Like no doubt many of you, I have spent the past week discussing the election results with friends and colleagues. One of the questions that I was most frequently asked was whether Ken Sim and his ABC majority can really improve the development approval process.
I may be responsible for prompting this question since at the end of last week's CTV Television coverage I was asked to respond to Colleen Hardwick's accusation that Ken Sim will NOT be able to do much about the approval process. I disagreed, adding the current timeframes for approvals in Vancouver were so bad it would be impossible not to improve them. This prompted much laughter from some of the CTV panel, especially Mi-Jung Li, Dianne Watts, and George Affleck, although I'm not sure if this was caught on air.
So, what should the new mayor do? Based on his radio and newspaper interviews over the past week, following his inauguration I doubt the new mayor will behave like a rash and impulsive Donald Trump and start telling city staff what to do. But there are some things I can recommend.
Firstly, he should read the 2012 report prepared by Olga Ilich and then Mayor Gregor Robertson's Affordable Housing Task Force. It offers a particularly good analysis of the obstacles to the delivery of affordable housing in the city, including suggestions on how to improve project delivery. I chaired a sub-committee to the Task Force and submitted a report that highlighted the need to deal with oftentimes conflicting requirements from the various city departments. The planners asked for changes that conflicted with the engineering department requirements, or the sustainability manager's requests, or the arborist's request, and so on.
To address this situation, I proposed that the city consider appointing a Housing Affordability Ombudsman who would review the various departmental requests and make a decision that was in the best interest of affordable housing. I still think this would be a promising idea. No, I don't want the job!
The mayor should also review the recent Regulation Redesign Review. I wrote about this in March 2020 https://www.vancouverisawesome.com/courier-archive/opinion/city-of-vancouver-wants-input-into-cutting-red-tape-in-its-building-permit-procedures-3118493 and again in June 2020 since I had a particular interest in seeing the city change its regulations regarding the installation of retractable glass panels to make balconies more useful.
Some ABC councillors including Sarah Kirby-Yung, Lisa Dominato, and Rebecca Bligh may recall my awkward and disjointed on-line presentation since there was a 10 second time lapse between advancing my slides and when they appeared on the councillors' screens!
While some changes are forthcoming https://vancouver.ca/home-property-development/regulation-redesign-simplifying-rules-for-building.aspx there is a need for many more.
Since many existing city planners may be reluctant to offer suggestions on how to improve the process, I recommend that the mayor and his colleagues invite recently retired city planners to offer suggestions. They usually know what needs to be done and will be less reluctant to offer practical and effective ideas!
While one approach is to hire more planners and plan checkers, I disagree with this approach. Instead, I think the city administration should rethink who should be responsible for the appropriateness and accuracy of applications given applicable zoning. Instead of just relying on city staff, I think the Certified Professional program could be expanded to apply to both Building Permit applications and many development permit applications.
I also think the city should revive an idea from a former city planner Kaye Krishna who proposed the city should have the equivalent of a NEXUS Lane for applicants who have a proven track record and allow them to go through an abbreviated process.
Finally, (for now), the city must reduce the number of projects that must go through the Public Hearing process. For example, even though Council approved a comprehensive Cambie Corridor Plan with detailed design requirements for each block, every subsequent development application has had to go through a lengthy, and expensive rezoning process. It's completely unnecessary and nuts, since virtually every project was approved. Eliminate the need for these rezonings for applications that conform with the plan.
There are many other things that should be done. For example, we need to review the role of the Urban Design Panel. I have twice served on the panel but too often members offer highly subjective and personal views that conflict with the direction provided by zoning and staff that can take a lot of time to resolve. Also, planning staff don't need to take so much time to prepare such lengthy reports (sometimes more than 100 pages for a project) that some councillors rarely take the time to fully read.
I'll have more to write later, but I hope these ideas demonstrate to Colleen and others that there is not only much that should be done, but also much that can be done to speed up the approval process.