University Boulevard planning, six years later. Plus ca change…

On Wednesday I joined Neal for my very first Campus and Community Planning feedback session in about 6 years. Yeah, I’ve landed myself back at UBC for a PhD, and it seems like the French expression applies equally to myself and to the subject of this post. I still think it’s a good use of time hang around hackish friends, pick arguments with nice C+CP employees, and write feedback on the minutiae of campus planning politics before heading to Wednesday hot lunch at Hillel (delicious). The U-Blvd “neighborhood” redevelopment is still an essentially ill-conceived market-housing-focused project endlessly repackaged in a series of increasingly confounding planning-babble.

Main things I remembered/learned/noticed from this iteration of the plan:

  1. The two totally unnecessary infill buildings (charmingly christened B and D) to occupy the little triangular lots between War and U-Blvd are now established fact. They will still block the view of the iconic War Memorial Gym. They would still be better turned into green space. One has already been granted a Development Permit.
  2. The administration building on the corner of U-Blvd and University (GSAB) which is now being torn down is now also being proposed as residential development.
  3. The Copp building (on the south side of U-Blvd, between Dentistry and Wesbrook), is now also part of the U-Blvd plan, slated as yet more housing development.
  4. Both buildings in 2. and 3. are outside the boundaries of the University Blvd Neighbourhood Plan, as defined in the Land Use Plan (LUP). That means that they’re defined as “Academic” and no non-residence housing is to be build on them, making the presented plan an outright transgression of the LUP. Isn’t it funny that the two remaining academic buildings on U-Blvd suddenly reached the “natural end of their lives” at the same time? And even suspending disbelief that that is indeed true, they cannot be sustainably retrofitted, but must be torn down?
  5. The new bus loop has been given the larger footprint it needs, with an above-ground pickup/dropoff area at 90 degrees to the current one (in the parking lot of War), and a parking/storage area where the current loop is. The parking/storage area would be covered by a building containing – you guessed it – housing. Think of all those delicious fumes.
  6. War Memorial Gym itself is on the chopping block next

General impressions and insights from the event and my chat with the charming Gerry McGeough of C+CP:

  • C+CP considers it to be an act of charity (for which they deserve plaudits) not to tear things down. Even perfectly good things. This I learned upon asking the simple question “does every square inch of this area need to be demolished and redeveloped?” whereupon I got the answer “Well, we might not tear down the Gym”.
  • The “livable community/mixed-use” jargon has penetrated to the very core of the identity of this project (and of C+CP itself). Criticism of the amount of housing presented in the plan is apparently an attack on this ineffable quality. And it is obvious that the way to achieve it is to max out residential density in every possible way.
  • There is a shady internal-financing combination being executed by moving student and staff housing that was slated for the Wesbrook Village into the U-Blvd area (so that more expensive condos can be sold in the former). This is supposedly to finance the loan to renovate the last wing of the BioSciences building. I don’t know the details of that situation, but it’s weird. [Ed: It's explained here]
  • C+CP is getting better and better at the consultation game. No, that’s not a compliment. Revisionist history of the area, check. Liberal use of planning-babble, check. Very-brief summary of negative feedback and concerns (without actually addressing them), check. Yeah, it’s better than no consultation, but I still feel like people’s legitimate and unanswered questions are being suffocated under a mass of high-gloss posters.

Now I’m not beating up on Gerry. I liked him a lot (Hi Gerry!), and he took my sometimes intemperate complaining with a great deal of gallantry and good humour. What he didn’t do was ever question the idea that there 1) ideally should be 2) is allowed to be (under the LUP), and 3) can practically be (on top of a polluting bus terminal), this amount of housing in the area. The assumption that “mixed use” communities with mega-housing density is a GOOD THING is gospel truth to the current generation of Vancouver-ish planners.

The idea that there should be housing in this area has been the central (centrally contested, and centrally unchanged) ingredient in the U-Blvd area from the get go. It started with the 1997 designation of this area, and the site of the current bus loop, dubbed Gage South, as a “neighbourhood” to begin with, opening the door to market housing (unlike the other “neighborhoods”, which are all in outlying areas of UBC, this one is in the very core). Years of consultation and opposition (including Neal’s awesome work on this blog), has changed the housing proposed for the area into more student and staff focused, though not exclusively. But it’s still expensive (ie. market), some of it is still on top of a polluting bus loop, and it’s still fundamentally adding a lot of residential density to the academic core and gateway of the campus.

So when I say that nothing’s changed, that’s an exaggeration. The plan itself has changed, and it’s a lot better now than it used to be. But the push-pull dynamics of market housing and commercial spaces vs. academic, student, and community spaces remains the same. This dynamic is not what C+CP’s revisionist history poster would have you believe, and to understand it, people need to remember a bit. Eight years ago, when I was an undergrad at UBC, the footprint of where the Nest is now was planned as an expensive, dubiously safe, and too-small underground bus loop, covered by a mall, with market housing on top. That plan was also sold by C+CP in identical terms of “mixed use” and “vibrancy”, even though it was correctly recognized as the craven commercialization of the centre of campus and widely panned. That plan changed: The bus loop in that location was canceled, the mall was canceled, and the space was given to the AMS and the Alumni centre. I must emphasize that these changes are not thanks to C+CP but despite it. They are due to students that protested and advocated against the commercially-oriented plans, and then funded their own public, student-oriented alternative. UBC now benefits from the fact that the student body essentially forced it kicking and screaming to cancel its plans to commercialize and cheapen the centre of campus, and literally paid for it to be public- and student-space focused ourselves.

The new SUB and Alumni Centre, and the public spaces around the knoll and on the other side of the old SUB are going to be social centre of the campus, as they should be. There really isn’t all that much left to get right. U-Blvd should concentrate on the street-level stuff. The bikes, the buses, the grocery store, the parks and outdoor seating, the traffic improvements to Wesbrook Mall, the artwork. I might even give in and stop mocking the gimmicky “living lab” and “incubator” spaces (whatever they may be) that infest any given mock-up poster. The point is, C+CP – go forth and build the lively mixed-use street of your dreams along U-Blvd. Just understand that there are people here who have memories longer than a goldfish. And we will continue to question the justification, legality, and need for 5-7 stories of (essentially) market residential on top of every build-able square meter.


Comments are disallowed for this post.

Comments are closed.

Please vote for us in the Continuous VoterMedia Contest