A new housing needs report that was recently released by the District of Squamish poses a daunting challenge for both elected officials and the District staff. The housing needs report—mandated by the Province—says the town needs more than 6,000 homes in the next eight years. And local governments may not even be completely in control as the Province launches an ambitious new housing plan for smaller municpalities in the region.
How will the District manage change that is imminent but sometimes opposed? Will our infrastructure keep up with this pace of growth ? And how will we deal with issues that come in the wake of this change, such as parking, affordable housing and much-needed child care and recreational amenities such as a new rec centre.
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These are some of the issues I discussed in a recent interview with Mayor Armand Hurford and Matt Gunn, a planner with the District of Squamish. This is the first part of the interview and it has been edited for length and clarity.
Question: There is a lot of discussion in the community about the lag between development and infrastructure and the latter not keeping up with development.
Mayor Hurford: I think there’s an important difference between infrastructure such as in-ground infrastructure like water, sewer vs facilities. So, facilities often get conflated in this conversation around infrastructure, but they are a separate piece. It’s important to distinguish those two. We know we have challenges with facilities, and we’ve got the real estate facilities master plan to help us guide and prioritize them. The hospital and the healthcare is the stuff we work with our partners in the province. But I think we are seeing a lag between when the amenities come online and the pace of development.
So, a lot of the development that’s occurred to date has come through various eras of planning and even old OCPs and different stages of our community amenity contribution. Previous councils have thought about having the amenities come online as early as possible. I think that’s crucial, to shorten up that lag time because there are great things that are being achieved through development. But development in general isn’t inherently good or bad. It’s how we get the outcomes. An example of this is the park at Oceanfront where the main amenity will be the first thing to come online.
Gunn: I think one thing that the mayor noted was that we’ve had successive councils that have tried to be very strategic about addressing our infrastructure and service needs and that’s been done through a few different strategies. We have robust asset management plans to ensure that we can maintain our pipes, sewer system, and water delivery and effectively gather money from development to help support that and target upgrades that are required.
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Hurford: The in-ground infrastructure is governed by development cost charges and the DCC bylaw is where that lives and it’s prescribed by the province. It’s very controlled, it’s a process and it’s very prescriptive. The Community Amenity Contribution (CAC) is something that the provincial regulations are next to silent on. So, it’s a negotiation and that policy (CAC) is under review right now and I think we’re moving in the right direction there to address some of those pieces.
Gunn: So, I was talking about infrastructure on the ground, but there’s also some of the bigger pieces above the ground and Brennan Park is one of those. One thing I wanted to say is that we have a Real Estate Master Plan that we have tried to identify all the pieces of big infrastructure and the amenities that we need and Brennan Park is one of them. I think the council has very strategically tried to identify some of the critical infrastructure needs like the fire halls and the public work yards to make sure our city can run safely and effectively, and Brennan Park is on that list, but we have been targeting some high priority pieces.
Hurford: We have been successful in targeting grants for Brennan Park to achieve that as well as community amenity contributions and tax dollars and all other pieces to push that project (Brennan Park) forward. So, you’re going to start seeing a lot of work happen there. The exact numbers, I’m trying to think, that everything combined are approaching somewhere around $20 million in the next few years on Brennan Park.
Gunn: In fact, the bulk of amenity asks from the council have been affordable housing and day care. Those are two big focus of amenities. So, when people say, hey, what’s coming from development? They may not see a big shiny new rec center but our community needs housing, affordable housing, and it needs daycare. So that is what our councils have been targeting over and over again in these developments and they don’t show up until the buildings are built. You have to weigh what are the crucial needs of the community.
Question: Parking remain an issue of concern for community members.
Hurford: We have heard from the community that parking, particularly downtown, has some room for improvement. There is work underway, and I don’t think we get it till July but there is a parking study coming that is considering how better to manage the parking assets that we do have and paid parking would be the consideration there. The studies we have done point to the fact that there are parking spots but just not where people want to be.
Question: What about the parking variances the District gives?
Hurford: Now, when you get to the variance part, downtown has a different parking standard, and parking variances are a tool that allow us to achieve other goals as well. Because I look at vehicles right now and the point of vehicles is to get humans around to have human interactions and commerce and service and so on. So, some of the parking variances have allowed us to achieve other goals as well. Some of the parking variances have allowed for things such as retail on ground floor vs the ground floor being entirely parade and us walking around and having no streetscape and no employment space. We also have a lot of studies that tell us that affordable housing units and rental units require a lower parking load.
Question: Why do they require lower parking load ?
Hurford: Well, in the general sense if you look at affordability, not having a vehicle is one of the best things you can do to proactively have your life be more affordable. So, an affordable housing unit, sometimes it’s just not something that people can achieve. And that is why we are looking at affordable housing projects adjacent to public transit, to active transportation for more walkable communities.
Question: But people feel that this is very ideologically driven and that council wants us to ride our bikes which we can don’t do considering it’s raining for seven or eight months?
Hurford: I think that there’s a tension between these two extremes, one being an overabundance of parking which, if you look at say Save on Foods parking lot, that is not achieving employment space and it’s not achieving housing. You could argue that Westwinds should be a parking lot to support more parking for Save on Foods. I think it’s quite important that we house people, and there are parking consideration that are different for different buildings. We could lose a whole floor of Westwind to parking but they are adjacent to services and some folks living there may not see the need for a vehicle or have limited means or can’t afford it. So, we have to look at what’s appropriate for each piece and it is not an ideologically driven piece. It’s very practical.
Gunn: Maybe just to follow up on something that Mayor Hurford said, I think one of the things that he was hitting on is that discussion around parking is relevant to the trade-offs inherent in land use planning, and I think what the Mayor was articulating was how important it is to use our limited land base to ensure people have places to live and places to work. I think often it’s hard for people to understand who aren’t working in planning, how much of an impact parking has on the ability to provide places to work and to provide places to live, and it’s particularly challenging downtown, and the reason is that the water table is very high downtown. So putting parking underground is very challenging. You know, in Vancouver you can just build a big tower and then build a big parkade underneath, and accommodate parking but here with the water table, it is more difficult. We have a high flood construction level in the community and a character with shops along Cleveland on small parcels. If you were to have the same parking requirements you have through the rest of the community in Downtown because of some of these constraints, it would be almost impossible to retain the character that people love about downtown.
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People really like walking down Cleveland Ave and having shops to go into and have that interaction with each other on the sidewalk, and that is going to be incredibly difficult to maintain with the parking standards that we use throughout the community. There are inherent characteristics of downtown and ramifications of those characteristics on the development that can be done downtown.
Question: But in some new development downtown, we do have parkades ?
Gunn: Yes, so often the first couple of stories get used for parking and that’s because of those exact constraints. But parking is very expensive to build, and if we require the same standards of parking throughout the rest of the community that we have in the downtown area, the economics become very challenging and the character of the built form becomes very challenging.
Question: There is an impression in the public mind that the District has been giving in to a lot of parking variances to developers.
Gunn: There are real trade-offs in all of these considerations when we’re thinking about a development proposal, and there are different goals that might be sought. So, for example, affordable housing as we’re in a housing crisis, you know, people are struggling to find homes. If there is an opportunity to create non-market housing that is affordable to community members, sometimes the economics of that require some variances. We know that through research and studies that people who live in non-market housing or rental housing can get by with fewer vehicles or often have fewer vehicles as the parking needs are lower. In that situation, that trade-off in makes sense to allow reduction in parking to achieve the non-market housing.
Question: Some people also feel the District no longer supports building of single-detached homes in the community.
Gunn: Well, I think firstly having one housing form broadly applied across the landscape doesn’t have good outcomes. You mentioned some larger parcels (Cheema, North Crumpit Woods) and if those larger parcels are exclusively single family, they are really hard to service with things like transit, and they are really hard to create the density to provide the services in their neighborhood. Those services require density of people that now with land costs and building costs and all those things can’t support services if the development is exclusively single-detached. But I also think that if it’s exclusively apartment buildings, that’s also not something that we’re interested in. We want a wider range of housing options and single family is part of that. I think maybe one of the perceptions is that there’s some heavy-handed effort to eliminate single families. And that is not the case.
I think you could look at it from another perspective and see that we have used heavy-handed regulation to only allow single families and much of the work we’re engaged in is to try and pick those lots and say, yes, single-family is of use that can be continued here, but let’s provide people with additional options. People could take that single-family lot, subdivide it in half and have two single family homes or maybe build a house that’s the same size and allow them to build a duplex or a triplex in that same footprint. So, it’s trying to say, instead of using heavy-handed regulations to only allow one housing form, let’s allow a broader diversity of housing forms.
Editor’s note: The second part of the interview will be published later this week.