Green-washing greed: Lies, density and development in Victoria

Guest Column

A large issue in this municipal election is reconfiguration of the city, apparently with the assistance–even advocacy–of city council and staff. Neighbourhoods are told this has to happen, that the city needs to accommodate tens of thousands more people. They are told that they can attempt to influence how this happens if they play ball. They are also told that if they do not agree it will happen anyhow. Resistance is futile.

It takes some time reading back and forth in the Official Community Plan (OCP) to determine how this imperative materialized. Page 33 of the OCP states that the city could grow by at least 20,000 people in the next thirty years with full development of existing zoning.

This bears re-stating: With no changes to zoning in communities at all, Victoria could grow by at least 20,000 people. Somehow, this growth projection has been used to manufacture a necessity to grow by altering zoning throughout the city. Could grow is represented as must grow.

Consequently, we are no longer planning for an increase of 20,000 people: the number we are now planning for is much higher and has not reached a limit. City council adds zoning density throughout the city at every meeting.

It is true that very gentle increases in zoned density can work in many neighbourhoods. Households are smaller than they were 50 years ago so existing infrastructure can cope with changing large houses into duplexes and triplexes provided issues identified by neighbours are addressed. This is not the same thing as turning Cook Street into a wind tunnel of five storey buildings.

The urban village model is also part of the problem and the vehicle through which lies about growth are manifested. The idea that urban villages can be created within metropolitan areas originates with redevelopment of former industrial lands. It also has been used to curtail urban sprawl in rapidly growing cities by constructing denser suburbs. Interestingly, the academic jury is still out on whether any of these developments, anywhere in the world, actually accomplished any of the associated social goals.

This is at least partly because the term has been used repeatedly, successfully and globally, by developers to reduce resistance to urban redevelopment. As far as I can tell, the original idea was never intended to apply to dramatic reconfigurations of existing neighbourhoods. We are not the first people to fall for this, and may not be the last. Urban villages are supposed to be a green solution. How can destroying mid-market rentals on Cook Street to put up massive condos–likely purchased by out of town owners–be green?

The irony is that we already have urban villages. We are a community of communities. The horrible paradox is that the developer abuse –and council ignorance– of the term has significant negative impacts on the existing urban villages. We see no developer funding of genuine community amenities that would be part of a real urban village development. No parks. No community centres. No new transportation systems. Nothing.

Truthfully, we can accommodate significant growth in Victoria beyond the projected 20,000 people. There are even areas in the city in which it might be worthwhile to attempt a genuine urban village development. But we do not have to destroy neighbourhoods to do it. All of this comes down to zoning. Zoning belongs to all of us.

Zoning is a community owned resource. Zoning represents the agreements Victorians have come to over more than 100 years as to what can and should happen in their neighbourhoods. Zoning has a value. Re-zoning can create enormous value by dramatically increasing the amount a developer can build. In effect, it amounts to creating more land. Re-zoning can destroy value by devaluing the land around a new development. As a community we have never been adequately compensated for the alterations in land use that happen around us. Neighbours and neighbourhoods have never been compensated for the negative impacts on them.

The rezoning of our city without compensation borders on theft. How much? Recent community benefit payments to Tofino, North Vancouver and other communities suggest that we have missed tens of millions of dollars in municipal revenue.

We are already aware that our current city government cannot manage expenditures without going tens of millions of dollars over budget. That they have also missed out on a significant source of revenue we could use to manage the infrastructural projects needed to support growth, is even worse.

Bruce McGuigan is a candidate for mayor of Victoria.