII. c. of the draft Charter), based on a flawed consultation process (see above).

After three unacceptable drafts, we request that Council withdraw the entire EcoDensity Charter and Initial Actions. The City should simply move ahead and implement the Community Climate Change Action Plan, CityPlan Community Visions and local area plans which are already well thought-out, supported by the individual neighbourhoods and Council-approved.

This draft of the Charter raises new concerns about community consultation and land use policy, and fails to adequately address our previous concerns, we also request that Council allow citizens to directly address the Council meeting when this latest draft is brought to Council for consideration. In a democracy, the community deserves the right to directly address Council about such concerns at a public hearing.

Further, since there is no provision or process at all for the incorporation of the public’s comments on the third draft, we are concerned that Council intends to ignore the public’s comments.

We demand a more democratic process that allows the public to speak when the third draft comes back to Council for consideration, and a process for revision of the third draft to incorporate the public’s concerns.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 3, 2008 at 12:07 pm

Posted in Urban Planning

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9 Responses

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  1. A few comments.

    My 15 years in two municipal governments has shown me that signed petitions definitely go on the permanent public record, and that form letters result more in an annoying flurry of paper that will be recycled after counting. Sam does not deal with the paper volume … staff does. A petition with hundreds of signatures is powerful and makes politicians notice — at least at the local level. So are professional surveys that are filled out during public meetings or on line, and tabulated afterwards. That information is gold and really helps form or alter policy.

    The untold story may well pertain to professional staff at Vancouver city hall telling the mayor (politely, of course) that his EcoDensity public consultation and planning process sucks, and that the ground was already covered with City Plan. The mayor likely then ordered staff to make it work, thus the multiple drafts and multiple extensions to the deadlines. Stuff has a tendency to leak too, so try as he might, Sam can’t stop every whisper into Alan Garr’s (Courier reporter’s) ear by PO’d staff.

    Item 2, “EcoDensity continues to create an illusion of scarcity of density which is simply not true. Based on the City’s own estimates, there is easily enough existing zoning capacity for WELL INTO THE NEXT FEW DECADES.”

    I adamantly disagree with that statement. Item 2 did not arise from long term thinking. Seventy percent of the land in Vancouver is zoned single family. There is no other land available, unless they fill in the ocean. Moreover, much of that land contains large lots by Vancouver standards (i.e. they exceed 33’x122′). Item 2 reads more like NIMBYs in Kerrisdale protecting their unaffordable property paradigm. Try building a tram line on the Arbutus corridor (with associated increases in density) or implementing innovative ideas like laneway cottages or small backyard coach houses with that crowd.

    The Tyee recently carried a very informative series on climate change ( ) that spells out the currently underestimated potential for Richmond and other low-lying communities to be innundated by the annual freshet on the Fraser, and eventually by rising seas. There is an increasing call to address local adaptation to the effects of climate change, and that would include building higher dikes around low-lying communities. One thing the articles do not mention is the possibility that sea water can travel vertically as well as horizontally, and there is the potential for flood waters to rise from the earth under hydrostatic pressure WITHOUT a breach in the dikes.

    Feeling a little uncomfortable with that, Stephen? I would too seeing that Richmond is currently one metre below sea level at high tide. I’d offer to reserve you a piece of my Vancouver backyard (which is 72 metres above sea level), but because the lot was subdivided into a half-lot in 1910, it’s only 13 feet deep.

    The lot predates the zoning bylaw by 42 years, making it legally non-conforming. But it’s also a big solution to accommodating growth, including climate refugees from Richmond and Delta. Vancouver’s single family lots have to be perceived as a land bank, and I would also throw in about ten or fifteen percent of the road system too. And arterials currently with transit — especially trolleys — should be densified as well.

    The letter also has “concerns” about the density bonus system currently being used buy Vancouver (and many other cities I might add). They said these bonuses are being used to fund public services or programs, implying that said programs should be funded by taxpayers. This is not true. Density bonuses are IN ADDITION to tax-funded programs and amenities and would not occur without resources from the private sector development community, or a big tax raise. Many heritage buildings have received extremely expensive seismic upgrading as part of their preservation plans, something not possiible without density bonuses. There are an untold number of contributions to the arts and public parks throughout the Lower Mainland from density bonuses.

    Though I found the above items way off base in the piece, an understandable over-reaction to Sam’s policies, I do agree with almost everything else in the critique.

    Arthur Erickson said build for the current population, but plan for 10 million. I couldn’t agree more given the challenges we face in the coming decades.


    June 3, 2008 at 3:23 pm

  2. Just an off-the-cuff thought – property owners are – in effect – insulated from the “true” value of their properties by the homeowners’ grant and the constant increasing of the threshold to which the grant applies. If property owners are so entrenched with retaining single family districts, then they should be obligated to bear the full taxation burden of that low density, rather than being insulated or subsidized by the rest of the population – i.e. reduce or eliminate the homeowners grant threshold instead of artificially supporting an unsustainably low density.

    Ron C.

    June 3, 2008 at 4:54 pm

  3. I think part of the problem is that the City measures density by FSR (floor-space ratio) as opposed to dwelling units or even population.


    June 3, 2008 at 5:45 pm

  4. I agree with extending the home owner’s grant to benefit innovative new housing types that increase overall density. I think there should also be an energy grant to assist / stimulate greater energy efficiency and reduce emissions.

    But I prefer politics of possibilities (carrot) over the politics of limits (stick) approach.

    It’s true, FAR needs to be more flexible when calculated for smaller lots. Technically, my neighbourhood, though filled with half (or even one third) lots and double the per area population, is treated like any other standard single-family district with repect to zoning. That’s patently unfair.


    June 4, 2008 at 10:11 am

  5. If we are going to talk about misleading things, how about the name of this group and your writing in this post? If I registered “” and issued a press release, would you have written ‘The majority of right thinking people in Vancouver (does whatever I say)’? I’m sure you are old enough to remember the ‘moral majority’ who actually turned out to be neither of those things.

    As I pointed out the last time you mentioned these guys, they are completely self appointed and at least in my neighbourhood (which they claim to represent) are invisible. You are completely within your rights to agree with their statements, but please don’t try to present this as grassroots resistance when it is astroturfing at it’s finest.

    Mark Allerton

    June 4, 2008 at 1:27 pm

  6. No, it’s not “astroturfing” at all. That is when a corporation or political party pretends to be a grass roots group. This is a group of Vancouver citizens representing a large number of neighbourhood groups. Now the level of participation in these groups is always going to be a small number of activists – and not everyone in that neighbourhood will necessarily agree with everything they say. And there will be some neighbourhood associations I have no doubt who prefer not to be included in this alliance. But to to call them “astroturf” you will have to provide some evidence that a corporation or a political party is organising it.

    Why do you not tackle the issues they raise and merely cast aspersions on their motivation? Or are you against more citizen participation and consultation which is one of the things they are asking for?

    And nowhere does anyone claim that this is a “majority” – that is a word you introduced – not me and not them.

    Stephen Rees

    June 4, 2008 at 2:04 pm

  7. It seems to me that an organization calling themselves “a group of neighbourhoods” is claiming to represent the views of the majority of people in those neighbourhoods. How else should that be interpreted?

    I’ll concede that ‘astroturfing’ commonly means what you’ve said – but fake grass is still fake grass. Maybe ‘spin’ is a better word.

    Mark Allerton

    June 4, 2008 at 3:59 pm

  8. […] To see it, go here. To read about the local fight for and against EcoDensity, go here or […]

  9. By the way, AstoTurf, or more accurately it’s former parent company (Southwest Recreation), went belly up. Up to then they were the leading artificial turf seller in North America, but good sales obviously do not buoy bad corporate decisions that lead to huge debts.


    June 6, 2008 at 2:51 pm

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