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Speaking notes for multiplex public hearing
[Update: passed unanimously!]
There’s a public hearing for the city of Vancouver’s multiplex policy on Thursday September 14. I’m signed up to speak (#6). I usually call in, but this time I figured I would try putting together a slideshow and speaking in person. If council is a captive audience, I might as well give them something to look at.
[Slide 1] Hi, my name is Russil Wvong. I’m here to speak in support. I’m a member of an informal pro-housing group called VANA, the Vancouver Area Neighbours Association. Although I’m a homeowner myself, I know a lot of people who are not. It feels like younger people and renters are being steadily crushed because housing is so scarce and expensive.
[Slide 2] The city of Vancouver needs a lot more housing. About 15,000 additional homes, per year, for the next 10 years. Right now, single-detached houses and duplexes occupy 80% of residential land in the city. It’s like we have a downtown core, surrounded by a sea of suburban neighbourhoods.
[Slide 3] High-rises add more housing, but they take a long time to plan and build. To rapidly respond to the housing shortage, we need a lot more low-rise and mid-rise housing that you can approve and build much more quickly, more like a single-detached house. The multiplex program is a modest step in this direction.
Opponents are concerned about increased demand for street parking. I'd encourage council to leave it to each project to decide. In a location where parking is valuable, say because it’s far from transit, people will be willing to pay for off-street parking. You don’t need to force them by making it mandatory, which makes all projects more expensive.
I would also encourage mayor and council to keep moving forward, instead of just approving this program and then stopping. A lot of people have observed that the floor space limit is very restrictive. Naturally that raises the question of how high it should be.
[Slide 4] Generally speaking, where land is expensive, you want to allow more floor space, which means more height and density. That way, each household can consume less land.
People want to live where they have easy access to jobs. So in a central location, where more people want to live, land prices will be higher. That’s why the city of Vancouver is more expensive than Surrey. For a new project, it’s typical for land to be 20-25% of the total property value. So then the total property value is 4-5X the land value.
[Slide 5] To give a specific example, say there’s an east side 33-foot lot that’s worth about $1.5M. You’d expect to be able to build a multifamily property worth a total of $6M or $7.5M. At roughly $1000 a square foot, that’s about 6000 to 7500 square feet of floor space.
On a 33-foot lot, with 50% site coverage, that would be three or four storeys. This is a sketch by Bryn Davidson showing what a three-storey tri-plex would look like. It’s similar to what you see in Montreal, with each 3BR apartment taking up the entire floor.
Under the current program, the land value is more like 40% of the property value. Whoever ends up living there, whether they’re owning or renting, will be paying for twice as much land.
[Slide 6] If you choose to keep moving forward after this: multiplexes are one form of gentle density, but there’s a number of other possible options, like small apartment buildings. The key thing is to make these buildings legal by right, so that they don’t have to go through the slow and painful rezoning process. It’s not possible to micromanage each and every project.
It’s really important to note that staff cannot make significant changes without political direction and involvement by mayor and council. There’s ongoing negotiation and back-and-forth that has to happen.
One key bottleneck is that in order to support redevelopment in low-density neighbourhoods, you need to make sure that sewer upgrades are happening at a reasonable pace. This is part of the capital plan, but it seems like the sewer upgrades are falling behind schedule.
Development charges, like CACs and density bonus fees, make fewer projects economically viable. This slows down the new housing that we desperately need.
One final point is that for small-site development, it helps a lot if you can have a single staircase instead of a hotel-style layout with a long hallway. On a small site, that hallway takes up a lot of expensive space. Seattle has allowed a single staircase since 1977. What Montreal did was allow for a second staircase that’s on the outside. Vancouver has its own building code, so it could do either of these things, but again, staff would need direction from council to do this.
Thank you for your time.
Multiplex policy update from city staff, February 2023
Multiplex design concepts from Bryn Davidson, February 2023
Simple pro forma for a multiplex, February 2023
Video: Economic viability of infill housing, February 2023
Email to the city on proposed multiplex policy, March 2023
Staff report on Vancouver multiplexes, July 2023
Opposition to multiplexes
Having listened to a lot of public hearings, I think opponents sincerely believe that they’re opposed to excessive height, but what they’re actually fearful of is change to their neighbourhood. When opposing a high-rise they’ll argue for mid-rise buildings (see the Jericho Lands); when opposing a six-storey building they’ll argue for four or five storeys; now they’re opposing multiplexes.
Problem is, the neighbourhood becoming exclusive and super-expensive (like an exclusive country club) is also a major change.
This time around, I’m not sure how effective the opposition will be. Colleen Hardwick, the mayoral candidate most aligned with their views, got only 10% of the vote in the 2022 election.
Surprise! You have six new neighbours — all without a place to park. Carol Volkart in the Vancouver Sun, August 2023.
CityHallWatch. “If City Council passes the proposed changes, there are likely to be dramatic changes in neighbourhoods, for better or for worse, on 60,000 lots in Vancouver, most (but not all) south of 16th Avenue. You can bet that the vast majority of owners and renters in these areas have no idea what is about to unfold, and will be surprised when changes and disruptions start to appear.”
Upper Kitsilano Residents Association. Note that the multiplex policy excludes a lot of Kitsilano. “The public should think about the environmental harms the Middle Missing Housing plan will wreak upon Vancouver.”
Brian Palmquist. “Can we trust that this was not Council’s intent and that they will defeat this assault on our city?”