Rezonings – 2: Questions that still need answering

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As mentioned here, Elizabeth Murphy essentially writes one column.  Here’s the latest version in The Sun: 

Grandview 3

At the start of the planning process, the planners opened their presentations stating that Grandview needed to increase density to meet projected growth under the Regional Growth Strategy (RGS) since 160,000 people were coming to Vancouver.

This was later found not to be the case when the RGS was changed to reflect the 2011 census for a 148,000 population increase from 2011 to 2041. Further, the city’s consultant report from June 2014 confirmed, “The city has sufficient capacity in existing zoning and approved community plans to accommodate over 20 years of supply at the recent pace of residential development.” This is without including the Grandview Plan. …

This shows that there is no rush to create more city-wide zoning supply. …

Sam Sullivan’s EcoDensity in 2007 promoted increased density everywhere. After Sullivan and his NPA council were removed from office in 2008, Gregor Robertson’s Vision council rebranded EcoDensity under Greenest City. Then these older more affordable neighbourhoods were targeted for increased redevelopment which was an unwise shift of policy. Grandview is the most recent victim of this direction. …

Although there may have been a reasonable basis for some increased development along Hastings Street and the transit station at Broadway and Commercial, the vast majority of the neighbourhood has more to lose than to gain in terms of affordability by the policies adopted in this plan. …

Calls for a delay by Grandview-Woodland Area Council, MLA Shane Simpson, and MP Jenny Kwan were ignored. The whole 30-year plan was rammed through without adequate broad community input, and with policies that are contrary to key Citizens’ Assembly recommendations. Given there is ample existing zoned capacity city-wide to meet future growth, one has to wonder why there is such a rush by the city to rezone one of the most affordable livable neighbourhoods in the city without community support.

 

Again, Murphy’s main points: The City has ample zoned capacity to handle growth.  Rezoning increases speculation, and raises housing and rental costs.  Don’t do any more.

Is she right?  And if they don’t agree, why doesn’t the City, its planners, and those in the development industry effectively respond with their own rationales and facts?  

Murphy, with abundant documentation, lays out one side of a polarized debate about how we should respond to forces which are transforming this town in a way that is ripping it apart – socially, if not physically.

Why are her arguments not taken seriously – or at least responded to in the forums where the debate occurs?

Price Tags welcomes such responses.

10 thoughts on “Rezonings – 2: Questions that still need answering”

  1. There is one thing to have “available” capacity, quite another to trigger the conditions necessary to redevelop it. Available capacity must always exceed actual capacity, hence the flaw in the reasoning.

    It is obvious to me that RS zoning is outdated and higher density is close to inevitable; prices are not high just because of offshore capital — it has been a decades-long march towards higher land prices because the metro region is growing.

  2. Zoning isn’t a guarantee that anything will be built – only that it’s permissible; so to claim that ‘Area X’ “doesn’t need” to be rezoned because sufficient development capacity exists elsewhere is a little weird. A city is not a self-correcting system of reservoirs. There’s no such thing as 100% (or even optimum) efficiency. Planners can only upzone where they feel conditions allow for greater density and hope for the best. They don’t control the market.

    Furthermore, ‘increased density means increased speculation’? Only insofar as there are more units to purchase. There’s nothing to suppress speculation’ in a supply-limited, highly desirable area, either. You might as well say that density increases oxygen consumption. It’s only slightly less disingenuous an argument.

    • I agree that the “sufficient” existing zoning capacity is: not necessarily economically build able and is not necessarily the type of housing the market is demanding. Like you said, housing isn’t self-correcting. For example building 20,000 lane way houses would do absolutely nothing to address the latent demand for 3 BR ground oriented units.

      On the other hand I think “increased density means increased speculation” makes perfect sense.

      Imagine a neighbourhood with uniform zoning. Every piece of land has the same value give or take things like noise near main streets, possible differences in view, etc.

      Now imagine one site gets rezoned to permit triple the density of all the other lots in the area. Suddenly dozens of nearby lots are prime candidates for similar rezoning and will shoot up in value even if there’s no indication from the city that such rezoning will happen. A single spot rezoning can inflate the perceived value of an entire neighbourhood and spark a rush to buy before local land owners realize what’s going on.

      Look what happened to single family lots along Cambie when developers started assembling lots to build multi-family structures. Some lots sold for more than double what they’d been worth just a year earlier. There’s no way that sort of thing didn’t affect adjacent areas.

      • This is an argument that any density maximums should be a) regionally consistent and b) never change.

        Human settlements change. Humans like to bet on changes. I don’t see any of those ever changing, so why have we straitjacketed ourselves into a legal regime that denies both of these things? The answer to speculation on zoning changes is not to double down on zoning and make it ever more restrictive, it’s to do away with it entirely.

        • I assume you mean for residential and some commercial land uses. You are correct in that zoning is far too codified and rigid. The pendulum has swung too far towards over-regulation. However, in our frustration it’s easy to forget that zoning exists for a reason. Without it, you’d better hope nobody discovers any pockets of LNG or coal seams under Mount Pleasant.

      • Speculation does happen as you posit, but that’s not the point. The author makes this assertion from the perspective of maintaining ‘affordability’. Militantly protecting the existing, lower-density zoning around a desirable area in proximity to transit and walkable urban amenities does nothing for affordability either – it just raises prices for everyone. It’s a disingenuous argument crafted to push emotional buttons and preserve the neighbourhood in amber. Prices and affordability be damned.

        It’s preferable to have speculation AND new units than just speculation on the ever-increasing value of a few precious-snowflake houses.

  3. Elizabeth Murphy seems to be doing her best to preserve current RS zoning under an impenetrable dome, and she’s incongruently using affordability to defend this point of view.

    My issue with that is the majority of RS lots occupy over 370 m2 of land, and collectively over 70% of all the private land in Vancouver. That is 50+ square kilometres of land devoted to only a third of the population, even with basement suites and lane houses. It is impossible to adequately address housing “affordability” without addressing this basic geometry. The value attached to the land is, on average, the most outrageously expensive component of RS-zoned property. The structures are quite affordable on their own.

    If you want affordable housing then:

    * Do not treat land value as though it was identical to housing value. They are two components of one thing. Different types of housing occupy different amounts of land, and their values are therefore relative.

    * Stop expecting land values to dramatically decrease. They won’t, at least not dramatically, because there is no new land to develop. Supply and demand are separate considerations from speculation, and speculation is an additional layer on top of land supply which will remain in place no matter how many taxes are imposed on speculation and foreign money.

    * Learn to divide high priced RS-zoned land into more pieces. Single-family, ground-oriented attached housing is one of the biggest steps one can take in that regard while preserving neighbourhood character. So is subdividing full lots into half lots. These are just two examples of a vast middle ground that has been as yet not addressed. I note that the Grandview Woodlands plan widely calls for duplex zoning throughout the RS zone.

    * The estimates for the “million more people” will continually change with every new calculation and census. Today it’s a bit lower for the same period. So what? They will still arrive, and that must be planned for regardless of the year. The estimate could also go up.

    These are a few of the elements missing, perhaps purposely, from Murphy’s analysis.

  4. Thomas Beyer said:

    Changing zoning i.e. add high density is no problem in general. However, it appears that in Greater Vancouver the coordinated transit funding is not taken seriously, i.e. the city gets more revenue from higher density yet pays ALMOST NOTHING towards rapid transit infrastructure. Adding a few more buses and bike lanes don’t cut it. Where are the rapid transit lines, i.e. subways in denser parts of Greater Vancouver in E-Van ? in N-Van ? in W-Van ? at UBC ? in S-Vancouver ? in S-Richmond ? And in between ?

    Liveability is seriously eroded by adding more people but not capacity for them to move around. Any road space has three levels: surface, below ground and above ground. Why is this not used more ?

    It is failed politics to just ask the feds and the province for more money when the decision to add capacity is only in the cities’ hands !

    We appear to have a TOTAL DISCONNECT in Canada between feds, provinces and cities on RAPID TRANSIT funding, as evidenced by daily grid lock in N-Van, W-Van, towards UBC, in E-Van, in S-Vancouver and in S-Richmond and everywhere in between.

    ==> Is this merely a Vancouver thing, or is our taxation policy failing CANADAWIDE as it appears to be the case also in other cities, like Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton or Montreal ?

  5. There’s an staunchly illiberal streak to these folks opposing development and upzoning. As if they know better where people ought to live. The fact is that people want to live on The Drive, and we should allow the market to accommodate that. As commentors have aptly noted above, zoning is merely a constraint, not an impetus.

    Yes, we are relying on “simple supply-and-demand economics”. To suggest this economic theory no longer reflects reality is an pretty bold claim. I think the burden is on Elizabeth to explain how the price dynamics work in her imagined economy.

    Uncertainty causes market speculation. “Speculators” put their money in properties they think are undervalued. In this way the market prices in relevant private information about expected future changes in price. There’s nothing wrong with this.

    Anyways, this speculations is fundamentally a short-term phenomenon. In the long-run, there are two ways to keep prices low: curtail demand, or increase supply. Since the former is impossible and immoral, we should allow the latter to occur.

    Let me conclude with a quote from Milton Friedman:

    “A major source of objection to a free economy is precisely that it gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want. Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.”

    • Thomas Beyer said:

      “A major source of objection to a free economy is precisely that it gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want. Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.”

      Sounds like the 2040 Transportation Plan .. void of any subways in E-Van, to UBC or on the north shore in W-Van and N-Van .. bikes and (diesel) buses to the rescue !!

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