Council moves to avoid repeat of McRae battle

Vancouver City Council today finally brought an end, with a split vote,  to one of the most contentious development battles in the city’s recent history, approving the form of development for 1450 McRae Ave. on the northeast corner of Shaughnessy at Granville at 16th.

But an amendment proposed by Mayor Gregor Robertson won unanimous support. It seeks options from staff to slam the door on any repeat of the fiasco, which saw the mobilization of hundreds of Shaughnessy residents in opposition to the unprecedented townhouse development.

Why the anger? There were many reasons, but one stood out. Despite the FSD’s openness to increased density through infill housing, it very clearly rules out townhouses. The McRae project entails the destruction of many trees, the construction of 14 townhouses with 49 underground parking spots, and the restoration of a heritage home.

Despite strong advice from the city’s legal staff that council had little option but to approve the form of development — the very last in a line of decisions which is normally a purely formal rubber stamp  — Councillors George Chow and David Cadman voted no. (NPA councillor Susan Anton was absent on civic business. )

The Mayor, along with councillors Jang, Louie, Stevenson, Deal, Reimer, Woodsworth and I, voted yes, aware that the mayor’s amendment was next.

I have no issue with townhouses, I live in one. But if the FSD is to have any meaning, I would not expect to find any in Shaughnessy. (The developer believes his plan respects the spirit of the plan, but few residents, if any, agree.)

So the decision of Sam Sullivan’s NPA council to push through a comprehensive rezoning of the parcel, carved out of the FSD, triggered outrage in Shaugnessy and some of the longest public hearings during the last council’s mandate. Hundreds turned out in opposition, almost none in favour. But the NPA majority, opposed by Vision and COPE councillors, drove the project through.

The challenge for the new council: what, if anything, could be done? With the rezoning in place, the options were limited. In July, the matter was referred to the Development Permit Board for advice, but it considered only the very narrow question of whether or not the plans matched the zoning approval. Clearly they did.

They did not, however, fit the First Shaughnessy District Plan. The FSD, adopted by council in 1982, entrenched an element of community control over local development. It was the mother of all community plans.

As John Punter, the historian of Vancouver’s city planning, has written, “a decisive moment in Vancouver’s planning history occurred when the Non-Partisan Association mayor and council decided that existing residents and property owners in neighbourhoods should be allowed to choose their own forms of zoning and design guidelines.”

As Punter notes, there is much to be critical of in these community plans, but they exist. In my view, the NPA’s decision to trample on the FSD undoubtedly had consequences at the polls in 2008.

The McRae project managed to struggle through, but the battle it required raised fears across the city that neighbourhood plans arent’ worth the paper they are written on. Until some confidence is restored, making the changes the city needs to become more affordable and sustainable will be much harder than they should be.