Not just for policy wonks. Community Amenity Contributions (CACs) have been a contentious issue on civic-election platforms. Karen Sawatsky provides an incredibly well-researched analysis with a lot of information never before compiled in one place, accompanied by urban theory and political debate. The whole post is here.
Back and forth on CACs
CACs, in a nutshell, are contributions the city negotiates with developers who seek rezoning. In probably 99% of the cases, the developer is asking to build more units than the current zoning allows, i.e. to increase density. And in the vast majority of cases, if granted, that extra density will be achieved through the construction of taller buildings. The amenities requested in return might be green space, public art, affordable housing, or sometimes just the cash to buy these things. There’s been a lot of interesting debate recently about the pros and cons of Vancouver’s CAC system, but … even before this debate, I’d been thinking quite a bit about CACs because the topic came up in the class on “great urban thinkers” I’m taking as part of my master’s in urban studies.
That discussion led me to wonder if there was a comprehensive list somewhere of all the city projects that had ever been funded partly or wholly through CACs. And if not, it made me think there should be. …. Unfortunately, a comprehensive list does not seem to exist, at least not in the city’s possession, and I did ask. Granted, such list would be very long indeed, stretching back about 25 years (for a brief history of CAC policy, see this article originally found on the Price Tags blog).
What does exist, however, are three publicly available (though not easily findable) annual reports that provide details on the benefits obtained through CACs in 2010, 2011 and 2012. The city planning department informed me that a 2013 report is in the works, which is good news. I have compiled the information in those reports into a spreadsheet and posted it here:
I have also compiled an incomplete list of some Vancouver civic leaders and urban thinkers who either support or critique the current CAC system. “For” or “against” in this case doesn’t necessarily mean that any of those listed are unreservedly in support or opposed to all aspects of the current CAC system; it just signifies where I think they best fit.
- Geoff Meggs, Vision City Councillor on his own blog responding to professor Penny Gurstein’s op-ed below.
- Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s director of planning (2006-2012), responding on Frances Bula’s blog to what he calls “a campaign to have ordinary people turn against public benefits by suggesting they are contributing to unaffordability.”
- Gordon Price, director of SFU’s City Program and former NPA city councillor, saying “The city shouldn’t give up this wonderful cash machine. Also see this dialogue between Price and Patrick Condon.
- Peter V. Hall, associate professor of urban studies at SFU, responding to Michael Geller.
- Patrick Condon, urban design program chair, UBC: Vancouver’s spot zoning is corrupting its soul.
- Jak King, former president of the Grandview Woodland Area Council, who calls CACs “the crack cocaine of city finance.”
- Penny Gurstein, UBC SCARP director, arguing that they are an obstacle to ending homelessness.
- Bob Ransford, consultant and former real estate developer, on their effect on housing costs.
- Peter Ladner, former NPA city councillor, on Gordon Price’s blog here.
- Ray Spaxman, former CoV director of planning: Is anyone else concerned?
- Michael Geller, architect and development consultant, on his own blog
- Adrienne Carr, Green Party councillor, saying the “The CAC system is broken” in the recent housing affordability debate (at around 1:10).
In addition to being interested in the debate itself, I’m intrigued by the fact that it doesn’t cleave along neat ideological lines, as my list shows. On the side of those who defend the current CAC system we have both Geoff Meggs and Gordon Price, councillors who have represented opposing parties at city hall. Some (not me) would explain this by saying all politicians are the same. Others would point to their common experience serving on council, which gave them the opportunity to spend the money generated by CACs and shape the projects they fund.
However, we have a former NPA councillor on the anti-CAC side too – Peter Ladner. There are also former city planning directors on both sides. Like the “pro” side, the ideological composition of the “against” side is mixed. It includes development consultants Bob Ransford and Michael Geller, as well as Jak King, who identifies as an anarchist and is a former president of the neighbourhood association that represents the lefty hotbed (at least historically) that is Commercial Drive. Interesting. …
The fact that Vancouver has a crippling shortage of affordable housing also figures in to the controversy over CACs. As my list shows, some very informed people have argued that developers just pass the cost of CACs on to the end users of the land (homebuyers and renters), and that CACs are therefore an obstacle to realizing the city’s goal of increasing housing affordability. Others (also very informed) counter that it doesn’t work like that, because as much as they might like to, developers can’t increase prices beyond what the market will support. However, that also begs contentious questions concerning the composition of Vancouver’s purchasing pool and whether the city is in a housing bubble – questions that are beyond the scope of this already lengthy post.
Given all these factors and the city’s policy push for densification, it’s not surprising that CACs provoke debate, both over underlying principles and their particular applications (the Rize project in Mount Pleasant being one recent example). That just reinforces how important and useful it is for the public to have specific and clear information about the results of the CAC policy, so I do hope the reports keep coming (and are made easier to find). I’d like to see this information put in a spreadsheet and included in the city’s open data catalogue.
The whole post is here.