Yesterday morning, the Property and Planning Committee of UBC’s Board of Governors approved amendments to the Wesbrook Place Neighbourhood Plan. The amendment package outlined a number of big changes for the neighbourhood, such as a tripling of the amount of housing allowed and by extension, of the area’s population. During the consultation process for these amendments, Campus and Community Planning (C+CP) had proposed increasing the population even further by transferring housing from Gage South to Wesbrook Place. The feedback received on this proposal was negative and in the end C+CP decided that “the additional floor space from the Gage South area will not be transferred to Wesbrook Place.”
By approving this amendment package as presented, the board committee also accidentally endorsed putting 310,000 sq. ft. of housing in the Gage South area. Certainly, this wasn’t their intention. Board members didn’t seem aware that this was one of the major implications of their decision on the Wesbrook Place amendments. But when you put the cart before the horse, as both the board and C+CP are fond of doing, things like this are bound to happen.
How did this happen?
In January 2011, BoG approved the UBC Land Use Plan. At the time, they also directed C+CP to start work on Gage South “Area Under Review”. They requested that C+CP “Report back on two allocation scenarios of building floorspace” for all of UBC’s neighbourhoods, “with one assuming that housing currently associated with the ‘Area Under Review’ designation in the Land Use Plan is transferred away from that area and the other assuming the housing is not transferred.” The use of this specific language, specifying transfers, is important.
C+CP went away and undertook this work as requested and in April submitted the two allocation scenarios. Scenario A called for 310,000 sq. ft. of housing in Gage South. Scenario B called for 0 sq. ft. of housing in Gage South. While some neighbourhoods called for the floorspace to fall within a certain range, this flexibility was not included for Gage South. It was approved as a specific, rigid number, making Gage South housing an all-or-nothing proposition.
So what about the language about needing a housing transfer? Under Scenario B (no housing in Gage South) the housing wouldn’t simply be eliminated. It was slated to go to Wesbrook Place. There was a degree of ambiguity in this, because Wesbrook Place was one of the neighbourhoods that called for the floorspace to fall within a range, rather than a specific number. The housing transfer was designed such that, if no housing was built in Gage South, it required an increase to the range in which Wesbrook Place’s floorspace must fit. While this afforded some flexibility, there was no explicit option for the density to simply disappear, which UBC Insiders has always advocated for, and which the board is fully within their power to do.
Despite the ambiguity, the intention of the board was clear when they requested it the allocation scenarios: they wanted one option where the housing stays in Gage, one option where it’s transferred. All or nothing, and if nothing, a transfer is non-negotiable. That’s certainly how C+CP interpreted it, and communicated it to others. On August 28th, “The Chair reminded the [Gage South Working] group that as part of the 2011 UBC Land Use Plan amendment process, the Board also approved a density distribution approach across campus neighbourhoods. This distribution scenario required that should the Gage process determine that university rental housing will be eliminated from the “Area Under Review”, that 28,800 gsm of university rental housing density would have to be successfully reallocated to the Wesbrook Place Neighbourhood instead.”
Meanwhile, C+CP was holding their consultations on the Wesbrook Place Neighbourhood plan. During the second phase of that consultation in September, they asked participants “If you were to include the additional density from Gage South in Wesbrook Place where would you place it?” The most popular response was “other suggestion”.
Subsequently, the Gage South Working Group (GSWG) was informed on October 6 that “Based on the feedback, it is not likely that the density transfer from Gage South to Wesbrook Place will be possible.” This fact was later confirmed in phase 3 of Wesbrook Place consultations.
In late October, Lisa Colby, chair of the GSWG visited AMS Council. I asked her if making the decision not to transfer the Gage South housing to Wesbrook Place essentially guaranteed housing would go ahead in Gage South. Her reply was that the intention was indeed to put the housing in Gage South, again reinforcing the notion that C+CP viewed the housing as a strict either-or proposition between Gage South and Wesbrook Place.
By approving a Wesbrook Place plan that did not include housing transfer from Gage South yesterday, the board committee disqualified one of the two allocation scenarios they previously approved. The remaining scenario includes the full amount of housing in Gage South; this is official board policy.
The right hand has no idea what the left is doing
As I already mentioned, I do not believe this was the intention of the board. This was not some underhanded way to sneak housing into Gage South. Rather, committee members were unaware of the full ramifications of their decision.
The discussion about the Wesbrook Place amendments was quite robust, going on for about an hour. However, I would stop short of classifying the discussion as actual deliberation. Instead, through the questions asked, many governors betrayed the fact that they did not have a firm grasp of the procedures by which UBC governs land development. Nor how C+CP undertakes its consultations. Nor the details of past Board decisions on housing allocations. Most of those questions did come from board members who were not members of the committee discussing the matter, however it does raise flags for the coming full board meeting. Without this base of knowledge, governors are ill-equipped to be making the decisions about campus development that they’re currently making.
It certainly doesn’t help that communication between the board and C+CP is strained. C+CP had submitted documents the day before the meeting, including a 150-page binder of consultation comments which governors, understandably, hadn’t read. The information C+CP presents to the board outlines the decisions C+CP made, and the information those decisions were based on. However, they don’t give the board what they (and everyone else) is really interested in: the thought process and reasoning used to arrive at those decisions. C+CP operates as a black box.
The board doesn’t fare much better. Due to the lack of basic knowledge in the room, they either rely too heavily on C+CP to make decisions for them, or they’re unable to communicate their wishes clearly. Without trying to be disrespectful, I don’t think board members had any idea what they were doing when they approved the two housing allocations in April. Those scenarios were establishing fundamental, long-term goals for campus development in response to an immediate short-term concern. Surely that was not the intention, but it was the result.
Those allocation scenarios have already backfired and have put the board in the uncomfortable position of having an official position assigning housing to Gage South while the consultation is ongoing. This, combined with the fact that all four orientations proposed for Gage South include housing, means that any claims by C+CP or the Board about being open-minded on planning issues appear completely disingenuous. The allocation scenarios will cause similar problems for all future neighbourhood planning processes too, and the board should seriously consider rescinding these at their meeting next week. It’s put the board in over their heads.
Governor Maureen Howe was the only one who was able to go right to the heart of the matter. She questioned whether there was any real overarching strategy in place for the university’s neighbourhood planning, or whether C+CP and the Board would simply lurch from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, making all necessary changes on the fly, leaving behind angry students and residents wherever they go and finding out their hands might be tied by previous decisions. Later in the meeting, President Toope and BoG chair Bill Levine illustrated this point splendidly. Both gentlemen said the amounts of housing assigned to Gage South and Wesbrook Place should not be intertwined, and that the two areas should be considered separately. In essence, they were advocating for the exact opposite of the BoG’s existing position.
For a body whose success hinges on successful long-term strategic thinking, this lack of coherent strategy on land development should be at the front of every governor’s mind.