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TOD: Transit-Oriented Displacement?

Vancouver in Canada is well known (or notorious) for being one of the most expensive cities to rent or own a home. As a result, multiple levels of government have acknowledged the crisis, and, even across political party lines, are coming up with policies to help make the city more affordable by building denser housing. In particular, Transit Oriented Developments (TODs)— defined as specific buildings or developments that allow people to drive less and walk, cycle, and take transit more — have been a widely discussed type of development in solutions for the housing crisis. In constructing TODs, policymakers assume that lessening auto-dependence and cheaper housing compared to single-family homes therefore solves some of the affordability issues in the city.

Though there are many positives to TODs such as the potential future residents and businesses, their implementation in the (re)zoning process often overlooks the ‘losers’ of TODs. Often, these are the most vulnerable populations to the cost-of-living crisis in Vancouver, such as those who are low-income and/or transit-reliant, as well as small and medium-sized businesses.

Broadway Plan

As Vancouver expands its Skytrain system to replace the busiest bus line in Canada and the USA, the city approved the Broadway Plan to have land-use ‘match’ the higher level of transit expected. The plan aims to improve housing, job, and recreational opportunities by upzoning and densifying areas along the Broadway corridor.

In particular, approximately 30k households accounting for a quarter of Vancouver’s rental housing units, should have been subject to added renter protection measures. However, since its approval in 2022, the group of people raising affordability concerns and questioning the strength of renter’s rights seem to have grown. Multitudes of articles written by various people, ranging from former city chief planners to academics and economists critique the embellished affordability claims of the plan. In an opinion piece, real estate developer Michael Geller states:

“The entire rationale… was flawed. The Broadway Plan currently allows two 20-storey towers… but requires just 20 percent of new units to be below-market rental housing for people with incomes between $30,000 and $80,000. The other 80 percent of units can rent at ever-increasing market rents….”

He opines that the 20 percent rule is archaic and designed for a past with different income levels and needs. Many examples have appeared of development plans building more housing stock overall, but not increasing the amount of affordable housing (often called “below-market” units).

Little Manila

Nearby an already existing Skytrain station is a row of businesses colloquially known as Little Manila. These family-owned shops and restaurants offer culturally appropriate services and foods to the large diasporic Filipino community since the de-industrialization of the area in the late 1980s. This importance is why, in 2021, the community was shocked to learn that a rezoning plan for a TOD that replaces the six current commercial spaces with two commercial spaces instead.

In addition to the well-known fact that developers favour larger commercial spaces that can be filled by banks and large chains, Vancouver’s limiting of commercial spaces to major arterial roads also plays a role in the proposed displacement. Comparing the rezoning map of the area plan to the current makeup of buildings shows that the proposed mixed-use areas do not expand commercial zoning, relegating it to the same spots as current businesses on the arterial roads.

Stopgap Measures and Solutions to Displacement

Community Engagement

For the development that threatens the Filipino businesses of Little Manila, a multitude of youth activist groups and community organizations arranged various sessions to inform people about how their cultural needs are threatened and how their voices are important and should be heard by elected officials. Thankfully for the community, these initiatives happened early in the planning process, meaning the developer could change their plans to meet the community’s needs. However, the final applications and renderings of a revised proposal have yet to be seen.

Rezoning the Mansions and Detached Homes

Just a few kilometres west of Little Manila are two Skytrain stops on 29th Avenue and Nanaimo Street. They are only surrounded by single-family homes, so that is why the municipal and provincial governments want to densify and add a variety of housing stock around the transit stations. Adding TOD here would have comparatively minimal harm compared to the plans of the 2022 approved Broadway plan.

Land-use map around East Vancouver Skytrain Stations. White denotes single-family/detached homes. by: Robert White via maps.nicholsonroad.com/zones
Land-use map around East Vancouver Skytrain Stations. White denotes single-family/detached homes. by: Robert White via maps.nicholsonroad.com/zones

Additionally, there have been discussions about densifying the high-income mansion district of Shaunessy. Despite the neighbourhood’s proximity to the future Broadway Skytrain extension, it was not included in the Broadway Plan. However, due to pressures from the provincial government, approval of policies that enable higher densities in this community are likely to happen. Additionally, developments in this neighbourhood would not be as harmful to marginalized communities, with 75% of residents owning their home compared to the city average of 47%, and those in the top 10% of Canadian income are the largest income cohort.

Top: Fraserview (Covered by the Broadway Plan), Bottom: Shaughnessy (Not part of Broadway Plan) via Google Maps (2023)
Top: Fraserview (Covered by the Broadway Plan)
Bottom: Shaughnessy (Not part of Broadway Plan)
via Google Maps (2023)

Expanding Commercial Zoning

Lastly, expanding commercial zoning and diversifying the sizes of these spaces can minimize the potential harm to current businesses. Not only would this benefit businesses by providing more location choices, but it would also benefit residents and people that pass by these areas, by, for example, being able to locate off arterial streets and away from heavy road pollution.

Future of TODs?

For many decision and policy makers in Vancouver, TODs are seen as a big part of a solution to Vancouver’s housing and affordability crisis. But just like building anything in a city, TODs’ inclusion into already established and developed neighbourhoods must consider the impacts and well-being of the existing people of a community. Planners should engage the community from the get-go, making sure that community input is active along all parts of the process. In Veronica Davis’ book Inclusive Transportation, she emphasizes that:

“There’s a point where you can advocate… after which you might get locked out of the decision-making table.”

Additionally, looking at the lessons learned from ‘introductory’ readings of citizen participation like Henri Lefebre’s Right to the City may remind planners that Vancouver is nothing without its current residents. In the long run, if even the most idealized form of housing is implemented through the current status quo, even the planners helping build TODs will eventually leave.

This article was previously published in the 2024 – End of Year Issue.

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Zach Velasco
Zach Velasco
Hello, I'm Zach, a Filipino-Canadian studying Human Geography and Planning! I have particular interests in the topics of civic engagement, transportation behaviour, and new urbanism. In my free time, I love using my Weekend Vrij subscirption to explore all the different cities and small towns in the Netherlands!
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