Vancouver is a city of extremes, from nowheresville in the 1970s to the world-class destination city of today. One of the few constants has been freelance journalist and Vancouver political commentator, Frances Bula. Frances returns to sit down with Adam & Matt to discuss all things Vancouver, from how the city’s past can help shape our future to grading the newbie city council to lamenting the city’s latest squeaky wheels. Frances knows and she pulls no punches – not that she ever has!
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Frances is a freelance journalist who covers urban issues and city politics. She primarily works with the Globe and Mail, along with Van Mag and BC Business. After obtaining a degree in French literature and a background in commercial fishing, she became a journalist. Frances has covered city politics for the past 25 years and was with the Sun during that time. Her coverage includes a huge range of issues because of what city politics encompasses here – a lot on drug policy in the downtown eastside and inevitably, development.
She is not a real estate or development reporter but does write about the intersection between them and city politics, which these days is very interesting all around the region as new councils struggle with how to deal with our housing crisis.
Vancouver is seen as a leader in North America and around the world in terms of things like drug policy, which evolved way past what other cities were doing – we were the first North American city with a supervised injection site because the problem here was so extreme. Housing is the same. Because our issues are so extreme, the City is pushed into taking action in ways other cities are only now looking at.
On why Vancouver is so extreme in these types of issues and has become an incubator for new ideas:
It’s funny – Vancouver was definitely nowheresville in the 1970s – an overgrown Port Hardy. Frances met people in Europe that had no idea where Vancouver was. They only heard about a documentary on the heroin use on Granville Street.
In the 1980s the province was declining; resources were struggling, and people felt like they needed to attract something new to the province, so there was huge engagement with Asia and getting Asian capital here. We saw Expo ’86 and the sale of Expo lands, and we saw the city really start to change after that. Populations started to come back from the declines of the ‘70s. It’s a port city, and drug issues are always big in port cities; ours just accelerated.
Vancouver is an interesting incubator, especially in city development—a lot of city planners had ideas of what they wanted to do with their cities, but they didn’t get the flow of capital that Vancouver did. What really made Vancouver fascinating for developers, planners, and architects was 1) the combination of a council willing to encourage development, 2) land that could be developed (e.g. the old industrial land around the downtown edges), and 3) a lot of money coming in to finance it. These three things combined accelerated Vancouver way past other cities in terms of experimentation, development, and city building.
On the foreword Frances wrote for former Chief Planner Larry Beasley’s book, Vancouverism:
Frances had been talking to Larry for years when he was Chief Planner at the City, and he’d always wanted to write a book. The foreword looks at Vancouver up until the 1980s, when the paradigm of “Vancouverism” emerged, residential living downtown, etc. It was fascinating for Frances; she dug out old articles about the West End in the 1960s and read a 700+ page thesis on Vancouverism. She was reminded of what a conflicted relationship Vancouver has always had with development—there has been spurts of it and then resistance to it. The portrayal of Vancouver in the 1960s is a working place where anyone can have a house and a yard, while there were actual shanty towns along the waterfront. There was a big contrast. Frances always thought the reason the City was comfortable with the density produced when the industrial lands were developed around downtown (Coal Harbour, North False Creek, etc.) was because people thought the West End was a great model and wanted to emulate that.
However, when she looked back at history when council was developing the industrial lands, she noted that the West End was a hated neighbourhood—people were concerned about traffic, prostitution, and poverty, and there was a fear of it, in a way. When the fist inner-city piece of land was developed, in South False Creek, the new council of 1972 halted all development in the West End. They were anxious about too much density. This is why we see smaller buildings, like two-story townhouses and lots of parkland. There is actually more space per person there than in most suburban developments, because the City thought families wouldn’t move there if it was too dense.
On the level of agreement in the past vs. the debates of today:
When the council got elected in 1972, there was a popular revolt against the NPA. It was seen as pro-development, pro-freeway, running through neighbourhoods, and there was a power movement against them – in many cities – led by such things as the Jane Jacobs resistance to highway building in New York. This happened here, too. Development was halted in areas like Kits and Point Grey in the ‘70s. There are very few high-rise towers.
In the 1980s and 1990s, development was funneled into industrial lands where no one was living, which was very convenient for the City: they didn’t have to disrupt single-family neighbourhoods. There was amazing consensus between developers, councillors, planning staff, and the public about how to develop the area, and it was easy to do because there was no neighbourhood resistance. Everyone forgot this was not the norm in Vancouver and there were typically fights over development in other areas. Then, developers started to run out of available sites near downtown and went into communities, which was at the same time you saw a movement to praise density in cities as a good environmental move (something former mayor Sam Sullivan was behind). The conflict started building up again, as these areas hadn’t seen anything higher than a three-story building in 40 or 50 years.
Something else Frances found on the history of the West End is that people were talking about ideas that we think of as “Vancouverism” of the 1980s. For instance, in the 1960s an architect talked about the ideal form being a tall tower with townhomes at the bottom. He believed we need to pay attention to the street level and that it should be very friendly and accommodating—some of the Vancouverism ideas emerged from this. Vancouver’s geography had something to do with it, too.
In Seattle and Portland, you saw a burst of apartments in the 1920s-1950s, but they never developed an area like the West End. The thing about the West End is its proximity to downtown but also ocean, beaches, and parks. This created an extremely desirable area to live. Even in the 1960s, a certain number of downtown finance workers started to occupy the apartments there, especially near Stanley Park. It was a great candidate for density, but then people saw the problems of traffic, poverty, and sex trade workers into the late 1980s.
On who the heroes are of Vancouver’s urbanist past:
There are many. Larry Beasley credits them in his book, particularly Ray Spaxman who was a director in city planning brought in by the new team council. He set a culture of creating development to increase density but done in a way that was neighbourly—he always insisted on not just putting up huge buildings and ignoring the impact on the surrounding street level. Many people give him credit for the tone that he set. It was a tough job and he was threatened to be fired every week—the mayor was impatient and wanted so many things to change immediately. He didn’t understand, for instance, why the development permit board took so long to get set up or False Creek development took time to begin. He operated in a way to make sure things functioned and ensured that everyone had a say. This was opposite of the way the NPA in the 1960s operated, as though they knew what was best and everyone should stand aside and wait.
On if Vancouver’s affordability and housing issues of today remind Frances of another time in the city’s past:
In some ways it feels like a resurgence of what happened before the development in downtown areas. When Frances started at city hall in 1974, everyone was recovering from the effort to plan a new neighbourhood around the brewery near Arbutus and 12th (which now has apartments and a senior’s residence). There was a huge, huge fight in that area and people were exhausted. They were looking for other ways to deal with development, which is when Gordon Campbell came up with a big city plan.
However, it’s different now for a few reasons. One is social media—neighbourhood groups in opposition to specific things are often formed this way—they only attract those with the same viewpoint. When Frances covered city hall there were many neighbourhood associations, but they were a wide group covering many issues. You barely see these types of associations now; Dunbar and Commercial Drive are probably the last groups that still draw from a wider population. We’ve also seen the arrival of a younger generation of people really impatient with what’s going on. Some of them associate with the YIMBY movement (“yes in my backyard”, which started in San Francisco), but it’s really younger people (millennials) in many expensive cities that suddenly have a voice. They want the city to make room for people like them and feel it can’t just be about preserving heritage homes and large yards. This leads to a different dynamic at council, but the social media aspect can make things quite toxic.
On how different this was from the need in the 1970s of those who wanted townhomes, and what drove that:
Until about five years ago, all Frances heard at hearings were homeowners saying, “we don’t want X because renters are evil”, “there will be more crime with rental buildings”, “there will be more noise on our street because of more garbage delivery”, etc. If it was social housing or for developmentally disabled people, organizations would actually have to come out and say they really need it. Things were very dominated by specific parts of neighbourhood groups that didn’t want change. It’s really different now to have the younger generation, not affiliated with any group, collectively ask for projects that support their peers to stay in the city.
And millennials in cities around the world are perhaps getting strength from each other through social media—both go hand in hand.
For sure. Frances follows YIMBY groups and sees people in different cities supporting each other. There have been a couple of national conferences where people get together and bolster each other. It helps neighbourhood associations draw likeminded people, so they are reinforced in their attitudes of what they think is acceptable. Both think their positions are right, so there is an inevitable clash.
On how unique, or not, Vancouver is with the YIMBY movement and the issues it faces:
Richard Florida, an urban theorist in Toronto, says what everyone is grappling with is the move of the creative classes to superstar cities. Everyone floods into a few cities, which is the dynamic of our economy: the singers and artists at the top make a fortune, and everyone else makes nothing. These cities get tons of people and the midwest or prairies get depopulated.
Although we think of Vancouver as different and unique from many of these cities, many struggle with the same issues we do (like San Francisco, Denver, Toronto and New York):
That’s what people are trying to understand – where Vancouver is like everyone else and where it’s different. Frances has talked about the “global housing flu”: there is a global phenomenon of housing prices accelerating way past local incomes. This is happening in many cities, worldwide.
People struggle with our situation and how much foreign capital adds to this. Some people think it drives everything here. Frances would love to know how Vancouver is different from other cities with increased unaffordability and homelessness. There is a difference with the foreign capital attracted here (likewise, for instance, Miami attracts a lot of South American capital), though many people feel it doesn’t completely explain things. Foreign capital comes to where domestic capital also likes to speculate and invest. We seem to think we’re unique in Vancouver and this is somewhat true, but we share a lot with many cities. We are more open to density than San Francisco but we tend to think no other city suffers the way we do.
On how Vancouver’s city council is doing, so far:
They’re still struggling with newbieness, as many councils around the region are. Surrey’s council is fractioning, for instance. In Vancouver, it’s new people of no one party in charge. They all want to make their mark, so council meetings have turned into marathon sessions, lasting as long as three to five days, as everyone wants to make a motion on their particular issue. There’s an uncertain voting pattern. The mayor, Kennedy Stewart, keeps trying to assure people it’s not as bad as they think, most development projects are still getting approved, and the city is still functioning. However, there is a lot of anxiety about things getting turned down and questions arising at council meetings, such as whether they should approve projects if even one low-cost rental unit will be eliminated as a result.
This anxiety came to a head last week when council voted not to approve a 21-unit townhouse purpose-built rental complex on Granville Street, in Shaughnessy, because it was next to a hospice. This was seen as a real crunch vote; council split on it in odd ways. Two NPA councillors voted for the project and three voted against. The Greens voted against. Rents were seen as too high ($3,500 for a three-bedroom). It was a problematic sign of how wobbly the council is and what might happen with development.
People are still waiting to see the long-term trend and whether things will get approved and go through like they used to or if high-profile projects will get picked off and generate massive opposition. It’s very uncertain. Developers jump through hoops to put in the exact specs needed to get projects approved, and they still get shot down. In this example, the rhetoric really built up on both sides: people at the hospice became convinced the developer would turn around and sell the townhomes to be flipped and converted into market housing. This doesn’t mean projects shouldn’t get turned down, but this one seemed ominous as the developer did everything they asked and were providing rentals, albeit expensive, in an area that largely has huge mansions.
Some people don’t understand what it takes to cover development costs and think developers can easily go back and build something affordable; they don’t understand the economics of building. Some people don’t like the “supplyist” narrative, but what happens if we don’t have these types of townhomes is people that want to stay in the city will go and take over houses that had two or three suites, remodel them, and make them townhomes. Gentrification or upscaling of housing happens whether you build new stuff or not, if people want to live in the city. If no new supply comes in, people fix up old supply. When this quieter gentrification happens, no one needs a development permit. Tenants get kicked out and single-family homes get developed.
On whether developers leaving the city (due to opposition to projects and high building costs) and how the city has developed will, over time, create a risk to Vancouver, and if the developer-City relationship poses a problem in the long-term:
Frances isn’t sure she buys the “we’re packing our bags and leaving the city” narrative. People like to say that, but she just saw a long list of rental applications come in. It does, however, eliminate some of the smaller players that don’t have the institutional strength to fight the City for two years. It favours the bigger developers who can just bide their time. Also, where are these developers going? Burnaby, for instance, now has extremely stringent rules around development and what you have to provide for rental housing. The District of North Vancouver is turning things down, as are Vancouver and West Vancouver. Port Moody and Port Coquitlam aren’t so sure about development. It’s becoming difficult throughout the region and Frances wonders if it will force development into places that are relatively open, like Coquitlam, Surrey and Richmond.
It may slow it down somewhat but returns in Vancouver have been pretty good—Vancouver typically has more development than everyone else combined because people want to be here, so returns have been great. If it’s a choice between a 20-story tower in Vancouver or Coquitlam, developers will choose Vancouver despite the higher costs because they can charge more and get much higher returns. This has kept developers here and as long as they can continue to profit, they’ll stay.
On if Vancouver is in a better place today than it was two to five years ago:
No. We are still muddling our way through. There is no clear path forward or common understanding of what we are going to do. There is a romanticized idea of what a city plan can do (i.e. “there will never be another development argument if one is adopted”), but we haven’t had a good, common discussion about where we’re going and what we’re trying to do. Frances once spoke to a planner about the idea of a 30-year plan and how many more people we want to absorb in the city, but what about the 30 years after that and the following 30 years from then?
City councils of the past have not been really clear in explaining the long-term future of Vancouver. Is there a point that they should say we’ve packed in as many people as we can, and in order to remain a livable city, we must slow things down? The upcoming city plan will be a good discussion to try and hash some of this out, rather than with Twitter wars where no one convinces anyone of anything.
Maybe we’re putting historical timelines on things: right now, we’re in a muddling period and don’t know what the next iteration or era looks like. This will take time.
Yes. We haven’t had a big public conversation about, say, how much we’re willing to accommodate resort people. For instance, we built Coal Harbour which is basically a resort for people from Ontario, Alberta, the US, Asian countries, and other places. Do we want our city to be a resort and, if so, how much of it?
It’s very hard to tell the impact of the foreign buyers’ tax because we’ve seen declines in other cities that don’t have it. Frances thinks it’s probably had some impact, but that’s just intuitive and she doesn’t know how much because there’s clearly something going with the decline of housing prices in cities worldwide, and places like Australia already had foreign buying limits before. Something else is going on.
In that case, maybe 2016 wasn’t the end of an era.
That whole period was a reassessment of where Vancouver is going. In the early 2000s, Bing Thom, our beloved architect, started raising the issue of if Vancouver was becoming a resort and investment city. He came to regret the way it turned into an anti-Chinese conversation. This has been happening for 20 years and we still haven’t sorted out who we are as a city. There are local developers and marketers who think Vancouver has no economy outside of selling condos to foreigners. Frances doesn’t think most people here would agree with that or want to see policies to facilitate more of that.
- Favourite neighbourhood in Vancouver: Frances likes different neighbourhoods for different things and loves that Vancouver has multiple personalities. Kits, the downtown waterfront, and Strathcona, for instance, are so different. Besides her own neighbourhood of Main and Fraser, Frances spends a lot of time in Strathcona/Chinatown.
- Favourite bar or restaurant: Sushi Yama, in her neighbourhood.
- First place she brings someone from out of town: It depends on their interests. Her friends from Denver are fixated on Richmond’s great Chinese restaurants. Frances has never been to the Capilano suspension bridge. She loves the walk from Steveston to the Japanese boat building and canning factories on the river.
- A piece of advice she’d tell her 18-year-old self: Frances wishes she would have been more aware of what she wanted to do in life and focused on that, rather than experiencing so much. Also, she would have bought a house in Vancouver much earlier!
- Something she’s purchased for under $500 recently that’s positively impacted her life: Her iPad changed her life, but this was over $500 – as are most things that have changed her life. She’s been doing sound therapy with brass balls, which has been fantastic. It induces a meditative state that’s very helpful.
To learn more about Frances and her writing: visit her blog and archive of her stories at www.francesbula.com. She is in the Globe and Mail, and she has an upcoming profile of Doug McCallum in BC Business.