A lot of people want the West End to stay exactly the way it is - thank you very much
Further to the lessons I learned after living in Downtown South for a month in the early 1990s:
I eventually realized that Downtown South was taking the pressure off my neighbourhood. As more units became available, they provided an outlet for newcomers who would other otherwise compete with existing tenants. And that’s what happened for two decades: the hundreds of new condos that were picked up by investors and rented out in Downtown South (and Triangle West, north of Robson) was giving an outlet for newcomers who could afford the higher rents. Middle-income earners left the 50s walk-ups and the 60s highrises for lower-middle-income renters.
Downtown South and Triangle West also provided an alternative to West Enders who were willing to pay a bit more for something new (lots of electrical outlets and less dubious plumbing) – and that in turn kept a ceiling on rents, since landlords couldn’t raise rents on the ’old’ beyond something that was ‘new.’ It even resulted in the West End uncrowding a bit in the 1990s, as those sharing units migrated east and north on the peninsula. The population of the West End grew hardly at all.
West Enders got very used to the idea that the neighbourhood could stay very much the same, regardless of the pressures of growth elsewhere in the city. Indeed, City Council had a big political stake in keeping it that way. As the NPA learned when three-storey walk-ups were being demolished in Kerrisdale, the price of change could be high. Jim Green, running for Mayor as the COPE candidate, came surprisingly close to beating Gordon Campbell in the 1990 election, taking advantage of public discontent with demolitions and rising housing costs.
And it didn’t make much sense for any party to allow the developers into those neighbourhoods that still had a large stock of 1940s and ’50s boxes. Demolition and condo construction actually resulted in a loss of population density, a complete elimination of affordability and lots of upset neighbours unhappy with the loss of view and the eviction of grandma, who had been living happily in her stucco box for years.
And so the Council I sat on brought in rate-of-change constraints and, in 1989, even more complicated requirements for the West End that essentially limited to a handful the number of lots that would allow new development. The rate of change slowed to practically zero in the West End; the number of new buildings since then could be counted on your fingers. And with outlets for growth on the other sides of Burrard and Robson, everyone was happy enough.
Until, of course, the pressure returned. Rents may have remained more or less stable, constrained by provincial legislation and market forces, but they continued to notch up. And one thing about the ‘affordability’ issue: no one thinks we have it, not compared to what they remember in decades past. So candidates in the last civic election, appealing to what they heard from their supporters, ran on the platform that they would address the lack of affordable rental housing.
And then they made mistake of actually trying to do something about it.
More on that to come.
Editor's Note: What follows is the census data for West End that Gord Price was referring to in his column:
- 1971 - 37,515
- 1976 - 36,450
- 1981 - 36, 950
- 1986 - 37,050
- 1991 - 38,408
- 1996 - 40,940
- 2001 - 42.103
- 2006 - 44,556
- Post by Gordon Price. He is Director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University. He also writes, teaches and consults on urban development and planning. He served six terms as Councillor for the City of Vancouver, from 1986 to 2002, as well as on the board of the Greater Vancouver Regional District (now Metro) and TransLink, the regional transportation authority.This column was originally posted on pricetags.com.
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