A plan to develop one of central Vancouver’s sleepier neighborhoods into a major urban core is undergoing revisions after residents voiced concerns about how the proposed changes would alter their community.
In response, the Vancouver City Council has made some minor concessions, agreeing to slow down and scale back the Heights District Plan.
The city council agreed last week to exempt a few churches from the zoning requirements that apply to the rest of the Heights Subarea.
Following testimony from several citizens at Monday’s city council meeting, the council also decided to urge the city planner to extend the comment period for the project’s environmental impact statement by 60 days. The unanimous vote drew smatterings of approval from the crowd gathered at City Hall for the citizens’ forum.
“Voting yes to a 60-day (environmental impact statement) extension is an opportunity to change the narrative. I would argue that the city council already began its comeback story by honoring citizens’ voices last week,” said Kate Fernald, citing the decision to exempt the churches.
She was one of several residents who urged the city council Monday to give people more time to review the 523-page environmental impact statement released to the public in late January.
“People were shocked that the city council supported the community’s request. I would say, let’s shock them again,” Fernald said.
What is the Heights District Plan?
The Heights District Plan would transform approximately 200 acres into a bustling mixed-use development over the coming decades.
It encompasses some of Vancouver’s oldest residential streets, originally developed as housing for wartime employees at the Kaiser shipyards.
The eventual aim is to turn the region into a sort of secondary downtown, where people can live, work, shop and recreate. Such an urban core could help accommodate Vancouver’s continued growth without contributing to urban sprawl — the city adds approximately 3,500 people per year.
At the core of the district is 63-acre Tower Mall purchased by the city in 2017. The remainder of the redevelopment will take place through more passive tools, such as a new zoning overlay that would allow buildings up to six stories tall.
The concept for the larger district, called the Grand Loop, proposes high-density uses at the center with a residential neighborhood around Park Hill Cemetery and businesses along MacArthur Boulevard. The proposal would preserve 2 acres of public park space.
Construction is still years away, but the Grand Loop design would provide a framework for development in the area over the next 20 or 30 years. If adopted as written, the plan is anticipated to add approximately 1,800 residential units, 4,500 people and 1,000 jobs to the district.
The plan was formally presented to the city council in February 2019. Both leading up to and following that unveiling, the planning department conducted a public outreach campaign, which included online surveys and a series of open houses.
However, backlash came after the environmental impact statement was released Jan. 22. Some residents realized they hadn’t fully comprehended what the proposed changes could mean for their quiet community.
In response, leaders of surrounding neighborhoods formed the Heights District Neighborhood Coalition. The coalition’s mission statement, as recorded on its new Facebook page, is to organize residents into a cohesive group in order to “protect the character of our neighborhoods, our property values and the safety of our families.”
Many complaints from the community centered on density, traffic and parking. Topping the list of the residents’ concerns was the fate of the churches located within the Heights District boundary.
Under the proposed plan, the churches could stay, but any changes or renovations would have to meet the Heights’ new design parameters. Congregants worried that the new requirements would leave the churches vulnerable down the line.
They also worried about how the churches came to be included in the plan. Vancouver Heights Methodist Church, Slavic Grace Baptist Church, Northcrest Community Church and Peoples Church all extend just beyond the project’s rough borders of East Mill Plain Boulevard to the north, North Andresen Road to the east and MacArthur Boulevard to the south and west. The churches’ inclusion in the Heights District boundary, some thought, appeared to be deliberate.
To assuage those concerns, the city council agreed in a March 2 workshop to exempt the outlying churches from the zoning changes outlined in the Heights District Plan.
An organizer of the Heights District Neighborhood Coalition, Michelle Briede, thanked the city council Monday evening for minimizing the impact to the churches.
“That was huge — bane of my existence for a full two months,” Briede said.
She also thanked the city’s long-range planner for the comprehensive public outreach process. But she added that the outreach process had neglected to communicate some of the more germane details to the area’s residents.
“It’s the impacts of what the development was going to mean to the surrounding neighborhoods that was really missed in the 2 1/2 years of robust meetings,” Briede said.