This article originally appeared in Issue Zero of our print magazine which came out in April 2016. Q10 is a regular feature in the magazine, and features questions from Tenth to the Fraser to someone in our community. For our inaugural issue, we asked Mayor Jonathan Coté for his responses.
Our city is currently working on a revised Official Community Plan and a very large part of that conversation is on the housing that will be required if the predicted number of people really do arrive here within a few decades.
Laneway housing. Row housing. Townhouses. How do we have respectful conversations about the transformation of housing in our city? Tenth to the Fraser sat down with Mayor Jonathan Coté for a chat about the transformation of housing.
Tenth: In June 2015, New Westminster became the first municipality in the province to mandate minimum percentages of three-bedroom units in new multi-family developments. Tell me why this was important to the future of New Westminster and why you think more municipalities should do this?
Mayor Jonathan Coté: I strongly believe that city must go beyond simply approving or rejecting individual building applications. Our primary function in land use decisions needs to be viewed through the lens of community building. The majority of growth in the city in the coming decades will be in multi-family units, so the composition of the units will play a big role in shaping the composition of our community. Studio and one-bedroom units cannot be the only housing options available as our city grows. I want to ensure that New Westminster is a city that has housing options to meet the wide spectrum of people’s needs no matter what stage you are in your life.
Tenth: New Westminster has a high proportion of renters to owners when compared to the region. Recently I’m hearing complaints from people that it is becoming hard to find a suitable rental. What role does the City play in ensuring that rental stock remains affordable, high quality, and accessible?
JC: Like most other municipalities in Metro Vancouver, New Westminster saw very little development of new rental housing for a period of 30 years starting in the late 1970’s. This pause in rental housing development is now starting to show its effects on our housing system. A few years ago, the City of New Westminster adopted one of the most progressive rental housing policies in the region, developed to encourage the retention and investment in existing rental housing and to promote the development of new rental housing. The results so far have been extremely positive with applications for over 1000 new rental units since. Having said that, we are likely going to continue to see challenges with rental housing in the coming decades as demand in the region and the city will likely continue outpace supply in the near future.
Tenth: When you tell people about New West, what are three things you promote?
JC: There are so many great things about our city I love talking about. If I must only pick three: Walkability, Sense of Place/Community, and Heritage.
Tenth: Tell me about the middle ground between high rises and single-family homes. Is it changing? And what is it becoming if so?
JC: The discussion surrounding the missing middle in the housing conversation is top of mind in New Westminster these days – it’s happening all across North America. Here, our housing supply is dominated with condos and single-family dwellings, with very little in between. The demand for ground-oriented family friendly housing continues to be strong, but the housing prices in single-family neighbourhoods is forcing many to re-evaluate their long term housing goals. Land prices combined with an increased demand for walkable, mixed use neighbourhoods is meaning that cities like New Westminster are needing to look more closely at row houses and townhouses are a part of the housing mix in our community.
Tenth: Have we reached peak condo?
JC: No. The Metro Vancouver region is anticipated to grow by one million people over the next few decades and given the geography of our region the majority of this growth will have to occur in condos. I do believe our region has reached peak single-family dwelling, though, and expect their supply to remain relatively constant over the next few decades. Unless the region changes its position on the protection of agricultural land and natural areas – which I wouldn’t support – there simply is no room for this form of housing to grow significantly in our region. What will make this stagnation difficult is that demand for this form of housing will remain high, which make our discussions regarding the missing middle in housing that much more important.
Tenth: When Plaza 88 was under development, I was pretty thrilled to see some of the plans, but there are parts of Plaza 88 that haven’t played out the way I thought it was when it was announced. What are your thoughts on when planned developments don’t necessarily work out the way they were envisioned?
JC: As someone who lives in close proximity to the Plaza 88 project, I have mixed feelings about this development. On one hand, I think it provides an excellent mix of high-density housing and retail shopping that is fully integrated into a rapid transit station. On the other hand, the project has some significant urban design issues that disconnect the development from the human scale.
When the Plaza 88 project was first being developed well over 10 years ago, Downtown New Westminster was a different place. The reality was at that time, very few wanted to develop in the area and I think the city lacked the confidence and the ability to demand the type of urban design quality you might expect in a development in Vancouver.
I believe the city has learned a lot from the successes and shortcomings of this project and the projects that have followed Plaza 88 have improved because of this. City building can be messy and we don’t always get it right. Cities can continue to thrive even when mistakes are made, as long cities are willing and able to learn from those mistakes.
Tenth: It’s fairly well known that you and your family live in a condo. What is the best part about living in a condo?
JC: Time. Like many young families, our household has a hectic schedule. Living in a condo has given us the opportunity to walk to everything. Getting from A to B does not consume a lot of time in our schedule and usually gives us the opportunity to get some exercise and spend some quality time together. Another big time saver for condo living is the maintenance of our home. Strata living is not for everyone, but it is nice not to have to spend my limited free time on home maintenance projects.
Tenth: When the Brewery District was first under development, I remember being told that it was highly unusual Wesgroup agreed to develop the commercial spaces before the residential spaces. Tell me about this chicken and egg conundrum of residential development and commercial or recreational amenities residents will need.
JC: I don’t really see this as a chicken and an egg conundrum. Although residents often like to see commercial and community amenities from the very beginning, these amenities usually don’t make sense until the appropriate critical mass of residential or employment has been reached in an area. Occasionally you will see these types of amenities put in first as loss leaders to incentivize larger community plans, but they often require some form of subsidization to make them work. The reality is that residential populations needed to support commercial or community amenities often need to come first.
Tenth: The City has just adopted an Urban Forest Strategy. Tell me a bit about balancing housing needs and protecting green space.
JC: One of the primary reasons our city has seen a decline in our urban tree canopy over the past ten years has been because of the increased development activity in the city. The Urban Forest Strategy is not going to be able to eliminate that conflict, but it will put the conversation about trees in a more prominent position. Our city is going to continue to intensify its lands uses in the coming decade, but this doesn’t necessarily have to come at the expense of green space and our urban tree canopy. The recently adopted Urban Forest Strategy has a number of policy actions (including a tree protection bylaw) that will require the city to ensure that development can coexist with the cities goal to increase our tree canopy.
Tenth: Why are community engagement collaboration opportunities, such as the Our City OCP Planning Workshops, so important to the City? How can people feel their input will make a difference?
JC: When the city launched its Official Community Plan process over a year ago, community engagement was considered a top priority in the process. An OCP is never going to be successful unless the community is front and centre in the development of the plan. I anticipate the current OCP will end up being the largest community engagement process in the history of our city, with thousands of residents having had an opportunity to provide their input.
I am committed to making public engagement an authentic and genuine dialogue in our community. If we are successful, I believe we will end up with increased civic participation, better community planning, and trust in the community that public engagement will be a two-way dialogue.