British Columbia

Vancouver's plan to build desperately needed high-density housing, and why not everyone is on board

A plan to build highrise towers in an already densely-populated area of B.C.'s largest city is raising questions about how urban centres can be livable and affordable as populations grow.

City expects 1 million new residents in 30 years and hopes a new subway line can be the key to housing them

Construction is well underway for a 39-storey tower at the corner of Broadway and Granville Street. (Courtney Dickson/CBC)

A plan to build highrise towers in an already densely-populated area of B.C.'s largest city is raising questions about how urban centres can be livable and affordable as populations grow rapidly in the coming decades.

With a new subway line being constructed under Broadway, a busy Vancouver street that runs through multiple neighbourhoods, city planners have seized on the opportunity to increase the amount of housing in one of Canada's most expensive cities.

The Broadway Plan calls for existing homes along the line to be replaced with multi-storey towers, able to accommodate up to 50,000 more residents. Mixed-use developments as high as 40 storeys may be allowed near SkyTrain stations while older rental stock, often small 10-unit buildings, could be replaced by housing developments between 15 and 20 storeys.

The plan comes at a time when affordability is a major issue, not just in B.C. but across the country: municipal, provincial and federal governments are searching for ways to increase housing stock and, they hope, reduce the cost of living for average Canadians.

The area is currently home to more than 78,000 people, and according to Mayor Kennedy Stewart, about 25 per cent of renters in the city live along this corridor. The proposed changes would add up to 30,000 homes over the next 30 years. 

A fight over the future

But some existing residents are concerned about affordability and increasing density as this particular neighbourhood is home to many older, small apartments that don't cost renters their entire paycheques, unlike other areas on the west side of the city. 

Residents against the Broadway Plan gathered for a rally on May 7 outside city hall. (Jane Frost)

Last weekend, a rally was held outside city hall by people arguing the city's draft plan would fundamentally alter the nature of the city.

"We want to stop the concrete canyons," said organizer Bill Tieleman, who said highrises would be out of reach for many residents. "We already know that new buildings in Vancouver are very unaffordable." 

Tieleman, a former NDP political strategist and a lobbyist who owns West Star Communications, said he organized the rally for personal reasons, as he and other members of his family live along the Broadway corridor.

But people in favour of the project point out the Metro Vancouver region is expected to grow by one million residents over the next 30 years and housing is already hard to find. Services such as a hospital and city hall are both located in the area. Urban planners say it makes sense to create housing opportunities there. 

The streets around Broadway are lined with small, relatively affordable apartment buildings. (Courtney Dickson/CBC)

"If we don't do this, then what?" said Charles Montgomery, an urbanist who lives in Vancouver.

"It's essential that we build more housing, multi-family housing, especially close to the places where people are working."

City of Vancouver planner Theresa O'Donnell says the Broadway area accounts for about 20 per cent of the city's growth.

The neighbourhood is also home to more than 84,400 jobs, with as many as 42,000 jobs being added in the next three decades. 

An illustration from the Broadway Plan shows the intention to bring in new highrise buildings around Broadway to make way for more housing and job opportunities. (Broadway Plan/City of Vancouver)

Protections for renters

The city also promises not to displace existing residents. Stewart says the plan has been amended to "include the strongest protections for renters in the country."

If a renter is required to relocate, they will either be "generously compensated," or guaranteed the right to return with rent at or below their current rate.

The new Broadway subway line is under construction and is expected to be operational in 2025. (Courtney Dickson/CBC)

Project director Matt Shillito says anyone who is temporarily moved due to development will go through a needs assessment to figure out what kind of space they require when they return to ensure they move back into a unit that suits their lifestyle.

He said 35 per cent of the units will be required to be two-or-more bedrooms to accommodate families.

But the Vancouver Tenant's Union isn't convinced the city will actually protect renters.

"Renters have built their homes and these communities in Fairview and Mt. Pleasant. It's up to renters to resist the oncoming gentrification and displacement," organizer Mazdak Gharibnavaz said in a statement.

O'Donnell acknowledged residents' concerns around displacement and change but told residents it will be a slow process. 

"When you look at it now, it might seem like a lot, but over 30 years, it won't. We're not asking this corridor to do more than what it can reasonably do."

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With files from The Early Edition