Oakridge Redevelopment Plan: Corporate profits, not affordable housing

A plan to redevelop the Oakridge Mall at Cambie and 41st, unveiled this past week, includes 2,800 condo units in 16 buildings, 6 of which are above 30 storeys. The current developer-friendly City Council is sure to approve the proposal with only minor adjustments. One city councilor anticipated some community concerns about height and density, but my concern goes deeper. I’m not against height or density in the service of affordability, but in this case, height and density primarily serve corporate interests and reflect poor transit planning choices.

Looking at the redevelopment plan, it’s clear to me that the fundamental principle at work is maximization of corporate profits. The developer is asking to triple the amount of housing allowed on the site, which could triple the land value in the order of hundreds of millions of dollars. How much of that value the city recoups to fund affordable housing, and how much the developers keep as profits, depends on the political will of City Council. As it stands, however, only 50 of the 2,800 housing units proposed for Oakridge are planned to have below-market rents – that’s less than 2%.

There is unlikely to be much pushback from City Council. The Oakridge landowner is the Ivanhoe Cambridge Corporation, which cleverly hired the developer, Westbank, and architects, Henriquez Partners, to bring City Council on board with the plan. These firms are very close to the ruling party Vision Vancouver – having also collaborated on the Woodward’s redevelopment in the Downtown Eastside. It does not hurt that Westbank donated $12,000 to Vision’s electoral campaign last fall, and an equal amount in previous campaigns.

In contrast to this pro-developer approach, I believe our starting principle should be building housing for those who need it. Oakridge, like the city around it, is in the midst of a housing crisis, with 20% of homeowners and 30% of renters spending more than they can afford on housing. When planning Oakridge, we could be guided by the formula that 1/3rd of the units be made available to those on social assistance, 1/3rd of them have rent geared-to-income, and 1/3rd sold at market — a policy to which the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) re-affirmed its commitment in its Affordable Housing Report released last month.

Naysayers will predictably tell us that there’s no money to build affordable housing due to the restraint of higher levels of government. But let’s look at what a progressive City Council would do. It makes sense for the city to invest in low-income homes. Interest rates are so low right now that the city’s Property Endowment Fund cash assets are sitting in the bank, collecting as little as 2% return. If instead, that cash was invested in building low-income housing at Oakridge, welfare housing allowance payments alone would generate double that revenue. In addition, if we built 1/3rd of Oakridge as low-income, we’d have almost 1,000 homes for those in need. The middle 1/3rd of units with rent geared-to-income would pay for themselves and overhead, while the 1/3rd market units would generate 20% profits for the city.

This general formula of “1/3rd 1/3rd 1/3rd” worked in the past at Champlain Heights and South False Creek. The COPE Council of which I was a part in 2002-2005 applied it to the original plan for the Olympic Village, but unfortunately the NPA and then Vision whittled down the affordable housing portion to almost nothing.

In addition, we could again remind the naysayers that the Canada Line has increased land values in the Oakridge area so dramatically that if City Council had the political will to recoup even a fraction of that value, it could be invested in a phenomenal amount of housing.

Speaking of the Canada Line, when I look at the Oakridge redevelopment proposal, I can’t help but think about how it would be different had the city taken a different approach to rapid transit. During my 2002-2005 term on City Council, I belonged to a group of COPE councilors arguing in favour of a more comprehensive approach to public transit. Instead of spending $2 billion on the Canada Line (then called the RAV Line), with its needlessly expensive technology, we could have built a rapid-bus system along Granville, which would have operated at 80% of the capacity of the Canada Line, but cost only $300 million. With the $1.7 billion savings, we could have built light-rail along other key corridors, including Cambie, and doubled transit service throughout the entire city. By making more of the city accessible to public-transit riders, we would have also made much more of the city appropriate for affordable housing development.

Instead we got a single line down Cambie, causing real-estate speculation that sent property values sky high — displacing renters and affordable shops. Now much of the new density opened up by the Canada Line, instead of being spread around the city, is being concentrated on a few plots of land, to be developed by those corporations who happen to be financial funders of the ruling party, Vision Vancouver. It is not entirely coincidental that Vision was formed from a faction within COPE which went along with Gordon Campbell and his developer friends to push the Canada Line idea.

There is a name for the arrangement where almost all new density and development are in the hands of a few corporations: monopoly. That’s what the Oakridge redevelopment proposal, with its height and concentration of density, represents to me — concentration of money in the hands of a few firms, and concentration of power in the hands of the party they finance.

Tim Louis is a practicing lawyer who has been actively involved in Vancouver civic politics for over twenty-five years, including as Parks Board Commissioner from 1990-1996 and City Councilor from 1999-2005. He co-founded the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre and the BC Coalition of the Disabled, and he served for 12 years on the Board of Directors of VanCity.