Voting yes: Urban development on the line in Vancouver transit referendum

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Photo: flickr/ Caelie_Frampton

If you live in metro Vancouver, your mailbox contains the chance to voice your opinion on the transit referendum. Whatever you think will be neatly expressed by one of two words: yes, or no.

If you vote "yes," you vote for the expansion of public transit services. As metro Vancouver looks forward to an additional one million people, transportation will play a key role in supporting and shaping the urban development necessary to accommodate the demographic increase.

Implicit in your choice is support for the existing development paradigm. The concern is that this development model could displace those who will most benefit from transportation expansions.

In a region with a growing wage gap, how does the referendum proposal fare?

What will the referendum determine?

The referendum is being held by the provincial Liberal government to determine a revenue source for transportation expansions in anticipation of this growth.

Voting "no" in the referendum rejects the transit expansions and the funding mechanism. No alternative to the sales tax has been proposed to fund these expansions, if "no" is voted in.

Voting "yes' in the referendum means PST will be increased by 0.5 per cent in the region, to 7.5 per cent. Over ten years, the sales tax will collect $2.5 billion of the estimated $7.5 billion cost of the proposal. The difference will, it is hoped, be footed by the province and the federal government.

The projects that will be financed by this sum will also be approved or denied by the vote, and have been decided by the Mayors' Council, a 23-member body made up of the mayors of each municipality in the metro region.

The plan includes more buses, shuttle service for people living with disabilities, two light rail lines, and an extension of the light metro SkyTrain system halfway to the Vancouver campus of the University of British Columbia.

A 'yes' vote and urban development in Vancouver

Vancouver is a new city. There is no separated rapid transit across its east-west cardinal axis. An estimated $2 billion of the $7.5 billion plan will fill this gap, funding the first half of the Broadway SkyTrain to the University of British Columbia. The line will connect the B.C. Institute of Technology satellite campus and the new Emily Carr University of Art & Design to what the City anticipates to be a growing bio-technology industry. Its core is located at Vancouver General Hospital.

Vancouver does not have an Official Plan, so development outcomes can only be considered speculation. Construction of the Broadway line will include the addition of six new SkyTrain stations, each with the potential to be built into a concentrated, stand-alone urban centre, called a "mixed-use node" by urban developers. 

Vancouver's Regional Growth Strategy emphasizes the need to cluster services in this way, rather than diffusing them throughout neighbourhoods or along arterial streets. This encourages the style of development seen at Metrotown, in the approved plans for Oakridge, at the Cambie and Broadway Rise, and in the proposal for the redevelopment of Grandview-Woodlands: high-rise towers with a big-box commercial front and built up residential.

Bob Rennie, founder and owner of Vancouver's largest real estate marketing firm Rennie Marketing Systems, calls these developments "energy centres."

Condo developers are attracted to transit stations, where selling price is increased as a result of proximity to the transportation system.

In San Francisco, neighbourhoods located within a kilometre of transit stations are twice as likely to be undergoing gentrification than those located further away. Building vertically, land can be subdivided and the greatest profits recovered for private corporations.

The Oakridge redevelopment, which will top the Queen Elizabeth Gardens arboretum to become the highest point in Vancouver when it is complete, is subdivided 2,900 times. In 2012, Rennie Marketing Systems ran sales at MC2, a two-tower development near a SkyTrain station. That year, transit hubs made local news for the positive impact they had on development and on sales.

Although the vote is open until May 29, the City of Vancouver and Translink have purchased properties for redevelopment near stations along the proposed Broadway line. KPMG's study of Broadway also projects that development will take place at transit nodes along the corridor. It is worth noting that the KPMG study also concludes that a lack of affordable space to live and work is impeding the social and economic success of the area.

The risk, then, is that the construction of these high-density market units at the platforms for the proposed line could decrease access to public transit for those who rely on it the most. This means that in the future the Broadway rapid transit corridor may primarily serve a population of elite residents, while those in lower income brackets face economic pressures that lead to their displacement.

Students, the working poor and people who depend on access to hospital services (income is the primary determinant of health) are pushed further afield, to neighbourhoods with less transit service.

The suburbanization of poverty makes a "yes" vote even more important. As Brent Toderian told Business in Vancouver magazine, "If you're poor and in the inner city, you have options. If you're poor in the suburbs, you have to own a car."

Photo: flickr/ Caelie_Frampton


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