For a long time, my mental model of urban planning was basically “there are written rules about what you can build, and to build something you just follow the rules.” Unfortunately, this is not an accurate way to think about Vancouver.

I get alerts for new rezoning+development applications (using a small tool I wrote), and this little snippet shows up over and over:

…the application is “conditional” so it may be permitted. However, it requires the decision of the Director of Planning.

You can see this on virtually any type of housing proposed in Vancouver, here’s a selection:

I’ve been tracking rezoning+development applications for about a year and a half, and my data set has 599 items with the words “Director of Planning”.

OK, but… why? Doesn’t the Director of Planning have better things to do than approve individual houses and small apartment buildings?
I’ll defer that question to a senior planner at the City of Vancouver:

To translate: Vancouver intentionally allows very little development without giving planners a discretionary subjective veto. Nearly anything other than a suburban house (but also many suburban houses!) is “conditional”, and for conditional uses the Director of Planning can impose any requirements they like. A typical zoning bylaw often looks like this:

Conditional uses go something like this for developers:

  1. Submit a detailed architectural proposal
  2. Wait a long time (often over a year)
  3. Receive a document with many pages of conditions requiring specific changes to the initial proposal - or a rejection
    1. The changes can be to architecture, landscaping, parking, or whatever the planners fancy this month - conditions are entirely up to the discretion of staff

For example, here’s a small apartment building near Commercial-Broadway that did not require a rezoning but it did get 17 pages of conditions.

The Director of Planning can delegate this work to other planners with architecture credentials. I’m told that “about 7” people other than the Director have the authority to approve a project.

OK, so what?

You could tell a story in which this system makes sense. Some plots of land are unique, and perhaps important development sites really do benefit from senior planners’ time and site-specific requirements.

On the other hand… like Paul said, there’s not much that this system doesn’t apply to. The law, in its majestic equality, forbids outright development of townhouses and large condo towers alike.

In practice, our conditional approval system means that a lot of important planning rules live in the heads of planning staff. This isn’t so bad if you’re a large developer; they’re sophisticated enough to know what staff are likely to approve, in no small part due to their ability to hire the well-connected.

It is, however, remarkably difficult for small builders (and interested amateurs like me) to answer the question “what can be built on this land?”. Good luck out there!


Cities & Code

Top Categories

View all categories