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Too dense? Too sparse? Two minds.

By Emma Caplan

It’s interesting to hear the shared, and often strong, opinions of many economics and real estate professionals (for instance, Tom Davidoff, Andrey Pavlov, Scott Brown, Jens von Bergmann, and others) that say Vancouver needs more supply-side policy – that we’re simply not keeping up with housing demand, we’re not dense enough, we need more multi-family housing, etc., etc. Yet, contrasted against municipal policies that dictate just the opposite, this may not leave Vancouverites with much more than confusion.

The staggering imbalance between residential-zoned land without apartment buildings (generally anything more than three suites per lot) and various other allowable uses, including multi-family residential, is succinctly illustrated in this map from GRIDS Vancouver and recently featured in Ken Ohrn’s article.

A clear example in line with this is the issue presented in a recent article by Kenneth Chan about the City looking to abolish an approved 2011 policy that allows for denser redevelopments in Chinatown through added height (in response to pressure from anti-development activists). Chan mentions this policy was adopted with the intention to help revitalize Chinatown through increased population (a great example of the densification Vancouver needs). Since 2011, six new mixed-use projects have been approved or completed, totalling 550 new housing units.

The City admitted these redevelopments have created “more vibrancy to the neighbourhood, especially at night with new restaurants.” However, despite this positive start and for several reasons, the City went ahead and approved the new redevelopment policy on July 10. According to Chan’s follow-up article, it will:

  • Restrict maximum building heights to 70 feet, with unspecified conditional allowances to up to 90 feet, for the area defined as HA-1A Chinatown South (the previous limit was 120 feet),
  • Restrict the number of floors that can be squeezed into the specified heights, with limits of five floors within 50 feet and seven floors within 75 feet for HA-1 Historic Pender Street, and six floors within 70 feet and eight floors within 90 feet for HA-1A Chinatown South,
  • Restrict building widths to 50 feet or 75 feet, depending on the zoning district, as measured from the streetfront, and
  • Ban the ability of developers to use on-site or cash contributions towards heritage, cultural, social, or affordable housing elements in exchange for greater height allowances.


Vancouver has at least some density. A neat example was Tweeted by GRIDS Vancouver: There are 4 massive 1911 (approx) houses at 14th and Quebec, clearly all identical when first built. About 2x as dense (FSR-wise) as what’s allowed in Vancouver RS zones today. Yesterday’s cookie-cutter McMansions eventually become today’s dense+cheap ‘neighbourhood character’.

Unfortunately, smaller-scale solutions like this just isn’t enough. As pointed out by Anne McMullin of the Urban Development Institute, “We believe the previous Chinatown area plan, approved in 2011, struck a positive balance between heritage preservation and the need for revitalization to accommodate population growth and support local merchants. At a critical time in our region’s housing crisis, we need to be trying to accommodate more housing options, not even less than were previously approved.”

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