The 2018 White Rock municipal election became a referendum on development as much as anything else.
The majority of voters, wary of the previous council majority’s willingness to accept highrise development in exchange for community amenity contributions (CACs) from developers, swept into power a new council majority of Democracy Direct candidates, including current incumbent Mayor Darryl Walker.
That slate had campaigned on limiting heights for new buildings to six storeys in the city (except for defined areas in uptown White Rock zoned for buildings from between 20 and 24 storeys, where a precedent for higher buildings already existed).
But during the last four years divisions emerged among Democracy Direct council members over what density of development should be approved in infill areas.
Some, like Walker, argue it makes sense to replace aging multi-family developments with the four- to six- storey buildings outlined in the revised Official Community Plan – particularly if there is an affordable housing component in the proposal – but others see too much development of this character as something that could erase single-family neighborhoods.
These and other differences meant Democracy Direct was defunct as a slate by the time the 2022 campaign was underway – with politicians formerly under its banner running as independent candidates.
Number 1 issue
If mayoralty candidates in the current municipal election agree over anything now, it’s that the future direction of development in the city remains the one item of most interest to voters.
“It’s still the number 1 issue,” current councillor and mayoralty candidate Erika Johanson, a Democracy Direct candidate in 2018, noted.
There is also agreement that developments including an affordable housing component should be encouraged – although candidates differ on how this could be achieved.
Walker said the current OCP, created following the 2018 election should be the “governing design and governing rules pointing us in the direction that development should take.”
“Because of the design of it, we’re allowed to be a bit more flexible in terms of heights if there is affordable housing involved – but I am not going to agree to anything that goes outside the OCP guidelines that doesn’t include affordable housing.”
What will be under discussion for affordable housing going forward, he said, is buildings with a maximum height of six storeys – not building condo towers aimed at the wealthiest end of the market, as has previously been the case.
“What we’re seeing being built in White Rock right now is a combination of what we agreed to and what the former council agreed to,” he said. “I think people need to understand that.”
No single solution
Walker said he is also interested in council looking at smaller-scale developments that might rezone existing single-family properties to include two single-family homes or several duplexes or tri-plexes.
“Not just one answer will solve this. There are different types of affordable housing – market housing, which would priced to allow young people and seniors a chance to buy a home in White Rock; under the OCP there could be proposals that could be done in partnership with BC Housing or the (federal) Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and then there’s rental housing, which I suspect a lot of people in White Rock are most interested in.”
Walker said that there is nothing to be lost by talking with developers to make sure they understand White Rock’s needs.
“I’m a strong believer that there is much to be gained by sitting down with people to try to find common ground.
“It doesn’t have to be confrontational. They’re not the enemy, they’re people we can work with – within the rules of the OCP.”
By contrast, Johanson – an unequivocal opponent of highrises – said she favours taking a harder line with developers.
“We need to change the mindset at city hall that’s been created over the last 34 years,” she said.
“We pander to developers, not the residents who live here.”
Johanson said that what is needed is the political will to say no to proposals and dictate to developers the form of building that will be accepted by council.
“It’s not inevitable that highrises and greater density will come. We need to be firm about that. It’s that belief in the inevitability of it that creates instability.”
Focus on affordability
Johanson said that Statistics Canada figures show that White Rock is already the ninth densest city in Canada.
“We should not be working towards number 1,” she said.
Increased density does not reduce the cost of housing and does not reduce the cost of living. If that were the case, it would be cheap to live in White Rock.”
She said that what the city should be focusing on is affordable housing for seniors and others with an income level of less than $50,000 per year.
“I’d like to amend the OCP so that at least 30 per cent of the housing in a proposed new development is affordable housing – rather than the 10 per cent now – before allowing any additional density.”
Megan Knight – a member of the 2014-2018 council led by former Mayor Wayne Baldwin, which had been perceived by many as pro-highrise – said, however, that, if elected, she is “not intending to revisit the OCP.”
“A lot of people fear that every time a new council comes in that it will mean a rewrite of the OCP,” she added, noting that she feels that the city has already spent enough time and money on the process.
“During the 2014-2018 council term the OCP was seven years old and needed updating,” she said.
“When the new council came in, they wanted to change it, and they did,” she said, adding that she would generally abide by the height limits as established in the current OCP.
“We have to use the OCP as a guideline,” she said.
At the same time, she said, she doesn’t have a fixed idea of a desirable height limit, and prefers to look at each application that comes forward on its own merits.
“That’s something that Wayne Baldwin taught me,” she said.
“You have to have an open mind. If I have my mind made up before I look at a proposal, I’m not doing my job as a member of council. If someone brings me something that provides affordable housing and also CACs, then I want to take a look at it.”
Knight acknowledged that highrises previously approved resulted in “million-dollar-condos” but noted that most of the highrises approved during her last term in office were in areas already pre-zoned for them.
There is a general agreement now that affordable housing is necessary, she said, but current council has done nothing decisive.
“My main concern is that there are affordable housing projects coming forward, but they are being turned away. It doesn’t seem anything is happening.
“We’re not going to get affordable housing unless we get things moving. We need to have a plan.”
There are existing models in the city – including co-op projects – that have proven beneficial and have allowed people to get into the housing market, she said.
“There are lots of plans that can be looked into, but we need to get it going,” she said.
Scott Kristjanson, also a current councillor running for mayor, said he is proud of having been consistently opposed to highrises.
“The residents told us they didn’t want anything higher than 12 storeys,” he said.
“If I haven’t changed on that, it means I’ve lived up to my election promises.”
At the same time, he said, if a proposal came forward for a higher building and it had sufficient public support because it offered a benefit to the community, he would give it serious consideration.
But he is not in favour of higher density that threatens single-family neighborhoods, he said.
“I won’t approve something, even if I love it, if the public opposes it,” he said.
“There was a proposed development on Stayte Road that was higher density – it offered 20 townhouses, which I thought was a good use of the property.
“But when we had the public hearing, there wasn’t a single nearby resident who supported it.”
As far as density is concerned, Kristjanson notes that White Rock has already fulfilled Metro Vancouver projections as far ahead as 2040.
“We need to stop thinking growth is everything,” he said.
With current pressures for property owners to redevelop in White Rock, stories still emerge of rental buildings being poorly maintained as a ploy to ensure that they “age-out,” Kristjanson agreed.
He suggested that the city should be more stringent in discouraging premature redevelopment.
“We have to make it less attractive to property owners,” he said.
“It seems that the average age for a building in White Rock is 37 years – why?” observed Johanson.
“They could last a lot longer if properly maintained.”
She also said she believes that the city’s tenant-relocation policy, inspired by Vancouver’s, “doesn’t work” and has left long-term tenants of some buildings “adrift” without options when owners apply to redevelop their buildings.
Knight said she believes the only solution, ultimately, is to increase the supply of affordable housing in the city.
“Renovictions” are also a major concern, said Walker.
“We’ve got to make sure that there is some kind of place for people to stay, preferably in the area, with an option to return to the building.
“As far as poor maintenance is concerned, I’m not sure there is a lot the city can do – as it largely falls in the territory of the Residential Tenancy Branch – unless it can be demonstrated that the building is a safety hazard.”