Vancouver city's CAC revenue stream a debilitating addiction

UBC professor Patrick Condon has lobbed another boulder into the municipal pond, accusing the City of Vancouver of succumbing to the “soft corruption of spot zoning.”

UBC professor Patrick Condon has lobbed another boulder into the municipal pond, accusing the City of Vancouver of succumbing to the “soft corruption of spot zoning.”

The waves from this thoughtful accusation ought to wash heavily over the upcoming municipal election campaign, given all the talk about Vision Vancouver not listening, neighbourhoods not trusting and lawsuits not stopping.

Condon gets to the root of this neighbourhood anger by pointing at Community Amenity Contributions (CACs) – “a seemingly golden source of revenue that instead is crippling Vancouver's civic future,” he writes in The Tyee.

These negotiated payments “voluntarily” extracted from big developers by municipalities behind closed doors fly in the face of democracy and good planning, Condon argues.

While other cities are trying it, the provincial government recently issued a directive reminding municipalities they must respect the subtlety of the law and not sell zoning.

Random, negotiated fees also drive developers crazy: how do they know what to pay for developable land when they don't know what their CAC cost will be?

“The current process causes months and sometimes years of delay, increased holding costs, and a high level of risk and administrative costs,” Urban Development Institute CEO Anne McMullin recently wrote to Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.

“The current lengthy, difficult, onerous and often combative process can result in fewer developers and fewer developments … [resulting] in only higher-end units being built, making projects targeting first-time and middle-income buyers unviable.”

According to a recent B.C. government guide to municipalities, “Elected officials must remain ‘open-minded' during the rezoning process, and must not commit to approving a rezoning subject to CACs. Zoning should not be considered a revenue stream. The perception of ‘selling zoning' undermines public confidence in the local government and the community plan.”

Yet if you look at the City of Vancouver's just-released $1.08 billion capital plan, the biggest single item in the revenue list is an estimated $300 million in CACs. That sure looks like a revenue stream to me.

That was Condon's point about “soft corruption.” Only the big development projects can produce serious CAC fees and the juicy benefits cities depend on (like libraries, community centres, daycare spaces and parks), so they're favoured by city politicians who are financed by those same developers. The circle is complete. The result is the City of Vancouver plans its future around major proposals for spot rezonings in “areas of the city that have no local area plans, no qualitative urban design vision (such as view corridor policies) and no comprehensively revised zoning plan,” Condon writes. “Tens of millions of dollars in potential profits or losses can rest on one decision made on one parcel by one city council on one day.”

His solution is to translate the aspirations of years of CityPlan consultations into a zoning map – an official community plan. These are required by provincial law in every Metro Vancouver municipality except Vancouver. When a neighbourhood area is upzoned in the official plan, set a fixed per-square-foot Development Cost Levy, known in advance, at whatever level the city deems necessary. Abandon the CAC.

“Developers will have a literal road map of what they can and cannot build,” says Condon.

Finally we get to the real question: what kind of a city do we want in that official community plan? And the worst fear: that city planning has been so distorted by major projects pitched at investors – perhaps to cope with CAC uncertainties, who knows? – that we could end up with zoning for more luxury towers designed as exquisite safety deposit boxes in the sky for the global elite to visit for a few weeks every year: the new Vancouverism.