Vancouver political watchers were on the edge of their seats as the first of three towers proposed to slice into the Vancouver skyline’s long-protected view of the mountains met with a council decision Tuesday July 22.
As expected by some, the Vision majority on council voted to approve the 400’ tower proposed by PavCo for 777 Pacific. But in a surprise twist, the skyscraper would only be approved if the units weren’t condos — rather, market rate rental units.
The timing of this approval is convenient, developers of the site, Crown corporation PavCo have now cleared the way and set a precedent for two more proposed view-busting towers by Concord Pacific. Had they applied first, the fact Concord have been top donors to Vision Vancouver for the last decade would have raised uncomfortable questions of the outgoing council about who we were sacrificing our view corridor for.
The view cones being sacrificed herald from the birth of Vancouverism, when we transformed lumber mills into Expo into glittering point and pedestal towers framed against our mountain backdrop. Breathless hyperbole about “world class city” have always really been defined by our context to our natural setting, not our architecture.
The mountain views aren’t just iconic, they are our identity — planners, architects, legions of local residents and visitors have all shared the importance of preserving that view. A protected view blemished by what our outgoing mayor dismissed as a microscopic impact on par with traffic lights. A precedent by which future towers will proposed and judged.
It's easy (cynical) to paint a false dichotomy: It's just a view after all. The mountains will still be there even when obscured behind condo towers or traffic lights; meanwhile there's more important issues like housing crisis, opioid crisis, economic growth.
But incursion into our view corridor illustrates the depth of an ongoing assault on the public commons: the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, the commons are resources belonging to the people not owned privately.
Selling off our commons to private interests for meagre returns of dubious public benefit is how our governments approve affordable housing disconnected from local incomes, or drunk with casino cash ignore dufflebags of fentanyl poisoning our streets.
In this case, is selling off the commons in exchange for market rental a public benefit?
PavCo, the developers of the site, demurred to work out the math before commiting to the 400’ rental tower scheme (they retain an option for 300’ condos), but market economics for rentals in Vancouver suggest its likely a done deal.
Luxury and premium purpose built rentals are a hot market for developers right now, driven by house-rich downsizers, new taxes on foreign ownership, and our low vacancy rate. These newly approved apartments, downtown and steps from the stadium and skytrain with their unobstructed (once-public) views of the north shore mountains will surely meet the luxury/premium criteria.
One of the top developers for new rental property in the region is Wesgroup, currently promoting their massive market rental project in the new River District in Southeast Vancouver. Wesgroup also produce the cheekily-named RED Talks (Real Estate Development, get it?) where among other things they offer seminars on “crafting the narrative” and have featured keynote speaker Sonja Trauss, a San Francisco libertarian and market supply advocate.
Despite the apparent market viability of purpose built rental, Wesgroup’s CEO recently mused that developers should be be exempted from paying community amenity contributions. The main challenge for developers building rental is speed of profit; rental is a long game whereas condos are relatively fast money.
Yet certain existing city policies already waive a number of development fees (DCLs and CACs) for building rental housing.The bigger hinderance is often cited as city bureaucracy: extraordinary application and approval time, needless red tape and inflexible but apt-to-change regulations and codes.
Just weeks ago the Straight reported a new benchmark for city-subsidized “affordable” rentals, $1730 for a one-bedroom apartment. The standard benchmark for affordability is 1/3 of income, our city’s median household income just shy of $73,000. City-defined affordability is about $300 a month shy of what the average 1 bedroom Vancouver household can afford.
The city subsidy in the above affordable rental example comes in the form of a Development Cost Levy (DCL) waiver. DCLs are an important revenue stream that pays for infrastructure like sewers and roads, as well as parks, childcare and non-profit housing. While CACs are only applied on discretionary re-zonings, DCLs are levied per-buildable square foot and “imposed on every person entitled to the delivery of a building permit.” From building a 40 storey tower to renovating a single family home basement, any and all developments are expected to pay their share.
Our social contract includes a right to the city and an obligation to support it. When we bargain away the collective public benefits —be it mountain views or payments into our shared infrastructure costs— it should be in the public interest and prefaced by real transparency with performance and profit reviews.
Without a doubt, more purpose built rental in the City of Vancouver is in the public interest, but the degree to which we subsidize this must be commensurate.The public purse can’t be used to pad developer profits. Without transparency, there is no accountability.
Some advocates of building more supply (the self-styled YIMBYs) quietly applauded yesterday’s view-scarring development for it’s supposed trickle down increase to rental stock, but this theory of supply-side filtering is unproven, some studies even found it does more harm.
Given the last decade of development in Vancouver it’s hard to argue market housing untethered from local incomes has been helpful. Even
But it seems we have had the tools all along, as a recent blog post by former City Councillor Tim Louis explained: in addition to approving or denying development applications and land use, under section 565.2 of the Vancouver Charter, City Council have the ability to enter into housing agreements with developers that stipulate (actually affordable) rents and rate of change.
It’s time to start a fulsome and honest conversation about if and what we are trading public benefits for.