A Moment of Truth: a 7-minute clip

I offer you a moment of truth.
Seven minutes from Meeting #29 of the Little Mountain Community Advisory Group, or as Ned Jacobs describes it: “a key point in a meeting between the CAG and the planners when the question of who is calling the shots was asked, but not satisfactorily answered.”
(see full text below)

Moments like these often end up defining an entire process.
It remains to be seen, what happens at City Hall next week.

Commentary on the Little Mountain Community Advisory Group Policy Statement, by Ned Jacobs:
June 21, 2012

In many respects, the Little Mountain Community Advisory Group (CAG) statement and recommendations are consistent with those of planning staff, but they differ in regard to overall density and building heights.

Planning staff have recommended that density in the range of 2.3 to 2.5 gross FSR be considered. This may not seem excessive, compared to net FSR figures for some recent high-density proposals for a single building or a city block, but the Little Mountain site is greater than 15 acres and will include streets and public plazas, which limit the overall ground coverage to about 40%.

For a variety of reasons specific to this site and its context, as well as the place and functions of the Riley Park neighbourhood in the city, the CAG concluded that density up to about 2 FSR was appropriate, but are willing to contemplate the risks of accommodating density up to 2.2 FSR to achieve key public amenities, or 2.3 FSR on condition that the additional units are non-market to increase social housing on the site. A target of 20% social housing is supported by both the City and the CAG, but cannot be achieved unless the province is willing to subsidize construction of at least 65 non-market units in addition to the 234 units they have committed to replace.

2.2 FSR is 50% greater than what could be achieved under the approved Community Vision Directions, which would limit building heights to 4 storeys and about 1.45 FSR. The difference between 2.2 and 2.5 FSR is significant: nearly 200 units, equivalent to about three 8-storey apartment buildings or at least one additional storey on each of approximately 20 buildings in the site plan. It would likely necessitate accommodating parking and traffic impacts from at least 150 additional cars, and put further strain on already stressed amenities and services. The CAG considers 2.5 FSR to be excessive, and highly problematic.

The CAG studied several existing high density large-site developments in Vancouver. In regard to the Olympic Village, at 2.6 FSR, the CAG concluded that the combination of building heights and ground coverage resulted in an overly canyon-like environment, not well suited for a family-oriented development. Arbutus Walk, at 1.9 FSR, was more comparable to the Little Mountain site in terms of neighbourhood context. CAG participants appreciated the human scale and diversity of housing types, which includes rowhouses, but thought that some of the green space is underused and might have been better utilized as floor space, while reducing the height and massing of an overly dominant building.

In regard to building heights, planning staff recommend that most of the buildings range from 4 to 8 storeys, with up to two buildings of 12 storeys. The CAG recommends that the majority of buildings be in the 4 to 6 storey range with no building greater than 10 storeys (or 100 feet) in order to preserve high quality public views to and from Queen Elizabeth Park, reduce shadowing, and provide better transitions of scale to the surrounding neighbourhood. There was little public support at the open houses for buildings over 9 storeys. The developer, Holborn Properties, is asking Council to amend the staff recommendations to permit consideration of one 14-storey building to provide “punctuation.” It also seems doubtful that Holborn will ne willing to provide the full complement of Development Cost Levies (DCLs) and Community Amenity Contributions (CACs) on the market units and, when it comes to rezoning may balk at the recommendation that all 234 replacement social housing units be built in the initial phase of construction.

Many CAG participants have a strong sense that the City’s “Little Mountain “planning team” is not actually comfortable with the density (up to 2.5 FSR) that they have recommended, but are responding to directions from “higher levels” within the administration. If these directions are in fact coming from the Mayor and/or powers that be on City Council, this is a problem because it means that professional arms length between our planners and our elected officials has been compromised. It was rumoured that on several occasions Planning Director Brent Toderian considered resigning because parts of some planning staff reports had been rewritten in the office of the General Manager and sent back with the expectation that he would “sign off” on them, and that Toderian’s discomfort with this was a major factor in his being fired “without cause.” One CAG member questioned whether the LM density recommendations are “circular”, meaning that the decision-makers are instructing staff in regard to recommendations, presumably to create the appearance that staff supports those decisions. Here is a link to a 7-minute video segment (by documentary film maker David Vaisbord) of a key point in a meeting between the CAG and the planners when the question of who is calling the shots was asked, but not satisfactorily answered. littlemountainproject.com

Ned Jacobs is a founding member of Riley Park/South Cambie Community Visions, Community Advocates for Little Mountain (CALM), and a participant on the CAG.

David Vaisbord
Observer + Participant
The Little Mountain Project

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5 thoughts on “A Moment of Truth: a 7-minute clip

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  3. Seems like the ‘compromise’ all along was not to compromise from 1.45 FSR (4 storeys) up to 2.2 FSR and 6-10 storeys (as the ‘public engagement made it feel). Rather, what the public will be told is the compromise was DOWN from 2.8FSR and higher. Confirms that staff already wanted 2.5FSR minimum for a long time now. I didn’t really expect a reply and expect only the same pre-canned responses anyway.

    Email replies from the City below.

    Thanks Ben.

    I didn’t think (and the community feedback shows this also) that 2.8FSR or any other, much higher densities were even a starting point. According to all the community information from RPSC and CAG (appointed by the City to advise), the starting point was the original zoning of 1.45 FSR and 4 storeys. Coming up to 2.2FSR with 4-10 storeys is already a very big change- bringing it in line with increases in other areas like Arbutus Walk or even Olympic Village. The 2.8 and beyond scenarios were only supported by the developer. A majority of feedback from all open houses showed that up to 2.3FSR or so was the break point at which the public felt any more would be too dense.

    So if the community (CAG and others via Open House feedback) have repeatedly said this is still too dense (2.5FSR- about 70% more dense than current zoning- already a very generous increase), then how can staff claim this is based on “community feedback”? The developer wanting 2.8 or even 3.25 was clearly ‘sandbagging’ to make 2.5 feel like a compromise, which really shouldn’t be considered a comparison. The CAG statements show that the 2.2FSR maximum is a figure that would get almost all community members’ backing. It still points to financial pressure to get to 2.5FSR and maybe even more via rezoning.

    Will the same community concerns and CAG recommendations also be rejected during rezoning? I hope this will not be the case.


    —– Original Message —–
    From: “Ben Johnson”
    To: “DS”
    Sent: Wednesday, July 4, 2012 1:42:06 PM
    Subject: RE: Little Mountain Planning Process


    I’d just like to make a point regarding the project economics. City staff never took into consideration the details of the developer’s financial arrangement with the Province when concluding on an appropriate density for the site as we are not party to it nor do we know the details. We approached the economics of the project based on standard practice, that is, we valued the land based on its current zoning, not the purchase price (which we do not know). The majority of the increase in land value that results from the future rezoning will be recaptured by the City as a negotiated Community Amenity Contribution. The 2.3 to 2.5 FSR range that is recommended in the Policy Statement (and approved by Council) is staff’s recommendation based on 2.5 years of community engagement and design analysis. 2.3 FSR represents the point at with the project becomes economically viable and would deliver the identified community amenities. 2.5 FSR is as dense as the project could get and still possibly meet the urban design guiding principles that were developed in the planning process, and only then with exceptional design. Where reference was made to senior management, it was to state that they had endorsed staff’s position. It is important to recall that the developer was seeking 2.8 FSR in the project, which was already a reduction from some of the densities entertained earlier in the process.

    The design and the project economics will be refined and clarified in the rezoning and I hope that you will join in the consultation during that phase.


    —–Original Message—–
    From: DS
    Sent: Wednesday, July 04, 2012 12:39 PM
    To: Johnson, Ben
    Subject: Re: Little Mountain Planning Process

    Thanks Ben for your reply.

    I have followed along with the Policy report and documents, as well as the Council meeting on June 27th.

    I don’t really have any questions but I do feel the need to repeat what others have said. It’s obvious that the whole time/process of ‘public consultation’ was never intended to allow public input on density and height, since that affects profit and the undisclosed deal with Holborn. I saw at the last Community Adviory Group meeting that you already told that group that the 2.5FSR was a done deal since ‘senior levels’ at the City already have 2.5FSR set regardless of the planning process.

    I really hope this doesn’t results in another even bigger Olympic Village development shoe-horned into this community due to some profits that were never under public scrutiny.

    I would like to see Little Mountain completed and, more dense than the 1.45FSR (obviously), but not at the expense of creating another (potential) eye-sore, which is why I still support what the CAG has been recommending in their statements.

    Thanks again.

  4. Pingback: Little Mountain Project: Documentary filmmaker David Vaisbord untangles the web | CityHallWatch: Tools for engagement in Vancouver city decisions, creating our future.

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