UBC taps property developer to lead, pay for planning review

Overshadowed by the more prominent stories of 145 sq. ft. microapartments and more international tuition increases, UBC’s Board of Governors approved a plan at their June 9 meeting to have the university create a new design vision for Wesbrook Place Neighbourhood. (For the uninitiated, Wesbrook Place is the area where the Save on Foods and BC Liquor store is.)

Sorry, does that say the university would be creating the design vision? That’s not quite correct. UBC Properties Trust (UBCPT), the university’s private property development arm, will be undertaking the review too. As the document presented to board makes clear, “the UBC Planning Team (UBC Properties Trust and Campus and Community Planning)” will be leading the process. It is expected that the outcome of this process will necessitate changes to the Wesbrook Place Neighbourhood Plan (WPNP), which outlines the types and forms of development that can occur in the area.

As the name implies, UBCPT is a trust created for the purpose of holding property on UBC’s behalf. As a result, it holds a lease (or will eventually hold a lease) on every parcel of land in Wesbrook Place. For each lot, UBCPT either builds on it themselves, or sub-leases it to another property developer to build on. UBCPT is, for all intents and purposes, a wholly-owned corporate subsidiary of the university that specializes in property development on UBC’s campus lands.

In situations where UBCPT decides to build on a piece of property themselves, they are assuming the same role as any other property developer such as the Wall Group, or Polygon, or Adera, or Modern Green. It is the role of UBC Campus and Community Planning (C+CP), a department of the university, to act as a regulatory body, ensuring the housing projects proposed by those developers comply with UBC’s rules for housing development. The WPNP is one of the documents that sets out those rules.

Unsurprisingly, the opportunity for a property developer to lead a re-write of the rules governing their activities earns a positive review – “UBCPT endorses and supports the proposed design review, especially as an opportunity to enable greater diversity of housing types and improved design parameters for future sites in Wesbrook Place.” That’s not just moral support, it’s financial too. “The costs for the project include $30,000 for consultant support, $2,500 for the production materials and logistics for meetings. Costs to be borne by Properties Trust.

It’s hard to come up with a more textbook example of a conflict of interest: UBCPT is leading and paying for a process which will set the rules governing their future activities, from which they stand to generate millions. Not only that, the entity that is supposed to act as their regulator is not only tolerating the situation, the language used is that they are all on the same side, both part of the UBC Planning Team. First-year Sauderites take note: this should be the example your instructors use to illustrate the concept of regulatory capture.

Since 2010, UBC has been allowed to operate an overly-close system for campus development in which it is possible for all aspects of the development process (land-owner, project proponent, developer, and regulator) to be undertaken by entities which are all under UBC’s control. However, they at least made a token effort at pretending as if there was some degree of independence between the various entities, if only to keep up appearances. Apparently this relationship has now grown so cozy that even the pretence of independence and oversight has been dropped. The emperor has no clothes and is feeling quite comfortable about it.

The whole situation is akin to Vancouver City Council approving a plan to have Concord Pacific partner with the city’s planning department on a review of the plans governing development in False Creek, and having Concord Pacific pay for the whole thing. No reasonable person would defend an arrangement like that, but it couldn’t be more normal at UBC, where there is no local government and democracy doesn’t matter.

The Ministry of Community, Sport, and Cultural Development, which is supposed to oversee UBC’s development activities, was asked for comment but has not yet replied. This story will be updated with their response when it is received.


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