Opinion: Shadows loom over Vancouver's potential housing supply and developer-paid amenities

Jul 10 2024, 5:00 am

Vancouver is renowned for its stunning blend of city and nature, but we’re at a critical juncture.

City of Vancouver staff’s 105-page report recommending amendments to some of our view cone building height restrictions — a policy that has been in place since the late 1980s to protect views of the mountains — has been presented as a game-changer for housing.

It claims to unlock up to approximately 215 million sq ft of density. Yet, this promise may not hold up, as the building shadowing and floor plate policies are poised to stifle any such progress. The truth is the building shadowing and floor plate size policies are lurking in the background, ready to constrict housing and economic development.

Yes, it’s a good start — this is a positive first step. Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim and Vancouver City Council are headed in the right direction, and deserve praise for their efforts to move this forward.

However, one must question how the figure of 215 million sq ft was calculated? It’s an enormous number, equivalent to replicating The Butterfly tower, Vancouver’s third tallest building, 358 times. This is on top of what’s already approved. Even if only a fraction of the new floor area is achieved, it does still represent significant density potential, especially for housing.

This density release will also involve extractions from developers or community amenity contributions (CACs), which the City routinely charges. These CACs often manifest as public amenities such as daycares, transportation infrastructure, plazas, parks, and direct cash contributions to the municipal government that benefit the community. While the City aims to increase housing supply, it also obligates developers to provide these amenities, and these contributions and fees are not small. Therefore, this density doesn’t come free for developers.

If we consider even a fraction of the 215 million sq ft from the City staff report, it translates into billions of dollars worth of public amenities for the City — a substantial contribution from the private sector.

While CACs help ensure there are amenities and infrastructure to support population increases, it’s crucial to recognize the financial burden they place on developers.

The misconception that developers are getting density for free overlooks the substantial contributions they make through these amenities. In reality, the City’s slow and red tape laden development process and restrictive policies have driven many developers to leave Vancouver, which is a contributing factor to the severe housing shortage and lack of affordability. This approach is not only unsustainable — it’s a drain on society.

Other municipalities in the region have reaped the benefits of CACs, with Burnaby and Richmond gaining new major community and recreational facilities. Meanwhile, in Vancouver, young parents struggle to find daycare, residents wait for hours to swim at Hillcrest Centre, and many facilities are undersized or literally falling apart from age and poor maintenance. Clearly, much more needs to be done.

The same view cone report asks City Council to reaffirm no changes to building shadowing and floor plate restrictions, despite provincial and municipal pushes for bigger and taller towers. Taller buildings will cast shadows, which isn’t necessarily negative in the context of a warming climate. In contrast, Burnaby’s larger floor plates have allowed for more housing.

Contradicting the push for more housing by maintaining shadowing and floor plate restrictions makes no sense. As Mayor Ken Sim aptly put it in a previous Daily Hive Urbanized interview, “I don’t see too many people complaining about how the view is a crisis, or that a shadow during a one-hour period in three days of a year is a significant issue that can be labelled a crisis. But every single day, people bring up they can’t find housing.”

Simply put, a city in a housing crisis can’t afford to prioritize shadows over building height. 

Furthermore, bigger buildings require larger floor plate areas for efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Yet, residential buildings in Vancouver are restricted to 7,500 sq ft for the floor plate, while commercial buildings can exceed that, even reaching 20,000 sq ft. This discrepancy is nonsensical, especially when Burnaby allows 8,500 sq ft for residential floor plates. It’s no wonder they have more housing units per project.

Without lifting the shadowing and floor plate restrictions, it’s hard to believe the City of Vancouver is genuinely committed to increasing housing supply.

It’s time for Sim and City Council to step out of the shadows and make bold moves to address our housing crisis. By recognizing the significant financial contributions developers make through CACs and removing outdated policies, we can create a more sustainable, affordable Vancouver for everyone.

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