Vancouver City Council widens door for building proposals under new streamlined process

Jul 19 2021, 9:28 pm

Moving forward, any building proposal could reach the floor of Vancouver City Council for serious consideration, after policy changes were approved earlier this month on how city staff vet the intake of rezoning applications.

These changes specifically address the growing large number of pre-application enquiries on proposals that do not meet existing city policies, and are then put in a state of limbo — held back by city staff from proceeding to a formal rezoning application.

Based on city staff’s account in response to a motion by Mayor Kennedy Stewart this past spring, since 2020 they have received a total of 70 enquiries on proposals that are deemed non-compliant with city policies. This includes 16 enquiries that are not supported by city staff, six under review, and 11 that have yet to see any review.

A pre-application enquiry is an extra step a proponent voluntarily takes to seek more information and advice from city staff on what would be deemed acceptable on the bureaucratic level of decision making. Under this system, nearly all rezoning application policy reports reviewed by city council have had the support of city staff, presented as their “recommendation” to the elected body.

However, the changes now considerably widen the door for accepting applications that do not have the support of city staff, but only if the proponent wishes for this pathway for consideration.

City staff would still work with the proponent, initially determining whether it should be prioritized for review based on whether it meets one or more of the four baseline criteria of providing a public benefit and a positive impact. This is defined as creating jobs and stimulating the economy, providing city-serving amenities such as a significant community amenity contribution, providing 100% secured rental housing, or offering reconciliation and cultural redress opportunities.

City staff would then assess the proposal with additional review criteria of seven subject categories, specifically housing, jobs, cultural/social/city-serving amenities, green energy and low-emissions design, neighbourhood fabric enhancements, ecology, and municipal infrastructure.

Only independent city councillor Colleen Hardwick voted in opposition to the new approach of providing a defined pathway for non-compliant proposals.

As well, city council also approved an affordable housing amendment focusing on options such as rental, social, cooperative, and supportive housing, and owner-occupied homes for first-time buyers. There is another amendment on developments that focus on a broad range of employment opportunities, especially on fostering the green, creative and tech sectors.

“A lot of proposals are actually around commercial, office, education, and entertainment. There is a whole other realm that this addresses, and these are economic contributors in terms of creating office and educational spaces. They support local jobs,” said independent city councillor Lisa Dominato.

“If we want communities to have families and be able to live in the city, we also need to be cognizant of that in the context of this framework in that it addresses economic resilience. That’s another reason why this has a lot of merit.”

8460 Ash Street 8495 Cambie Street Ashley Mar Co-op

January 2021 artistic rendering of the Ashley Mar Co-op redevelopment into rental, social, and co-op housing towers at 8460 Ash Street and 8495 Cambie Street, right next to SkyTrain’s Marine Drive Station. (Perkins & Will/Intracorp Homes)

During the meeting, the municipal government’s new chief planner Theresa O’Donnell told city council the changes mean city staff would also now accept and consider applications that do not follow the stipulations of community plans, such as the Cambie Plan, Marpole Plan, Grandview-Woodland Plan, Northeast False Creek Plan, West End Plan, and the future Broadway Plan.

O’Donnell also suggested this would save time for developers, whereas under the previous system non-compliant proposals would simply be rejected by city staff. She says a number of these proposals are by developers who want to build rentals instead of strata housing, given that the current condominium market is still relatively weak/ However, they might not always be able to meet the inclusion policy of some moderate-income housing.

“I think it will save time for the applicant. In the past, we didn’t have a structured process like this. Those ideas would come to planning staff, and we would immediately say ‘no.’ We would say there is no policy door for you to come in, and we would not entertain those,” said O’Donnell.

“This process would at least bring the question to council if the applicant did not have a way to get in.”

She added that “there are some gems” in the enquiry list compiled by city staff, which will now be updated quarterly for city council’s eyes only. Many policies upheld by city staff, she says, are “outdated and no longer relevant in the context of the urban fabric of Vancouver today.”

O’Donnell also brought up the recent example of city staff asking the city council for permission to consider applications proposing taller buildings for more transit-oriented affordable housing density near SkyTrain’s Marine Drive Station.

622 Southwest Marine Drive Vancouver

Artistic rendering of rental and social housing proposed for the Denny’s restaurant site at 622 Southwest Marine Drive, Vancouver. (Musson Cattell Mackey Partnership/Chard Development)

This process was initially intended only for the site of the Ashley Mar Housing Cooperative redevelopment proposal of rental and social housing towers immediately west of the station. The city council later widely expanded the sites in the area that would be considered, resulting in the application submission of a major rental and social housing proposal for the nearby Denny’s restaurant site.

“We want to recognize that we do have a lot of policies on the books. Some of those are outdated, some of those conflict(s) with other policies, and some may have inherent limitations in them. So we want to recognize that there are proposals out there, some great ideas, that might depart from council policies but may warrant further consideration,” said O’Donnell.

“We hope that these projects that are delivered on the council goals are successful. We want to deliver more housing and amenities for residents of this community. It is also a healthy way to test policy and to make sure that it continues to be relevant, reflects the desire of the citizens, and that it’s current with our urban fabric and how the city has evolved over time. I think there are a lot of wins here.”

Under the new system, non-compliant applications will be ultimately decided by city council based on their merits, with city staff using the guiding principles and criteria to offer advice to proponents.

“I think the whole purpose of my initial motion was to make this whole process more transparent to council because there are a lot of projects that were mysterious, and this brings a list that we all know what’s going on in our own organization, and to expedite the democratic decision process,” said Mayor Kennedy Stewart, comparing to the process of keeping an email inbox empty. “It’s of course not staff making decisions, it’s council making decisions.”

Independent city councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung added: “This is really designed to not have some really worthy projects languish in [a] sort of an undefined period of time. They will be economic restarts from COVID, and they will support our beleaguered cultural sector.”

1075 West Georgia Street Vancouver

Artistic rendering of rental housing replacing the parkade at 1075 West Georgia Street’s rear at the corner of Dunsmuir Street and Thurlow Street. (Reliance Properties)

At least one major developer has already reacted to the changes

Reliance Properties announced today it has submitted a formal rezoning application to redevelop the narrow parkade site behind the office tower at 1075 West Georgia Street — the southeast corner of the intersection of Dunsmuir Street and Thurlow Street, immediately west of SkyTrain’s Burrard Station — into a 47-storey tower with 478 rental homes.

This includes 104 units of below-market rental housing for essential workers earning between $39,200 and $78,500. It would provide emergency responders and frontline workers making middle incomes with affordable housing, and allow them to work near their place of work.

The rental housing proposal has been in a state of limbo as the site is zoned for office use and the city has policies avoiding building more residential space within the Central Business District, especially in its very core. But the developer reasons that there is already 5.5 million sq ft of office space under development in the downtown Vancouver peninsula to fulfill future office needs, including five office buildings by the company alone that are in various phases of design and development.

“Our initial inquiry for our workforce housing project was almost two years ago and it never saw the light of day at city hall, even though it met key housing objectives,” said Jon Stovell, president and CEO of Reliance Properties. “Council’s new policy finally gives us a path forward.”

The newly approved policy changes are also expected to bring Bonnis Properties’ 800 Granville Street city block redevelopment proposal of retail, office, and entertainment uses forward to the formal application stage at some point in the future. It was previously held back in the enquiry stage by city staff.

This new approach for non-compliant applications comes after both the compilation of the limbo list of proposals and the sudden departure of Gill Kelly from the city as its chief planner in March.

800 granville street vancouver

Artistic rendering of 800 Granville Street, Vancouver. (Perkins & Will/Bonnis Properties)

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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