Dan Fumano: Is it time for Vancouver to reconsider how housing is approved?

Opinion: The Vancouver City Council has run out of time this term to make a major housing decision. Will the next council consider changes to the public hearing requirements?

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After a decision on a major transit-oriented housing proposal was delayed this week, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said he was “extremely disappointed” and wouldn’t be surprised if larger decisions are also postponed.

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When asked about scrapping the housing proposal this week, one of the factors Stewart mentioned is an ongoing topic of debate in several BC municipalities: the idea of ​​tweaking the system by which council considers and decides on many real estate developments.

A public hearing is scheduled for this week for the years-in-the-works proposal to redevelop Safeway property on East Broadway and Commercial Drive into three tall towers, including 438 rental homes, 215 condominiums, a grocery store, offices and malls. space, above one of BC’s busiest transit hubs. But the hearing has been pulled from the calendar and the city’s website says it is “postponed until further notice.”

The hearing was pulled, the city council said, “due to the volume of rezoning requests pending for council consideration and limited available meeting time before the summer break” and “will be rescheduled toward the end of the year.”

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A rezoning is the process through which a property owner requests to build something different than what is allowed under the existing zoning, which usually means larger buildings. Much of Vancouver’s housing, especially rentals, comes through rezonings, which involve a public hearing and a yes-or-no decision by the council.

Some are large, complex and controversial projects, like the redevelopment of the East Broadway Safeway. But rezonings and public hearings are also required for many smaller projects. Last year, after the council spent six days listening to the public and finally approved a six-story, 29-unit rental building with a below-market component on West 4th Avenue, some observers questioned whether that was the best use. of everyone’s time.

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Even when uncontested projects face no opposition, the rezoning process is time-consuming for staff, council, and the proponent.

“There’s a tradition of public input here in Vancouver, and I wouldn’t want that to go away,” Stewart told reporters at City Hall this week. “But are there ways through which we can speed up the process and achieve that balance? I think there are adjustments that can be made.”

Stewart did not elaborate on those “adjustments.” But a recent poll suggests a majority of British Columbians support removing public hearing requirements for cooperative and non-profit developments.

A province-wide survey conducted last month by Research Co. and commissioned by some of BC’s largest nonprofit housing associations found that 66 percent of respondents support delegating approval decisions to municipal staff to cooperative and non-profit housing that are consistent with the official community. plans

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Nonprofit housing providers say this would be a game changer, allowing them to build more affordable housing faster and cheaper.

But not everyone likes the idea. Some argue that public hearings are a crucial piece of local democracy.

Last year, the Vancouver council approved charter amendments that remove rezoning requirements for not-for-profit social housing developments up to six stories in some mid-rise apartment zones. At the time, Bill Tieleman, a longtime lobbyist and political strategist, publicly opposed the proposal, calling it “undemocratic.”

Tieleman, who earlier this year announced that he will run for Vancouver council with TEAM, told Postmedia News last year: “I don’t care if it’s rental housing, social housing, condos, whatever. I think people have the right to say, ‘I don’t think this fits in our neighborhood.’

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Earlier this year, the Victoria City Council unanimously passed a motion allowing some affordable housing projects to skip rezonings and public hearings, and a city press release declared it “the first city council in BC to approve an expedited citywide process for rating affordable housing projects. ”

Last year, the BC government introduced legislative changes that allowed municipalities to eliminate public hearing requirements on projects consistent with official community plans, in order to speed up housing approvals.

Since that legislation passed, the city of North Vancouver and the Okanagan-Similkameen Regional District have implemented measures to delegate certain development decisions to staff, the province’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs said this week. Ministry staff are also aware of the Kelowna, Surrey, Kamloops and Colwood proceedings or are considering proceeding without public hearings in certain situations.

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But the new provincial legislation does not apply to Vancouver, which is governed by the Vancouver Charter.

Vancouver’s plan, which is being considered by the council this month, could potentially lead to a citywide land-use development plan, similar to Vancouver’s version of an official community plan. But that decision is not now before the council; if the council approves the Vancouver plan this month, or whenever they make a decision, that would signal staff to begin the next phase of more detailed work, and they will report back, to the next council after this year’s elections, on the next steps .

Some recent local commentary has suggested that if the council approves Vancouver’s plan this month, it could, in a matter of months, eliminate public hearings on rezoning and development.

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But Vancouver’s chief planner, Theresa O’Donnell, questions that, saying this week: “It is patently untrue that public hearings on rezoning will be scrapped in the coming months. Approval of the Vancouver plan does not eliminate the requirement for public hearings.”

If and when a future Vancouver council considers removing public hearing requirements for certain types of real estate decisions, which seems to be a possibility, if the next council or some other future council wants to follow it, we can expect to see a lot of debate for and in against such a move.

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