The debate over density at 1201 Fort is sure to repeat itself across the City of Victoria
VICTORIANS CROWDED INTO CITY HALL on April 12. They stood in hallways, craning to hear the speakers in the council chambers, or downstairs, watching a live stream of the meeting on a TV in the foyer. The agenda package was 2,311 pages long — nearly 2,000 about a proposed development for 1201 Fort Street, the site of the former Victoria Truth Centre.
“This has been an emotional journey for everyone,” said Mike Miller, president of Abstract Developments. In the two years since he’d bought the two-acre property, he told the council, he’d held 20 meetings with the neighbours and revised the project six times. One six-storey condo building faced Fort Street, but he’d reduced another to four storeys, and scaled down the size and number of townhouses facing Pentrelew Place at the back, cutting the total units from 94 to 83.
An artist's rendering of Abstract Development's proposal (centre of image) for the former Truth Centre property on Fort Street
“I’ve truly given all that I know to this application,” Miller concluded. “I do understand this can be a trying process. However, the passionate dialogue has been invaluable, and I feel has resulted in a better project.”
Then dozens of citizens came up to speak. A large majority supported Miller’s project — a procession of architects, planners, contractors, realtors, and residents of other Abstract buildings, talking of the urgent need for more housing, and the quality of Abstract’s work — a sampling of the many allies Miller has made since he renovated his first house in Burnside 20 years ago.
But the speakers’ list was also peppered with those who lived next to 1201 Fort, and had written many of the letters filling the agenda package. They said they weren’t opposed to development, but saw no benefit from this project, which they said would generate noise, traffic, parking conflicts, and require cutting down protected Garry oaks and sequoias.
The main thrust of their complaint, however, was that the project violated the City’s own planning documents. According to the Official Community Plan (OCP), nearly three-quarters of the site is considered “traditional residential”, and zoned R1-B, “single family dwelling”. Abstract wanted a new site-specific zone, adding to some 650 already in Victoria’s bylaws, putting the four-storey building on land meant for houses. As Jamie Hammond, representing the Rockland Neighbourhood Association, told councillors, “If this is approved here, the question becomes for residents across the city: Where else is this acceptable?”
Signs of neighbourhood discontent are sprouting up as fast as projects bringing increased density to residential neighbourhoods are being proposed (Photo by Ross Crockford)
That question is increasingly being asked by Victorians. While some of us are excited by the energy in town, others wonder if our communities are being sacrificed to simply make developers rich and expand our municipal government. Over the past five years, new construction has enlarged the City of Victoria’s annual property-tax revenue by at least $5.4 million. That’s allowed the City to keep a lid (somewhat) on tax increases, but raised suspicion that the City is tempted to amend the OCP and its zoning bylaws at the first whiff of new money.
The OCP, drafted in 2011, envisions 20,000 more people living in the City by 2041. But the 285-page document contains contradictions. On page 25, it says “sufficient zoned capacity” already exists to meet that demand; on page 33, it warns that existing zoning won’t be enough, “running the risk that housing will become increasingly more expensive as available capacity is depleted.” The document envisions 50 percent of new density occurring Downtown, 40 percent in “urban villages” (mainly around Mayfair and Hillside malls), and 10 percent across the rest of the City. It also envisions greater density along arterial roads. That might lead one to expect towers along Douglas Street, or Shelbourne, serviced by rapid transit, but that hasn’t happened. Instead, the push is to build luxury condos on streets bordering established residential districts.
That pressure is splitting neighbourhoods. The Fairfield-Gonzales Community Association has been attacked by some members for failing to criticize controversial developments, such as the five-storey condo block underway at Oliphant in the Cook Street Village. (Board members say such “political” activity would jeopardize the association’s charitable status, which it needs for its child-care programs.) Community associations are supposed to facilitate meetings between developers and residents, but those meetings have become so fractious that, last month, the Fairfield-Gonzales board voted to explore changing or withdrawing its involvement in the City’s development process. Some Gonzales residents have also formed their own association (gonzalesna.ca) so they can voice opposition to the City’s proposed new neighbourhood plan, which would permit row housing throughout their district, and multi-storey apartments along Fairfield Road.
An almost sure sign that the City of Victoria's tax base will soon be increasing (Photo by Ross Crockford)
IF THERE'S ONE THING EVERYONE CAN AGREE ON, it’s that housing in Victoria is rapidly becoming unaffordable to all but a few. The solution, say developers, is obvious: build more supply to bring prices down.
And it’s not just developers. In Vancouver, Toronto, Seattle, and other expensive cities, a YIMBY (Yes, In My Back Yard) movement is gathering force. Mostly comprised of people in their 30s, they’re demanding that cities dump decades-old zoning laws to allow more apartments, everywhere. In their view, it’s hypocritical for owners of single-family homes to preach environmentalism and then oppose density, forcing new housing to sprawl ever farther from Downtown.
The closest thing to a YIMBY group here (so far) is Cities For Everyone, a community organization led by alternative-transportation consultant Todd Litman. He publicly defends the 1201 Fort project — right on a transit and bicycle corridor — as exactly the kind of new density envisioned in the OCP.
“Infill development often does require cutting down trees and paving over lawns, and may increase vehicle trips on a street,” he wrote in an April 9 letter to Council, “but these local impacts are generally offset many times over by reductions in regional land consumption and vehicle traffic that would occur if those households instead located in conventional automobile-dependent urban fringe housing.”
It’s debatable if 1201 Fort will be for “Everyone”: its one-bedroom units start around $400,000. “Although the units in this project will not initially be affordable to low- and moderate-income households,” Litman also wrote, “they will contribute to the City’s overall affordability through what urban economists call ‘filtering,’ which means that increasing higher-priced housing supply allows some households to move out of lower-priced units, and because [construction] depreciates in value over time, so mid-priced housing becomes future affordable supply.”
But not all academics agree that increasing supply will improve affordability. John Rose, an instructor in the department of geography and the environment at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, recently published a paper entitled “The Housing Supply Myth”. Using census data, he calculated that over the past 15 years, Victoria added 27,116 households to its population — but built 30,574 dwelling units.
“We would think that if a market got less affordable, maybe that meant supply was getting tighter and tighter. But that’s baloney,” Rose told the Globe and Mail. “Here [in Vancouver] we’ve had more than enough supply and yet the housing costs have gone crazy.” He said the drivers of unaffordability are mainly on the demand side, such as the “pointless” construction of luxury units, largely created for part-time residents and speculators.
Others argue that if the urgent problem is affordability, we can’t simply boost the supply of expensive condos and then wait (perhaps decades) for their prices to “filter” down to what renters can afford. Provinces and cities are trying to accelerate this via taxes on speculators and out-of-province owners, and greater regulation of short-term rentals. But some say we could also build more affordable housing by demanding greater Community Amenity Contributions (CACs) from projects — something the City has been slow to grasp.
“In stark contrast to other BC municipalities, Victoria has launched itself into a densification plan that will never achieve its rationale of general or specific housing affordability,” wrote Doug Curran recently on Mile Zero Mirror, a local renter-advocacy blog. Curran, who worked as a community organizer in the District of North Vancouver before moving here in 2015, says his former municipality has collected $11 million in CACs from the construction of 777 residential units since 2013, charging about $22 per square foot, and using the funds to build a community centre. If the same metrics were applied to the 4,778 units in the pipeline here, Curran says, Victoria could’ve raised $40 million for affordable housing.
Signs of the times (Photo by Ross Crockford)
Victoria’s current density-bonus policy was only enacted in 2016, and charges $12 per square foot for developments Downtown. City planners argue that’s because real estate is cheaper here than in North Vancouver. But they do admit there are “limitations” to the current policy. If a development doesn’t trigger a rezoning, it isn’t subject to the charges; consequently, several new condo towers Downtown haven’t paid anything towards affordable housing. And if an independent economic analysis says a rezoning won’t produce a significant “lift” in the value of the land — as was the case for 1201 Fort — it’s not required to provide any affordable units. (Abstract has pledged to build 10 affordable rental units in a newly proposed nine-storey building at 1010 Fort instead — a gesture of goodwill that also improves the likelihood of council approving both buildings.)
An improved policy is working its way through City Hall. On March 8, councillors requested an analysis of ways to further increase affordable housing built by developers — including “pre-zoning” areas feasible for affordable units, to speed up project approvals. But in the meantime, the October 20 civic election creeps closer, and Victoria’s politicians are increasingly aware that they will have to justify the current density boom to longtime residents who are likely to vote.
“I don’t necessarily think that council or the City or the community has necessarily done the best job of managing and stewarding change in a way that everyone sees the benefits or that’s sustainable,” mayor Lisa Helps admitted to the Times Colonist in February — right after councillors voted down a 44-unit rental apartment block proposed for a residential section of Burdett Avenue, and opposed by 150 petition-signing neighbours. “That’s something that I’m grappling with right now as I kind of prepare for the [election] campaign. There’s a lot of change going on. How do we make sure that as change is happening, everyone is heard and everyone benefits?”
Partway through the April 12 hearing, I stepped outside. Lots of people were out strolling, enjoying the evening, and I walked over to The Drake, a newish microbrew pub on Pandora. The place was packed, almost all people under 40. I sat beside three young professionals who’d all moved to Victoria in the past two years. They were from Edmonton, Toronto, and Albuquerque, working here for government, in finance, and in tech. They said they loved Victoria and wanted to stay, but it was nearly impossible to find a place to live.
I forgot to ask if they planned to vote in October. I must be getting old.
UPDATE: ON MAY 3, VICTORIA’S COUNCIL VOTED 6-3 IN FAVOUR OF THE DEVELOPMENT PROPOSAL. For: Helps, Alto, Coleman, Loveday, Lucas, Thornton-Joe. Against: Isitt, Madoff, Young. (Video here; click on item D4 in the agenda.)
“This is a hard decision,” said Mayor Helps, who introduced the motion to approve. “We heard a lot of conflicting views,” she noted, echoing the two truths in the title of the article above. “We heard, on the one hand, that [the proposal] fits the spirit and intent of the OCP, and we heard, on the other hand, that it doesn’t .... We heard that it’s incompatible with the vision for the City and the neighbourhood. And then we heard from others, almost using the exact same language, that it is compatible.”
“So when there’s this amount of direct disagreement, it makes it difficult for Council to make a decision,” she continued. “And this is where we have to use all of our own thinking and knowledge and experience that we believe and find not only about the future of cities in general but this one in particular.”
The mayor said the current zoning wasn’t appropriate, as it wouldn’t protect the trees, and allowed eight single-family dwellings plus a four-storey block on Fort. She said the revised proposal was much better than it was when it first came to the City, and would put most of the parking underground, with an entrance off Fort. She also noted that the site was on a transit corridor, and cited Todd Litman’s letter in favour of increased density along such routes.
Most important, though, was that advocates from “Generation Squeeze” came out to speak in support of the proposal. “They’re looking out for the people who are coming after us, who are being squeezed out of housing, who are being squeezed out of affordability,” Helps said. One opponent had pointed out that the smallest condos in the proposed development would have to rent for at least $1,600 a month, an amount far out of reach for anyone earning the median income in Victoria of $45,000. “But actually this isn’t true,” Helps said. “The general rule is that no one should spend more than 30% of their income on housing. But the other thing that’s emerging is a more nuanced approach to affordability, and that is, no one should spend more than 45% of their income on housing and transportation combined. And so if you live in this area, you can easily take transit or walk or bike, and so your transportation costs, if you work downtown, would be zero dollars.”
Helps’ motion to approve the development passed. But it turns out the units will be even less “affordable” than she thought: the developer is now taking registrations for “pre-sales pricing”, which starts at $550,000 — far higher than the $400K the developer ballparked in 2016.
The presumption that one’s transportation costs will be “zero” in such a location may also be more “nuanced” than the mayor allows. A new study says there’s almost no relationship between lower personal spending on transportation and neighborhoods with better bus connections; far more important is the number of adults in a household, how many children they have, and their annual income. In other words, those who can afford one of these condos are also likely to own cars.
If the City wants affordable housing for “the missing middle”, maybe it should demand that such housing actually gets built.
Ross Crockford is a former trial lawyer, and has received a National Magazine Award for his journalism.
Edited by Ross Crockford