Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Jim Green dies following a Celebration of Life

I learned Jim Green had died yesterday morning when I heard Allen Garr talking about him in the past tense on CBC's Early Edition. I was surprised, as were most others, since although we knew Jim was terminally ill, he had just had a 'Celebration of Life' on Sunday and was expected to have months, not hours, to live.

I first met Jim over 20 years ago when he helped me negotiate a payment in lieu of building family social housing at the Bayshore Project. The payment was to be used to help fund the redevelopment of the Woodwards Building.

In subsequent years we worked together on a few initiatives including a brief look at the feasibility of converting a BC Packers Cold Storage facility in Tofino into a Granville Island style public market. (I just googled the site and see that it is now a housing development

Jim also participated in my 'one year after' event held on the first anniversary of the 2008 Municipal Election. (He said he voted for me, but I never really knew whether to believe him!)

Over the years we shared a few beers, but were never close friends. While we did occasionally agree on things, as regular listeners to Bill Good's CKNW Civic Affairs Panel well know, we tended to disagree much more. (Yes, that's a photo of Jim with fellow panelist Frances Bula above. Since Jim preferred not to smile in photos, he did me a favour by sharing a wry grin.)

Jim was a very complex guy, with an unusual fashion sense. As Gordon Price once wrote, he often wore both a belt and suspenders. He loved his hats, and seemed to enjoy dressing like a gangster! He had a love of ties, but also had the unusual habit of tucking his sweater into his pants. I don't think I've ever known anyone else who always did this!

While I often didn't agree with Jim or his tactics, there is no doubt, as Frances said on yesterday's show, Jim was a doer...he made things happen, and he deserves the many accolades and recognition he's receiving for what he tried to do in the DTES with DERA and subsequently as a member of Council and community activist.

While we will remember the good things Jim did for the city, I'll will never forget the mean-spirited Op-Ed that he wrote in the Vancouver Sun in October 2010 criticizing me for my position on the Olympic Village Social Housing. This is something I never quite understood, (especially since he had helped me eliminate the social housing at Bayshore) although one of our mutual friends did subsequently tell me he was put up to it. I now believe this was true.

(I'll never forget our first meeting at the CKNW Studio the following Tuesday morning when Bill Good asked him if he would apologize and he said no. But then, that was Jim.)

Jim, you made your mark on our city, but died much too young. But then again, you chose to live each day the way you did because you weren't planning to live to 100! The city will miss you.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Can you guess where this is?

Received this photo and an accompanying note today from my good friend, the internationally known architect John Townsend based in the UK.

"Guess where this is. Get ready to smile. Viagra's Head Office in Toronto, Canada. Seriously, it is! You can't accuse Canadians of having no sense of humor!"

I don't know if this is correct, but hey....does it really matter?

Thanks John.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

I think it's going downtown!

Some final images of Puerto Vallarta

How about a Canucks poncho?
There are more drugs available without prescriptions here than along Hastings Street!
People are so conditioned to believe a good deal is a time share come on...
Honest, this isn't a time share promotion either!
Trust me, these speed bumps are much more effective than stop signs!
Why use asphalt for a road when there are so many pebbles lying around?
Why fix a road when you can simply put up a sign and tell people it's dangerous!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Puerto Vallarta: a place for the fortunate, and less-fortunate

Many years ago I went to Israel at a time when governments were warning travellers not to go there. I always remember a sign on a jewelry store window…15% discount for brave tourists!

I have been thinking about this sign during the past week as I lounged about a Conchas Chinos beachside condominium and wandered the streets of Puerto Vallarta. This is my first visit to PV in twenty years; however, my wife has been coming here annually with two friends for the past ten. One of them liked the place so much she and her husband purchased a condominium above us and her daughter recently got married here.

As I write, the Canadian government is warning tourists about travel to Mexico. In addition to the gangland slayings that regularly occur, (an estimated 50,000 deaths over the last 5 years), there have been a couple of tragic and unusual incidents involving Canadian tourists.

Of course, anyone who knows the country knows that PV is about as far away from Mexican drug lord violence as Ambleside Village. However, this hasn’t stopped many tourists from cancelling travel plans, even to this part of the country. Sadly portions of the beach outside all-inclusive resorts were quite deserted when I recently visited. I’m also told that flights in and out of Puerto Vallarta are less than full, which was not the case in the past.

Puerto Vallarta is a city of contrasts. In recent years the old town has seen some major upgrading with an attractive new waterfront walkway known as the Malecon and wide new sidewalks along some streets. However, there are also many streets that are difficult to navigate due to uneven surfaces, high curbs, garbage and debris.

While there are many attractive hotels and resorts, there are also signs of abandoned resort developments visible along the main thoroughfares.

The buildings are also very mixed. There are many upscale shops, galleries and restaurants. However, they are often interspersed with decaying or partially renovated buildings, vacant storefronts, and scenes that one does not generally find in tourist brochures.

The neighbourhood where I am staying is just south of the town centre. Conchas Chinos is generally regarded as an upscale area with many expensive hillside villas and condominiums overlooking the ocean. While the condominium market has been in the doldrums over the past few years, due in large part from the disappearance of American buyers, a surprising number of new projects are underway. Prices range from under $100,000 for a new studio to well over $1million for penthouse suites. A good quality, two bedroom, two bathroom condominium apartment in a well maintained older building will be in the mid $300’s.

North of the old town is Nuevo Vallarta, in the neighbouring state of Nayarit. A master planned resort community, now being branded as Riviera Nayarit, it includes a number of large all-inclusive resorts, hotels, condominiums, timeshares, marinas and golf courses. I was surprised to learn that one of the larger new community developments, Paradise Village, has a Vancouver connection. It was started by Graziano Sovernigo, a Canadian-Italian developer from West Vancouver who according to the Paradise Village website has spent the past 22 years developing resorts in Mexico.

It's an impressive development, with a number of new projects underway. Sadly, the one thing it is missing is 'a village centre'. Instead, it has an enclosed mall with too many vacancies.

Since I had never heard of Sovernigo, I Googled him and was interested to discover his involvement with a charitable undertaking known as Families at the Dump.

For many years, visitors to the area were increasingly aware that there were families living amongst the garbage in the city dump. A partnership was formed between Sovernigo and concerned community residents which has led to the provision of support services and other community amenities for these people.

More details about this initiative can be found here:

For those of you who are wondering whether it is safe to come to Puerto Vallarta and similar resort areas in Mexico, I would say most definitely. While at first I was 'on my guard', I quickly realized this is a reasonably safe place to be. However, if, as reported in this week's PV News someone tells you there is a ketchup stain on your shirt and pants, don't let them take you into the washroom to clean you off...because what they really want to do is take your wallet and clean you out!

But of course, this could happen almost everywhere...except perhaps Ambleside Village!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Is there significant 'unused zoning capacity' in Vancouver?

This week, Vancouver City Councillor Adriane Carr proposed a motion that the city look at its 'unused zoning capacity'. Some might argue she did this because she has been told that thousands of new multi-family housing units could be built all over the city, especially along the commercial arterial roads, without the need for disruptive rezonings.

Frances Bula reported on this on her blog, and I couldn't resist writing some comments since I remember quite vividly a similar conversation a few decades ago. Since the motion has passed, I thought I might set out some of my comments, with a few modifications.

I have mixed feelings about Cllr Carr’s motion. On one hand, it will hopefully demonstrate that there is a paucity of sites on the West Side of Vancouver that could be redeveloped with townhouses or stacked townhouses, without a rezoning. There are also very few such sites on the East Side as well. I look forward to the results.

The motion may also demonstrate that there are not many sites where one can build new low rise condominium or rental housing, without demolishing existing units. Unlike Puerto Vallarta, from where I write, we just don’t have vacant zoned land awaiting redevelopment.

I am concerned about the C1 and C2 results, however.

I mention the C1 and C2 sites since a couple of decades ago, a City planning report did identify that there was ‘capacity’ for thousands of new apartments in the city along the arterials. Therefore, there wasn’t the same pressure to rezone. However..... while there is a ‘statistical capacity’, when one examines these properties more closely one realizes they are not really redevelopment sites waiting to happen.

So what I am hoping is that Cllr Carr and many others will learn that there is a real need in our city to significantly increase the amount of zoned land that can be developed with more affordable types of rental and ownership housing. This will require rezoning.

However, I don’t think developers should be expected to come forward with rezoning applications… by one by one….as we have seen along Oak Street. I want to see the City take the lead and rezone land as part of a comprehensive planning process.

Now, as for the question of how do we finance the resulting new growth….I am not so naive as to suggest that it should only be funded by the public sector. I know that it is necessary for developers to make some payments, since this is how the city and developers oftentime ‘bribe’ the neighbourhoods to accept new proposals.

However, I would like to see these payments pre-determined, like Development Cost Charges, rather than negotiated on a project by project basis, taking into account ‘land lift’.

I also think its time to stop and reconsider just how much these developer payments (or extractions, as one of the city's prominent lawyers likes to call them) are adding to the cost of housing. While some like to think the payments are really just reducing how much the developer pays for the land, this isn’t usually the case. The costs are passed on…which means a purchaser has to find more money for the downpayment, and an increased mortgage.

It wasn’t always this way….you know. Decades ago, municipalities borrowed monies to fund new infrastructure, and repaid the loans from local improvement levies and property taxes. In other parts of North America, this is still the norm.

These are important questions to be addressed by the Housing Task Force. Just how much do CAC’s and DCC’s add to the cost of housing? Should the city reconsider how it rezones land and finances growth, when considering the affordability lense?

Many of us actively rezoning and developing land know the answers to these questions. Now we look forward to Cllr Carr and other members of Council learning the answers too!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Goodbye HST, hello GST…again!

I was pleased to read that Kevin Falcon will be announcing HST/GST transition rules tomorrow. Below is an article published in a recent issue of BC Homes Magazine sharing some personal reflections on the introduction of the GST, and the need for a thoughtful phasing out of the HST.

Goodbye HST, hello GST…again!

By Michael Geller

When the voters of British Columbia recently rejected the HST in favour of the GST, I was reminded of some little known events from twenty years ago related to the introduction of the then much hated GST.

The Goods and Services Tax was introduced on January 1, 1991. I remember it well since I was President of the Urban Development Institute of Canada (UDI) in the period leading up to its inception. Canada’s homebuilding industry was very concerned about the impact of the pending GST on new development, since the tax was initially proposed at 9%. Once it became apparent that the federal government was determined to bring it in, the Board of UDI Canada proposed what I considered at the time to be a ridiculous idea. To ensure that GST would not deter purchasers of new homes, UDI Canada proposed that it apply not only to new homes, but all resale homes as well!

Moreover, if the GST applied to all housing, the rate could be reduced from 9% to 7%.

As President, I presented this idea to Don Blenkarn’s House of Commons Finance Committee. And when his committee’s findings were released, I was astounded to learn that Blenkarn, whose Mississauga riding was home to much new development, agreed with the UDI recommendations, and announced that the GST would therefore be reduced to 7%.

The Canadian Real Estate Association, representing realtors across Canada, was outraged. It publicly chastised UDI, and I privately agreed with every one of its concerns. Eventually, the government sided with the realtors, and GST applied only to new construction. However, a rebate program was put in place to minimize the impact on new homes. Somewhat coincidentally, the 7% figure remained, until subsequently reduced to 5%.

Eighteen years later, when the BC government announced the HST program, the local development community was again alarmed, since instead of a 5% tax, many new homes would be subject to a 12% tax. Although a rebate program would be put in place for some units, a new $1 million dollar home would be charged an additional $120,000. Not to mention the additional Property Purchase Tax.

For this reason, BC homebuilders watched the outcome of the HST referendum with great interest. While many, including myself, genuinely believed those economists who argued that the harmonized tax was good for the economy, we could not help but be pleased with the prospect of a 5%, rather than 12% tax.

Now that the tax is to be repealed, with a proposed date of March 31, 2013, what we do not know is what will happen to projects now under construction, or about to get under construction. Will HST apply, or will GST apply. Does it make a difference if units completed after March 2013 are pre-sold now? I am personally caught in this predicament since I am about to commence construction this fall on a small project in West Vancouver, with completion scheduled for Christmas 2012.

Unfortunately, neither UDI nor CHBA have received any answers from the Minister of Finance. So I posed these questions to Kelly Lohn, of Lohn Caulder, a highly respected firm of Chartered Accountants whose practice includes many real estate developers.

Not wanting to speculate on what the government will do, Kelly did wisely point out that when the government introduced the HST there was a somewhat complex ‘phasing in period’. He therefore thought it was reasonable to assume that there might be a similar phasing out period for the HST. Otherwise, Kelly agreed with me that there could be turmoil in the homebuilding industry if a $1 million dollar house or apartment attracted $120,000 tax one day and $50,000 tax the following day (subject to certain deductions).

As I write this article, representatives of UDI and the Canadian Homebuilders’ Association are trying to get some clarification from the Provincial Government as to what rules will apply, especially for new housing under construction and likely to be sold with or without pre-sales over the coming twelve to eighteen months. In my opinion, if there is not a carefully designed transition period, the reintroduction of the GST could be even more disruptive and harmful for both homebuilders and purchasers than the initial imposition twenty years ago.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Mayor's Housing Affordability Task Force

Yesterday the Mayor announced the composition of the Task Force he and Olga Illich will co-chair to explore how the City can address housing affordability. Below is the announcement and the names of the people who have been appointed. I am pleased to have been asked to chair a separate Working Group on how the form and design of new housing affects affordability, which will liaise with the Task Force.

As readers of this blog are well aware, this is one of the aspects of housing affordability that most interests me. As I mentioned to Bill Good this morning before our CKNW Civic Affairs Panel discussion, there are forms of housing being built in Richmond and Surrey that are not being built in Vancouver because of how Vancouver's Zoning Bylaws measure density, especially when it comes to above grade parking.

Similarly, there are forms of housing being built in Surrey, Coquitlam and Langley, such as' Fee Simple' row houses that could be more affordable than condominium row houses over time; however, Vancouver's Law Department would like to see the province make changes to the Land Title legislation, in order to ensure that the necessary party wall agreements can run with the land, without the city incurring future liabilities.

In Calgary, townhouses are being built with legal secondary suites (see image above). Why aren't we building them here? We should be, and could be with some simple changes to our zoning bylaws.

I now plan to seek input from Vancouver architects, engineers and contractors to identify other City zoning requirements and regulations that are unecessarily adding to the cost of housing. I would welcome input from readers of this blog and others who have ideas related to building design and construction that might help reduce the cost of housing. In the meanwhile, here's the Mayor's Press Release:

Mayor Robertson announces members of Housing Affordability Task Force
06 Feb, 2012
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Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson announced the members of the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability today, having assembled a diverse team of industry and community leaders with expertise ranging from non-market housing and sustainable urban planning to finance and real-estate development.

“The members of the Housing Affordability Task Force bring a broad and diverse array of experience, leadership, and vision to our work on the pressing challenge of affordability,” says Mayor Robertson. “Vancouver must be a city where our children can afford to live and raise their families. This is not a simple challenge but it is one that we have to address – and I believe this Task Force has the ideas and expertise to provide new affordability solutions for Vancouver.”

Co-chaired by Mayor Robertson and Olga Ilich, a former BC cabinet minister with extensive experience in the real estate sector, the Task Force is set to identify ways the City of Vancouver can better protect existing affordable housing, as well as to enable and create new affordable housing stock in Vancouver.

The Task Force’s members include:

Alan Boniface Principal, DIALOG & Urban Land Institute BC Chair
Nathan Edelson Senior Partner, 42 Street Consulting
Leonard George Director, Economic Development, Tsleil-Waututh Nation
Marg Gordon CEO, BC Apartment Owners & Managers Association
Mark Guslits Architect, Principal, Mark Guslits & Associates Inc.
Colleen Hardwick Founder and CEO, New City Ventures
Howard Johnson CEO, Baptist Housing
Kenneth Kwan Chair, Building Committee, SUCCESS
Michael Lewis Executive Director, Canadian Centre for Community Renewal
Eric Martin VP, Bosa Development Corp.
Karen O’Shannacery Executive Director, Lookout Society
Al Poettcker President & CEO, UBC Properties Trust
Peter Simpson President & CEO, Greater Vancouver Home Builders Association
Bradford Tone President, Tone Management

As well, there will also be a separate working group working with the Task Force on how the form and design of new housing affects affordability, led by local architect and planner Michael Geller.

“To address a challenge as complex as affordable housing, we need a team that is representative of all of the stakeholders in Vancouver’s housing industry,” said Task Force Co-Chair Olga Ilich. “The members of our Task Force bring a variety of perspectives and backgrounds, which is essential if we are to address the challenge of Vancouver’s affordability crisis.”

The creation of a Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability was the first order of business for Mayor Robertson at the start of his second term of office.

The Committee will provide an interim report by March 12, 2012. To ensure the greatest amount of input from citizens, the interim report will seek public input March through to May. A final report will be completed by June 30, 2012 or earlier.

To view the motion that created the Housing Affordability Task Force, click

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Shared Equity: another affordable housing idea in today's Province Newspaper

Shared-equity plan an option for city

Ideas on how housing affordability issue can be tackled could be taken from other Canadian cities

Homebuyers with moderate to low incomes in other Canadian cities are getting a mortgage booster through shared-equity programs that proponents see as one solution to the housing affordability problem in B.C.

Shared equity offers cash-strapped buyers a chance to buy into the market in exchange for a future share of equity they can normally expect to earn in a rising market, participants at the Housing Affordability Symposium in Richmond heard on Friday.

But attempts by a non-profit model successful in Toronto for almost 20 years have yet to work in B.C.

In Calgary, however, those earning between $53,000 and $80,000 can apply to the city-run Attainable Housing Calgary Corp. for a free down payment, said spokeswoman Tara Cooney.

Homebuyers who qualify for a mortgage and have a $2,000 down payment would receive, in one example, a five-per-cent down payment of $11,000 as a forgivable loan for a $220,000 home in an Attainable Housing complex, leaving them with a $207,000 mortgage.

When they sell, they would forfeit one-quarter to three-quarters of any earned equity to Attainable Homes, said Cooney.

For instance, if they sold after four years and the home rose to $254,700, the couple would keep 75 per cent of the $45,700 equity, or $34,275.

The remaining 25 per cent of the equity would remain with Attainable Homes, which uses it to fund down payments for other homebuyers.

Options for Homes, a non-profit in Toronto, offers shared equity under a complicated formula that prevents speculation and provides even those living below the poverty line a chance to own a unit in their housing co-operatives with no down payment, president Mike Labbe told the conference.

"It's using the problems of housing affordability to solve the problem of housing affordability," he said in an interview with The Province.

Options has since 1994 built nine developments in Ontario and has three more in the works, some in trendy downtown Toronto areas.

Some 75 per cent of the suites are bought by people with enough money to afford a regular mortgage, while 15 per cent is reserved for the working poor and another 10 per cent goes to those below the poverty line.

It reduces construction costs, mostly by slashing traditional high marketing costs and cutting costly features such as pools or saunas, making high-end finishes optional and by negotiating for cheaper land or other deferred developer construction costs from the municipality.

The non-profit corporation in essence subsidizes the down payment for the low-income buyers and it is only repayable when they sell. That repayment in theory will be paid for by the equity built up over the years, considering the market rises in value.

"There is some risk," said Labbe. But he said shared equity is a good way to turn renters into owners, freeing up rentals for others.

"Seventy-five per cent of people who buy into our developments used to be renters," he said.

Labbe said the model could work here but needs to be spearheaded locally by someone with knowledge of housing development. He said one local gave up after five years because he was unable to secure the land for a development. A second attempt is in the works.

University of B.C. business professor Tsur Sommerville challenged Labbe for boasting his model doesn't receive government subsidies when its success relies on below-market land and deferral of development costs.

Vancouver urban planner Michael Geller said the "concept of shared equity definitely has a place in Vancouver" and can be as simple as a relative or friend agreeing to lend a down payment or portion of the house price for a percentage of the eventual gain, a kind of "silent second mortgage."

Geller said Verdant, at Simon Fraser University's UniverCity, offered nofrills lower-cost housing to faculty and staff with the proviso they sell only to other staff and at 20 per cent below market value at the time of the sale.

He suggested Vancouver could offer the North False Creek land for a shared-equity community.

He acknowledged there are risks if owners are forced to sell during a market downturn.

"But that's the same risk with any form of home ownership," he said.

And, he said, if the programs are city-run, such as in Calgary and in Saskatoon, cities have to guard against favouritism in the selection process.

Shared equity was included in a list of 17 suggestions he presented to the conference to increase housing affordability in Metro Vancouver, most based on the solution of building "smaller houses on smaller lots."

More than half the 150 participants raised their hands when asked if they grew up sharing one bathroom. None could remember the last time they saw a single-family home with one bathroom.

"Our families are getting smaller and we're building bigger houses," said Geller.

And more expensive ones. He said homebuyers have to be prepared to lower expectations and cut costs by living without granite countertops, fireplaces, frameless shower doors, double paved driveways and other costly fixtures.

His solutions and those of most speakers at the two-day symposium included calls for higher density neighbourhoods, including more row housing, semi-detached houses, secondary suites, suites within suites and laneway houses, to name a few.

Even in Surrey, where community planning manager Don Luymes said there exists relatively affordable housing and plenty of land on which to build, the city was turning from a car-dependent low-density model to prevent a problem of a lack of affordability in future.


Would you consider giving up a future share of equity for help with a down payment on a home?

Comment online at theprovince. com or email us at provletters@

Include your name and address.

Read more:

Saturday, February 4, 2012

CHBABC Housing Affordability Symposium

I spent Thursday afternoon and Friday at a symposium organized by the Canadian Home Builders of BC that was designed to identify actions that the public, private and non-profit sectors could undertake to improve housing affordability in different regions of the province. This was the second event of its kind, and a very good publication and various presentations from the first event are on line. More information can be found here: check out the 'Resources' link for some excellent background documents.

This year's program was moderated by Gwyn Symmons of CitySpaces who is very accomplished and kept the program moving. A variety of speakers from different parts of Canada participated including Bob Ransford who tried to debunk some of the myths surrounding affordable housing; representatives of Saskatoon and Calgary who described what their cities are doing on public land; the senior planner from Langford BC which is doing some very remarkable things; and Michel Labbe who developed the very innovative Options for Homes program in Toronto....a form of shared equity ownership which is reaching some remarkably low income people.

I have to say I was very impressed with many of the speakers and ideas presented. As I tweeted out on a couple of occasions, many of the housing innovations I would like to see happen in the City of Vancouver are already happening in places like Langford and Vernon and Surrey...yes Surrey!

I made a joint presentation with Tsur Somerville of UBC. Tsur is an academic, but a very bright academic and his comments during my presentation added considerably to what I had to say. While I don't have a recorded version, here is my presentation which was based on the 12 affordable housing ideas I presented in my recent Christmas Card, followed by 5 other ideas that were too complex for the card, but most important.

A couple of final comments. A number of politicians gave very good presentations. Rich Coleman was particularly effective with his forthright comments about his government's efforts and his concerns with what has been happening at the municipal level around the province. He expressed frustration with municipalities that ignore their Official Community Plans and bow to NIMBY pressures.

Mayor Richard Stewart of Coquitlam, who was active in the homebuilding industry prior to politics, also spoke about his frustrations with NIMBY attitudes and political reluctance to support measures to create affordable housing; and Geoff Meggs, who I have often labelled the brightest member of Vancouver City Council gave an excellent overview of what his city has been doing, and plans to do.

Sadly, and I hate to be too critical, not one member of Vancouver's housing department was in attendance. This is tragic, since the Vancouver Housing Dept is charged with some very significant responsibiilities over the next three years, and the key people have limited local experience and exposure to what is happening in the region and around the province. They would have gained immensely from the symposium.

I should note that new Councillor Adriane Carr attended for a portion of Friday's program.

I'm also disappointed with the media. Other than Susan Lazaruk of the Province and some CHBA media people, I am not aware of any other media in attendance. This too is most unfortunate since many of the ideas presented need to be more widely shared.

Here's my powerpoint presentation

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Brent Toderian: Director of Planning 2006 to 2012

My father was fond of saying that we judge people by what they say and do, but expect others to judge us by our motives.

I thought of this when I awoke yesterday morning to a news story by Frances Bula that Vancouver City Council was terminating 'without cause' its contract with Brent Toderian. While I was surprised, I was not shocked since I had heard a rumour a week earlier that this might happen. Nonetheless, in a city that celebrates urban planning and its planners, this was a big story and I was invited into the CBC studio, along with Frances Bula, to speculate on the reasons behind his firing (and yes, it was a firing) and what might be next .

It was not surprising that Frances broke the story since she is well connected to the Vancouver political, real estate and planning scene. Coincidentally, a few years ago she wrote a comprehensive profile of Brent in Vancouver Magazine It is well worth re-reading. Frances contacted me when doing the story and wrote the following:

A few people will talk, cautiously (about Toderian). “He’s achieved a lot in a relatively short time. He’s a bright young man, but he’s starting to generate discontent with his personal style,” says Michael Geller, an innovative development consultant who has, to his surprise, ended up in public arguments with Toderian.

Yesterday I speculated that some of the qualities that helped Brent be 'annointed' by Larry Beasley, and subsequently appointed to this key national position at the young age of 36, contributed to his demise. He was bright, strong-willed and opinionated. A very good talker, he was not always as good a listener. As Frances noted, he upset many developers, but he also upset community leaders. At the same time, he was always a hard-working,very committed, principled person who lived and breathed planning seven days a week.

Yesterday some people were suggesting Brent was fired because he didn't do what the developers wanted, while others speculated he was fired because he did do what the developers wanted!

The Mayor stated his contract was being terminated on the advice of the City Manager. The Mayor complimented Brent for his accomplishments but noted that he didn't fit-in with the direction the city wanted to go with respect to affordable housing...few people I spoke with understood what this meant but no doubt we'll learn more.

From knowing Brent over six years, and speaking to people who worked in City Hall, there was no doubt in my mind, (and that of Jeff Lee, who covers City Hall for the Vancouver Sun and who coincidentally filled in for Frances Bula on yesterday's CKNW Civic Affairs Panel) that a key factor in his demise was his challenging relationships with senior city officials, and especially the City Manager. Those who know Penny Ballem well suggested that it was inevitable that she and Brent would part ways.

Some people are mourning Brent's departure. I received a note from a young architect who worried that Brent's departure means the developers are getting their way in the city and there will be no one to stand up to them. While I do not agree with this, there is no doubt many developers will be happy to try their luck with a new Director of Planning.

I know that Brent is proud of a number of his accomplishments over the past six years. While he did not initiate EcoDensity, he and his staff made it real. Similarly, he oversaw the implementation of the Laneway Housing Program. While Andrea Reimer and I both questioned why we were rezoning tens of thousands of single family lots to undertake a 100 unit trial program, Brent was determined to make this a permanent program by formally changing single family zones to allow the trial program to proceed. He may well have been right.

Brent was proud of the work undertaken with respect to the preservation and addition to its View Corridors. Again, I did not agree with the approach of assessing views from fixed points, rather than a more 'dynamic' assessment, but many others applauded the work.

Brent was proud of the work his department did along the Cambie Corridor. Again, I was not as infatuated as he was with the potential proliferation of predominantly mid rise buildings all the way from King Edward to Marine Drive. However, there is no doubt that his vision has led to many real estate transactions along the street and significant changes are coming.

One thing that bothered Brent was an oftentimes repeated quote attributed to him by Frances Bula that being Director of Planning is not a popularity contest. He felt that this implied that he didn't try to reach out to different groups. While at the beginning his relationships with the development community were limited, in more recent years, he appeared regularly at UDI luncheons and other industry and professional events.

What I think he meant is that a lot of planning decisions are unpopular, and developers will often be upset with planning decisions, as will community groups. Planning is not a popularity contest... its more important to do the right thing than the popular thing.

With this, I am in total agreement with Brent. Otherwise, we will not see the implementation of the EcoDensity ideas, including transformation of single family properties into new housing forms, new arterial development, and a broader array of affordable housing choices.

There is much more that could be written about Brent's time as Director of Planning...and I hope it will be...but for now, I just want to conclude by wishing him well in future endeavours and thank him for his principled approach to planning and the many good things he did accomplish. And like a good wine, I suspect he'll get better as he gets older!

Ned Jacobs' Response to my Little Mountain Post

Ned Jacobs, a Riley Park 'community activist' who has been interested in community planning since his mother Jane pushed him around their New York neighbourhood in a stroller, has responded to my last post on Little Mountain. Here are his comments. The article includes photos (to come).

I cannot respond to these comments at this time. However, I would refer readers to a story by Jeff Lee in the Vancouver Sun which provides some very interesting background to both my comments and Mr. Jacobs' response. It can be found here:

I think the following is most noteworthy:

(Minister Rich) Coleman doesn't have Holborn's money in the bank yet, other than a reported $20-million down payment. Nor will he say what the final price is. But in an unusual move he convinced the provincial Treasury Board to advance him $150 million against the sale so he can begin construction on 14 social housing sites Vancouver made available in other areas of the city. Holborn must pay the entire amount when the site receives rezoning approval. At that time the terms of the sale will become public

One final observation. Both Jeff Lee of the Vancouver Sun and Ned Jacobs refer to City Planner Brent Toderian's involvement in the planning for this site. Yesterday, it was announced that Brent is being dismissed from his position 'without cause'. I will write about this later, but there is no doubt that Brent's immediate departure will have some bearing on the timing and outcome of the Little Mountain planning process. I just don't know what.

From Ned Jacobs

Ned Jacobs’ response to Michael Geller’s Density Part 3: Little Mountain: a Challenging Situation.


Your informative and thoughtful commentaries on Little Mountain redevelopment are much appreciated by me and others in the Riley Park/South Cambie community. I know they will be of interest to City planning staff as well. Holborn Properties and their design consultants (e.g. James Cheng) would be wise to consider these points; clearly their current proposal needs major revisions that will necessitate reductions in height and density before it can be supported by the Community Advisory Group or planning staff.

Until recently, I thought that a gross FSR of about 2.2 might be acceptable in terms of performance. But as we have examined the particularities of the site and its surroundings, especially in regard to Queen Elizabeth Park, a public asset of regional as well as local importance, it has become increasingly clear that the heights—up to 14 storeys—and densities—about 2.8 gross FSR—that Holborn is seeking are not supportable without significantly lowering Vancouver’s standards for livability and urban design. You are quite right that there are not “many planners and architects who would argue in favour of net densities much in excess of 2.0 FSR for this site…”

In fact, the obstacles are even greater than you think. For example, the proposal you helped develop in 2007 for Polygon Homes “included buildings up to 10 storeys in height along the westerly portion of the site.” You were quite right in limiting heights to a maximum of about 10 storeys, for several reasons, not the least of which is that rooflines above that would significantly intrude into Queen Elizabeth Park’s unique view corridors, whose broad vistas to the southeast (overlooking the Little Mountain site) include Mount Baker and the northern Cascade Range as well as Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery, Burnaby’s Metrotown, and the Coast Mountains far up the Fraser Valley.

Sunrise from Queen Elizabeth Park over the Little Mountain Housing site

Holborn originally proposed buildings as high as 19 storeys; City staff will not support heights above 12 storeys because of view considerations, and also (in regard to the mountain itself), because they “would challenge its scale, and be more visible in the public view from the top of the mountain.”

What you didn’t realize at the time is that 10 storey buildings along the westerly portion of the site would be ruled out by the Advisory Group and planning staff because of severe shadowing of the eastern edge of the park, especially the sidewalk that runs uninterrupted on the east side of the Ontario Street Greenway bikeway between 33rd and 37th Avenues. During morning hours, and especially on nice weekends, this is used by walkers, joggers, parents with strollers (heading for the Hillcrest Centre) and dog owners (off to the off-leash area). The traffic calming makes it especially pleasant; I have frequently seen people stop along this stretch and chat with neighbours. At 8:30 a.m. on a weekday if it were not for all the cyclists streaking by on their way to work you wouldn’t think that it was rush hour.

I should make it clear that I am not faulting you for overlooking this conflict. When you studied the site in 2007, no doubt looking for development opportunities and obstacles, that sidewalk did not exist. It had been identified years earlier in a Parks Board planning process as a key piece of missing infrastructure, but was only installed a couple of years ago. Without such pertinent information, you and the other protagonists (including Holborn) were out on a limb groping in the dark.

Shadow study, Equinox, 10 a.m. Q.E. Park is on the left

While the Holborn plan does not include buildings as tall as 10 storeys along Ontario Street, the shadowing is problematic. The staff critique notes: “At 10:00 a.m. shadows from taller buildings extend far into the flat north east area of the park and the area around the duck pond. At this time there is not much sun on the Ontario Greenway bikeway.”

This area includes parts of the Disc Golf Course, a popular recreational facility of citywide importance, used from early morning until dusk, especially in sunny weather. Heights that would result in significant shadowing of the Ontario Greenway and Queen Elizabeth Park after about 7:30 a.m. should therefore not be contemplated. I don’t know how much density would be forfeited by reducing building heights on the western and central parts of the site to minimize shadowing of the park, but it would be considerable, to say the least.

The staff critique also points to unacceptable shadowing of other parts of the site, including the “very important” “’Green Wedge’ and 35th Avenue Open Space”; the “Public Square”; the “New Street”; and “neighbouring properties” on the south side of the lane. Moreover, “There are places in the plan where taller building faces are very close and would compromise livability of units. There is limited sunlight in private courtyard areas.”

Staff also echo concerns raised by the Advisory Group and the general public regarding transitions of scale to the 4.8 acre single-family area immediately adjacent to the northeast boundary of the L-shaped site. “The height of buildings along this edge should be reduced to make a better transition to the adjacent area. A six storey form along the new street that steps down to four storeys along the lane would create a more effective transition. Some height above six storeys may be supportable if the adjacent area redevelops.” How that area might be redeveloped is another issue of concern. Four to six storey apartment buildings are not supported under the Community Vision, nor will they provide the housing types that are most needed (such as row houses and multiplexes). The Vision document explains that “most future demand is from mature households who typically prefer ‘ground oriented’ units…”

There are more than 80 mature trees on the site. An arborist report identified about 50 of these as suitable for preservation. Besides providing important environmental services, mature trees greatly enhance the beauty and livability of a development from the moment it is occupied. The overall site plan was predicated on preserving these trees. They are seen as the most tangible “memory” of the Little Mountain complex, which for more than half a century contributed greatly to our neighbourhood’s social capital. Staff point out that “preservation of mature trees is key” and warn: “there are places where buildings are shown very close to the trees. The trees will likely need more room to survive and thrive.”

The Advisory Group has been so focused on these and other deficiencies that we haven’t yet given much attention to the buildings on Main Street. I tend to agree with you that 8 storeys are probably not suitable here. Five to six storeys with meaningful stepbacks might be acceptable; it depends in part on building length and depth. There is a just-completed five storey building on the west side of Main (# 3333) that spans the entire block between 17th and 18th Avenues. Despite being situated at a wide part of Main Street with a pocket park, and faced in white tile, many feel that it is too monolithic and overwhelms the surrounding area.

The very high densities that Holborn is seeking at Little Mountain cannot be supported for other reasons. Early on it became clear that allowing automotive traffic to access the site from the Ontario Street and 37th Avenue Greenways is a non-starter. The result is a site plan with good permeability in regard to pedestrians and cyclists, but only two access points for motor vehicles –off Main Street and off 33rd Avenue. Even with reduced parking and a hoped-for reduction in car use, the Holborn proposal would probably mean at least an additional 1000 cars (not counting visitors), with significant impacts at peak times. With only two automotive access points for a development that would be greater in density than any 15-acre area within the City of Vancouver, one can expect major tie-ups (if not gridlock) on both of these arterials. This could significantly lengthen trip times on the heavily used Main Street “Showcase” trolley route. The planning team has also confirmed that the site is too far from rapid transit or a major employment area to justify these densities.

Where do we go from here? Clearly Holborn’s proposal for a Development Framework (DF), also known as a Policy Plan, is not ready to go to City Council for consideration; and without major reductions in building height, placement and overall density, it will never be ready. Yet it appears that at this point Holborn is only prepared to make relatively small adjustments. That is in part why a planning process that was expected to produce a DF in about a year is going on 27 months.

The other bone of contention that continues to drag out this saga is who will pay for the 234 units of replacement social housing and/or the public amenities? Holborn and BC Housing say that (according to their secret deal) replacing the housing is the developer’s obligation. The City says the Memorandum of Understanding makes it clear that BC Housing is responsible. Holborn insists that because they must replace the housing, they are only prepared to pay Community Amenity Contributions (CAC) on what could turn out to be a very small “land lift.” Back in June, James Cheng handed us a memo, the gist of which was that in order for the community to get our long-promised Neighbourhood House (ca $10 million), a 69-place daycare centre (ca $9 million) and a couple million for park improvements, they would require a gross density from 3 to 3.5 FSR!

Essentially, what this means is that if the DF were to stipulate a gross density of 2.2 to 2.5 (which, as you say, “there are not many architects and planners who would argue in favour of”) there would be no additional amenities to serve the neighbourhood’s vastly increased population. The City says “No dice.” If City taxpayers have to cover the cost of amenities, which would normally be provided as a condition of rezoning, then Vancouver is in effect subsidizing the social housing—the province’s responsibility. Where this is leading is anyone’s guess.

There is also a considerable difference of opinion between what Holborn’s young CEO, Joo Kim Tiah, and planning staff are saying in regard to the development timeline. Tiah insists that he expects his proposal to be approved by City Council in “a month or two,” followed by a “fast-tracked” rezoning, with construction starting in early 2013 (if the market permits). But senior planner Ben Johnson, who heads up the Little Mountain Planning Team, suggests otherwise. He thinks that completing the DF and a staff report much before the middle of the year is unrealistic, and based on the immense amount of detail that would remain to be worked out he anticipates an 18-month rezoning/development approval process. He explained to members of the Advisory Group that if Holborn and City staff cannot come together on the DF, staff may have to go to Council and ask for further directions—so who knows?

If the staff estimates are correct (with Brent Toderian out of the picture all bets are off), then ground can’t be broken for the first phase before late 2013, which means that 2016 is the earliest that some of the displaced tenants can hope to get back to Little Mountain. When they were pressured into accepting relocation in 2007 they were told by BC Housing officials that they could expect to return in 2010. Realtors anticipate the condos will sell for about $600 a square foot on the global market. There will be 10 additional social housing units, but the apartments will be 5% smaller than the ones that were demolished. Even so, they will be more spacious than most of the condos. Perhaps that fact will serve as a social “leveler.” Perhaps not.

The ultimate absurdity is that Housing Minister Rich Coleman refuses to admit that his housing strategy is flawed. It appears that, the Little Mountain redevelopment will continue to serve as the “model” for replacing aging social housing stock throughout BC. What neighbourhood will be next? And Riley Park residents don’t expect that chain link fence to come down for at least another decade.

Note: the Little Mountain Planning Open House materials quoted above can be seen at: