Civic election: Metro residents up in arms over high-density developments
Lack of public consultation a key issue in many municipalities
By Kelly Sinoski, Vancouver Sun October 10, 2014 6:15 PM
METRO VANCOUVER — With another million people slated to flood into Metro Vancouver by 2041, the issue of how to house them all — whether in highrise towers, townhouses or single-family homes — has become a hot-button topic in the upcoming municipal election.
Residents are pushing back against density in every municipality across Metro Vancouver, from the smaller burbs of Port Moody, Delta and Langley to large, leafy, single-family communities of Vancouver’s Grandview-Woodland and Burnaby’s Brentwood Town Centre.
And it’s not just the paving over of agricultural land or the changing characters of their cities that rankles residents, but increasing resistance to clogged roads, longer commute times and lack of transit that comes with more people living in confined spaces.
“Everyone understands the region is going to add another million more people … that means one of two things: paving over the Fraser Valley or densifying,” said Patrick Smith, a professor and past chair of the department and current director of the Institute of Governance Studies at Simon Fraser University.
“People recognize this generically. It’s when it hits their neighbourhood that it becomes problematic.”
Residents’ concerns appear to have intensified over the past few months, Smith noted, partly he expects because more city officials acknowledge they may have moved too fast on building bigger, higher and denser developments in their communities.
Massive growth in some cities was likely spurred on by the regional growth strategy, he added, which calls for increased housing density around transit hubs to welcome the new growth as well as encourage residents to get out of their cars and walk, cycle or take transit.
“There is some recognition that they haven’t handled this as well politically as they might have,” Smith said.
Vancouver, for instance, has started a citizens’ assembly in Grandview-Woodland to address residents’ concerns, while New Westminster city staff suggested council put a pause on applications for high-density developments in the downtown core following concerns from residents that the city was growing too fast.
In Port Moody, residents are balking at a the city’s proposed new Official Community Plan — the blueprint that guides long-term growth in local cities — saying it will transform their small community and create more traffic, pollution and parking headaches and affect park space.
Hazel Mason, president of the Moody Centre Residents’ Association, says her group isn’t opposed to growth, but would prefer more “human-scale” development, such as laneway housing or basement suites, along the Evergreen SkyTrain line to complement Port Moody’s existing character.
“This is happening everywhere,” she said. “I’m sure everyone is most concerned about their own neighbourhoods but this is really, really, extreme, what they’re proposing here. We’re not anti-growth. We just want smart growth, human-scale growth in Moody Centre and to be at the table.”
The situation has prompted former Port Moody city manager Gaetan Royer to challenge incumbent Mike Clay for the mayor’s chair, on the basis the proposed OCP should be rethought.
Similar strife is going on in Burnaby, where council has proposed mini-Metrotown-style developments for Brentwood, Edmonds and Lougheed Town Centres, which are predominantly single-family communities interspersed with low-rise commercial.
In Langley Township, some residents have also started an “unelect campaign,” claiming they have no protection from future development, while North Vancouver City‘s draft Official Community Plan is in limbo following an unprecedented public process that went on for three years.
Development is also an issue in Surrey, where former mayor Bob Bose says “we’re reaching a point where the citizens and neighbours have to take precedence.”
Mary De Paoli, Port Moody’s manager of planning, said there’s always resistance when a city proposes change — and she’s not surprised to see an uprising over the OCP’s plans to transform the older, single-family neighbourhood of Moody Centre.
The city faced a similar upset around development in Newport Village, she added, but just like Moody Centre the area needed an overhaul ahead of the Evergreen Line coming through.
“It’s just recognizing that’s where growth should logically happen in relation to investments in rapid transit and making sure it’s sensitive to residents … that it becomes a net benefit rather than being seen as a negative,” De Paoli said, adding she expects residents will accept the growth over time. “Newport met some resistance and now everybody loves it.”
Smith said he’s not surprised density and development have risen to the top of the candidates’ platforms, noting that while growth is inevitable across the region, city officials seem to have missed a major step along the way: consulting and involving the public.
Public consultation may seem to take too long, he said, but it is a much better option than trying to “hit the reset button on the process,” especially when residents already have their backs up over what is occurring in their backyards.
Burnaby city officials have done a good job of developing Hastings Street in the Heights neighbourhood, he said, by building smaller three-to-four storey buildings that fit the character of the older community.
But they have gone the other way with Brentwood Town Centre, which will see 70-storey towers springing up around a redeveloped shopping mall.
“There has to be something between those two things,” Smith said. “There are different ways to do this and I think that’s what people are objecting to more than anything.”
Brentwood residents have argued Burnaby city officials should have followed Vancouver’s process for its redevelopment at Oakridge Mall: before any public hearing took place there was a year of online and public open house on potential impact assessments.
“It’s fair to say there’s going to be some density. But there are much better ways to do it that are much more sensitive to communities or involve communities,” Smith said. “You have to sell the notion that (density) is coming and the alternative will be an unsustainable environment or economy if it doesn’t go ahead.”