What’s Riding on the UBC SkyTrain?

How the extension plan could affect Vancouver before it’s even off, or under, the ground.

February 12, 2019

By Becca Clarkson / Photo: Diego Mazz on Unsplash

There’s a lot riding on the UBC Skytrain Extension, and while UBC’s commissioned poll claims 87 percent of Metro Vancouver support the plan, some fear the solution to the city’s traffic crisis may exacerbate the housing crisis.

Considering the plan was approved 9-2 by City Council on January 29, the focus is no longer on whether we should use SkyTrain technology to add seven kilometres to the already-confirmed extension of the Millennium Line from Clark Drive to Arbutus. Instead, the City needs to juggle the urgency of obtaining crucial provincial and federal financial contributions with ensuring the housing security of 30,000 rental units along the Broadway Corridor.

Councillor Pete Fry believes the regulation of land use and zoning is the single greatest power city council wields. He’s prepared an “Emergency Interim Zoning” motion that will go to council on February 12.

Inspired in part by a recent action by Seattle’s “transit-oriented development,” which discourages land speculation, Fry wants council to put a freeze on rezoning the extended section of the corridor, and work towards making the area a rental-only zone.

“I’m cognizant of Vancouver’s track record with transit-oriented development,” says Fry—speaking specifically to the mass condo development along the Cambie Corridor inspired by the Canada Line. “I want to ensure we’re sending a clear message to people who want to speculate on the Broadway Corridor that they might be wasting their time and money.”

Sara Sagaii of Vancouver’s Tenants’ Union says that while Fry’s motion is a good first step, it’s not enough to help existing renters and existing affordable rentals.

“Upzoning can happen under rental-only zoning—they can build a taller apartment on top of an existing apartment, so that still creates speculation,” says Sagaii.

Shortly after council approved the UBC SkyTrain extension,  Sagaii posted a listing by Colliers International for 2555 Discovery Street on Twitter. Twenty blocks west of Arbutus, the building was sold on January 14th—two weeks prior to the extension being approved—listed as “within two blocks of a long-term anticipated UBC rapid transit station.”

Colliers International declined a request for interview, and no tenant wanted to go on record with claims that renters are being bullied to move out.

Councillor Jean Swanson voted against the extension because her amendments to the tenant relocation and protection policy didn’t pass in December. Specifically, the onus of disputing and the burden of proof still depends on tenants knowing their rights when it comes to renovictions and demovictions.

Councillor Jean Swanson believes the $7 million would be better spent improving transit across the entire region.

“I’m afraid that rezoning without those protections for tenants will still leave renters vulnerable,” says Swanson, who believes the $7 million would be better spent improving transit across the entire region, rather than focusing on one project.

Vancouver’s Manager of Rapid Transit Steve Brown says that by creating a rapid transit line through the Broadway corridor—a plan approved by the City in 1997 yet long amended and under funded—it will improve transit lines everywhere by diverting ridership and decongesting other crowded routes.

“People can’t get on buses right now because of overcrowding. There are huge lineups for the bus, people are getting passed, so we have to build the backbone of a system that can move people to those areas,” says Brown.

The Broadway Corridor connects the largest university and the largest hospital in Western Canada. It also employs over 113,000 people—making it the second-largest job centre in the province, with a growing demand to create more.

Additionally, Brown says Vancouver is competing across Canada for access to the Liberal’s infrastructure funding program. “These backbone systems are typically built by federal or provincial government—those are the funds we’re competing with, those can’t be used for localized expansion of buses. We’d do that in the region but we first need to direct funds here.”

The spotlight on the UBC SkyTrain Extension has forced a new council to educate themselves on a disputed project two decades in the making, all under the pressure of an impending federal election and its impact on Vancouver’s access to funding.

“We need to do this a different way and leverage our opportunities,” says Fry. UBC has committed to fund part of the project, and ensure it won’t affect admissions. Additionally, with the Musqueam Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations onboard and involved, Fry says this project is in line with reconciliation efforts.

Councillor Pete Fry says the project is in line with reconciliation efforts.

“There’s a valid concern that putting a subway underground will bring more room for cars, but I think this is an opportunity for us to tackle climate change,” Fry says. “And, it’s an opportunity to make Broadway a more liveable, walkable, cycleable, great street.”

While a lot of great opportunities are riding on the UBC SkyTrain extension, they may be too distant to consider or prioritize over securing funding—and Vancouver’s already dismal rental stock supply. For your safety, please hold on.

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