Tim Louis: Why I Oppose Sullivanism

Vancouver's innovative urbanism – indelibly linked to the politician who championed it – has its critics

The Georgia Straight recently published a cover story titled “Sullivanism versus Jane Jacobs”, detailing former NPA Mayor Sam Sullivan’s continuing efforts to push high-rise densification onto the city. In the article, Sullivan praises former Mayor Tom “Terrific” Campbell’s reign of free market ideology.

Tim Louis

The issues are clear. Do we let capitalism run roughshod over democratic processes and the sovereignty of neighborhoods, or will citizens determine their own destiny? Will corporate forces continue to undo the careful central planning and human-focused building which has been a priority of COPE elected officials since the party was established in 1968, or will grassroots forces take power back from the corporate firms? Will more neighborhoods become resorts for the rich, or will we protect and promote affordable housing across the city?

Sam Sullivan wants to dump neighbourhood plans that have taken more than a decade to develop. He wants to allow spot zoning that will force neighborhoods to fight constant battles. He wants to allow developers to keep windfall profits from upzonings. He wants to rush through development proposals without looking at community impacts. He has been bringing apologists for global capitalism from Manhattan and Harvard to support him. He somehow believes that concrete manufacturing, which is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gases in the region, is good for the environment.

Sullivan wants to overturn the “livable city” that we have created and is respected around the world. He wants to mow-over single-family homes and affordable rental to fill Vancouver with capitalism’s favorite building — the privatized high-end condo tower. He claims that new luxury towers will help us achieve affordability! Has he checked out the prices of these new buildings? He looks at 1965 as the Golden Age of Vancouver because it undemocratically demolished communities in the West End.

MainlanderLet’s be clear, not even real estate developers believe in Sullivanism. At the recent Vancouver Urban Forum, which Sullivan organized, only a half a dozen of the 300 people who attended came from the development industry. Developers are clearly embarrassed by Sullivan’s ideas and showed what they think of him by staying away in droves.

I oppose Sullivanism and the NPA worship of capitalism. But the important question now is: what does Vision Vancouver believe? Do they support Sullivanism? If they don’t, they should prove it by starting to respect democratic processes, maintain the human scale of Vancouver neighborhoods, and turn down proposals for high-end condo towers, especially in affordable neighbourhoods. Against Sullivanism, I believe that grassroots democracy, environmentalism, and affordability have to come together, hand-in-hand.

– post by Tim Louis, originally published on The Mainlander.

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  • Poco Guy

    Fact time: if housing prices are going to approach anything reasonable, supply MUST be allowed to meet demand. Giving elitist 1% NIMBYs the veto on all new housing stock creation is a recipe for what we have now – prices so high that working people are being driven into the deep suburbs as Vancouver becomes a playground for the rich.

    Leftists like COPE should be the first to identify this problem and take action, but instead choose to perpetuate the current unsustainable situation because they think “developer” is a dirty word and that anything to do with them should be opposed. Have fun when no one can afford to live in your city anymore!

  • The Key is to find a balance between affordability and density. The fact that there is no such thing as “affordable housing” in Vancouver makes this article a little hard to take seriously.

  • Ms Jones

    Tim, darling, is there anything, anything that you don’t oppose? 🙂

    • politics101

      My thought exactly and it seems like the voters felt the same way last November.

  • DB

    Truly spoken like someone who bought many moons ago… the current distortions in favour of high end reflect decades of inability to add supply without a Rize-like circus. While Vancouver shouldn’t sell it’s soul, such as it is, to add supply, it should sure be a higher priority than it appears to be for Mr Louis and his grassroots.

  • Brilliant

    @Poco Guy-Do the math, there’s way more than 1% of the population who live in single family houses in Vancouver. Why should they have to sacrifice their neighbourhoods for an artificial “crisis” caused by governments refusing to restrict foreign buying?

    • waltyss

      How is the crisis “artificial”. There is no question that Vancouver has to densify if it is not to become a playground for the rich. Housing affordability IS an issue and while foreign buyers buying houses that they do not live in or rent out may be a contributor, there is no evidence to suggest that it is a major contributor.
      Nimbyism is also an issue. In the leafy enclaves of the West Side (where I happen to live) any form of change is fought whether it be social housing, multi family housing, housing for any but the wealthiest seniors or housing for young families.
      Pointing a finger at foreigners is easy; dealing with the issues we ourselves create is much more difficult.

    • Steven Forth

      Do you think that housing affordability would disappear as an issue if there were no foreign demand for Vancouver housing? Well, we are likely to find out over the next decade as Chinese demographics shift and their economy becomes more inward focused.

      Even in that situation we are still likely to get more density as there are at least some young people who prefer not to own cars and to work within walking or cyclcing distance of good schools, shopping and jobs. (I am speaking of my own children and their friends).

      Speaking oNimbyism, I hope the possibility of transit on the Arbuts corridor will open again and that we can have some form of commuter rail up Arbutus in my lifetime!

      • Stephen, you’re right. Vancouver will not get more affordable unless we do build out Sam’s and Vision Vancouver’s tower ad infinitum fantasies.

        Vancouver has been, and remains today a very desirable place to live and work. We have restricted geography. That same geography has many natural assets. We enjoy a favoured climate, we are a major port city on the west coast of North America, as well as enjoying key air linkages to Asia, Europe and the US, we have a tolerant, multi-cultural society, abundant natural resources and growing knowledge industries, good education and health systems, and a sound economy among other advantages.

        In addition, as I’ve said, we have done a good job of city building from 1973 to 2006 in particular, and I would include part of the densification decisions taken in the 60’s (the West End, Kerrisdale and other attempts have made positive initial contributions to Vancouver’s ability to accommodate density and a range of residential building forms and housing types, and to an early, simpler form of urbanity – but it would have been a disaster if it had been allowed to continue). And, that “liveability” has also made Vancouver a more attractive place.

        For these reasons Vancouver will not be an affordable place simply because all of the foregoing makes a whole lot of people from around the world, across Canada, and the Lower Mainland want to live in the City of Vancouver. Whatever supply Vancouver might try to create will not meet an unending demand, unless of course we do what Sam dreams of and throw out the baby with the bath water. Having said that, there are opportunities for the City and senior governments to further protect our affordable rental stock, and to create a certain amount of new affordable and social housing, but not via massive giveaways of taxpayer dollars.

        We do need to densify to become a more sustainable city as well as to continue to improve Vancouver’s quality of urban life. We can do this well or badly. We can and must do it well. Unfortunately there is virtually no difference between Tom Terrific’s, San Sullivan’s and Vision Vancouver’s penchant for opportunistic simplistic, spot planning. It is also notable that all three also did not respect Vancouver’s diverse and culturally rich neighbouthoods and communities.

        • Steven Forth

          Thanks Bill – I particularly noted your last point. “Unfortunately there is virtually no difference between Tom Terrific’s, Sam Sullivan’s and Vision Vancouver’s penchant for opportunistic simplistic, spot planning. It is also notable that all three also did not respect Vancouver’s diverse and culturally rich neighbouthoods and communities”

          This is also my concern and why I would like to see more development at options at a granular level, including in new areas. I know politicians generally prefer large projects with large partners. They make for good press releases, are thought to be more predictable, and in Vancouver give both developers and the city a lot of negotiating leverage. But is there any way to, at least in some cases, take a more fine grained approach? Any concrete suggestions on how to do this?

          • @ Stephen, yes, I have developed a detailed neighbourhood planning process that was vetted last year by a number of community groups, developers and some very senior planning people, but that the 2011 NPA central campaign chose to ignore.

            That process essentially allows a broadly represented “Neighbourhood Round Table” to be a local area specific planning partnership with the City, as well as an ongoing communication vehicle with City Hall. Among other things, initially, the City and the neighbourhoods across the City must agree on the population increases that each neighbourhood must accept, and then the Neighbourborhood Round Table planning process determines where and what kinds of built form and mix is appropriate for their neighbourhood based on their particular values and priorities.

            So, if a neighbourhood decides they want towers instead of lane houses, or mid-rise or row houses, they determine where, how high, how many, their character,etc. Maybe they can double the density just with all laneways (which the Vision Council has already done with its blanket Citywide rezoning of single family zones to quadraplex zoning without public input – but, which must be reconsidered on a neighbourhood specific basis IMO).

            Another major objective in this process is to develop sustainable neighbourhood centres, what Portland calls the ’10 minute neighbourhood’, so that the basic goods and services needed for everyday life are available within a 10 to 15 minute walk and are linked with the transit system. Among other things this will create a functionally valid structure for the distribution of density (as opposed to arbitrarily stringing it out along arterials a la the Cambie non-plan).

  • Cristian Worthington

    Mr. Louis’s view would have credibility if residents of the West End were living in misery as victims of the 1960’s construction boom – they are not.

    Paradoxically, West Ender’s are so happy with their “livable” neighbourhood built by unrestricted development in the 60’s that they routinely come out in roves to prevent new development.

    The foundation of Sullivanism rests on a simple truth, under the current system of governance NIMBY’s get too much voice in our political system. The market (e.g. people who were able to move into the West End after new housing stock was built in the 60’s) has no voice if the NIMBY’s get to dominate the conversation (e.g. the folks who now live in the West End and want to close the door behind them).

    NIMBY’s are well organized and tend to mobilize whenever a new project is proposed. While buyers (the market) are only heard after buildings are constructed.

    Any system of development that gives priority to NIMBY’s is doomed to produce decay. Neighbourhoods must evolve, they must change to meet the needs of new generations and newcomers to the city.

    • West Enders are living in their version of Nirvana today. But you’re only partially right in suggesting that it was due to Tom Terrific and his gang of merry… in the 60’s. They put density next to Downtown – a good move. But, left unbridled it would strangle itself in its own success.

      As I’ve said, if TEAM hadn’t dampened the West End high rise fever in the 70’s and added the through traffic diversions, mini-parks, boulevard landscaping and mid-block benches the quality of life in the West End would not be where it is today.

      Unfortunately, the Vision Vancouver inspired still born West End neighbourhood planning process guarantees an unsuccessful, dis-functional process and end product. It’s a lost opportunity because there is much fine tuning that could result in the West End becoming even more liveable.

  • JJ

    Vision Vancouver is the best NIMBY example. They got in and nobody gets to get in … Without conditions!

  • What a mean-spirited vitriolic piece. If I had any sense, I’d ignore it, especially since Sam Sullivan doesn’t need me to defend him. But I want to.

    Firstly, most of the things Tim Louis says are not true. Sam Sullivan never advocated for ‘developers to keep windfall profits’ from rezonings, nor does he do so now.

    As for the neighbourhood plans that took a decade to produce, many of them are now out of date…they ignore the benefits of more compact walkable communities and the need for a broader range of housing choices.

    To suggest that developers are embarassed by Sullivan is ridiculous. I would respond in two ways. One…please name them Tim Louis. Two, are you aware that a number of developers attended Sullivan’s pre-conference luncheon but didn’t show up at the Forum since like me they were committed to the UDI Golf Tournament…a big event (yes, we’re so shallow) that sadly was scheduled the same day as the forum.

    To suggest that Sullivan wants to ‘overturn the livable city’ is so perposterous that it doesn’t deserve comment.

    The fact is, while I don’t necessarily agree with everything Sullivan says, he is doing a great deal to foster discussion about how to improve our city. His salons are laudable and bring together a very diverse group of people interested in healthy debate. One thing Tim Louis has never been able to accomplish.

    That being said, I do compliment CityCaucus for agreeing to publish this dribble.

  • Let me qualify that…this partisan dribble!

    • waltyss

      While Tim Louis is, well, Tim Louis, Michael please don’t insult our intelligence by suggesting that CityCaucus does not publish partisan dribble. It does. The only difference is that the partisan dribble is usually from the other extreme.

      • Dave Brockaw

        Who are you Sir?
        Better stay on your west side of Vancouver and enjoy an outdoor weekend, than come in here and pick on Michael Geller! Are you the Vision Vancouver attack Rottweiler?

        • Steven Forth

          @waltyss is just pointing out the obvious, that CC is higly partisan and that in the eyes of its two editors Vision can do no good. That is fine, they wear their biases on their sleeves. They also let other points of view in, go out of their way to do so. Which is great. Part of the value of CC is that it attracts people with very different perspectives and gives them a place to be heard. I am glad to have Tim Louis’s thoughts on Sullivanism.

        • waltyss

          Dave, I did enjoy my sunny day in my leafy west side enclave. Thank you.
          Michael Geller is quite capable of defending himself and he would do so with more grace than you managed to muster.
          Steven Forth responded the remainder of your “points” so I will not repeat. i didn’t realize you NPAers were so sensitive. After all, I have heard Suzanne Anton and sensitivity is not the word that comes to mind.

  • Steven Forth

    Is there a third way? Tim Louis says he is in favour of “careful central planning and human-focused building” but are these two any more compatible than “developer driven and human-focused building”?

    The solutions to Vancouver’s affordability and sustainability problems will not come from developers or from central planning. They may bubble up from people though, if we are given the tools that we need. These include a relaxation in the planning and permitting process, which is now so complex that it can only be navigated by experts (developers and their fellow travellers); new ownership models including longer mortgages (not shorter mortgages, may be even 300 year mortgages) and new forms of co-op housing; more diversity in design … the answers will not come from centralizing governments or large developers.

    • Bill

      “new ownership models including longer mortgages (not shorter mortgages, may be even 300 year mortgages) ”

      Economics 101 tells you that this would not make housing any more affordable but would have exactly the same effect as lower interest rates – home buyers would have more to spend and would bid up prices until supply and demand were in balance.

      • Steven Forth

        No, that is not what Economics 101 tells us at all. Lower interest rates do make housing more affordable. And contrary to what many think, there is good evidence that we have entered a long term phase of very low interest rates, negative interest rates when inflation is taken into account.

        You do have a point though that making it easier to buy (addressing demand side) without also addressing the supply side does lead to higher prices. The two have to move together.

        • Bill

          The US, Spain and Ireland all created demand by making housing more accessible and then (over) supplied that demand resulting in, dare I say, and unsustainable housing market where the aftershocks are still felt today.

          The low interest rates today are effectively a transfer of wealth from savers to borrowers. This just makes funding all those pension benefit promises all the more difficult and just one more reason that public defined benefit pension plans are, dare I say, unsustainable.

          • Steven Forth

            Sure, all defined benefit plans are unsustainable, or can only be sustained by ongoing replenishing, something that will be very difficult as demograpics change. And I expect interest rates to remain low for many decades. We will all be working most of our lives, when was the last time we saw a “Freedom 55” ad. But this is more likely to lead to asset deflation than an asset bubble. I am one of those who believes Vancouver real estate is over valued and expect it to come down at some point, though I hope we have a soft landing. But providing options for local people to buy and rent will help address the affordability issue, which I think is putting our economic sustainability at risk.

          • waltyss

            Bill must be tough to stay on topic. What do defined pension plans have to do with housing density. Unless simply striking out at anything you don’t like is your theme du jour.

  • Steven Forth

    Does the city currently make lots available at a scale where individuals and small groups can buy and develop or are most blocks of land provided in larger chunks where only large developers can play?

  • Vancouver Kiddo

    Louis is bang on! And i am not saying this because I am a COPE hack, but because I am a Vision one. NPA can eat cake!

  • Shame you don’t oppose Ivan Drury…

  • rf

    “sovereignty of neighborhoods”-

    What kind of ridiculous comment is this? Since when does a neighbourhood have “sovereingty”?!!!!!!

    The closest thing to sovereignty is the individual owners right to control the piece of land that they own. The idea that a loose collective of owners, renters, retailers and shoppers have some sort of devine right to control the destiny of their neighbourhood is madness. Why even have a city hall or city planners if the ‘neighbourhood’ knows better?
    How does a neighbourhood exercise demorcracy?! Are we going to draw lines and say that those who live on the west side of one street have no say on what happens on the east side?

    Geez, Tim. How about something better than utter generalizations.

    Can a single block declare itself a neighbourhood then?

    Do you honestly believe that the political class are the only ones capable of making decisions?
    Do you honestly believe that financial success is capitalist corruption?

    And you wonder why your own party won’t even vote for you?!!!

  • Working Mom

    Okay I read this article and read it twice and had to cringe when there were some certain aspects that I actually agreed with Tim Louis and other that I did not.
    “Do we let capitalism run roughshod over democratic processes and the sovereignty of neighborhoods, or will citizens determine their own destiny?”

    Tim cannot just point the finger at Sam for roughshod over the democratic process, for this he must also point the finger at the Mayor and Vision. Isn’t Vision ramming this EcoDensity and their “Green” agenda without proper planning or community consultation?

    Tim’s ideological view of how a city should run is that the homeless are given high paying unionized jobs and free housing (his words to me in an email a few years ago). Although Tim likes to believe that COPE follows community consultation they don’t. Remember the fiasco of allowing prostitutes to run their business in their own homes/apartments? Where is the democratic process of people living in the building or neighbourhood knowing that potentially dangerous activity is going on next door?


    I give Tim the respect that his due for is work in politics – no matter how far left it is, but really Tim, you should look at Vision, and Cope for that matter before you start name calling and branding NPA as Capitalists or not following the democratic process – because there are many members (and I am not a member of the NPA), who are realistic left / right thinking vs. extreme capitalism.

    • Birdy

      How do you define extreme capitalism? Is there some kind of limit on how many voluntary peaceful transactions one can perform each day before they become extreme capitalists? Are extreme capitalists bad?

      • Steven Forth

        I’ll take a crack at this Birdy. Extreme capitalist believe that there is not such thing as a social good (all goods and services are best provided by free markets), there is no such thing as a market failure (or the only market failures are when the market is not allowed to provide a good or service for which there is demand), that taxation is a zero-sum game (every tax dollar taken by government reduces corporate profits). Extreme capitalists also act to privatize profit and socialize risk and to make as many costs as possible externalities (even though these behaviors contradict their espoused belief systems). Extreme capitalist also tend to believe that their gains are do the their own merit and risk taking, while losses are the fault of meddlers like the government.

  • boohoo

    I just wish Vancouver would stop with the densify only on arterials mantra.

    I don’t agree with all of this, but it’s interesting.


    It doesn’t need to be towers. It doesn’t need to be 70 blocks of 6 story condos a la Cambie Plan. It can be sprinkled all over the City and achieve easily the same desired numbers.

    • Cristian Worthington

      The objective of densification is not simply to add more units to the entire geographical area of Vancouver.

      The objective is to reduce the physical distance between as many people as possible.

      Energy (for transportation) is consumed when people and goods have to be widely distributed. If we followed your plan, the population would go up and the distribution would stay the same and nothing would be achieved.

      The elevator is the most efficient mode of mechanized transportation ever developed by man. Due to the counter weights in n elevator, only the mass of the occupants is moved. Walking a cycling are obviously the most efficient mode of transport. These methods of transport are not practical if you increase housing across the entire region.

      Additionally, energy for heating and cooling is conserved when buildings have less surface area per unit of housing. Hence lareg/tall buildings are best.

      Sullivanism is based in science, not wishful thinking.

      • boohoo

        I wholeheartedly agree we should densify around rapid transit–the Cambie plan and past planning (29th Ave/Nanaimo/etc) fails miserably at that. But this notion that it all needs to be on arterials is bogus.

        ‘Scientifically’ you may be correct, but then you could argue we should build something similar to that walled city in Kowloon I believe it was–now that was efficient!

        • Steven Forth

          My impression is that Vancouver density and commercial does tend to be ‘strung out along arterials.’ Is this impression correct? Is one way to get more density to have more clustering independent of whether these are high buildings or middle height?

    • Boho, agreed: “… stop with the densify only on arterials mantra”. Please see my reply to Stephen above.

      However, if we are to create sustainable neighbourhood centres and a high quality of urbanity we need to think a bit more about how best to do the “sprinkling” don’t you think?

  • Tim’s reponce to Sam in this post is interesting. He represents the far left of the political spectrum, and from what I can understand Sam represents the far right. In this vignette we have the classic Marxist vs. the classic Free Marketer.

    One of the interesting aspects of this confrontation is to look at the polarity that these two individuals seem to encourage.

    There is a Marxist philosophical notion referred to as “dialectical materialism” wherein the free enterpriser is supposed to be the “idealist” and the Marxist the “materialist”. Interestingly in today’s World the roles seem to have been reversed. Today’s developer is all about maximizing profit, eg: materialism. (That’s OK if there are checks and balances in place) And, Tim has become the “idealist”, hoping for an ever more distant new day.

    But, in addition to the philosophic quirks there is a more important local significance here. As much as these two ideologues want to bath in their own bath water, and convince the rest of us to choose one tub or the other, a continuation of this “fundamental dialectic” struggle is silly, irrelevant and outdated.

    Vancouver’s early log it all robber baron history has very real roots in the “dialectical materialism” struggle. But, I suggest that is an archaic cross that Vancouverites need not continue to bear. In fact, it is counterproductive at the civic level. Neighbourhoods on the East and West sides are experiencing the same problems and are dealing with the same civic issues. The socio-economic divide is disappearing.

    A continuation of this kind of class warfare in Vancouver, and BC for that matter, needs to stop. There is a more rational and intelligent way to see your world than the simplistic extremes clearly defined by these two political individuals. People from all parts of Vancouver have a lot more in common civically than their differences.

    In that light I was impressed at last week’s 1401 Comox Hearing to listen to the presentation of the COPE representative. He delivered a reasoned, balanced and thoughtful message to Council that focused on the matters at hand and not on ideology. For his efforts he was insulted, as many other presenters were, by, if I recall correctly, you guessed it Mr. Jang.

    I believe in a regulated free market, including a regulated free market planning and development process. Within that context people from all parts of Vancouver, all economic circumstances, and political and philosophical perspectives can work together to creatively solve their civic problems if they are encouraged to do so. However, continued class warfare will not achieve that goal.

  • Southvancouver

    One vote for everything said by Bill McCreery. It nice to see some balanced and thoughtful opinions.