Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Ned Jacob's response to my Post: What's Happening at Little Mountain?

Many people don't know this, but Jane Jacob's son Ned lives in Vancouver.

I met him a number of years ago and have enjoyed witnessing his participation in discussions about the planning of Vancouver's neighbourhoods . Ned has been very interested and involved in the Little Mountain Planning Process and sent me the following comments in response to my earlier post. Since his comments are quite lengthy, they did not fit into the comment box, so I am posting them here. I think they provide a very comprehensive assessment of one man's answer to my question. What's happening at Little Mountain:

Reply to “So What's Happening at Little Mountain? Is it the next Olympic Village?”


To the best of my knowledge your information concerning the Little Mountain situation is correct, and your surmise—that a mess of Olympic Village proportions may be unfolding—seems plausible.

Before I comment, though, full disclosure on my involvement in the issue:

I have lived and worked in the Riley Park neighbourhood since 1980 and been involved with the Little Mountain (LM) issue since 2003 when I participated in a Community Vision (CV) workshop concerning the future of LM and served on the Riley Park/South Cambie CityPlan Community Liaison Group that oversaw the creation of the Community Vision approved by City Council in 2005. I am a founding member of Community Advocates for Little Mountain (CALM) http://www.my-calm.info/index.html, formed in spring of 2007 after Rich Coleman announced plans to redevelop LM and BC Housing began pressuring tenants to accept relocation to provide a blank slate for phased redevelopment; the RPSC Vision Implementation Committee, a voluntary City-mandated group that functions as a public “watchdog” over area planning http://www.rpscvisions.ca/webpages/content.cfm?contentID=1 ; and the Little Mountain Advisory Group, which was convened following the establishment of the Little Mountain Planning Program on November 19, 2009 by City Council http://vancouver.ca/ctyclerk/cclerk/20091119/documents/penv20091119min.pdf . I also serve as a spokesperson for the Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver network of community groups, which includes CALM and the RPSC Committee. That said, I am not writing here on behalf of any of these groups or committees.

It was expected that the LM planning process would require about a year to complete a policy to guide rezoning. It began in December, 2009, with open houses and a series of meetings, workshops and walking tours involving the Advisory Group, CoV staff, Holborn Properties and their consultants, architect James Cheng and Jim Green & Associates. The last meeting was in September, 2010. After an unexpected break, participants received an email from staff on October 26th that stated “we are still not in a position to call an Advisory Group meeting as the proponent has not yet delivered the 3-D concepts needed for evaluation by the City and analysis by our independent economic consultant. As soon as we are in a position to coordinate a presentation of the concepts and their evaluation, we will arrange an Advisory Group meeting.” We waited and waited and waited.

Finally, in February, 2011 the RPSC Committee was advised that the 6-month interruption of the LM planning process was due, in fact, to an impasse between Holborn and the City. Staff concluded that the developer was not prepared to work within the directions and principles set out by Council, and only wished to present concepts to the Advisory Group that were financially “feasible,” that is, based on their undisclosed agreement with BC Housing. Staff did not think that the design concepts that Holborn were developing were suitable for presenting to the Advisory Group because, in their view, they were inappropriate in terms of residential density and building forms for a site that is not in easy walking distance of a rapid transit station or a significant employment area, and is adjacent to a low-rise “single family” area. The City also concluded that the financial implications of proceeding on the basis of the proponents apparent expectations were that Vancouver, in effect, would be helping to subsidize the social housing that was a provincial responsibility.

On November 19, 2009, at the meeting to establish a Little Mountain Planning Program, Council moved “THAT the Mayor further advise BC Housing and Holborn Properties that disclosure of the key elements of their agreement on Little Mountain is essential for the public consultation to be meaningful, and to produce a positive rezoning in a timely way.” Whether the public process is “meaningful” remains to be seen, but is seriously in doubt. The “key elements” (conditions of the sale) have not been forthcoming, and consequently, a rezoning—positive or otherwise—cannot be produced in a timely way. Jim Green & Associates, speaking for Holborn, have indicated that the developer cannot divulge the information sought by the Mayor and the RPSC Committee because of a confidentiality agreement with BC Housing. This much is known: the sale will not be final until the property is rezoned, which would require a subsequent planning process. It is now clear that whatever Holborn agreed to pay for the land was based on a hypothetical rezoning, and the RPSC Committee has been told on several occasions that if the conditions for redevelopment are not economically viable, Holborn will not proceed. Presumably, if that were to happen it would mean a new Request for Proposals (though the government of the day might decide to maintain ownership and redevelop according to a different strategy). CoV staff have indicated that if the process were to break down the City would complete the policy planning process. That, at least, would provide clarity for future development proposals.

In the meantime, the more than $400,000 that Holborn was required to provide for the policy planning have been exhausted. For the process to continue the developer will have to come up with more money. Holborn has continued to do outreach work during this period (e.g. discussions with some of the former tenants and with the board of the Little Mountain Neighbourhood House), but this research has not involved the Advisory Group, or the CoV in any formal sense, and is not regarded by staff as part of the public planning process.

The City’s economic consultant has provided an estimate of the current market value for the 15-acre site, which,the basis of the existing zoning would accommodate apartments up to 4 storeys, and could provide up to about 1000 dwelling units—more than four times the density of the demolished LM housing complex. This baseline figure has not yet been made public, but it will serve as the basis for calculating “land lift” and public benefits, including replacement of the inadequate LM Neighbourhood House, and possibly some additional non-market housing that could be negotiated with the developer through a rezoning.

At a 2007 meeting with BC Housing officials, I asked CEO Shane Ramsay how proponents would know how much to offer if they didn’t know what amount or forms of development would be approved. He explained that developers would make their offers conditional on the density that was approved by the City. But now it appears that the proponents were required to place bets based on what they thought they could get approved. Holborn’s parent company is a Malaysian merchant bank, reportedly with deep pockets, and they took the plunge that more prudent and experienced development companies would not take. Possibly they thought—or were led to believe—that with the government standing behind them the sky was the limit.

In a speech to the Urban Development Institute on May 21, 2009, Holborn’s marketer, Bob Rennie, predicted more than 2500 condos at LM. Add the 224 replacement social housing units (it will actually be 234 units due to a reduction of ca 5% in BC Housing floor space requirements), and we’re looking at roughly 2750 units.

But wait—there’s more. A Council resolution states: “THAT staff communicate Council’s priority for dealing with homelessness and creating more social housing to BC Housing and the developer of Little Mountain (Holborn Properties) and seek opportunities to ensure timely planning, while respecting community concerns, through various stages from policy planning to zoning, to development permits with the intent of expediting and achieving replacement social housing (224 units) or 20% social housing of the total built units, whichever is greater, as soon as possible.” 20% of 2500 equals 500, so we’re actually looking at a combined total of more than 3000 units. And Council also moved: “THAT staff explore opportunities to increase the family housing component of the market units of the development of Little Mountain beyond the typical Major Project Requirement of 25% total units.” That means a higher proportion of 2 and 3-bedroom units, which increases FSR for the housing and also the space needed for family amenities, such as day care centres, playgrounds, food stores, etc. Calculating FSR and correlations between height and land coverage is not something I am qualified to do, but surely this would translate to an average building height well in excess of 15 storeys.

How would this square with Council’s requirement for “respecting community concerns?” Input from several CoV open houses, and a public forum hosted by the RPSC Committee, have thus far shown strong support for the existing zoning, moderate support for buildings up to 6 storeys, and virtually no support for higher forms. It remains to be seen if there will be a significant shift in these positions as people examine and consider the possibilities, but I would be very surprised if towers are supported, and there are strong arguments for maintaining human scale and ground-oriented development in a neighbourhood that is a magnet for families with children. Concerns have also been raised in regard to the visual impacts from towers on Queen Elizabeth Park, which contains Canada’s first civic arboretum.

There is, however, strong support for additional non-market housing. CALM and the Citywide Housing Coalition organized the “Stand for Housing—Homes for All” rallies in 2008 and 09, and along with the RPSC Committee applied the pressure that led to the Council resolutions that are incompatible with Holborn’s expectations. Riley Park has long been a source of affordable family housing which in recent years has been eroded by the inflated Vancouver housing market. A RPSC CV Approved Direction states” The City should urge federal/provincial governments to reinstate programs that fund non-market housing and to develop new initiatives that would make housing more affordable for low income households.” It does not urge governments to sell off permanent and irreplaceable appreciating assets (public land) to fund temporary, depreciating assets (construction of supportive housing in Vancouver and other municipalities). This unsustainable housing strategy is analogous to selling the house to buy furniture! Moreover, social housing and mixed income co-ops would be a better fit than social housing and condos (which in Vancouver are now high-end by definition).

Since I began writing this reply I received word that an Advisory Group meeting has been scheduled for March 30 “to reconvene the group, provide updates, share information and begin the density and height explorations for the Little Mountain site.” That will be welcome news to many, and especially the dislocated tenants, who were told by BC Housing officials in 2007 that they could be back at Little Mountain in their new homes by 2010 (at this point the best-case scenario is that the first replacement units could be occupied in 2014).

But it leaves some huge questions unanswered. What exactly has occurred to break the impasse between Holborn’s and the City’s incompatible expectations? Has the City agreed to drop their conditions? Has Holborn managed to renegotiate the problematic “key elements of their agreement” with BC Housing? Are they looking to cut future losses by transferring their interest to another company? Or have all three parties agreed to stick their heads in the sand and carry on as if there never was an impasse, hoping that the obstacles will somehow be resolved in the future—perhaps following the upcoming municipal and provincial elections?

That would not be acceptable. We need to have a frank and open discussion about the reasons for the impasse, and what—if anything—has been done to resolve it. BC Housing and Holborn must respond positively to Council’s request that the “key elements of their agreement” be disclosed, in order to allow for a meaningful planning process, even though it can no longer be timely. The alternative is a process that continues to be dogged by distrust and fraught with apprehension over where it is leading and when the long-delayed rebuilding of a community at Little Mountain might realistically begin.

Ned Jacobs


Randy Chatterjee said...

Truly frightening!
Do we not live by the rule of law: open bidding for publicly-owned land, development based on official community plans, and respect for city bylaws that allow demolition only after the issuance of a building permit?
Is our entire stock of affordable housing going to all be sacrificed to the highest bidder?
How can this situation be tolerated by the development community itself, which must bear the costs and the uncertainties of an opaque and corrupt process?
How is this fair to anyone?
How is this sustainable?
Randy Chatterjee

Michael Geller said...

Randy, I do not think there is anything corrupt about this process...it was just poorly conceived and managed.

That being said, I am disturbed by the apparent terms of the deal which do not require any additional payment until the rezoning and Development Permit are approved. If this is true, I do hope interest is being applied to the purchase price, and there is some trigger date, beyond which the purchaser is obligated to make full payment.

I agree with Ned. While the purchase price need not be disclosed, the terms of the transaction should be.

Finally, there are many other older public housing projects that are in need of regeneration. I think we need to develop a new approach. The Regent Park model in Toronto may be worthy of emulation. It created a new joint venture company between the city and a private developer. Something to consider?

Ned Jacobs said...

Actually, I think that in a situation like this, where the land belongs to the public and the public interest is paramount, all "key elements" (as Council put it), including the sale price, need to be publicly disclosed when the deal is announced. That would allow it to be openly and independently evaluated in regard to how well it serves the public interest.

But then, as I hope I made clear, I think that the decision to sell this land was shortsighted, irresponsible, and not in the public interest to begin with. The lack of transparency, though, is surely compounding the problems and prolonging the pain.

The Little Mountain situation is a classic example of a "vicious spiral" (similar to a "vicious circle", but more dynamic)--a feedback loop in which one bad decision begets another. With each bad decision the downward spiral is reinforced and becomes more difficult to reverse (politicians HATE having to admit they screwed up), until the whole thing collapses. Sadly, attempts to pick up the pieces and make something of them often go astray because the options are very limited, not well-suited to addressing the unanticipated situation, and therefore often engender spirals of their own. I suspect that the "financial meltdown," which was decades in the making, is such a spiral; its fundamental causes have not been adequately addressed and it's probably just a matter of time before global finance once again spirals out of control.

Anita Romaniuk said...

There's more coming. Apparently Heather Place (at West 13th & Heather St), another low-income housing complex, is on the horizon to be "redeveloped".

Anonymous said...

This very useful information inspired me to go to the site again and update the set of images I took when the houses were being torn down. You can see what was there too thanks to Google satellite imagery. The set of photos can be seen on flickr

Unknown said...

You can read more on the "Memo of understanding between BC housing and City of Vancouver" at this link http://www.littlemountain.ca/pdf/little_mountain_mou_july_2007.pdf

it does say the city and BC housing believe the site should include buildings taller than 4 storeys in the redevelopment.

But rough calculations does allow for almist 1,000,000 sq ft of development ( this is a FSR of 1.5) which would be 1000 - 1100 units or so with in 4 floors and less than 50% lot coverage.


Lewis N. Villegas said...

I just saw a couple of slides of this project tonight, and it is horrible. I've provided some background of my connection to the site here:


But, really, what this fiasco points to most clearly is roughly this:

1. The City not listening to the neighbourhood(s).

This is just the tip of the iceberg. The community plans that are rolling out of City Hall like so many lithographed copies of the same failed concept has only just begun.

2. The City mired in the old planning paradigm, hell-bent on a Modern planning approach that no body except the over-compensated developers want.

3. The perception of corruption in the process.

Neighbours are engaged in long consultation processes—that, by the way, do not make use of the latest planning methodologies—and then a tower, or in this case an over-the-moon amount of density, are slipped in at the end of the process. A move I have come to characterize as "the snake in the grass".

Let's get real. We need local government that is responsive and responsible to the people. We need transparency and we need trust.

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