British Columbia

To build or not to build: The one election issue in play across Metro Vancouver

When the region's 2.5 million people choose their mayors and councillors on Saturday, there won't be just one list of candidates. But there will be one overriding issue.

Development and the pace of growth has become the dominant issue in most municipalities

The benchmark cost for an apartment on the West Side of Vancouver is $804,100, according to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Metro Vancouver is 21 local governments, not one municipality.

It means that when the region's 2.5 million people choose their mayors and councillors on Saturday, there's not just one list of candidates.

But there is one overriding issue : the pace of growth.

"It's all fine and dandy to be working with developers. But it's another thing to be listening to the community," said mayoral candidate Rob Vagramov in Port Moody. 

"There are people who are frustrated. They see their community as almost overrun by towers now," said Darryl Walker, challenging in White Rock. 

"The developer community is scared to death that you are sick and tired of this [growth]," said mayoral candidate Kerry Morris in the District of North Vancouver.

Call it what you want: urbanism vs. conservationism, neo-liberalism vs. populism. elites vs. anti-establishment. 

Whatever the case, in Metro Vancouver municipalities that make up 80 per cent of the region's population, one of the main candidates for mayor (or parties running for council) make the same argument: growth needs to be slowed, towers need to be shorter, and the current leadership spends too much time listening to developers and not enough time listening to people.        

And it's making some of the departing mayors, who created that growth, nervous.

"I am worried about what happens around the region," said outgoing Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.

"We have to work as a region on this. We have a strategy we've agreed to ... and I hope whomever's elected, that they continue to support that work regionally."

Tower trouble

Greg Moore, the outgoing mayor of Port Coquitlam and chair of Metro Vancouver, says that strategy is pretty straightforward.

"It boils down to we're growing as a region. We've been growing for a long time, and what's the smartest way to grow as we move forward? To me, that means building density around SkyTrain stations, limiting our urban sprawl, and focusing our growth around new areas in Metro Vancouver," he said. 

That philosophy, shared by virtually every mayor in the region, is nothing new. But in the last four years, a number of things have changed. 

"The results now are really apparent, particularly along SkyTrain lines and regional town centres. It's very visible how the growth has been concentrated but spread out at the same time," said Gordon Price, a former Vancouver councillor who has been an urban planning expert for decades. 

And though towers are up in places they never were before — or higher than they ever were before — the benchmark cost of an apartment in the Lower Mainland has nearly doubled since the last election, from $343,300 to $674,700 (according to the Greater Vancouver Real Estate Board). 

It's led to plenty of would-be politicians to conclude the system just isn't working. 

"It's the cost, but the instability of that choice, mixed in with the challenges of getting around the region, as well as compressed with the challenges in terms of economic development," said Andy Yan, director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University. 

And all that angst worries him.

"It's dogma and reaction that I'm concerned about," he said.

"We're connected, and the city region falls apart if we think of ourselves as bastions, instead of this network of interdependent systems of cities and nodes, and I think that's one of the major challenges ahead of us." 

A 2018 report from Andy Yan, director of The City Program at SFU, shows Vancouver has the biggest difference between median incomes and median home prices of any Canadian or American metropolitan area. (Andy Yan)

How much will things change?

Still, many of the biggest advocates of the region's pro-growth agenda say they're not worried in the long term, even if much of Vancouver is governed by people who criticize its philosophy.

"We're going to be struggling with it for awhile, but at least we get a sense of where the temperature is," said Price.  

"That reality of now another generation not having anything like the expectation of the previous one, that's where the politics are ... but almost all of the people I've seen running, they're committed. They're running for good reasons."

Moore believes people in favour of the current growth strategy, including the development community, need to do a better job of communicating.

"We're building sub-regions within Metro Vancouver, and I don't think people are really knowledgeable about the benefits and why we're doing it," he said. 

But Moore's sanguine about the long-term changes. Metro Vancouver's regional growth strategy can't be changed without unanimous consent, so while councils could vote against rezoning decisions, he believes people would build in a neighbouring municipality instead.

After all, people will likely always want to come to Vancouver. And elections only determine who's in charge for four years. 

"What we've tried to do is create really good policies," he said. 

"Hopefully, things like that can't be undone very easily." 

The area around Metrotown has seen an influx of condos in recent years, including one that is the headquarters for Metro Vancouver's regional government. (Justin McElroy/CBC)
 

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About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.

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