Does this Vancouver debate over density sound familiar?

Battle lines are being drawn over the development/redevelopment of Vancouver neighborhoods around light rail stops. Does this sound familiar?

First, here’s a quote from a University of BC Planning Professor referencing the “rage” felt by residents when their planning processes are betrayed. Shades of the Roosevelt neighborhood? But in Vancouver, BC, it’s in reference to plans for 22-36 story towers around “Skytrain” stops including Grandview-Woodland and other lower density areas including historic Commercial Drive where now there are 2-3 story storefronts along that street with single family homes on either side:

“The rage generated by this feeling of impotence can sometimes seem incoherent, leaderless, unfocused — but the rage is real and it’s powerful enough to threaten established governments. This rage seems particularly acute when democratic practices have been subverted — when leaders present a face of community connection and a commitment to consultation on the one hand, but are driven by external motivations which have only a limited connection to immediate local needs and current democratic processes. In the case of Vancouver, it feels particularly heartbreaking to many.”
– Professor Patrick Condon is chair of the Urban Design Program at UBC’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.

The details about the tower debate in Vancouver is fascinating in its parallel’s to the debate currently being had in Seattle: what is the role of the community in defining their neighborhood? can you achieve adequate urban density without luxury residential towers? what is the best way to support mass transit systems and how does their addition change neighborhoods?

And did you know there are similar highrise towers planned for Seattle’s U-District and possibly elsewhere.

Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD) has a draft plan they’re circulating for the University District calling for highrise towers rising 240′ – 300 feet covering nearly all of the neighborhood west of “the Ave” from roughly 43rd to 47th , areas now containing hundreds of affordable lower density apartments (most 2-4 stories), single family homes (most now offered as lower cost rentals), and duplexes/triplexes. This area is now zoned for a maximum 40′ to 85′.

These zoning changes would wipe out the UDistrict as we now know it, it’s character, and affordability. It’s a plan that bares no relationship to what the neighborhood wants or needs, or the reality that the area now is already redeveloping at an accelerated rate under the existing zoning. The UDistrict’s 20-year growth targets have been already greatly exceeded, and still there is excess development capacity under current zoning.

The draft plan from DPD contains lots of discussion/rationale attempting to justify (i.e., sell) their “bold new vision”. Right now its only a draft, but neighborhood residents are likely unaware what is being proposed for them.

What’s needed now is not another upzone but more mitigation of current impacts on this community under the current zoning. We’re losing hundreds of low income units to redevelopment, traffic/parking has become unmanageable, small businesses are closing (many displaced by new development), trees and open space are being lost, and longtime residents are moving out.

All this presages, without a doubt, what’s to come for other areas of our city. It’ll only get worse for all of us unless we do a better job of responding collectively to this pell mell rush for runaway density without full community engagement, complete assessment of infrastructure and community amenities necessary to support higher density, and addressing the displacement of residents now in affordable housing.

[guest post by John Fox and the Seattle Displacement Coalition, whose offices are in the UDistrict. August 28, 2013]

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