British Columbia

548 letters, 9 hours of speeches, 1 rezoning: Are public hearings an effective way to rezone Vancouver?

On Thursday, Vancouver is expected to vote on whether to rezone a plot of land on Granville Street - which sits next door to a hospice - for 21 town homes.

'You actually get pretty exhausted by the end,' says city councillor

A rezoning application is underway for a proposal that would turn a single-family lot on Granville Street into 21 townhomes in two buildings, each between 2½ and 3½ storeys high. (City of Vancouver)

Vancouver's longest-serving councillor admits that by hour 14 of a council day, listening to concerned citizens arguing why things should or shouldn't get built can get tiring. 

"It does take its toll. And you actually get pretty exhausted by the end," said Adriane Carr. 

"It is hard physically to just sit there that long, as well, and pay close attention to what people are saying."

On Thursday, Vancouver is expected to vote on whether to rezone a plot of land on Granville Street, next to a hospice, for 21 townhomes.

It will come after councillors have attended three separate public hearings spanning around nine hours, and reading — in theory — 548 letters sent by members of the public. 

As the matter is still before council, Carr can't say how she'll vote. But she does wonder if the public hearings format is the most effective way of getting to a yes or no answer. 

To build, or not to build 

Public hearings are required in B.C. whenever a municipality wants to modify what a property can be used for. Most are relatively quick, but divisive ones can go on for days.

And the proposed rezoning of 4575 Granville Street, in the southern end of Shaughnessy, is plenty divisive.

Those in favour of rezoning argue Vancouver needs more rental housing, particularly for families, and must densify both arterial streets like Granville and single-family neighbourhoods on the west side of the city in general. 

Those against the development say they aren't against rezoning in all cases, but the proposal doesn't work for the specific site, is too tall, won't make Vancouver more affordable and infringes on the privacy of neighbours — in this case, the Vancouver Hospice Society, which has been operating for five years.

Which means it's pretty much like every housing debate the city has seen in the last four years, except it involves both a hospice and Vancouver's richest neighbourhood, creating heightened emotional stakes.  

Form letters effective, or self-defeating?

Adrian Crook is no stranger to the public hearing process: as a founding member of Abundant Housing Vancouver (AHV), a group that advocates for redevelopment and greater density in the city, he's been at plenty of meetings over the past two years. 

Often, he attends with several other members of his group — even if they don't live in the area where the development is planned — and organizes a letter-writing campaign in an attempt to balance what he argues can be a skewed process.

"It's unfortunate the way it's set up," said Crook. He said the public hearing process can be difficult for people with children or full-time jobs to attend, and writing letters are the only substitute they have for engaging in the process.

Of the 287 letters sent in for the rezoning, 133 came from an automated form created by AHV. Some might wonder if it creates a case of diminishing returns, but Crook argues it's necessary.  

"I'm aware that council is hard pressed even to get through their sort of briefing binder every week let alone read every letter, but it's important to recognize that there are real individual people behind every one of those letters," he said. 

"We're not recruiting stooges."

Vancouver councillor Adriane Carr says she looks for individualized letters from the public over those that have been submitted through a form. (CBC)

City-wide plan to raise the stakes

Carr believes public engagement has increased because of the minority council in Vancouver: with no one political party holding a majority of seats, people believe their respective positions could have a greater impact. 

"There hasn't really been block voting on many issues ... so that must be inspiring the public to say, 'wow, I feel like I've got this real chance to influence the outcome,'" she said. 

Carr also hopes the upcoming city-wide plan reduces the number of contentious rezoning hearings that take place. But Crook isn't certain that will be a panacea. 

"I think on [both] sides, people in both those constituencies look at a city-wide plan as their salvation. And the problem is neither side knows if they'll be right in seeing that as their salvation," Crook said.

That will likely encourage all housing advocates to bring large numbers of people, and write large numbers of letters, when the city begins its plan in earnest. 

Which means the only thing certain in Vancouver's housing debates over the next few years could be more drawn out public hearings. 

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