Making a STIR
At least three STIR applications have popped up at the fringes of Norquay, just outside the boundaries of the “neighbourhood centre.” STIR means Short Term Incentives for Rental Housing. STIR is a scam that rewards developers with a rich package of fee waivers, favorable property tax assessments, parking reductions, and priority permit processing. To juice up the deal even more, developers also score “increased density” and “discretion on unit size.”
What do present Vancouver residents get in return for these giveaways? “Supporting the development industry to maintain jobs”! Having to pay an increased share of the property tax burden. New dwelling units that rent out for whatever the market can be made to pay. And a deteriorated public realm, with development that does not pay its share for any of the supporting infrastructure (water, sewer, streets, etc). Perhaps worse, there is no funding — not even the pittance of a token CAC — to increase amenities (parks, community centres, pools, ice rinks, libraries, etc) in step with the additions to local population. Thus are the assurances of a Community Vision treated like trash. To add insult to injury, STIR projects tend to land in unattractive locations, to design out-of-scale to surroundings, and to feature cheap and ugly construction.
In the case of Norquay, STIR amounts to one more slap in the face, making the notion of a “neighbourhood centre” look even more phony than it already does. Planners claimed to want to create a denser walkable village, and therefore to need to mass rezone 1900 single-family homes. The Norquay Plan claimed: “The existing RS-1 zoning is maintained for the majority of the surrounding areas” (p. 19).
The reality is that there is no planning worthy of the word, no centre to the neighbourhood, and no rationale for allocation of density. Opportunism rules. So a developer wants to plop some no-context density outside the “neighbourhood centre” area? Well, planners seem to think that is hunky-dory. Because all building everywhere is good. Wherever new construction can crowbar its way onto a site, the bigger the better.
Surrounding Norquay are these identified STIR projects:
The closest STIR project to the official Norquay boundary is 2730 East 41st Avenue. That is the one that gets a closer look here. Walk north across East 41st Avenue and bingo, you have left STIR and entered Norquay. The project was called 5711 Rhodes Street when it went to the Urban Design Panel (UDP) for review. [Side note: UDP “advice” has no teeth: “The Panel is strictly an advisory body and makes recommendations only. It does not have the authority to approve or refuse projects or make policy decisions.”]
On 4 May 2011 this STIR project squeaked its way past the UDP approval vote, with a bare 6 to 4 of the panel stating support. Prior to that voting, the panel was told that since STIR is a special expedited program, there would be no opportunity to vote nonsupport and then to exact a further review. (Even so, one panel member did complain: “Needs one more iteration.”) The UDP minutes tone down the negativity of the set of panelist responses. The Panel’s Consensus on Key Aspects Needing Improvement lists five problem areas — problems that may never be addressed with much more than a smirk and a wink and a rubber stamp. See what gets built.
Based on observer notes taken at the UDP review, together with the UDP minutes themselves, here is a tally of the nastiness in store for 2730 East 41st Avenue, aka 5711 Rhodes Street:
• Color Disaster: A weird bright mixture of blue and red cladding. While some third-rate designer may have had “creative” fun, the surrounding neighborhood will have to suffer eyesore atrocity forevermore.
• Monolith: This building will loom above the surrounding residential neighborhood. “Transitions” to adjoining properties are brutal, especially to the west (panelists harped repeatedly on the failure of the western face).
• Exterior Cladding Is Crap: In the soft words of the UDP: “There was some concern with the materials especially the Hardi panels with most of the Panel stating that the aluminum transition was a poor way to detail the panels.”
• Ugly Face to the Street: Two panelists remarked on the heaviness of the roof line. Others mentioned “too busy” and “broken façade” and “faux material.”
• Not a Place for Retail: As one UDP panelist put it, “Who would go there?” Norquay Working Group got told by planners that East 33rd Avenue could not become Norquay’s high street because moribund retail was already strung along Kingsway. Therefore a one-mile strip of Kingsway had to become the “neighbourhood centre”! Now this new retail is being allowed to locate in a hinterland.
• No Decent Landscaping or Public Realm: In the soft words of the UDP: “A couple of Panel members suggested additional vertical landscaping on East 41st Avenue and thought some street trees would be appropriate.” The project also proposes to leave an “undeveloped laneway” as weedy no-man’s-land south of the building.
• Dark Dwelling Units: In the soft words of the UDP: “There was some concern regarding the livability of the residential units along the lane as they thought they might be dark.” One panelist commented that south-facing bedrooms were not a good use of that available light.
The summarizing words from the UDP chair at the meeting seemed stronger than the minutes express: The commercial space is “questionable.” The west elevation is a “problem.” The trees not planned for are “essential.” Strong colors resulted in “division” among the panel. The project is a “big jump” for a single-family neighborhood. The “pervasiveness” of the Hardi finish requires mitigation (one panelist described the Hardi as “singularly unsuccessful … looks like a rental building”).
The evident low quality of this STIR project is one more solid piece of evidence for the dossier on how Norquay and East Vancouver are being treated like a density sewer.