Whose Village?: A Brief History of the Olympic Village Development

Habitat 67, on the shore of of St. Lawrence seaway in Montreal, was originally designed to be an affordable community. Similar to Vancouver’s Olympic Village, Habitat 67 has since been sold off to the private market and is now considered a ‘failed dream‘.

The Olympic Village was initially designed as a mixed-income housing complex capable of offsetting the displacement and surge in real-estate prices associated with the 2010 Olympics. The original development plan called for two-thirds affordable housing, with a full half of that set aside for those who need support through social (“deep core”) housing. The Village was set to be an ‘inclusive’, socially sustainable community that Vancouver could be proud of. Now, the project has turned into the opposite – an exclusive, luxury complex. Today, few would argue that the Olympic Village has been a success for Vancouver.

A brief look at the history of South East False Creek shines some light on why we have the Village today. The land upon which the Village sits was once an industrial zone. Starting in the 50s and 60s there was increasing industrial disinvestment until eventually the land fell out of use. Taking advantage of unused urban space to create room for people to live, in 1970s the City actively consolidated multiple lots and rezoned the area for housing. The City then remediated the soils and made other public investments.

The large scale landmark development on the site today was the spawn of a report from the early 90s entitled ‘Clouds of Change’, which acknowledged that a shift needed to take place in urban planning. An essential conclusion of the report was that, in the wake of increasing property values and decreasing affordability, mass commuting to and from the City on a daily basis was negatively affecting air quality in the region. The report, adopted by council in 1990, was Vancouver’s realization that it had to create inclusive, comprehensive communities that limited long-distance travel and its associated environmental damage.  In this spirit, the site was also seen as an opportunity for green businesses to experiment with new technologies. There was an acknowledgment that the project was going to be expensive, but environmental and social sustainability at the Olympic Village would set the tone for future development in the City. In the long run, it would be worth it.

During the controversial bid process for the 2010 Olympics, many residents were concerned that the Games would leave a legacy of displacement and increasing pressures on poor and working-class in residents. An “Inner City Inclusivity” report in 2007 laid-out recommendations to prevent urban displacement. Its recommendations included building 3,200 units of new social housing by 2010 and increasing social assistance payments. A “2010 Winter Games Inner-City Inclusive Commitment Statement” guaranteed an “affordable housing legacy.” The City and Province made a (since broken) promise to build 4,000-plus units of affordable housing. Lawyer and advocate David Eby even provided City Council with a plan to make the commitments affordable.

The Olympics, organized from the start by the big names in Vancouver real-estate (Jack Poole, etc.), would dramatically increase opportunities for development and profits for developers. ‘Condo king’ Bob Rennie famously described the Olympic Games as a ‘$6 billion ad campaign’ for Vancouver. Therefore it was understood that the affordable units at the Olympic Village were needed to counter-balance increasing rents and displacement caused by the gentrification that comes with development and global real-estate surges at the local level. When the Olympics were proposed and a non-binding ‘Olympic Vote’ was held, Vancouver accepted the Olympics on the condition that subsidized housing be part of the deal.

Luckily, the City had amassed the land on the South East shore of False Creek. It leased the land to the developer of the Olympic Village project at a reduced price, justifying the lease as fulfilling a part of its commitments to housing affordability, a commitment upon which residents of Vancouver had accepted the games. In combination with the green commitments, the project was set to balance the ‘three pillars’ of sustainability: environmental, social, and economic.

The ‘experiment’ of the Olympic Village, however, which was supposed to strike a balance between businesses and residents, instead placed them in a battle. Sadly, in retrospect, it is clear that the social sustainability side lost in that battle. Despite the fact that it was the green technologies themselves that caused the project to go overbudget, only the social and affordable housing was placed on the chopping board: over 620 units of social housing were cut from the project.

Former co-director of planning Larry Beasley had this to say of the project in 2005 [1],

Occasionally, a city decides to take its wealth and to invest it in something that goes beyond just making money. It wants to do something more, in this case the city wants to model a kind of development which is different than what we’ve been able to see elsewhere. We want to test new things. We want to be first to set the pace, so that others can then take things up, and they can become more integral in the way we do business. If you take the short-term perspective then yes, it means we suggest the [Property Endowment Fund], council suggests the PEF, put more into that development than economically makes sense. If you take a long-term perspective – then we can instigate practices that are helpful – we make up a lot of that money over time.

Instead of completing the project as it was planned to be – a mixed income development – the Property Endowment Fund was used only to prop up the developer whenever there was a hiccup in the project. Instead of being used for the public, the PEF was used to provide loans to the developer when the project ran into trouble in 2009, and again when it went into receivership. Vision Vancouver, which campaigned on affordable housing and ending homelessness, refuses to this day to use any of the $3 billion PEF to bail out Vancouver residents, who because of property speculation brought on by the Olympics are more than ever feeling the pressures of living in the world’s most unaffordable city.

Talking in favor of solving homelessness but instead helping out the industry and real-estate business interests that fund Vision Vancouver has become a recurring theme with this council. Instead of setting a precedent of ‘inclusivity’, the Olympic Village has set one of abandonment. Robertson chastised the NPA for removing social housing from the Olympic Village, but then cut that very component of the project drastically further. As far as housing is concerned, both parties are the same. Even leaving the issue of the Property Endowment Fund aside, our current council has repeatedly lowered business taxes, and shifted business taxes onto residents, while arguing that it has no money to build social housing. Vancouver’s combined business taxes are now the lowest in the world. It has gone far beyond the pretense of creating a competitive business environment and has instead become mere patronage.

We knew from the beginning that this project was going to be expensive in the short term. But now we’re also feeling the economic costs of homelessness and lack of affordable housing. It shows shorts-sightedness to squander decades of public investment almost overnight in order to bail-out developers and protect the ‘quality of life’ of luxury condo-owners.

[1] Mark Kear, ‘Spaces of transition spaces of tomorrow: Making a sustainable future in Southeast False Creek, Vancouver,’ Cities (24.4), 23 April 2007