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An edited version of an email distributed by Ray Spaxman a few weeks ago, with some recommendations even more relevant in light of the Brenhill decision.
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People are asking “Why can’t we have a more informative and transparent process for dealing with change in our city?”
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I believe we can. As I promised at the end of last year, I have been trying to craft a communication that describes some ideas to improve the way we guide change in our planning processes to achieve an acceptable level of respect and trust  …
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In 1973, as the new Director of Planning for Vancouver, I had been charged by the newly elected TEAM Council with many objectives. Two of them were to make the development control processes more transparent and informative to the public and to raise the level of urban design. …
  1. Introduce Discretionary Zoning, to provide flexibility based on explicit, community based urban design guidelines;
  2. Create the Development Permit Board, to decentralise decision making, to include citizens, minimise political interference, hold all meetings in public and hear presentations from the public;
  3. Revamp the Urban Design Panel to give the design professions more autonomy (Architect as chair),
  4. Place Information Bill Boards on sites where significant proposals were being made to inform and encourage community involvement. .
  5. Encourage developers to meet with staff at an early stage in their thinking to ensure that they were well informed about the community’s objectives for the area and to meet with neighbours to obtain their opinions too.
  6. Build the strength of the department with excellent urban designers.

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Some of the principles guiding these processes:

1. While most developers and their design teams may review the physical and regulatory context of the site, some do not and most, understandably, give priority to their own objectives. It is important therefore that the city has competent professional staff to participate in these discussions. The staff role is not to design the buildings: It is is to ensure that the broader community goals about urban design and neighbourliness are respected. The city has developed, monitored and improved dozens of guidelines for that purpose.
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2. Development is the product of many skilled people. If one skill dominates the negotiations the building will express that domination, usually affecting the overall success of the development. Some developers will only sign off on a development when they have confirmed that the marketing, design and construction V.P,’s are all satisfied with the proposal. It is at that time too that they want to have some assurance that the municipal approving authority will also be satisfied.
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3. If that synergising process works well, then, while issues will still arise, significant disagreements in the community itself should not occur.
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I think that one of the principal reasons that so much controversy ensued over the 555 Cordova development could be because, despite preliminary discussion with city staff, basic principles about contextual urban design and good neighbourliness were overlooked. (As you may have noticed, I believe that has happened on many other occasions too.)
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Another complaint I hear is this. Why is it that despite signs on the site and public information meetings for neighbours and eventually the city’s website, so many people turn out and object?
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I think it is is the absence of reliable, trustworthy and accessible (easy to understand)  information. Frequently you only have to read the project descriptions in the application to know it is not true. It is often a sales job which the author hopes will not be scrutinised too carefully. Unfortunately, these days, too many proposals seeking public support, whether by the private sector or the public sector, have been wordsmithed to hide any deficiencies and exaggerate benefits. While this may be laudable for the  protagonist it creates skepticism not trust.  The city should do what it can to dissuade proponents from this tendency. …
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In the case of significant rezonings and development permits, I suggest the following changes.
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In an accessible central place set up a facility that does the following:
  1. It welcomes the public to view displays and presentations of proposals for change in the city.
  2. It is carefully prepared to provide documentation that can be understood by the general public.
  3. It is under the management of an organisation whose sole mandate is to provide information, representative of as objective a review as possible of the proposal. It will, display the pros and cons of a proposal as available from existing and proposed criteria and guidelines including the various opinions related to those pros and cons. It will not come to a conclusion about the project. That is City Hall’s role It could be a department of the City for much of this work should be being done by them now.
  4. However, if it is, it has to be operated under the principles outlined in my descriptions above and not directly “pressured” by City Council or management.
  5. Its goal is to become the trusted place to find information about proposals for change in the City.
  6. It is easy to see how such a place could become a valuable community resource for all the elements of change we are being confronted with today.
  7. It sounds a lot like an urbanarium. It might be a web site or a building. it could be at City Hall, at a new Civic Centre or Downtown. Perhaps it could be a role for the City Planning Commission or the old city Urban Design Studio reconstituted.  Perhaps — there are numerous.
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The early ideas that led to significant reform of our processes 40 years ago had to be worked on and refined. The objectives were good and the eventual results helped to create this city were good.
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Is there an idea here worth exploring?