Whose OCP and Zoning is it anyway?

Lawrence Rieper:  March 10, 2011

Here we are again at another open house to promote something that we really don’t want.

Recently, a notice of public open houses offered by City staff appeared in local newspapers, regarding a proposed new zoning bylaw. The reason proffered for the proposed new zoning bylaw is that it is in response to the adoption of the City’s Official Community Plan (OCP). It goes on to state that the draft bylaw includes a number of significant changes intended to create a more user-friendly bylaw which reflects the goals of the OCP and embraces the concepts of complete communities, sustainability and growth management. Public comment is sought regarding the draft document. At the Open House, Goals and Objectives for the Zoning Bylaw rewrite included: improving mobility and servicing efficiency, protecting and enhancing our environment, promoting a thriving economy, encouraging social enrichment, building a more sustainable community ad managing urban growth.

For many of us the Official Community Plan was Plan Nanaimo – a serious community effort from the early 1990s to define a growth plan for Nanaimo well into the future.

With a then population of more or less 70.000 people, zoning was considered sufficient to accommodate at least five times that number. Fifteen or twenty years on, the population has changed by maybe a fifth – a fairly modest figure. So why was Plan Nanaimo changed during the past decade? Was it because it didn’t suit the interests of certain developers and their politicians? If it had been left alone, would this new draft bylaw have been necessary?

Densification is the buzzword pushing current planning, but unless we are actually expecting a literal invasion in the near future, it seems totally unjustified. The absence of a real economy on Vancouver Island means that all growth will be gradual. This is good because we really don’t have the infrastructure everywhere in the city to accommodate new masses. Granted, some people advocate growth as an economic driver, but the reality is that the taxpayer is always behind the eight ball in this process.

You may say that densification is the corporate agenda. What does this mean? Is it senior staff pushing this agenda through council? Who’s in charge here? Does anyone care what the populace wants? One thing that makes a mockery of densification is the approval and support given to the Cable Bay/Oceanside development at the southern edge of town. This was just urban sprawl. Now it’s up for sale at an obscene price and the taxpayers have nothing to show for it but future commitments. Another thing is the wasted opportunity to improve the downtown. The conference centre and the highrises are not a success. They were never the right fit for this city. One can blame the economy if you like, but downturns are predictable and inevitable and sounder judgment should have prevailed. If you want to sell your ideas, be consistent.

One could question what a user-friendly bylaw represents, and for whom it is user­friendly. Most of us have little cause to access user-friendly zoning – we just buy our houses and live in them. It would be interesting to reflect on the goals of the OCP – what they were and what they have become, but the concept of complete communities intrigues. What is a complete community? Is it the same as a neighbourhood and what makes it complete? Sustainability and growth management are just empty buzzwords, with no real meaning. Actually growth and sustainability are at odds in a real world. If we hadn’t waited five years for a hotel at Gordon Street and moved the bus exchange back there, that might improve mobility. And if we didn’t still encourage urban sprawl, that would help with servicing efficiency. As for protecting and enhancing our environment, I wonder where the planners were when the Third Street Connector, Nanaimo Ice Centre and the playing fields were developed. Or for that matter, the Cable Bay lands. Again, we ask, what is social enhancement? These goals and objectives are just empty fluff.

This plan appears to treat all neighbourhoods the same – uniformally, except those that have legal caveats affording some protection. Actually, some parts around Brannen Lake have been down-zoned, but only to encourage future development. However, all neighbourhoods are not the same. People choose specific areas to suit their lifestyles, preferences and pocketbooks. Maps are two-dimensional, but Nanaimo isn’t built on a perfectly flat plain – very little of it is plateau or even valleys. It is mostly built on the sides of hills flowing down towards the sea. This is what helps to define the geography of neighbourhoods. But there is much more to identifiable neighbourhoods than that.

City planning is a fairly new profession – little more than a century old. You will perhaps concede that its practitioners have made some grand mistakes in that time, mostly to do with the automobile. We, the people, are a bit afraid of you making more mistakes in your efforts to correct your past ones. This plan incorporates much of the newer thinking in city planning, that has to do with public transit and pedestrian access, but it fails to embrace these concepts with any heart. It is merely a sterile serving that unsurprisingly fails to captivate the populace. Planning doesn’t have to be boring if people think their opinion matters – Plan Nanaimo proved that. But where are the Urban Containment Boundary and the limits on high-rises on the waterfront? Gone in an ill-considered effort to appease developers. Frankly, it’s difficult to see any difference between the planning and development departments.

You say that you want public input, but you intend to push your plans through anyway. We would like you to really listen to what we have to say. You will probably claim that the public has been consulted in spite of the poor turnouts to these four open houses, but the public has not been consulted, not really, and they know it. This process is flawed and consultation is a sham. Stop paying us lip service. Instead of big plans, we want places to walk. Nanaimo is more than a century and a half old. However, within its older parts, as well as more recent parts, many areas have no sidewalks. That really is unacceptable. We want sewer systems. We want reliable clean water. We want garbage pick up. We want parks. We want you to keep it simple, for us.

And then we have to wonder, for example, what a redefining of a single family zoning means. If a single-family lot is now a house plus ancillary building plus if it’s large enough a split into more of the same, it bears little relationship to what it formerly was. And will we be taxed on the potential for what the new zoning offers?

Clearly, there are many unanswered questions with this new Zoning Bylaw.