Ecodensity is happening; it’s real. Some argue that it has already made Vancouver the greenest and most sustainable city in North America.
At this time last year, it was unclear where the seemingly endless public consultation was going. In this column I questioned whether it would spawn real changes or just more plans by the end of the then-current council’s mandate in 2008.
My doubts have been put to rest. Action replaced trademarked sloganeering just under the wire, as Vancouver city hall began gearing up for the November 2008 municipal elections. Across party lines, council unanimously adopted the EcoDensity Charter in early June.
The average Vancouverite will still see change happening very gradually. But the charter’s new LEED Silver green building standard for all new private developments in rezoned areas (retroactive to March 2008), changing to LEED Gold by 2010, gives Vancouver the greenest standards in our continent, says Vancouver city planner Brent Toderian.
Toderian calls the new standard “LEED Silver plus,” because all new developments will have to achieve a minimum of three points on the LEED list for energy performance, water efficiency and storm-water handling. City and provincial government buildings are already covered by the LEED Gold standard.
Won’t the new building standards make Vancouver prohibitively expensive for developers? “Even the developers are divided on that one,” Toderian admits, noting that some of the more progressive, green-friendly architects and developers “have just been waiting for government to show leadership on this issue.”
Indeed, one of Canada’s greenest building designers, Vancouver-based Canada Green Building Council member Peter Busby, has suggested for years that green-designed buildings are actually cheaper to build and maintain over the long term than conventional developments. In other words, the “green premium” may be a myth. We can have our cake and eat it too.
What about affordability? Even in today’s buyer’s market, home ownership is still far out of range of too many local residents who had the bad fortune to not lock in a mortgage before the boom. Can EcoDensity help solve this? It sure looks that way. If all of the EcoDensity Charter is implemented as planned, the city will allow secondary suites in every type of housing, not just single detached homes. Also, “laneway housing,” which includes putting suites in backyard coach houses and apartments above garages, will help create what the city planners are calling “invisible density.”
More housing options means possibly more supply to help our city keep pace with crushing demand. The simplest law of economics would indicate that EcoDensity will help moderate the cost of real estate for buyers and renters.
But what about those ugly, view-blocking towers that EcoDensity-bashers insisted would spring up all over the city, turning our coastal Pleasantville into a polluted Shanghai overnight? From some of the comments and letters received through the public process, it’s clear that a vocal minority thought “EcoDensity” was code for “density,” hiding a conspiracy between council and a scurrilous league of greedy corporate types.
Not going to happen. Throughout the process of getting the charter adopted, it was clear that maintaining the unique voice, character and heritage of neighbourhoods is a priority for council. Towers just aren’t going to spring up pell-mell, leaving only the memory of our distinctive heritage homes in their wake.
Higher buildings will go up, to be sure, but they will go where it is most logical for them to do so: next to SkyTrain stations, at major commercial and transportation nodes and in the midst of amenities that benefit the surrounding community.
It is true that the city has final veto power to override NIMBY neighbourhood associations, but it is equally clear that consultation will be ongoing. “We just don’t get anywhere without consulting the neighbors,” says Vancouver city councilor Suzanne Anton. “But at the same time, if we’re not building density next to a $2 billion transit project, where can we build?” she remarks, noting council’s response to adamant opposition from one neighbourhood association along the Broadway transit corridor in the heart of the city.
The coming months will see more EcoDensity projects coming online. The city is getting input on how and where to implement density in pockets of the Downtown Eastside and Gastown. Incentives for developers to build green will be discussed in forums, and details will follow. The trend is set, and EcoDensity is already helping Vancouver develop for a greener future.