How former Vancouver city planners would have done things differently

Ann McAfee grew up in the 50s and 60s, when Vancouver was an entirely different place from what it is today. It was “an unspectacular city in a spectacular setting,” she says.

From funding the missing middle to asking more of developers, former city planners address affordability

Ray Spaxman, left, Ann McAfee and Larry Beasley are all former directors of Vancouver's planning department. (CBC)

Ann McAfee grew up in the 50s and 60s, when Vancouver was an entirely different place from what it is today. It was "an unspectacular city in a spectacular setting," she says.

"I can remember in the 50s, when False Creek was all industry and pollution everywhere, and my dad had to walk home in front of the car with my mom driving because you couldn't see — it was a London pea soup," McAfee told CBC News.

And so it's no surprise that in her 32 years working at city hall, first as senior housing planner and then as co-director of planning, a major focus was making Vancouver a nicer place to live. McAfee helped catapult Vancouver to the top of global "livability" lists, but in the meantime, rents and real estate prices were creeping ever higher.

"We were so busy patting ourselves on the back, we probably should have been much more serious about what senior government programs, investor programs" meant for the city, she said.

McAfee is one of three former Vancouver planning directors who spoke with CBC about how they would have done things differently if they'd known how unaffordable housing would become.

Each has different ideas, from better long-range planning to a stronger focus on housing for middle-income families, but they all share a sense of dismay about the current crisis in Vancouver.

An aerial photograph shows downtown Vancouver in the 1970s. (Gordon Sayle/City of Vancouver Archives COV-S167---: CVA 515-7)

McAfee, who co-directed the planning department from 1994 to 2006, says the city should have paid closer attention to federal initiatives like the Investor Immigrant Program, which attracted big money from overseas.

"It's only now we're talking about speculator taxes and taxes on non-resident ownership. That discussion should have happened in the 1980s, early 90s, when those programs were starting to encourage money to come in," she said.

But her regrets don't end there.

The city should have also pushed harder against the federal government when it backed away from funding co-op and non-profit housing in the 1980s, and lobbied the provincial government for more help, McAfee said.

The missing middle

Her former co-director of planning, Larry Beasley, has lingering regrets about how Vancouver negotiated density bonuses for developers — the contributions that companies make in return for being allowed to build extra density beyond what the zoning allows.

"We had all done the calculations on how much wealth was being created as you allow people to go from industrial development to high density housing…. And we scratched our heads and we said, well, what else is it that the public might need?" he said.

Vancouver City Hall as it appeared in 1996. (City of Vancouver Archives COV-S62-1---: CVA 296-097)

The city settled on requiring contributions toward amenities like libraries and public spaces, as well as sites for low-income housing.

"What we should have said in those meetings: Why don't we try some middle income housing as well as low income housing?" Beasley said.

Those density bonuses nag at McAfee, too.

She wishes the city had required developers to actually build rental housing on the sites they provided.

"We probably should have pushed harder," she said.

Planning for the future

McAfee and Beasley were preceded in the planning director role by Ray Spaxman, who held the job from 1973 to 1989.

Spaxman said it would have been impossible during his years in city hall to predict where things were heading. The federal government was still in the housing business and foreign money was a relative non-factor.

Downtown Vancouver is seen behind construction along False Creek at Seventh and Spruce in this image from 1976. (Ernie Reksten/City of Vancouver Archives AM1551-S2-: 2010-006.313)

His real regret is what he sees as a lag in long-term planning for housing needs — and the lack of information provided to the public about the latest research on the housing crunch.

"One of the purposes of the planning department is to look ahead ... and report on what appears to be happening," Spaxman said.

"With the housing circumstances, there was a time, some long time ago, when it was obvious that things were going wrong, and it would be important then to be able to discuss in the community what was causing those things to go wrong."

But in the end, city planners only have so much power. The ones with the real ability to change the direction of a city are the elected officials, says Spaxman.

"The planners, they don't have sole control over what they look at. They make a report to our community leaders, who are the councillors, and our community leaders give them [the planners] the direction as to what they can do," he said.

If you are interested in housing affordability, check out CBC's new podcast, SOLD! Host Stephen Quinn explores how foreign investment in real estate divides community, class and culture. Find it at CBC Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.

About the Author

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Reach me at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.

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