CityCaucus Redux: History of the Olympic Village project, part two

Post by Mike Klassen in

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Bob Rennie, centre, stands with Peter (left) and Shahram Malek
2009 photo of realtor Bob Rennie, centre, with developers Peter (left) and Shahram Malek

We're re-posting our two-part history lesson on the sequence of events that led to Vancouver's Olympic Village disaster as a CityCaucus Redux this weekend. This post was published last September 22th as "Olympic Village decisions defined political differences?" This Tuesday evening COPE-linked ThinkCity and the Planner's Insitute of BC are hosting an "Olympic Village forum," moderated by Frances Bula and featuring Michael Geller as panelist among others. This second of two parts looks the fundamental political divide between the NPA and COPE/Vision when it came to building social housing. COPE wanted sixty-six percent non-market housing on this waterfront location. The NPA wanted twenty-percent. Now with Vision in charge, we're down to only six-percent social housing. We understand how we got here with the history outlined below.


In an earlier post titled Which way out of the Olympic Village mess? we explored how the form of development was a significant factor in making the project at Southeast False Creek into a financial calamity for the City of Vancouver. In this post we'll explore this topic further, as well as discuss the consequences of a massive social component to the project that brought Vancouver's Olympic Village to the breaking point.

What's fascinating about the complex tale surrounding the development of Southeast False Creek (SEFC) is how several political players have conveniently modified their positions over time. Vancouver's Mayor Robertson presents himself as a wise fiscal manager today, but when he was the newly elected MLA for Vancouver-Fairview he seemed less interested in the financial viability of the Olympic Village, and more interested in preserving promised social amenities.

In November 2005 the NPA had won a surprising victory running on a platform of fiscal prudence, and reigning in spending on the Olympic Village project. Mayor Sam Sullivan, Councillor Peter Ladner and their colleagues were left with few options as the clock before the 2010 Games ran out. Their decision was to try and save money on the project by cutting nearly $50 million worth of social amenities layered onto the project.

The NPA's cutbacks met with vocal opposition from Vision Vancouver, and the aforementioned Gregor Robertson. As we see from the recording of that January 2006 meeting, the soon-to-be mayor presented his thoughts on whether council should not spend the additional $50 million, or keep it in the City's Property Endowment Fund (PEF). Robertson awkwardly addressed the room first with a prepared speech, then later gave these off the cuff remarks:

I guess I’d summarize by saying that the amount of dollars in terms of economic sustainability are very small in the bigger scheme of things. When we’re talking about billions of dollars. Certainly tens of millions of dollars that are ebbing and flowing through the budget over many many years, there seems like a quite a bit of fine tuning here that’s being made when I think what’s important at this stage is to really lock down what the big picture is here and to keep it focused on sustainability.  So belabouring the point of where do a few million here or there fit, the implications of those few millions are vast for the next 100 years on this site. So I am a real proponent of investing that in the social an environmental sustainability features.  I think that will pay off in spades over time. – Gregor Robertson, Jan 2006

Robertson opened his presentation by suggesting that only he really grasped what "sustainability" meant, and he proceeded to use the word dozens of times. Financial Sustainability, Robertson suggested, meant it was fine to spend your savings now because of the long term benefits it will accrue.

In some ways Robertson's cavalier suggestion that we don't belabour what we do with "a few million here or there" foreshadowed his justification of his new $260,000 office renovation, or Dr. Penny Ballem's "drop in the bucket" attitude about tax dollars.

Of course, the Vision Vancouver caucus supported MLA Robertson's viewpoint. In the first meeting of city council after being elected to government, the NPA made it clear they were determined to preserve the PEF. Here are the reactions from two Vision councillors, as heard on the video recording of that meeting of the NPA majority council in December 2005:

The plan is in place. Why are we pulling these out now? Because we think we might be able to save something. To me social housing lands which we know we could probably use within the decade. Parks community centre, multi faith centres, daycares, those are social investments, those are what we should be using tax dollars for. And it’s a good investment now. This project won’t happen again. – Heather Deal, Dec 2005

We believe that the benefits of the $50M far outweigh any negative aspects. Indeed we believe it is prudent now, and prudent for our children and prudent for our grandchildren. So please, when we discuss this, let’s try and do away with generalities about one side as being prudent and one side being spendthrifts. – Tim Stevenson, Dec 2005

There was no doubting, however, that the political lines were drawn around two approaches to this project. The NPA wanted to reduce the financial risk and protect taxpayers, and Vision Vancouver/COPE wanted to maintain their original plan.

How did we get here?

Formerly a piece of Vancouver's industrial waterfront, it was decided to make SEFC a model sustainable mixed-use community in 1995. This followed the 1990 policy document approved by city council titled Clouds of Change, which gave the city a target of reducing citywide carbon emissions twenty percent by 2005. The City brought aboard development consultant Stanley Kwok and his design team to create a vision for Southeast False Creek.

Early sketches provided by Kwok proposed the podium:tower form as part of the neighbourhood mix. Po:To, for short, was not only financially proven, it later became the underpinning of the urban planning style dubbed today as Vancouverism. It wasn't the only form of development the city could choose for SEFC, but it presented the lowest risk and highest probable return on investment.

However, there were several critics who lined up against the Po:To option, saying that it was important to distinguish the south side of False Creek from its dense northern half. It was argued that shorter buildings with more "human scale" (but closer together) could achieve similar densities. The battle for and against towers defined the NPA vs TEAM battle of the early 1970s, as it also affected the Olympic Village discussion of the past decade. By the way, those height restrictions were locked in this summer by the Vision council in another update of the SEFC official development plan.

The original proposal, and the political push against it, are documented in the excellent website called The Challenge Series.

In 1997, Stanley Kwok submitted a proposal for the site titled “Creekside Landing.” The proposed built form in Creekside Landing echoed to a large extent the development at North False Creek, which is characterized by tall residential towers built on a base of street-level retail amenities and townhouses. Opponents of Creekside Landing favoured a model more akin to the dense low-rise model of South False Creek. They preferred to develop smaller sites with individual character as an explicit contrast to the consolidated towers of North False Creek.

When the COPE/Vision swept out the NPA from office in 2002, so went any thoughts of having towers in the Olympic Village. Kwok was taken off the project, and a new imperative for a more costly low-to-mid rise neighbourhood concept was launched. City of Vancouver urban designer Scot Hein describes what happened on The Challenge Series:

...advocates from the design professions recommended new approaches to density and form as an extension of SEFC’s industrial heritage – qualities that had not been evident in the downtown peninsula. The design profession challenged staff, and City Council, to deliver urban densities while reinforcing the integrity and identity of the lower-scaled context prevalent on this last undeveloped tract of land on the creek.

Notwithstanding the challenging Olympic timeline, Council agreed, concluding that “authentic place-making must drive design intent.”

That design profession included several prominent members of the architecture community, and they advocated for something unique (and decidedly more European) for Vancouver's downtown waterfront. Several of them co-signed a letter to council in April 2004 stating

that a low- to mid-rise strategy would produce better urban design at little, if any, sacrifice to the economics of the project

However, the economics of the project were deeply impacted by the seven month review of the ODP, the more squat form of development, green features like grey water toilets and rooftop gardens, and of course some of the most concentrated, world-class social amenities anywhere in Vancouver. A full 30,000 square foot community centre was even proposed, when several other centres (Roundhouse, Granville Island, and the planned One Kingsway) were mere minutes away.

Of course, all of these amenities are located on Vancouver's costly waterfront real estate.

"Passionate about financial sustainabilty"

When in opposition, NPA councillors Sam Sullivan and Peter Ladner made it clear that they objected to the overly rich social amenities being attached to this project. They also would have preferred that the private sector took the lead role in planning the site, as had happened with all previous major city projects.

But most of all, they particularly disagreed with the idea that SEFC would be paid for by drawing down the City's coveted Property Endowment Fund. That fund had built up over time and had become a highly reliable "rainy day" fund which helped capitalize other important developments in the city.

In his first briefing from City finance staff, Sullivan learned that the Olympic Village project was in crisis. The 2010 Olympic & Paralympic Games were on the horizon, but the COPE/Vision council had spent much of their three-year term re-thinking SEFC. A hefty social component had been built into the plan, including:

  • SEFC buildings will be a showcase of sustainable development and designed to LEED® Gold, with a goal of LEED® Platinum* for the community centre.
  • when fully developed , SEFC will have six million square feet of development. This will include: more than 5,000 residential units; full-size community centre and non-motorized boating facility; three to five licensed childcare facilities; two out-of-school care facilities; an elementary school; interfaith spiritual centre; restoration of five heritage buildings; and 10 hectares of park (half of the entire project area).
  • shoreline works will include a new island and inter-tidal fish habitat, bridge, boardwalk, and seaside greenway and bikeway.
  • other unique features will include urban agriculture; rainwater management systems; green roofs; and neighbourhood energy system.

While the social components were all highly commendable, and some of them set out as part of the promise of the 2010 Games Bid Book, by the end of 2005 the whole project no longer made financial sense. It's said that Sullivan and the NPA were told they had only three months to turn the Olympic Village around or else face a financial crisis which would threaten the 2010 timelines.

Council were told that any changes to the form of development at this stage (i.e. adding towers) could put the whole project into legal limbo. The only real alternative left was to pull back on the amenities and the promise of making the project two-thirds non-market housing. It was on the agenda at the very first meeting of council, just before Christmas 2005.

While spending millions to save their promised social components didn't seem to phase the Vision Vancouver councillors, the new mayor and council opposed the idea. Sam Sullivan commented that while most people don't get excited about financial sustainability, he said to council, "I actually do." Here are the final remarks made by the meeting chair during that first council meeting:

For the last 40 years every council has respected the principle of financial sustainability for the property endowment fund. And because of their discipline we were able to purchase all the land in South East False Creek. If it wasn’t for their discipline in the past we wouldn’t have this project before us today. And if we’re not prudent and disciplined in our use of the fund, future councils 50, 100 200 years from now won’t have this incredible opportunity to make investments and do important projects. I can assure you that every council in the last 40 years has been very tempted to take this money and spend it and they’d get a lot of benefits people would love them for it. Not a lot of people get excited about financial sustainability. It’s just not something that people get passionate about it. I actually do. It was partly because of this deep concern about financial sustainability that I did go hard on the election campaign and made it an important election issue for me. – Sam Sullivan, Dec 2005

As a 12-year veteran of city council, Sullivan knew that taking away promised social goodies would not go down well in the public mind. The Vision opposition eviscerated the NPA over the cuts at the Olympic Village for the entire three-year term. Then, in the ultimate irony, Vision were able to paint the NPA as the reckless fiscal managers on the project they had sailed into rough financial straits.

There will be many lessons from Vancouver's Olympic Village experience, political or otherwise, for decades to come. For future politicians it will be increasingly hard to say no, as long as those who govern think it's okay to spend now, and worry about it later.

For further background on the facts of how we got into this mess, read some previous feature reports regarding the Olympic Village development:

- post by Mike

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Article in Vancouver Sun today about brisk sales this week at Olympic village:

Contains industry insider quote from last week saying that the price cuts may not work.

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