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Is Vancouver’s public consultation process broken?


In the heat of debate over the Rize development in Mount Pleasant, residents began to question the entire public consultation process. “It is not the developers that are the enemy,” Annabel Vaughan told the council chambers on Tuesday, February 28. “The enemy is the flawed process that the City uses for rezoning large development sites.”

Standing before the developer, city council and a long list of concerned speakers, Vaughan said surrounding residents and businesses should have been more meaningfully consulted before the design process even began. “The current public process brings out the worst in everyone,” she observed. “Developers and architects design projects in isolation and then land ‘spaceships’ into neighbourhoods.”

Vaughan said the City and public should generate specific goals and limits for a large site before it’s handed over to developers. “Together they [the City and public] produce a wish list for these complex sites that balances community aspirations with city goals,” she said. “This template is given to the developers and architects who then do what they do best—take a complex problem with constraints and make it economically viable and architecturally innovative.”

Vaughan’s frustrations hit a nerve. Urban issues journalist Frances Bula posted the speech on her blog, garnering dozens of comments in agreement. The Rize conflict points to the neighbourhood’s recently completed community plan, which offered little direction on future large-scale developments.

“Usually the City develops a community plan, which in the past has taken two to six years,” explains Councillor Andrea Reimer. “The plan usually involves thousands of people from the community, which provides direction on large sites and other policy.”

In theory, the Mount Pleasant Community Plan should have included Vaughan’s “wish list.” But the 33-page document takes broad strokes, and does little to outline specific constraints on large developments. “To the development company it looks like an open door,” says former city planner Trish French of the vague, qualitative plan. French spent 24 years in Vancouver’s planning department, before retiring in 2009. “The major development companies that work on multi-storey projects, they’re in the business of finding opportunities outside downtown … because there aren’t many places for them to go.”

Reimer says being specific is tough, and always cause for disagreement. “Council will read a plan that says ‘We want a tall building with rental housing for seniors.’ First you ask: what is tall? Six stories? Thirty? And then [who] is a senior? Seniors who need help? Or a certain age?”

“Rental housing is another argument,” she continues. “Do we want totally supportive social housing? Or partially subsidized housing?”

“It’s quite difficult in a broad community plan,” French agrees. French says the City shouldn’t waste resources on more intensive community plans. Instead, she suggests the City look at the way major projects like Langara College and the Vancouver General Hospital are planned, and apply a slimmed-down version to sites like the Rize.

“Those planning processes are a collaboration between the City and the developer and there’s a lot of early public consultation,” French says, adding that major institutions like Langara often pay for their own planning. “There’s a lot of different options presented—and real options, not phony options.”

In addition, French says the city needs to work on more detailed reports for each site identified as a future development—a practice that was used to develop the Oakridge Mall. “The plan might identify six or seven big sites in the area that need to be looked at,” she explains. “You can look at those in sequence, or have some kind of parallel process where you have a sub-team working on a site at the same time.”

French says a pre-emptive “policy statement” approach will put the City in the drivers seat, rather than developers. “Managing two levels of public consultation can be hairy, but you can do it,” French says.

No policy statement was completed for the corner of Kingsway and Broadway. Rize submitted its first inquiry to City council in April 2007, long before the Mount Pleasant Community Plan was completed.

Reimer says an engagement task force will look for ways to improve Vancouver’s public consultation process in mid-2012. “We’re very grateful to have people like Annabel putting so much time and energy into understanding this city,” she says. “None of this works without them involved.”

Originally published in March 2012.

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