August 25, 2017

Sweetening the density deal


How to make re-zoning more appealing for single-family neighborhoods

By ANNE McMULLIN

You don’t see single-family homes in centuries-old world-class European and North American cities such as Paris, London or New York. Instead, you see a blend of row homes, townhomes, duplexes, high- and low-rise apartments, many of them just a short walk from the local Metro station. That’s because integrated transit, housing and commercial/retail space has more economic benefit to a city than simply adding highways that create urban sprawl and congestion.

Our Metro Vancouver region’s homogenous, restrictive single-family home area occupies 85 per cent of our residential land base. But truly vibrant communities offer choice in housing options with a blend of retail for young and old alike. Some hard work will be involved convincing single-family areas of the merits of additional housing options. If we want people to like something, we should also offer them a “sweetener,” such as a new community centre, public park, day-care centre or desired amenity. 

Communities are often opposed to density because they believe they’re being saddled with added parking problems, congestion and competition for existing amenities. Meanwhile, communities like Dunbar and West Vancouver see declining populations because the average person can’t afford to buy the single-family homes there any more.

Paris vs. Metro Vancouver Could Metro Vancouver become the next Paris, West Coast style?

  • Paris has a population of nearly 2.3 million in an area of 105 square kilometres. That’s 21,904 people per square kilometre.
  • Metro Vancouver’s population is slightly larger at 2.4 million, but spread out over 2,882.68 square kilometres. That’s 832 people per square kilometre.

Municipalities and developers are often the only ones who profit from the land value financial boost caused by re-zoning for more density and multi-family dwellings. Sometimes, local single-family homeowners band together as part of a one-off “land assembly” and sell to a developer as a block to get that additional land value profit. Then comes the long, contentious public hearing process before the land is rezoned. That can take years to complete and adds to the developer’s carrying and construction costs, which are eventually passed on to homebuyers.

Some municipalities, such as Burnaby and Coquitlam, avoid NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) opposition to density by pre-zoning. This ensures a fixed land value profit from rezoning is shared among the city, developer and the resident homeowner, getting those multi-family residences built more quickly at less cost. The benefits are profound.  Not only do homeowners receive additional cash for supporting multi-family rezoning, they can downsize—called aging in place—to a brand new apartment in their neighbourhood. Plus the area receives more amenities, such as pools or day cares, through fair and transparent bargains often enshrined in Official Community Plans.

Local municipal planning consultant Jay Wollenberg says successful density plans must work in the interest of all participants in the development process. A Plan Canada Summer 2016 article quotes Wollenberg as saying: “Find the win-win-win where rezoning gives land owners incentives to sell their property into the development market, developers see benefits in increased density and the local government achieves amenities that meet the needs of new residents and address community concerns without loading all of the cost onto taxpayers.”

This isn’t a social experiment, but a tried-and-tested approach to housing affordability challenges. Our entire region could see a multi-family makeover with a financial incentive and a community benefit. •

Anne McMullin is president and CEO of the Urban Development Institute, an association of the real estate development industry, which supports more than 220,000 B.C. jobs plus billions of dollars in economic activity. Through municipal fees and contributions, the industry funds the construction of daycare centres, social housing, parks, public art, museums, schools and community centres throughout B.C.

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