A Planner Spills The Beans

For over a year and a half many of us have been aware, from leaks inside the Vancouver Planning Department, that the plethora of towers presented at Commercial & Broadway in the “Emerging Directions” document did not represent the views of the local planners.  Rather the towers were inserted into the Plan on the orders of higher management at the City.

It has been juicy gossip, but without a smoking gun.

But now, Scott Hein, Senior Urban Designer at the time of the GW Plan has gone public with devastating revelations concerning upper management interference in rubbishing a “best practices” plan and insisting on multiple towers.

We put together what we believed was a reasoned overall plan for GW towards increased residential and employment opportunity. We fully appreciated the development economics of the Safeway site at B+C that, given active revenue generating impacts on the pro forma, related phasing considerations, noise impacts and view opportunity up and down “the cut” and believed that two modest towers in the range of 20 to 25 storeys maximum located on the easterly half of the site could be considered to make the Safeway site developable and, more importantly, improve the challenging interface conditions (all four sides) of Safeway while pedestrianizing the Commercial Drive frontage by integrating those shallow depth properties into a larger development opportunity. We imagined a series of related, modestly scaled low and mid rise buildings in this scenerio.


Otherwise, we believed that the appropriate approach to intensifying an already relatively high density community, of what must be seen as “special urban fabric”, was in transitional mid to low rise form.


We absolutely did not support towers outside the focused “Safeway Precinct”.


We were instructed to put this plan (in our view based on thoughtful urban design best practice) in the drawer never to see the light of day. We were then “told” by senior management to prepare a maximum tower scheme which we produced under protest as we declared we did not support such an uninformed approach for the GW neighbourhood.


Our next plan yielded 20 towers which was advanced to the decision makers (I cannot confirm who saw this plan). We were then told to produce a third plan which cut the towers in half down to 10. We prepared this third plan, also under protest, which was taken out to the community. The public process imploded soon thereafter.


Our work in the city’s Urban Design Studio for over 10 years was always about best practice and integrity of process. We always believed that meaningful, honourable co-design processes could yield win-win if conducted properly. We were never given this opportunity in GW.


The story about the third plan ties in nicely with the information circulated earlier this month by an insider who approached Ned Jacobs.  That insider described a meeting in which Mayor Robertson suggested ameliorating some of the excess towers — but still keeping at least half of them.

People have questioned us time and time again about why we question the very process that this Plan is working under.  It is because it always subject to political interference.

As every municipal party — with the exception of Vision — agreed at a recent meeting, the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan needs to be halted right away and discussions started with active bodies in Grandview as to how we need to proceed.

Citizens’ Assembly: Questions & Answers

Last week, OCOP was sent a series of questions from the Citizens’ Assembly.  After a lively and collaborative discussion within the group, OCOP responded this morning as follows:

Q1: What does OCOP suggest as an alternative / transparent formula or process to define ‘affordable’ housing? How would that formula / process keep pace with cost of living, inflation, and be resistant to political tampering and continual redefinition by gentrifying neighbourhoods?

OCOP adheres to the CHMC definition of affordability that a maximum of 30% of income should be required for housing/shelter costs. This formula insulates the definition from inflation. We also suggest that this formula be included in the Vancouver Charter which would prevent governments, such as the current City Council majority, from abandoning the CHMC definition.

 Q2: OCOP was telling people at the CA [during a previous presentation] that there doesn’t need to be a new Grandview-Woodland plan…. Without one, how would Grandview-Woodland halt erosion of affordability in housing as limited housing gets produced for/rented by those with the highest incomes?

After participating in good faith, we have lost confidence in the City’s Grandview Woodland plan. The sudden appearance on the land use plan of multiple high-rise towers has made us suspicious of the entire process. We are concerned that it has become politicized and heavily influenced by the interests of big developers.

OCOP believes that the existing Grandview Plan, adopted in 1980 at a time when Grandview was failing as a neighbourhood, has produced the Grandview that we all love and cherish. OCOP believes this Plan, in essence, continues to work. We believe that future planning needs only to build on the successful Plan already in place.

At an all-candidates’ meeting on 15th October, every municipal party running in the present election – with the single exception of Vision — agreed that the proposed GW Plan should either be scrapped or paused for more consultation over the process. Further, at an all-candidates’ meeting in Grandview on 30th October all parties – including Vision – agreed that high-rise towers were inappropriate for Grandview Woodland. As Vision Councillor Andrea Reimer put it “we know they won’t fly in this neighbourhood.”

Finally, we want to recognize that the area of the GW Plan sited south of Broadway is already included in the KCC Community Vision Plan of 1998. We believe that area should be excluded from the GW Plan and be allowed to develop in line with the KCC Visions Plan, thus respecting the hard work already done by that community, and already approved by City Council.

 Q3: Does OCOP believe the population of Vancouver (and/or Grandview Woodlands) should be capped somehow, and internal migration restricted? If GW doesn’t absorb a reasonable share of the projected population increases in the next few decades, would GW not be contributing indirectly to urban sprawl?

OCOP does not believe in capping population or internal migration (even if such a bizarre suggestion could be implemented, which we doubt). This neighbourhood has always been welcoming to people from around the world.

OCOP is not concerned about more new residents. But we reject the imposition of increased density from above. We also oppose the displacement of existing residents, who won’t be able to afford the neighbourhood that would result from the GW Plan.

According to the City’s own figures, Grandview Woodland is already more densely populated than about 70% of Vancouver.

After more than two years of asking, the City has still not provided density or population projections either for the City generally or the Grandview-Woodland neighbourhood. Such projections when given should include detailed analysis of how the numbers were computed, and explain how that density is to be distributed with some reasonable equity across the City. We encourage the CA to investigate this lack of data.

 Q4: OCOP / Jak King reports that at the CA meeting Oct 4, James Roy, senior policy analyst at BC Non-Profit Housing Association and Thom Armstrong, ED of the Co-op Housing Federation of BC, spoke “from the housing industry view”. What perspectives/topics should they have discussed that they didn’t? Who would OCOP nominate as better equipped (and likely willing) to discuss these issues and possible solutions with the assembly?

While OCOP believes it was interesting and important to hear the industry perspective, the CA has not yet heard from a non-industry-linked house owner, or renter, or local co-op member. OCOP encourages the CA to hear from more independent residents to get a neighbourhood perspective on these issues.

Q5: How do other cities create incentives for owners of aging rental apartment buildings to retrofit and renovate without displacing existing renters?

This is an important question, especially for the areas of Grandview that contain most of our rental housing. The Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods and OCOP are currently investigating what has worked in other jurisdictions. We encourage the CA to conduct their own reviews of other cities’ plans in this regard.

Q6:   OCOP has been very critical of the CA’s barriers to participation. How does OCOP itself surmount barriers to participation by marginalized groups…. for how many languages does it provide interpretation so that a wider range of people [beyond the usual activists who typically participate in multiple organizations and can afford to devote many hours per week] can participate in its meetings? Does it offer free food, subsidies for transportation, child care, elder care? How does it schedule its meetings so that a majority of people can attend?

OCOP has always made its meetings and discussions open to all residents of the neighbourhood. Our meetings are regularly scheduled for Tuesday evenings at a central and accessible community centre. Our group represents a cross-section of the neighbourhood: including indigenous people, people with disabilities, renters, homeowners, elders, youth and those with English as a second language.

OCOP is an unfunded volunteer organization without the resources available to government institutions and therefore we, like virtually every other such group, have no ability to supply services such as the questioner describes. However, we note that we formally requested a portion of the Community Plan budget so that such services and others could be provided, and our request was declined.

We also note that translation services are not currently being offered for CA sessions and we encourage CA members to continue to request that this be put in place for all future meetings.

 Q7: OCOP refers to better neighbourhood planning processes in http://coalitionvan.org/files/CVN-Principles-and-Goals-Apr7_2014.pdf…. Can OCOP cite any such processes that adequately included ethnically/culturally/socioeconomically diverse groups and marginalized citizens? How was that achieved in those cases? Have these produced legally binding plans?

OCOP confirms its adherence to the Principles & Goals for Collaborative Neighbourhood-based Planning in the City of Vancouver” document of the Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods. We note that the document calls for 100% household surveys or, to put it another way, we call for complete inclusivity in the process, quite unlike the current Plan exercise. The document is based largely on the City Plan process that directed planning in Vancouver until the early 2000s. A number of neighbourhood plans have been implemented through the City Plan and Community Visions process that was an extension of City Plan. We encourage the CA to specifically investigate the success of City Plan.

Society Act Changes

As previously posted, OCOP has supported a letter written to the Province regarding concerns about proposed changes to the BC Society Act.  The following story from News1130 discusses some of our concerns:

Local organizations fear they will be more vulnerable to frivolous lawsuits, if the province goes ahead with changes to the law governing non-profits. They believe the effort to make non-profits more accountable goes too far.  At issue is a proposed new clause in the Society Act that says any appropriate person can make an application to the courts on the grounds that the society is carrying on activities that are detrimental to the public interest.


Jak King with the Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods [and OCOP] believes organizations like his, which have opposed certain developments, could become the target of lawsuits launched by the affected developers. “It would become a real barrier for us to continue our protest against the development, because we are a neighbourhood organization with no resources and completely run by volunteers.”


King’s colleague on the coalition, Larry Benge, takes it one step further. “Maybe it threatens the future of that society, because it would go bankrupt trying to defend itself.”


The coalition says while transparency is important in a non-profit, over-regulation of small grassroots organizations can be very harmful. More than two dozen B.C. societies have expressed similar sentiments.  A letter penned by the West Coast Environmental Law says the legislation “invites harassment of societies by any deep-pocketed and litigious opponents.”

Stop BC Housing Privatizations

OCOP has signed on to a letter sent by the Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods to BC Minister Rich Coleman regarding the proposed privatization — and potential redevelopment — of BC Housing supportive housing projects in Vancouver.  The full text of the letter is below:

Dear Minister Coleman,

RE: Neighbourhood Engagement in Planning and Development

The Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods is a consortium of 25 Vancouver Residents’ Associations representing residents across the city. As a coalition, our purpose is to ensure that planning and development in our neighbourhoods happens within specific guidelines that focus on meaningful consultation, public engagement and collaborative planning.

We are writing to express serious concern with your proposed plan to offer significant public lands and housing throughout the City of Vancouver for sale and potential redevelopment without any prior discussion with impacted neighbourhoods. There is a tendering process currently underway for the first two such properties. Therefore our concerns are immediate and urgent.

It is our position that there is no need for haste in selling off BC Housing operated land. On the contrary, there are many reasons to undertake a thorough collaborative planning process with residents and the communities in question, with a focus on local preferences for land ownership and development. We believe that this must happen prior to any decision any one of BC Housing’s holdings.

We are alarmed by the speed of this drastic change in policy. While it is understandable that nonprofit housing societies would want to purchase rather than lease the lands on which they operate, it is unclear whether or how the public, or the neighbourhoods, or indeed residents of the housing will benefit from such a change in ownership.

Local input is critical to ensure that these properties continue to meet their goals. As such, any plans for use which will bind BC Housing’s ability to deliver services must, in our view, incorporate such input. The tender must be halted to ensure the future viability of these properties.

On behalf of the many Vancouver residents we represent we ask that you terminate the current tender, and suspend the policy to allow for a full and open public discussion of the merits and efficacy of undertaking such a change. As taxpayers and residents we share ownership of the properties in question which your government manages on our behalf. We wish to have sufficient time and information to allow for fulsome consultation and collaboration on the future of these public lands.

The Coalition’s Statement of Principles and Goals outlines more completely what collaborative planning entails. We attach a copy for your reference.

We need to keep these lands in public ownership or – even better — find some creative way to transform this into a resident-owned and managed situation.

Besides that, there was no consultation in this case with the residents or Ray-Cam which currently helps manage the properties. Residents of Grandview need to be particularly concerned because McLean Park will no doubt be the next target.  This needs to be stopped.

Grandview’s Successful History of Activisim


The communities of Grandview and Strathcona both provide students for Grandview’s Britannia Secondary School and have a long history of successful student activism, citizen activism and political activism.

This independent spirit has persisted to the present and in Grandview there are now 19 housing co-ops, more than anywhere in British Columbia, as well as a woodworker co-op, a glass co-op and a car co-op.  The REACH community health centre was created in 1969, and the East End Food Co-op started in 1975 and is now Vancouver’s oldest food co-op. Commercial Drive’s CCEC Credit Union received its charter in 1975 while the Peoples Co-op Bookstore, founded in 1945, moved to Grandview in 1982. Commercial Drive in particular is also known for still having many small, locally based businesses and very few chain stores

When freeways were cutting swathes of destruction through North American neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s, local citizen activism blocked their advance through Strathcona and Grandview. As a result today Vancouver is famous for this unique lack of freeways, and people from all over happily remark on this unusual feature of the city.

The 1968 citizen uprising against the destruction of dozens of city blocks in Strathcona under the name of “urban renewal” lead to the formation of the first citizen committee allowed to have equal power with government in planning and decision-making. These activists were successful in stopping all such federally funded plans across Canada. Instead of funding to demolish homes, new funding was provided to help fix them up.

After their work in Strathcona many of these young local activists went on to have successful careers in politics. Mike Harcourt, later became a city councilor, the mayor of Vancouver, an MLA and then premier of British Columbia. SFU student and activist Shirley Chan later served as Harcourt’s executive assistant and chief of staff. Margaret Mitchell later became Member of Parliament for Vancouver East.

Some of the Britannia students that were involved in the movement to stop the destruction of homes in Stathcona and Grandview moved on to working on the creation of the successful Britannia Community Centre in 1976, the largest multiplex of its time in North America. One of the student activists, Enzo Guerrero later became the Executive Director of the Britannia Centre.

Activist Tom Durrie is known today for his recent work in saving the York Theatre on Commercial Drive. In 1967 Durrie, a teacher and an activist, became the head of the New School, a progressive new version of a high school on Commercial Drive at 15th Avenue. This was one of the first alternative schools in British Columbia and its example influenced new programs in the regular school system.

Durrie later was part of the Free University established in 1969 on Venables Street that provided free classes for 3,000 students. After the university closed in 1974, activists established the Vancouver East Cultural Centre (the CULTCH) in the same old church building on Venables at Victoria Drive.

In 1971 the Militant Mothers of Raymur blocked railway tracks to get an overpass built. Their children’s school was across the street but the children were forced to cross railway tracks to get there.

It was two graduates of Grandview’s Britannia High School, both MLAs for Vancouver East, that produced North America’s first socialist government in 1973. Bob Williams, a Britannia graduate in1950 and Dave Barrett, a Britannia graduate in 1948, formed the core of the new government, producing numerous popular legislative initiatives such as the Agricultural Land Reserve and the Insurance Corporation of BC (ICBC). As a city councilor in 1965 Britannia grad Bob Williams successfully fought the proposed freeway extension of the new Georgia Viaduct through Strathcona and Grandview.

The first president of the Grandview Ratepayers Association was Harry Rankin. He served from 1952 to 1956, and then became the president of the Grandview Community Centre Association. In 1966 he became a popular progressive Vancouver city councilor and served until 1993, usually topping the polls. During this period Libby Davies, one of the founders of the Downtown Eastside Residents Association (DERA) was an activist city councilor, and today she is the Member of Parliament for Vancouver East.

In 1989 local activists successfully blocked the construction of a high-rise building at Broadway and Commercial Drive with the cooperation of local progressive city councilors Libby Davies and Harry Rankin.

Vancouver is divided into 21 local areas, but only Grandview has a citizens’ meeting every month as a local area council, the Grandview Woodland Area Council. Grandview even has its own community-based planning group, Our Community Our Plan, which meets every Tuesday at the Britannia Centre.


Bruce Macdonald    08 August 2014

We Like Commercial Drive the Way It is

We Like Commercial Drive the Way It Is


One thing that makes Commercial Drive an interesting and desirable place is the unique make up of the area. Consider the people in the census tract that forms the heart of Commercial Drive, the area between 1st Avenue and Venables, between Clark Drive and Nanaimo Street. The 2006 census showed this area to be almost 70% rented dwellings, compared to 35% of the dwellings in Greater Vancouver. The people living there tend to be younger, with almost twice as many in their late 20s (13%, compared to 7% in Greater Vancouver), living in one person households (47%, compared to 28% in Greater Vancouver) and almost 5 times as many of them are employed in the visual and performing arts, communications and the humanities (10%, compared to 2% in Greater Vancouver). These young, artistic people, many of them single and renters, help to create the uniqueness and the appeal of Commercial Drive.


Last summer a special meeting of the Grandview Woodland Local Area Council on the planning process in Grandview was attended by hundreds of people. The speaker that got the largest response from the audience was Garth Mullins. Garth passionately spoke about the destruction of the Grandview he loves through increasing land values, higher rents and the city’s plan to introduce significant new density:



“For me I can see allowing no further density without there being social justice involved in that density. The city is undergoing a process of social cleansing right now. My generation, my cohort, is being moved out of this community now… People I know, people I loved for a long time are moving to other places, they can’t afford it… Right now you have gentrification going on… Someone like me I might have dreamed of getting married at Astorino’s and taking my kids…  to the Little Nest…  and maybe they can’t ever live here. Well, I don’t want that… We already have that social mix of poor and middle class…  of everybody the city aspires to elsewhere. We already have a sustainable community with a good balance of cultures and heritage… This is the model—don’t come here to fix it, export it to other places!


 [heavy applause]


Before I was born the city fathers said let’s not have giant flyways and freeways going through the city. They fought that. Every other big city in North America has them and hates them. In a few years people are going to realize packing themselves into giant glass and chrome towers in the sky is the same thing, and they’re going to hate them too. So don’t fall for the trend… We’ve seen the model, it does not work… the social housing never materializes,  so before any more density, let’s see social justice.”


One important observation that Jane Jacobs made was that communities that retain some of their older buildings assist in providing relatively inexpensive rents. New buildings and those using concrete construction are expensive to build and any new rentals are going to be expensive. This radically changes the neighbourhood, especially if less expensive older buildings with individual debt-free landlords are torn down and replaced by new buildings with large mortgages and professional landlords.


The plan currently proposed by the city, besides introducing more towers to the area, leaves untouched the area east of Commercial Drive that is zoned for duplexes. The new duplex units are going for about $700,000 for 1,200 square feet each, that’s $1.4 million for a 2, 400 square foot building on a normal lot.  But if an older house with 3 or 4 rental units is torn down to do this, the impact on the environment and the neighbourhood is significant. While the rents may double, the number of people housed on the site can be halved.


In the 1950s the city allowed owners in Grandview to convert their houses into 3, 4, 5, or even 6 legal suites called Multiple Conversions. Many of the older homes had basements and attics as well as two floors in between. Some houses were allowed to add 15 feet to the back of the house, enough room to expand the suites on each floor or add bachelor suites.  These Multiple Conversion houses provided a range of rental suites at a range of prices, from large 3-bedroom garden suites at the ground level, to 1 or 2 bedroom main floor and upstairs suites, to bachelor suites in the attic with a view. Allowing these homes a special heritage designation, with a heritage home building code would ensure relatively lower costs to create these new very ecologically green suites.


After two or three decades owners often have their mortgages paid off and are be less concerned about rent increases and high rents. In some cases tenants have been known to care for an aging owner in return for reduced rent, or for negotiating eventual ownership of the house.


These types of creative solutions to our local housing problems should be investigated and facilitated by the city. They can make an important contribution to retaining what makes Grandview such a desirable area, and to avoiding some of the things that might radically alter the neighbourhood we love to live in.



Bruce Macdonald