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April 17, 2021

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Vancouver Heights District residents push back on city plans

Proposal to reshape central Vancouver area draws their ire

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:

As the Vancouver City Council narrows down a plan that will transform the Heights District into an urban core over the next 20 years, many of those who already live in the surrounding area are frustrated.

They’re frustrated that the plan could fundamentally change the character of their peaceful 80-year-old residential neighborhoods. They’re frustrated by a perception that city leaders are considering the needs of future residents and housing developers over the needs of people who already live there.

And as city planners have taken steps over the last year to address their concerns and scale back the plan — increasing parking space quotas at the fringes of the district, imposing landscaping and setback requirements for new buildings, extending the deadline for public comment and even eliminating plots of land from the district entirely — the fundamental problem remains.

The current residents didn’t sign up for this.

“What we see is an urban development in the middle of a quiet suburban neighborhood,” leaders of the Northcrest Neighborhood Association wrote in a letter to the city council last week. The Northcrest neighborhood directly borders the north edge of the district.

“It is one thing to buy a home in the city; quite another to have a city built next to your home.”

That friction between the current residents of the district and the future ones who could benefit from its development is proving difficult to reconcile even after an arduous planning process that offered multiple opportunities for public feedback.

In a citizen forum on Monday, several residents who live in or near the district patched in remotely to address the city council. Even as they expressed gratitude for the chance to be heard, they also pushed back against a vision for the district that — despite all the tweaking as a result of public input — remains fundamentally at odds with the place they thought they had chosen to live.

“We as taxpayers are not in the business of helping developers make profits,” said Jim Luce, a 40-year resident of the bordering Dubois Park neighborhood and outspoken critic of the plan. “We are in the business of protecting our homes and our neighborhoods and our community, and supporting elected representatives who share those values.”

The Heights District Plan

The Heights District encompasses a triangular plot of land in central Vancouver, bordered roughly by Andresen Road, Mill Plain Boulevard and MacArthur Boulevard.

Its transformation will in part be driven by the Tower Mall property, purchased by the city in 2017 to help guide the direction of the area. Vancouver leaders will have more control over the future of that 63-acre plot than the rest of the Heights District, which will be developed through more passive strategies, including a new zoning overlay that will allow for taller buildings.

According to the document passed by the city council in August, successful implementation of the Heights plan will multiply the number of residential units by a factor of eight, from 232 houses and apartments to 1,800. At least a quarter of those units will be rent-controlled, priced so that a Vancouver family making at or below the area’s median income could afford to live there.

The plan’s targets also include adding at least 650 jobs to the district.

Upon the passage of the plan in August, Vancouver Long-Range Planning Manager Rebecca Kennedy called it “an opportunity for world-class placemaking.”

“This is an area of the city that had been passed over by the market forces that had transformed downtown to the west, as well as many of the corridors and the neighborhoods in many of the eastern portions of the city,” City Manager Eric Holmes said at the time.

The dense urban core would likely prove a boon to the future of Vancouver, which grows by around 3,500 new people per year. Building a neighborhood like the Heights up (instead of out) will help accommodate all those new additions to the city’s population without contributing to urban sprawl, according to Kennedy.

Parking, stories and density

In the city council’s workshop on Monday, councilors delved into the implementation of the plan, which had passed six months prior by a 5-2 vote.

The workshop focused primarily on the minutiae of the new zoning designations, which under the current plan would allow buildings at the core of the district up to seven stories tall. Buildings fronting Idaho Street may be capped at two stories, while those along MacArthur Boulevard could be limited to four stories.

“Heights are lower on the outside, and they get higher as you move in. And the opposite for parking; parking requirements are lower on the inside, at the core of the district, where there’s the opportunity for shared parking,” Kennedy explained to the council.

Along with density and building heights, parking quotas are a major concern for existing residents. The current plan would require a one-to-one ratio of off-street parking spaces per new unit in the core of the district. Around the edges — called the “district gateway” in city documents — developers would need to provide 1.25 parking spaces per unit.

For builders, increasing the number of new parking spaces required per unit is expensive, and it makes the area less attractive to build on. For the city council, parking contributes to underutilized space and sprawl. But current residents are worried that, without enough space set aside for parking within the district, overflow will spill into their neighborhoods. Some are pushing for a two-to-one parking space ratio, which city councilors said in their workshop Monday isn’t feasible.

Kate Fernald, co-chair of the Heights District Neighborhood Coalition, told the council that she’s heard from elderly neighbors who worry about being able to find a space close to their homes.

“This is not a NIMBY issue, this is not an aesthetic issue. This is a public safety and equity and a livability issue, and citizens will not back down until we have an agreed-upon density in the neighborhoods,” Fernald said.

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