Metro, UBC clash over housing plan to create campus town of 51,000

VANCOUVER – Metro Vancouver is balking at a radical plan by the University of B.C. to build more market housing and turn the campus into a town of 51,000 people over the next two decades, warning the move will put more pressure on the region’s roads, transit and other infrastructure.

A Metro Vancouver staff report suggests the move is not in the regional interest, and urges UBC to scale back the proposal, which calls for a substantial boost in affordable and market housing to attract “excellent faculty and students from around the world,” and increase the non-student population on campus to up to 35,000 by 2021 from 6,410 today.

The move — part of the first official review of UBC’s Land Use Plan since 2003 — is aimed at turning the 405-hectare (1,000-acre) Vancouver campus from a commuter campus into a self-sufficient community with shops, services and transit.

The university argues UBC is located in “some of the most expensive real estate in Canada” and more market housing is needed. About 50 per cent of students and 25 per cent of faculty live on campus now.

“What we’re looking at is building a sustainable community; a place where people can live, work, study and shop without getting in a car and driving to the city,” said Stephen Owen, UBC’s vice-president for external, legal, and community relations.

“UBC is very confident that we’re creating something of a really important model here.”

UBC unveiled its amended land use plan this summer, shortly after the provincial government enacted legislation in June that transferred the responsibility for the university’s local land use planning from Metro Vancouver to the minister of community and rural development.

Metro is still responsible for regional growth issues at UBC, which is part of Electoral Area A, under the B.C. Local Government Act. UBC residents on long-term leases or private property pay property taxes to the province but sewage and water taxes to Metro.

As part of the proposed changes, the university wants to retain the UBC farm to support teaching and research on campus, boost its financial endowment funds and foster a pedestrian village with shops and services at University Square.

But Metro worries the university is moving too fast.

Metro chief administrative officer Johnny Carline said while the regional district supports UBC’s general plan for a “balanced university town,” he’s worried they want to build more high-end market housing for the public at the expense of student accommodation.

This could pose serious problems for Pacific Spirit Park, the city of Vancouver and the regional district as a whole, especially if people are commuting from UBC to other areas to work or there isn’t enough green space left on campus, the report said.

“A significant increase in market housing, which will undoubtedly be ‘high end’ in terms of price, may benefit the university financially, but this may equally increase the pressure for costly public infrastructure investment,” the report states.

“This is not consistent with regional growth plans or the regional interest.”

The report, which was discussed by the Electoral Area A committee Friday, calls on UBC to re-examine its plan to “increase the supply of on-campus student housing and decrease the amount of pure market housing.” It also seeks height regulations to address concerns about the visual impact of development on Pacific Spirit Park.

Metro Vancouver also has obtained a ministerial order requiring UBC to submit its regional context statement to Metro before submitting a new land use plan to the minister.

Vancouver Coun. Suzanne Anton, who sits on the committee, said the members didn’t want to give a view one way or the other on UBC’s plans. The committee did, however, pass a motion to ask UBC for clarity on the population numbers and how many residents might still have to commute off-campus.

“One of the interesting things about UBC is it has always been out there on the point, [separate] from the city,” said Anton. “This is a radical new proposal to turn UBC into a town in its own right.”

Carline said Metro is “just raising the flag,” noting the regional district hasn’t been given many details about how much student housing is specifically planned or what the market housing costs or controls are predicted to be.

“The concern is UBC should be as self-contained as possible,” he said. “The more student housing there is, the less transit pressure there will be to UBC. If we’re interpreting the land use [plan] correctly, it will increase the pressures on the transit system rather than decrease it.”

Vancouver Coun. Tim Stevenson, who sits on the Metro committee, said he was surprised at how much density is planned for UBC. “There’s no doubt this is disconcerting for us,” he said. “There are concerns about how that’s going to affect Vancouver … the traffic flows in and out will be huge and what does that mean for transit? It certainly has sent off alarm bells and red flags.”

Owen said he envisions most people on campus will be students and faculty and won’t be travelling from Surrey or Delta to get to the university. Yet he said he was disappointed that a rapid transit line to UBC is not among the region’s priorities, which cite the Evergreen Line, an extension to the Surrey SkyTrain and the Central Broadway line as the top transit projects for the region.

Owen noted the number of transit trips to UBC increased from 19,000 trips in 1997 to nearly 60,000 trips last year, making the university the second-largest transit destination outside the downtown core.

“The real concern we’ve got now is ridership is about 100,000 people a day,” Owen said.

“It’s financially viable right from the start.”

But Carline noted Surrey is expected to grow by 250,000 people and add another 150,000 workers — figures that “dwarf anything happening at UBC” and he doesn’t want UBC’s plans to overshadow what’s needed elsewhere.

Carline noted he never envisioned UBC as an urban centre. The Official Community Plan for UBC adopted by the Metro board in 1997, for instance, cited a target population of 18,000 by 2021, including students in residence.

Owen argued UBC has already been deemed a “living laboratory” for the province and university officials want to capitalize on that as well as UBC’s distinction of being in the top 30 universities.

“Certainly the revenue that comes from market housing development is going into the endowment fund to support the academic mission and research,” he said. UBC generates combined economic benefits of more than $10 billion a year.

“It’s all happening at UBC. It’s a little curious that the model community is being left out of regional growth planning.”

Source: The Vancouver Sun

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