Good News

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A January 2014 development application for 4730 Duchess Street was the first to come in under new RM-7 zoning (2013) enabled by the Norquay Plan (2010). The application proposed to construct six stacked townhouses on a single shallow lot. This form on this site could have set disastrous precedent. City of Vancouver staff paid attention to detailed and considered comment on the application. Approval with conditions call for the project to conform to the intent and spirit of the Norquay Plan. Norquay residents applaud City of Vancouver staff for listening to concerns expressed about this significant case.

The Incident

Residents of Vancouver are often left to wonder about particular negative impacts that their neighborhoods suffer at the hands of the City of Vancouver. Is there any use in trying to confront problems? Or will the municipal bureaucratic machine simply steamroll over any concerns?

Norquay’s history is littered with significant past abuses. The outstanding example is the October 2010 last-minute package of “considerations” that were crudely pasted onto the Norquay Plan — right at the end of more than four years of process. Abuses like this have contributed to hopelessness and burnout.

In April-May 2013 new zoning schedules were approved for Norquay, complex new documents that specify details that will impact the area’s 1900 existing single-family homes. Many of the development proposals that have come forward since that time have matched plan expectations, and passed without comment at Eye on Norquay.

But in January 2014, a potentially precedent-setting proposal called for and met with strong response. The first application under RM-7 zoning sought to slap the stacked-townhouse form onto a single land parcel whose proportion and location were clearly better suited to the traditional rowhouse form.

     4730 Duchess Street

Thanks in part to strong response by Norquay residents and by city hall watchers across Vancouver, the City of Vancouver recognized that conditions needed to be placed on the application to bring it into line with what the Norquay Plan intended. Much credit is also due to City of Vancouver staff for recognizing undesirable consequences and rectifying the situation.

This was a huge piece of good news for Norquay, a strong indication that having a plan in place may mean that the Norquay Plan will come to be more respected as new developments occur. (This particular outcome is especially welcome in light of the disheartening plaza travesty that was perpetuated in the 2013 rezoning of 2220 Kingsway.)

The Context

In the recent history of Vancouver planning, Norquay occupies a singular position as harbinger of what other local area plans may expect to experience.

With the Kingsway and Knight “neighbourhood centre” plan, the City of Vancouver first set its sights on already-developed residential Vancouver. The unhappy result has already been documented in detail.

As a latter-stage member of the Cedar Cottage Vision Implementation Committee, Joseph Jones witnessed these fallouts:

          A strong tilt toward developers and developer interests
          Lack of perspective that would have insisted on plan completion
          No will to continue despite City of Vancouver determination to kill vision implementation committees
          No real monitoring of plan implementation to ensure accountability

Norquay Village Neighbourhood Centre followed close on the heels of Kingsway and Knight. In spring 2007 the neighborhood strongly rejected a cookie-cutter draft plan cobbled together in haste. At the same time planner hubris was kowtowing to unapproved EcoDensity with intentions to start up two more “neighbourhood centre” plans in 2008. In the wake of Norquay resistance, the City of Vancouver abandoned comprehensive local area planning in favor of a model that better supports carving out corridors and open-ending opportunities for spot rezonings. In the next “plan,” for Mount Pleasant, the City of Vancouver fumbled through a one-off jello-inspired transition to the current batch of four simultaneous new community plans. Three of those four have been executed in 2014:  West End, Downtown Eastside, Marpole. Grandview-Woodland remains in notorious contention.

The Lesson

The big lesson that can be extracted from the foregoing is that only what a plan specifies has any hope of controlling what a plan delivers. That hope, unfortunately, relies on constant ongoing monitoring of how zoning schedules are being applied as development proceeds. (As important, and far harder, is reviewing newly written zoning schedules before they are approved at public hearing. The time frame for doing this tends to be impossibly constricted.)

In the absence of external scrutiny, even the specifics of “plans” get subjected to creep, elasticity, conditionality, and discretion. It is the business of developers to learn their way around City Hall. For mere residents, barriers to learning and the associated time expenditures usually prove prohibitive to even making an attempt to follow what is happening.

The playing field is harshly tilted, and developer goalposts are firmly positioned at the uphill end of the playing field. What the City of Vancouver allows to be built tends to become precedent for what the next development applicant will want to build. Thus can a “plan” become a springboard.

Newer plans, despite their turgid reams, may specify less. (The Mount Pleasant plan is infamous for lacking numbers for height and FSR.)

In sum, the price of seeing appropriate neighborhood buildout is perpetual unpaid vigilance on the part of local area residents.

Our Letter

This is the text of the letter that was emailed as soon as possible to our list of Norquay residents and supporters.

8 June 2014

Dear Friends of Norquay,

We are delighted to share some extraordinary good news about a recent City of Vancouver response to strong and numerous comments on a particular precedent-setting development that was proposed for Norquay.

In February 2014 we sought all possible support in making critical comment on an application to build six stacked townhouse units at 4730 Duchess Street. [ This was the story: ]

This application, the very first one in Norquay’s new RM-7 zoning for Rowhouse/Stacked Townhouse, could have set a disastrous precedent.

The builder’s proposal disrespected both the intent of the zoning (far too little open space to blend with the physical character of the neighbourhood) and specific zoning guidelines (living spaces too narrow, units too small, insufficient daylight in some rooms, inadequate storage).

The City of Vancouver recently decided on the application. Although it has been “approved,” a set of conditions redefine the project and address concerns that were raised. (A copy of the City of Vancouver prior-to letter to the applicant, which sets out the conditions for final approval, is attached to this email [not reproduced on website].)

The first condition states that the applicant must undertake

        significant design development to reduce the number of principal dwelling units to no more than
        three, in a rowhouse typology;  (Note to Applicant: Further, each principal dwelling may be equipped
        with a lock-off suite in the basement level. After extensive staff review and consultation with nearby
        residents, it appears that this site is unsuitable for a 6-unit stacked townhouse development due to
        the sloping topography and shallow depth of the site. Further, the reduced requirement for bicycle
        storage will allow a greater area of open outdoor space in the rear yard.)

The condition means that three traditional rowhouses, rather than the six stacked townhouse units originally proposed, will be built on this site. This outcome is consistent with the preferences expressed by residents during the Norquay planning process. The stacked townhouse typology was developed expressly for deeper lots, while shallow lots like this one were considered to be more suited to traditional rowhouse development.

A large number of formal comments made to the City of Vancouver by both Norquay residents, and by others across the entire city, appear to have been critical in leading the City to this decision. We say a very big THANK YOU to all who contributed.

The City of Vancouver listened to the voices of its residents in this case. We take heart from this result, which strengthens our belief that serious monitoring and considered comment can in fact make our neighborhood better.


Jeanette and Joseph Jones


Written by eyeonnorquay

12 June 2014 at 8:35 pm

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