Friday, August 5, 2016

Opinion: News of proposed plaza redevelopment lost among tax announcements Vancouver Courier August 4, 2016

Below is this week's column followed by correspondence with the City leading up to the story.

Last week was a memorable week in Vancouver. Three important things happened.

Two have been highly publicized: the announcement of a 15 per cent tax on residential real estate purchases by foreigners effective Aug. 2 and a provincial legislative change to allow the City of Vancouver to tax vacant properties.

 While there is no doubt foreign buyers have been having a significant impact on Vancouver’s real estate market, I have always had mixed feelings about the benefits of imposing special taxes to address the problem. This is because, as Milton Friedman once said, the government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem.

Two years ago I wrote about London, England’s experience with restrictions on foreign buyers and potential lessons for Vancouver. While I believe the government was wise to start taxing capital gains, we may never know the full impact of these taxes given the normal cyclical nature of real estate markets.

I am particularly troubled by the way the Vancouver tax was imposed. I am also intrigued by possible legal challenges on the basis that it violates NAFTA, and Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of, among other things, national origin.
Now as for the tax on vacant homes, this is a politically astute initiative by both the province and the city.

It allows Mayor Gregor Robertson to demonstrate he is trying to address what many see as the social injustice of thousands of vacant homes at a time of a severe shortage of rental housing.
The province can be seen as cooperating with the city to address the housing crisis, even though provincial officials, along with many other government officials and real estate experts, question the probable effectiveness of the tax.

The third important event that happened last week has nothing to do with housing. It has to do with how we plan our downtown.
While most people have no idea, this open space/plaza at Hastings and Seymour is about to be filled in with a 25 storey 20+FSR office building. It's wrong, but too late to do anything about it. But maybe we can still do something about Howe and Georgia.
The story started with a call from CBC’s Early Edition inviting me to comment on a proposal to replace a glass rotunda and plaza with a new commercial development. I assumed we were talking about the corner of Seymour and Hastings streets where a small, domed public plaza, created in the mid-’80s as part of a rezoning, was being redeveloped with a 20-plus storey office building.
But I was wrong.

The researcher wanted to talk about the plaza and rotunda at Howe and Georgia streets, part of Cadillac Fairview’s Pacific Centre, for which a proposal was going to the city’s Urban Design Panel (UDP) later in the week.

I was embarrassed to tell her I didn’t know anything about this proposal, but suggested she speak to Ray Spaxman, the former director of planning who might know something. As it happened, he didn’t know anything about it either.

 (Editor Note: While Ray was very familiar with the history of the property, and spoke knowingly on CBC, he too was unaware a proposal had been prepared for this important site.)
I subsequently attended the UDP meeting where I was shocked to see plans and a model for a three-storey retail complex on the plaza. However, I was told the proposal was in accordance with a 2006 rezoning.
Model of proposed building looking east along Georgia Street from Howe Street.
When I subsequently asked why a proposal for such a prominent site was proceeding without any community input, I was told by an official city spokesperson that this was standard procedure for a development permit application in accordance with zoning, and staff would be seeking public feedback through the neighbourhood notification process. Surprised by this response I decided to review the 2006 rezoning decision myself.
Excerpt from 2006 rezoning which allows a new retail development to replace the plaza and rotunda
While it confirmed council had approved a deal to allow the plaza to be redeveloped in return for a developer contribution towards the cost of the nearby SkyTrain station, council also decided “in the preparation of a development application, the public should be consulted about proposed land use and design concepts, through workshops and open houses.”

Compared to most world cities, Vancouver has few public open spaces and plazas, and sadly we seem to be losing many of the spaces we do have.
Before we lose another plaza at Howe and Georgia, I urge the mayor, council and the city’s planning department to instigate a proper public consultation process to find a better solution to retain all, or at least a portion of this important downtown open space.
I hope Courier readers will join me in this endeavour.
- See more at:

Postscript: In advance of writing this column, I wrote to the city to seek clarification on the planning process. I subsequently sent a follow up email. Below is this correspondence received from the city and follow up correspondence.

Hi Michael,

As promised, here’s a statement from the City on your questions:

1.       Why was no material regarding the proposal for 701 W Georgia Street included in the Urban Design Panel agenda (illustrations, details of proposal, etc.), when all other items were?

Images or drawings from applications are not displayed in Urban Design Panel (UDP) agendas. As a reference to panel members, the UDP agenda for July 27 contains select imagery from City policy documents that is relevant to three of the items on the agenda. The agenda clearly states that the text and imagery is excerpted from an East Fraserlands policy document. Policy background information is typically provided in the UDP agenda when the policy may be new to the Panel members.

2.       Given the important piece of property that 701 W Georgia is, why was the developer encouraged or allowed to submit a final development permit application without any public information meetings or consultations?

The proposal’s location, form, height, and density are consistent with the expectations of the zoning. As is standard with development permit applications, staff will be seeking public feedback from our neighbourhood notification process and will be interested in the public’s thoughts on the proposal. As always, feedback from notification may be incorporated into design development conditions for final permit approval.

Thank you,

Jag Sandhu 
Corporate Communications | City of Vancouver
453 West 12th Avenue
Vancouver BC V5Y 1V4
t. 604.871.6899

Thank you for your responses related to the consideration by the Urban Design Panel of the proposed redevelopment of the plaza and rotunda at Howe and Georgia.

I have now reviewed the November 2006 Council reports related to this property, which are set out below:

1. Staff report on propose rezoning

FROM: Director of Planning in consultation with the General Manager of
Engineering Services
SUBJECT: CD-1 Rezoning of 701 Granville Street701 West Georgia Street, 777
Dunsmuir Street and 700 West Pender Street (Pacific Centre)
Report Date: October 12, 2006
Meeting Date: October 19, 2006

PUBLIC HEARING November 14, 2006 the time it was acknowledged that this was an important public place and any redevelopment would need to be designed very carefully. I would draw your attention and that of staff to the following extract from both the staff report, and Council decision: 

In the preparation of a development application, the public should be consulted about proposed land use and design concepts, through workshops and open houses. 

I would further note that the Council decision required that any future DP for the plaza will require Council's approval prior to final issuance of the DP.

As I previously noted, this is a very significant property and even without reading these reports, I was surprised  there was no public consultation whatsoever in the preparation of the DP Application.
Now that it is clear the reports did require public consultation, can you please ask planning staff why this Council decision and direction was not followed for this very high-profile and non-typical DP application.  Thank you.

Once my column appeared online, I sent the following to the City.

Patrick O'Sullivan and Jag Sandhu,

Further to my earlier discussions and correspondence, below is a link to tomorrow's Vancouver Courier column (it is now online) re: the proposed redevelopment of the plaza and rotunda at 701 West Georgia.

As I note in my column, the November 2006 Council decision regarding this property specifically required that "In the preparation of a development application, the public should be consulted about proposed land use and design concepts, through workshops and open houses". I would add that Council also decided that prior to issuance of the Development Permit, the proposal be considered by a future Council.
Based on my involvement with our city planning process, including 6 years on the Development Permit Board Advisory Panel, I know that this does not mean the public should have a chance to see the final submission after it has been developed by the applicant's architect with staff, and formally submitted and reviewed by the Urban Design Panel, as responded to me by the City's communication department.

I think it is regrettable that no one in the Planning Department bothered to check the 2006 Council decision, or if they did, ignored it.
The reason I am particularly exercised about this application is that it comes on the heels of the destruction of another small urban plaza at Seymour and Hastings,  (I worked on the creation of this plaza with former planner Ray Spaxman); and the secretive processing of another proposal by the same developer Cadillac Fairview for the parking lot next to the CP Station.

Fortunately that proposal was aborted after a public outcry, although I would note then Director of Planning Brian Jackson justified the absence of any public discussion on that application prior to its submission on the grounds that it too was a DP application and not a rezoning.

The fact is, like the Seymour and Hastings property and the parking lot next to the CP Station, this is an important small, open space in the city. While it is unfortunate that the 2006 Council rezoned it to allow a retail development, Council was right to demand a consultative planning process leading up to the design of any future building.

I hope there will now be a more transparent planning process which results in a better open space amenity than the15' wide covered sidewalk now being proposed.
If I am not correct in anything I have written, please let me know and I'll be happy to discuss further.

Today (August 5) Gordon Price's pricetags has kindly reprinted this article, along with a comment from Ray Spaxman that is well worth reading.  

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