A major complaint among developers is that the City of Vancouver takes forever to approve a rezoning application and the development permit that follows.

Last week, the City released a report on updates to its permitting targets that council had approved a year ago. They cited a 60% faster processing time in issuing laneway home permits over the last year, and 25% faster processing for new detached and duplex housing. However, there is still room for improvement in the processing times for multi-family housing permits, especially considering the city’s growing skyline.

According to Corrie Okell, the City of Vancouver’s General Manager of Development, Buildings, and Licensing, part of the effort to expedite the process involves reducing the need for studies on traffic impacts and rainwater management plans. In addition, Okell pointed out that the new provincial legislation permits local governments to pre-zone specific areas, contributing to cost reduction in major and complex projects.

The target to processing development permits for three to 12 storey multi-family mid-rise projects is three months, if there’s no rezoning required, according to the new report.

The actual time it takes for a small mid-rise to get a development permit in 2024 so far is 19 months, far short of the three-month goal. Highrises and large-scale projects approved this year have taken between 1.3 years to three years to obtain development permits, and the city would like to get it down to a year.

But that doesn’t include the extra year or year and a half it can take to get a rezoning approved. And some rezoning approvals can take years, such as the small rental project at the corner of Rupert and E. 1st Avenue. That request for a rezoning has been going on six years.

As developer McGregor Wark says, the City of Vancouver could combine the rezoning and development permit processing like other jurisdictions do. Headwater Projects purchased a Ladner property in 2021 and is already in presales because Delta streamlines the process so that rezoning and development permits are concurrent. Once financing is in place, Headwater can start construction, hopefully by January, said McGregor, who's Vice President at the company. Compared to Vancouver, the schedule is lightning fast.

“It’s frustrating because of the timeline, but I guess in Vancouver, when you submit for your rezoning, you're not necessarily providing building specifics. It's more of what you can build. And then the DP provides more details on exactly what you're building for. Whereas in Delta, you do it all at once. Coquitlam is very similar. Several municipalities run through a concurrent process.”

Vancouver could follow suit, now that the pressure is on to build as much housing as possible – particularly around transit hubs where the province has mandated minimum allowable heights within 800 metres of a SkyTrain station. There are more than 50 rezoning applications underway in the Broadway Plan alone.

“We are exploring different opportunities with respect to that, but right now that is just one thing we are exploring. It is a potential avenue we might take,” said Okell, in a media briefing on the permitting processes.

Josh White, the City’s new General Manager, Planning, Urban Design and Sustainability, said the provincial legislation’s new amenity cost contribution – designed for local governments to charge a fee for amenities without having to do a rezoning – will be a helpful finance tool.

“With a different development charge system, it allows us to reorient rezoning to be something a little bit simpler than it is,” he said.

“What that will also allow us to do, I believe in the future, is to run those processes more concurrently than they are able to do, the way our system functions now.

“So that is certainly the future state of where we want to get to. There are just a few steps we need to do in terms of how we design our rezoning process versus our development permit process, but as we do that, certainly a goal we have will be to figure out ways in which we can run those processes more concurrently. So, certainly make each, the rezoning process and the development permit process, shorter, but as we can kind of overlap those processes that can reduce the overall timeline.

“So, not an immediate change, but certainly a change we are looking to implement in the future.”

Of course, another way to streamline development is to curb the number of rezonings, which cause a lot of uncertainty around costs for developers. Transit-oriented areas, for example, could be pre-zoned so that rezonings aren’t necessary. But the way the system works, the city negotiates the community amenity contributions, such as cash, or “in kind” funds for community centres or below-market housing, when a developer applies for a rezoning. Municipal fees can add a lot of cost to the development, as much as $125,542 per high-rise unit, and $61,414 for a low-rise unit, according to a 2022 study by the Canadian Home Builders’ Association and Altus Group.

And there are dozens of applications in the works, and each one of them takes at least a year, says real estate consultant and planner Michael Geller. He’s been working on a rezoning application for a client that has taken five years and he received 18 pages of conditions that needed to be met.

The province’s new amenity cost contribution allows local governments to collect fees for amenities in areas identified for more housing, without the need for case-by-case negotiation, or rezonings. That could help in some areas, although the City of Vancouver is so far sticking to rezonings around transit-oriented areas, most likely because there’s still the need for infrastructure updates before housing can even be built, he says.

When it’s a rezoning, says Geller, the city can require the developer to upgrade sewers and water service improvements, but they don’t have the same latitude when a pre-zoning allows the applicant to go straight to a development permit.

“And it is going to get worse since each of the transit-oriented area applications will have to be a separate rezoning.”

But rezoning and development permits could be concurrent, he says. They could also allow developers to hire third party certified professionals to streamline the entire process.