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A golfer looks on as his partner tees off on the first hole at Langara Golf Course in Vancouver. JEFF VINNICK

by Kerry Gold | The Globe and Mail

March 13, 2020

It’s either golf or housing - not both - in this Vancouver neighbourhood

At a small lecture hall at Simon Fraser University’s downtown campus a couple of weeks ago, adjunct urban design professor Scot Hein began his remarks by noting, half-jokingly, that there was a hostile audience seated before him.

“Not all of us!” shouted one man.

The man was one of the few non-golfers in attendance for the presentation entitled: Golf Courses or Housing & Parks?

Mr. Hein was there to speak about a proposal that he and co-author, University of B.C. professor Patrick Condon, had unveiled last fall. Their idea is to convert the three city-owned golf courses into properties that are half park and half housing, starting with Langara Golf Course. They say that the publicly owned land would best be used to address the city’s affordable housing shortage.

As it happens, the Vancouver Park Board is reviewing options for Langara Golf Course, which is bounded by Cambie Street to the west, West 58th Avenue to the south, Ontario Street to the east and West 49th Avenue to the north. Last year, the board voted to green light a report on the cost benefit and public use of the 120-acre course. 

This year it will hire a consultant to conduct a study and the public engagement process should get underway by the end of the year, according to Park Board commissioner Dave Demers. Mr. Demers also spoke at the event, in favour of keeping the land as park land but looking at other recreational options for it.

Mr. Hein and Mr. Condon hope to gain enough public support so that housing will be included in the review of Langara Golf Course. In a phone interview, Mr. Demers said that the Park Board is not considering it.

“It just so happens that [their] idea and the promotion of the idea overlaps with the process that we just started at the Park Board,” Mr. Demers said. “That said … there is nobody at parks who will consider housing on the park land that we have, which includes the golf courses.”

The 18-hole golf course on the south side of the city was the province’s first public golf course, built in 1926 by the Canadian Pacific Railway, which also built Shaughnessy. The city also owns Fraserview and McCleery golf courses, totalling about 450 acres of land (it also owns a couple of smaller “pitch and putt” golf centres). There are four private golf courses in Vancouver and 93 golf courses in Metro Vancouver, according to Mr. Hein.

It isn’t the first time the idea to nix golf at Langara has been floated. In 2018, then Mayor Gregor Robertson introduced a motion to approach the Park Board with the idea of turning the golf course into sports fields. And golf courses have come under the gun of late in other Canadian cities and throughout North America. When former Toronto chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat ran as a mayoral candidate in 2018 she proposed converting some city golf courses to recreational spaces that would be open to the public for free.

Judging from the packed room full of golfers at SFU, the golfer community is ready to put up a fight against any proposal to reduce or replace the fairways.

In his argument for housing development, Mr. Hein unpacked some compelling statistics. He listed several mid-density projects, including 12-acre Quilchena Gardens with 1,500 people; 15-acre Arbutus Walk, with 4,400 people; 15-acre Olympic Village with 2,500 people; and 136-acre False Creek South with 6,000 people. All were approximations, he added.

At Langara Golf Course alone, he said, you could create the equivalent of 10 Quilchena Gardens, eight Arbutus Walks, eight Olympic Villages and one False Creek South.

“That gives some scale to the conversation,” he said. “By not developing, we are not providing affordable housing for families, or for seniors, particularly those who are over-housed,” he said, referring to seniors living in big houses.

Mr. Hein was a senior urban designer for the City of Vancouver for more than 20 years. He helped design Arbutus Walk and he is currently helping the residents of False Creek South plan for that community’s future, on a volunteer basis.

He said the city was falling behind the housing file in comparison to other global cities that had taken action. Mr. Hein argued for a mix of non-market and market rate housing development. In an interview, he suggested that selling off some of the land, combined with leasing other parcels to developers, could generate enough funds to deliver park space to other areas of the city.

Mr. Condon was one of the first proponents of filling the “missing middle,” which means creating diverse low-scale housing in walkable neighbourhoods. In an interview, Mr. Condon said that he and Mr. Hein were motivated to write the proposal because the biggest challenge to affordable housing is the high cost of land. Land is simply too expensive for a developer to bring enough affordable homes online, no matter the approved density.

As well, Mr. Condon said the golf course had already been slightly modified in the 1970s, with the addition of a townhouse complex on the northwest corner.

But he’s aware too, that the loss of park land is a touchy topic.

“We knew we would lose friends over this proposal,” Mr. Condon said. “But we are frustrated that the city is not seriously pursuing scalable and affordable solutions to what we think is an existential threat to the city. We should really do this, or something similar. It’s not easy, but then again, the Empty Homes Tax was considered impossible – until it wasn’t.”

Former City of Vancouver senior urban designer Frank Ducote can see both sides of the argument. There are several benefits to their idea, Mr. Ducote said. The land is free, “thus significantly reducing the cost of development, right from the beginning.”

There is no land assembly required, or immediate impact on neighbours, as there would be in a dense neighbourhood.

Because it is close to transit, it reduces the need and the cost of underground parking, thereby reducing construction costs.

Perhaps most significantly, the housing could be built without erecting oppressively high towers.

“With these cost reductions, the opportunity exists to provide housing here at a lower scale and height than many projects today cannot, while still meeting affordability objectives,” Mr. Ducote said.

However, he could see the opposing viewpoint, too. The Cambie Corridor won’t be fully realized for another couple of decades, and once fully built out, thousands of new units will come online. There are several large sites underway, including Oakridge Centre, Pearson Dogwood, Heather Lands, Oakridge Transit Centre and the RCMP headquarters.

“Many people might not be fully aware of just how much change is already proposed,” he said in an e-mail.

One man in the audience at the event made the point that great cities such as Paris and London have large parks, but they don’t have golf courses in the central areas.

Mr. Demers said it’s a slippery slope, when we start pulling valuable park land out of the system to make way for development. That’s park land the city’s residents will never get back. He echoed Mr. Ducote’s comment that there is enough density on its way to the Langara area, an estimated 50,000 additional residents. It will become a “satellite downtown core,” he said, and that new population will need parks and recreation.

“When I hear that we are considering cutting in half the park provision we have there – when we have the new population growth we are expecting – to me, that makes absolutely no sense.”

Instead of looking at park land for housing, why not look to city-owned properties that are under utilized, Mr. Demers asked. The City is the biggest landowner in Vancouver, with hundreds of properties, including parking lots that could be redeveloped.

“With all the population growth expected, we will also need places for social gathering, sports and soccer fields, and so on. That’s the intention behind the motion, that we look and make sure we fulfill the needs of the population. Whatever the needs are.”

Park Board commissioner Tricia Barker was also at the event and took the position that the golf courses should remain as they are. Ms. Barker works with seniors and she argued that golfers tend to be healthier people. The Langara Golf Course is Audubon certified, she said, which means it must regularly meet a standard set of environmental management criteria.

She pointed out that 30 per cent of Vancouver is paved.

“If we start to take away the things that bring a lot to this city, then we are in trouble,” Ms. Barker said.

In the interview, Mr. Demers said it’s not his job to decide on where housing density should go. But he thinks the question of housing on park land is a moot point anyway, because neither Park Board nor city council would likely vote to give up park land, he said. Mr. Demers was surprised at the level of detail in Mr. Hein’s presentation, but he doesn’t think the academics have thought about the legal quagmire.

“I’m not sure if [Mr. Hein and Mr. Condon] foresee the logistical process involved to do something like this. It’s pretty much impossible to remove park land from the Park Board,” Mr. Demers said. “It is quite the process, in terms of the legalities.

“I can’t see a way forward with this, personally.”

In an e-mail, Mr. Hein said that the idea for a mix of housing and park and recreation needs to be part of the Langara discussion because it has something for everyone.

“Can we afford not to ask the Langara question?” he asked.

This article was published by The Globe and Mail on March 13, 2020.

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