The "Zoned Capacity" Argument is Misleading - We need a different conversation

Bryn Davidson

At a recent event hosted by the Urbanarium, the city of Vancouver's new general manager  of planning  and sustainability, Gil Kelley, had the opportunity to introduce himself to the collected nerdy-urbanists (myself included) and to introduce us to his planning philosophy.  It was a great conversation and throughout the presentation there seemed to be a lot of nodding and agreement with the broad statements of both values and process. 

Mid-way through, however, there was one moment that stood out as a bit of a non-sequitur. Following up on the need to take on 'big ideas'  he mentioned briefly that we may not need to make any large interventions into the current zoning map because we already have the necessary 'zoned capacity' to take us to 2040.  This comment lit up many twitter feeds and garnered a pointed question from the audience at the end of the event.  

I don't fault him the attempt to temper the fears or expectations of large scale changes under his watch.  What it does highlight, however, is that the idea of 'zoned capacity' is a real trigger in the local conversation, and one that we need to explore more deeply.

How did "zoned capacity" become such a flashpoint in Vancouver? In large part it is due to the efforts of character-retention advocates who have argued that we don't need to update our zoning map (and so risk the loss of existing character homes) because there already exists enough unused capacity within our current zoning plans to absorb all of the necessary growth for the next 20 years. On it's surface the idea seems both simple and compelling, and - for this reason - it has gone largely un-challenged until recently.  

In a September 2016 article the Sightline Institute's Dan Bertolet wrote a thorough rebuttal arguing:  

"It makes for a powerful talking point, conveniently glossing over the fact that zoned capacity is exceedingly difficult to estimate correctly and is employed by planners only as a crude yardstick."

Whereas Dan has provided a very detailed and sophisticated analysis of planning methods, I'll add some simpler thoughts that stem from my experiences designing and building single family homes in Vancouver:

Um, What about re-zonings? 

Single family houses usually are built within the current zoning. By contrast a large percentage of the city's multifamily housing in Vancouver is being done through a re-zoning process.  If we have enough 'zoned capacity' why is this? 

The idea of "20 years zoned capacity" seems to have really taken flight based on a 2014 consultant report looking at multifamily zones. Buried in there is an acknowledgement that about half of that 20 years of zoned capacity will actually come from re-zonings, and there's a second acknowledgement that much of what is currently zoned might not be where the market wants to build. 

In a typical re-zoning process the city has a bit more leverage over the types of amenities, features, and development fees that it can get in exchange for the up-zone.  

This seems appealing at first, but some detractors - like Patrick Condon - argue there are downsides to this approach.

By relying on re-zoning to provide half of our multifamily capacity we're biasing the city towards large scale development while neglecting the so-called missing middle; duplexes, 4-plexes, town houses and other forms that are smaller and much finer grained. 

These 'missing' housing types work better in a context where there is 'pre-zoning' (by updating the zoning map) versus relying on spot re-zoning. 

Every re-zoning exemplifies the fact that our current zoning map, our 'zoned capacity', is either the wrong size, the wrong type, or in the wrong location.  If we need to re-zone, then we don't have enough 'zoned capacity' or the zoning that we do have is out-of-date relative to today's needs. Perhaps it's time to take another look at pre-zoning.


'Whole block' redevelopment via re-zoning. Cambie and 12th. Image: CoV Rezoning Centre.

'Whole block' redevelopment via re-zoning. Cambie and 12th.
Image: CoV Rezoning Centre.


Spreading the love (lane house style):

So, it turns out, we have an interesting example of citywide pre-zoning:  the 2009 laneway house bylaw.

The laneway houses update was unique in that density was added city-wide to the majority of the city's 'single family' lots.  Overnight some 60,000+ lots became eligible to add this new type of purpose-built rental and - in the years since - nearly 400 of the units have been built per year.  

A map of the 2000+ built lane houses shows that they are spread evenly across the city in both the richer and (relatively) poorer neighbourhoods, and in areas with higher and lower density.  

Both the benefits and impacts of this new density have been able to be spread across the city, and home owners across the city have been able to age-in-place, supplement their income, or provide housing for their extended family. 

Because the zoned capacity for lane houses is
~150x the annual number of permits issued

To put it another way, in the next 20 years if we keep building 400 lane house per year, then we'll have only used up 1/8 of the pre-zoned capacity.  

Yet another way to put it: the pre-zoned capacity for lane houses is ~16x higher than the pre-zoned capacity for multifamily housing.  This is why we're seeing lane houses everywhere, but not the other missing middle housing types.

This is also why the lane house policy has allowed individual homeowners to act as the de-facto developer.

Citywide pre-zoning can allow new dwellings to be infilled in small increments and even single lots.  This stands in stark contrast to the re-zoning approach which almost always involves lot consolidation and rarely allows existing owners to densify-in-place.

If you want the development of your city to be a more equitable process, and you want to avoid the appearance that only certain communities and corridor residents need to bear the brunt of redevelopment, then the pre-zoned capacity needs to be much much larger than the amount of housing you actually want to build each year.  

Vancouver lane house permits 2009-2013.

Vancouver lane house permits 2009-2013.

The 2009 lane house bylaw allows existing owners to act as the developer, creating new housing for their extended family.  Photo: laneway house  featured in the New York Times      

The 2009 lane house bylaw allows existing owners to act as the developer, creating new housing for their extended family.

Photo: laneway house featured in the New York Times  



New zones are great (if you can find them): 

Tucked away in the neighbourhood plans for areas like Norquay Village, Grandview Woodlands, and the Cambie corridor have been some really interesting new zones created for stacked townhouses and other 'missing middle' housing types, but - if you zoom out - it becomes clear that these pockets of pre-zoning are few and far between.  

The city has 24 neighbourhoods. Of these 24, only 6 have so far gone through a more detailed planning process that resulted in a pre-zoning map.  The other neighbourhoods (Dunbar etc.) are coasting on CityPlan vision statements from the late 90s while relying on corridor re-zonings (and the lane house bylaw) for their evolution.  

At first glance this corridor approach seems fine, but - as the lane house policy showed - there is a widespread latent demand for new flexibility and new housing options within our one and two family zones.

A pre-zoning approach (that complements our neighbourhood plans) would spread both the opportunity and impacts more equitably.  

As we start a new conversation about the future of our city, we to need acknowledge that the 'zoned capacity' argument is - at best - an argument for continuing to focus on larger scale re-zonings, and - at worst - is a misdirection aimed at channelling densification into certain corridors and communities while leaving the zoning of our one and two family neighbourhoods static. 

I think it's time to acknowledge that the world is changing faster than our plans, and we probably need to revisit our approach to 'zoned capacity'.


About the author:
Bryn Davidson lives and works in Vancouver. His team designs and builds custom homes for individual homeowners and their families.