Ian Robertson and James Bligh both attended the second of the Urbanarium debates – “Be it resolved that we should build fewer towers” – and combined forces to write this analysis:

Towers win – but do we?


It was a very close race the whole time, with the vote splitting 51 to 49 percent in favour of building fewer towers and ending at 52 to 48 percent in favour of building more towers. (With a number of ‘extra’ votes at the end.  Some people didn’t seem to do their Oxfordian duty and vote twice. For shame on all your houses!)
The affirmative side accepted that towers will be built, and even should be built, but that there are other things that should be built also – the ‘Missing Middle’ referred to in Brent Toderian’s debate in the Urbanarium Density debate.
The negative side based their argument on the economics of towers, and that with ‘silly’ land prices, towers are the only viable option. Further, since some midrise is built with vinyl siding, so all will be – so it’s best avoided altogether. Surprisingly absent from the debate was the correlation of building typology to land speculation, or of any mention of the poor/refugees/disabled.
An interesting point was raised by an audience member, who asked whether or not some of the collateral damage involved with building towers (gentrification, shadows, social exclusivity, etc.) could be solved by design. If our towers are “gated communities that prevent social diversity”, can we alter the way they work to make them more inclusive?
Poor Doors and Mixed Communities
Is there a way to avoid the ‘Poor Door’ which is increasingly inherent to condo towers (Main and 2nd being one, with segregated facilities and entrances)?  The argument that they aren’t gated communities falls flat when 20 percent of the tower’s residents cannot access the amenities and community features of the tower. As has been argued by some on this blog, there is not a clean and easy way for renters to pay amenity fees; therefore they would be free riders on a building’s amenities. Is it possible to address this split, to figure out how to allow the rental side to ‘pay’ for the amenity (given that they do pay rent), or get over the fact that they don’t, and enjoy the ‘good’ of having a mixed community override the ‘fairness’ of only having those who pay accessing facilities.
The ‘Poor Door’ is but one example. Ignoring code constraints for a moment, what if some walls of each condo were glazed in such a way as to give you the opportunity to interact with your neighbour(s), if you so chose? What if each floor of market condo required at least one unit of rental, live-work, low-income and/or public housing? Would this breed social solidarity?
Green Space
What if each floor needed direct access to common and/or green space? Are there new forms of tower that might save us? This question can be levied against low-rise as well (as there are certainly anti-social short buildings too).


However, typically low-rise designs have been more likely to experiment with their formulae, and, especially in North America, highrises have not. (Ken Yeang’s towers, some from Norman Foster, the green tower by Stefano Boeri (Habitat, left above), and Ole Scheeren’s recent Singapore ‘landscraper’ (Interlace, above) are all good examples of different thinking).


The ‘pro-tower’ side further based its argument in the current ‘normal’ by which a developer buys/assembles land, has to rezone, pays CACs, builds a tower, and sells it to whomever can/wants to buy. The stated benefit of this is that the ‘extra’ paid for high-level units allows the creation of much cheaper units below, unlike midrise where all units are almost the same cost vertically (so neither premium nor cheap). This presumes that the developer chooses to price some units ‘affordably’, but as there is no requirement specifically to do so (except for the percentage of ‘affordable’ housing they are sometimes required to build) there is no guarantee that this will manifest. Is legislation then the answer?
Whistler-2If these savings don’t manifest, much of the pro-tower’s argument goes out the window. Assuming these savings are valid, however, this pro-tower argument is persuasive long as this ‘normal’ is the only model available. If models from elsewhere are followed, the condo cost is either not tied to the land cost, or less so – if one uses a bit more imagination and uncouples these things (whether through co-op, land trust, building on city/crown land, the way Whistler built its own housing, right)) then this justification goes away. The model of Vienna (city-as-developer) is a good one here. It will also be interesting to see what comes from the 20 sites the city has made available to the Federal Government’s $$$ to build affordable housing.
Alt Erlaa_1976_3172DU_HarryGlueckArchitect

Alterlaa, 1976 , the largest Viennese social housing development, with over 3,000


Overall, while there might be many good aspects to a well-designed tower, there can also be many negative effects, which are potentially harder to remedy in a tower (green space, social space, health issues occurring on high floors, shadows, solar PV or thermal retrofit, and mechanical systems).
Even with all of the substantial convincing done otherwise, it remains hard not to agree with the ‘Build Fewer Towers’ side. Regardless, the current binary condition does few people much service (save developers, and those collecting CAC’s), and a diversity of housing forms would better accommodate a diverse population with diverse needs.
Based on our ‘normal’ current conditions and trajectory, more towers remain a fait accompli. We ought to be more creative and make that fate a choice, and not the only port in a storm. More towers, sure, but more creativity and choice also.
Oh, and the ‘missing middle’


  1. If I remember advertised prices correctly, new condos in a non-central North Van tower cost more than similar-size new condos in a 4 or 5 storey building, also non-centrally located. Aside from higher CACs and more units built, there doesn’t seem much benefit to high rises. Are prices higher because developers like to offer tower condos with amenities such as gym, swimming pool, concierge etc.?

  2. The maintenance, wear and tear and replacement costs, as well as the costs for insuring and setting rules regarding the amenities in a strata building are all decided by majority vote by the owners. Relinquishing these formalities by the owners is impossible. Placing all the obligations upon the owners only, also seems impossible. Strata have the powers to sanction owners when dire situations arise. The law would have to be amended if non-owning neighbours were freely enjoying strata assets. Offering paying memberships to the amenities by non-owners, who are residents renting in an adjoining structure, could be possible. Then the amenities become a business of the strata and administration, with their attendant costs, and tax filings become obligatory. Strata councils are enough of a hassle already without adding the need to become tax paying entities. Many owners would baulk.

    1. If I buy a unit, I pay strata fees, I get to use amenities.
      If I buy a unit, I pay strata fees, I rent the unit, my renter can use the amenities.
      If I buy 10 units, I pay the strata fees, I rent all those units, my renters can use the amenities.
      If I buy 10 units, I pay strata fees, I hand over management of my units to a management company, they rent out the units, their renters can use the amenities.
      If I buy 10 units, I hand over the management of my units to a management company, they rent out the units, they take part of the rent to pay the strata fees, the renters can use the amenities.
      If I buy 10 units, I change my legal name to S.U.C.C.E.S.S, I hand over units to management company, who pays strata fees out of rents collected, the renters can use the amenities.
      If I am S.U.C.C.E.S.S. (the housing agency) and I buy 10 units, and I manage those units, and pay strata fees out of the rents I collect, the renters can use the amenities.
      If I am S.U.C.C.E.S.S, and I get the units at a discount because the building got to build 5 extra floors because they agreed to sell some units at a discount so the area could have affordable housing, and I pay the strata fees out of the lower rents I collect, my renters can use the amenities.
      Please tell me where exactly in the chain above it might become impossible for people to use the amenities. One could imagine other methods by which laws and liability could be managed with some applied creativity also. Yes, maybe requiring some changes to the law. But how much extra does it cost to build separate but parallel facilities/doors/elevators … The buildings will already probably have interconnected mechanical systems somehow between the strata and rental areas, fundamentally, how is it different to share water pipes but not a treadmill? If the pipes all start to leak in 30 years, the whole building will have to get switched either way, and somehow both sides of the strata decide will have to find a legal and equitable way to play together then, why not now?

      1. In the 2nd & Main (1837-1847 Main Street, 180 East 2nd Avenue and 157-185 East 3rd Avenue) example mentioned in the article the social housing units are to be given to the city, who will then select an agency to manage them. There is is no mention in the proposal to purchase any units or to pay any strata fees. Therefore, there could well be legal issues regarding responsibilities and obligations that could render free access to all areas by all residents of both areas, difficult.

        1. If I were a developer, and I could choose between selling one or two more condos, or providing some measley parallel amenity space (look at the plans for 2nd and Main and you’ll agree) … I would think I would choose the latter. The price of selling those units offsets a whole lot of amenity fee.
          Thats just one way to look at it, seems to make something difficult rather less so, no?

    1. Readers will note that the article offers some common sense solutions. A good one is having an emergency override function in the elevators.

  3. architectus: With all due respect, in your post above I think you are reducing a legal, financial and insurance issue to what it cannot be, described as a few crumbs.
    The benefits the developer in subject building is contributing, for the example to explore the concept, are bountiful. The city is exacting a plethora of costly requirements, even including a bus shelter and a 19 metre long bike-share (that must not be in the shade and available 24/7), etc.
    The costs will of course all be passed on to the market buyers, further raising the costs of living in Vancouver.
    I raise the probable legal issues but I also feel that when these requirements become so extensive and so costly, then this type of ‘deal’ engineered by the city, only raises the cost of living in Vancouver and contributes substantially to a widening of the gap between the so called ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’.
    A quick read. The city certainly isn’t shy.

    1. Eric, I’m not suggesting it isn’t a difficult issue. I am suggesting it is not such a difficult issue that it can’t be surmounted, and that there are models from elsewhere that could be borrowed upon to aid this.
      I was being a bit glib with my ‘sell the parallel amenity space’ comment, but the bare fact is that the mediocre workout area and segregated garden space would, if sold, more than cover the strata contribution of the social housing for many many years. This isn’t literally possible, but it is true.
      I really don’t like the odd tit for tat bus shelter/etc stuff either … I think taxes and development fees in general should cover the city installing those things itself.
      I do though wonder how, exactly, having the 13% of the building which is council housing units using the garden and workout area, makes those facilities more expensive for the condo owners? Yes, there is a tiny bit of additional wear and tear, but specifically, how does 13% extra users (especially if they are paying some contribution to the cost) make the amenity more expensive for condo owners?
      In the olympic village, each building has its own strata corp. There is also the ‘gold medal club’, to which everyone who is in a condo can use. Somehow, they have figured out a way to share the costs amongst all the different stratas, and split out the fraction which would cover that amenity (which is physically part of one building only) from all the other strata fees. Please tell me how this is different from splitting the part of the fee for the amenity space within a single condo building being able to split out the fraction of costs for the amenity space only … and letting the council housing have access. Either way, separate legal entities are sharing costs.
      You mention that the tit for tat costs “contributes substantially to a widening of the gap between the so called ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’.” … how does enforcing a segregation between the haves and have nots within a single building not do the exact same thing? If you are concerned with it from one side, mustn’t you be from the other?

  4. The 13% wear and tear is irrelevant. Strata Corps have a massive law defining obligations and limitations. If Mr. X is doing something he should not be doing, according to a Strata by law or a rule, then the corporation can sanction him through fines. This would not apply to an outsider, or to a visitor. Legally this is problematic. Emotion, compassion, charity do not come into it. It’s a legal question.
    I don’t know about the Gold Medal Gym but I do know that there were questions a couple f years ago about neighbours not being able to use the gym (Frances Bula Blog). With the plethora of city social engineering in the neighbourhood I guess anything is possible. Perhaps the city pays for the gym through its miscellaneous fund and we are all members.
    I am concerned with both sides of the income and expenditures divide. Overly squeezing developers and thereby causing market units to rise proportionally in price only serves to keep the poorer out of the market – some of whom will go to sprawlville.

    1. Hi … no, the strata could not theoretically fine a specific visitor, but specific people can still be sued if they cause substantial damage, and insurance can handle the rest, for those rare instances where damage occurs (and this additional insurance can be paid for by the renter’s $ contribution (whether this is lumped into rent or separate) … a bit of additional insurance won’t cost much above and beyond what the condo already pays).
      Much of law exists, fundamentally, for emotional and equitable reasons, I agree, the ways the laws are now written, the issue is problematic. I would suggest that in the grand scheme of things, it is less problematic to change the law to accommodate equity, than it is to cast inequity into the condo’s concrete. As you note – anything’s possible. (I have no doubt the agreements involved are complex, and that many lawyers were involved … but the next time there is a similar situation, it will be easier to handle because of the precedent created)
      Separate but equal didn’t work for education, and I don’t think it has a place in housing. Sometimes it’s worth doing the hard thing, and pushing through that which is problematic, for the sake of what is equitable, and what is compassionate.

  5. Two different sets of owners – a) one represented by the strata and b) another by a separate legal entity = different responsibilities and entitlements. Sublet renters of units under option a) get to use amenities. Residents of b) get subsidized housing. Really not so hard to understand.

    1. a) can only get permission to be built because of b), just as much as b) might/would only be built because of a) … the two have a symbiotic relationship, even though it is usually characterized as a parasitic one (or at best an epiphytic one).
      The great thing about separate legal entities is that they can enter into legal agreements to legally use each other’s facilities if that’s desired by those the entities represent. Really not too hard to understand.
      (this is specifically applicable in the case of the 2nd and Main building, because it is doubtful that anyone would talk about barring anyone from visiting the gallery space ‘belonging’ to the Council house side, so in this case amenity space is already ‘shared’, but in one direction only)

  6. Again, I mention by laws and rules.
    Strata Act: e.g: A strata has a bylaw whereby smoking is not allowed on common property. Two people are found to be repeatedly smoking on strata property even though repeatedly requested to desist and reminded that it’s not allowed. One is an owner and is eventually fined, the other is a tenant from the social housing side. Strata can do nothing.
    Equality cannot exist in a situation like this. Nobody is going to call an agency like the ‘Portland Hotel Society’ or ‘More than a Roof’ and expect them to send someone over to police one of their tenants. They’re doing triage as it is. They’d laugh at the problem.
    The same could apply were the infractions related to noise, size of items on a balcony blocking another’s view, conducting of business activities within a unit, usage of the parkade, pets, etc.
    These are legal issues and cannot be ignored. A purchaser of a Strata titled unit is obligated to the requirements and entitled to the protections written into the Strata Act.

    1. Eric. Please understand that I have experience with what some of these agencies will and won’t do to enforce rules. Perhaps those two wouldn’t, but others would.
      I also have experience with what some stratas will and won’t do to enforce rules, let us not pretend that only rental properties can have delinquencies in their oversight.
      Legal protections can be improved if needed, I never suggested they should be, but statements such as ‘Equality cannot exist’ have been used to justify many inequities which were simply inconvenient.

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