Vancouver will face big challenges fulfilling its goal of build vibrant, walkable high streets and commercial hubs as envisioned in a draft citywide plan released Tuesday.
The draft Vancouver Plan is the product of community consultation aimed at accommodating population growth to 960,000 residents by 2050, a vision that calls for 90 per cent of them to live in “complete neighbourhoods” with the amenities of life within a 15-minute walk or bike ride.
However, the plan lands at a time Vancouver’s business districts are grappling with soaring rents, outsized property tax increases driven by skyrocketing assessments and the COVID-19 pandemic that put a lot of retail locations out of business.
“There seems to be this gap (between) what you want, in terms of all these laudable goals towards neighbourhood retail and commercial businesses, and what you need to do to make it happen,” said urban planner Andy Yan.
And “what we’re talking about is larger systemic challenges” around commercial rents, taxation and transportation.
The Vancouver Plan’s vision is to “protect” Vancouver’s high-density business and industrial districts, such as the Port of Vancouver, downtown and Broadway business districts and South Vancouver industrial zone — the 10 per cent of land that supports 50 per cent of the city’s jobs, said plan manager Karis Hiebert.
“We also see importance in adding job space to neighbourhoods, for example, restaurants, home-based repair shops, so that they better meet support people’s livelihoods,” Hiebert said during a media briefing.
The plan looks at the city’s transportation networks to identify key opportunities to expand the neighbourhood commercial hubs it envisions as necessary, particularly areas within a 10-minute walk of major transit stations.
The city’s director of planning, Theresa O’Donnell, said the next stage for the draft plan is to build on lessons from the pandemic about the importance of public spaces to gather and the role pop-up patios at restaurants played in enlivening streets.
“It was so nice to see literally hundreds of pop-up patios and street space being reallocated to pedestrians and people as opposed to cars,” O’Donnell said.
In the here and now, however, commercial districts around the city are suffering vacancies that are higher than would be considered healthy, according to a study of Vancouver’s business improvement areas.
In the broad swath of Strathcona on the city’s east side, retail vacancy has hit 27 per cent, while Hastings Crossing was 22 per cent.
So, with the Vancouver Plan, “the challenge here is in fulfilment,” Yan said.
In the short term, Yan said streamlining the permit process for new businesses that want to continue the previous use of a vacant commercial location — “Phoenix permits,” as he’s called them — is one measure that could help in the pandemic recovery period.
O’Donnell said city staff and council are attuned to the problems of soaring property values, rising rents and the tools needed to support business.
She added that city council has long supported the use of split-assessments on commercial properties to help protect businesses and has considered other tools such as business-rent protections.
The key, however, will be pairing commercial development with the population growth that will support vibrant businesses, said Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung, who attended Tuesday’s briefing.
“Where you see retail sort of still robust is where you have population density around it,” Kirby-Yung said.
Council will also have to be more flexible in its zoning to accommodate businesses in the city’s increasingly expensive real estate.
That could include allowing several uses in commercial spaces, such as a coffee shop during the day and live performance venue at night, Kirby-Yung said, or allow for several pop-up businesses to co-locate in a single space.
“(Business affordability) is going to be relative, and it’s not unique to Vancouver,” Kirby-Young said. “Other leading world cities are becoming more expensive as well, so that’s where you have to get a lot more creative.”