Policy & Planning
July 6, 2016

A High Honour

In the Canadian professional planning community, there are few honours higher than election as a Fellow of the Canadian Institute of Planners. Today, at the National Conference in Quebec City, a few locals (and friends of Price Tags) received the honour and should be duly celebrated. Michael von Hausen, Eric Vance, and Frank Ducote are all Metro Vancouver-based planners and urban designers who have made, and continue to make a huge contribution to making our region a better place, as well as educating a new generation of emerging practitioners.

On a personal note, I have gotten to know Frank well over the past years. I have learned, and continue to learn, heaps from Frank and consider him one of the sharpest and most talented urbanists in our region. And many of you will know him from his contributions to the Price Tags comment threads. Frank is ‘someone I respect’ (one of my highest honours) and I am thrilled to see Frank, and the rest, receive this well-deserved honour.

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A few weeks ago I had a chat with Ralph Segal, a former senior urban designer (retired) with the City of Vancouver (and someone who I deeply respect). Ralph shared with me his take on densifying RS-1 (Vancouver’s primary ‘single family’ residential zoning classification, which of course has long allowed for more a single dwelling on a single lot though the permitting of secondary suites and laneway houses).
Ralph’s take would increase the density of RS-1 (0.65 FSR but of course can be higher with laneway housing) to about 1.5 FSR (FSR is floor space ratio, the ratio of building to land area, for the uninitiated). This would allow nicely sized family-oriented units (1500 – 2100 square feet or larger) with the potential for a small (~400 square feet) basement suite in two 3-storey (plus basement) buildings (one in front, one in rear). Similar to Bryn Davidson’s version, this model does not require lot assembly and fits on a 33 foot wide lot.

As I’ve posted before, I believe that Vancouver needs more small-scale infill residential options to help our neighbourhoods evolve. From my perspective, anything that can deliver 1000 square foot (or more) units in denser configurations, while maintaining the intricate and interesting fine-grain quality of our traditional neighbourhoods, needs to be considered. Ralph’s sketch shows another way that’s possible and its worth considering.

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While checking in on Twitter yesterday, I caught an interesting tweet by Larry Beasley on view cones and corridors. I thought it was worth a post:

If Vancouverites were to weigh in on what public amenities matter to them, the view cones will be right up there with the seawall and beaches as a treasured public asset. Instead of cramming more housing in where it is crowded and blocks views, lets open up some new communities.

As always, Larry provides a insightful and thoughtful perspective (filtered, as always, through his own distinctive point-of-view). My own take is similar as I’ve come to truly appreciate the value of the view corridors. Although I am less enthusiastic about their value in maintaining specific views (the views you see when you stand in just the right spot), they have a hugely valuable role in creating a dynamic quality to our downtown towerscape. View corridors are part of a wonderful Vancouver tradition of maintaining a sequence of views, from the intimate (outside the window) to the neighbourhood, to the broader (city and nature) and they create variation in the towerscape that would be difficult to achieve otherwise.
I am sensitive to arguments to rethink the view corridors. Many people are speak with are surprised that they are as intensely enforced as they are, but in a City with a great tradition of discretionary planning and where the spirit of the law is more important the the specifics of the letters, view corridors are often absolute. Speaking from the perspective of a member of Vancouver’s Urban Design Panel, there are often projects where we are frustrated by the specific application of the corridors. But on the whole, they serve the city well and must be vigorously defended.

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Earlier I posted the first five of my ten ideas for the City of Vancouver to take a more proactive role on housing affordability. To be clear, the City is doing a lot and has made some impressive and important moves (especially on rental housing – although perhaps more on that later). But when taking on tough and wicked problems, we need an all-in approach with many efforts on many fronts. Here are a few of my ideas of things to include in a comprehensive city effort on housing affordability.
And I encourage you to watch Michael Geller’s upcoming talk with his 12 ideas (we all love lists!) on his 12 new affordable housing ideas. Its ‘sold-out’ (many of you will likely be there) but its also available as a webcast.
The first five ideas are here. I left off on the need for more small-scale infill residential options. The next five are:

  1. Allow more opportunities for larger-scale development. Yes, we need higher-density development as well. This is an area where Vancouver has been doing well and it’s not time to scale back. Nevertheless, higher-density development does require more advance planning work to ensure it works for the neighbouring community and to keep expectations clear. One area where Vancouver can really raise the bar is in the Major Projects portfolio, especially where the City is a major landowner (such as Southeast False Creek or the Viaducts lands) and can leverage its assets to push the envelope on affordable community design.
  2. Engage the community in a meaningful dialogue on planning and development. Moving the needle on housing affordability is damn hard, but it becomes much harder in an atmosphere of distrust and disconnection. We need to find ways to have meaningful conversation on how our neighbourhoods are evolving, what are the forces that are driving change, and how can and do we want new development to function. While the City has long been and continues to be very creative in how it consults the public, too often the conversations are too fractured and counter to developing meaningful dialogue among diverse perspectives. This needs to change if we want to build the social capital and creativity necessary to shape planning and development to build a more affordable and equitable city. While I don’t necessarily believe that now is the time for a city-wide plan (more on this later), we are definitely overdue for some honest city-wide conversations of how our city can and needs to grow.
  3. Make the Creative Easier. One of the most difficult things for a city bureaucracy to do is to make the creative solution the easier one. In a highly regulated market such as housing (there is no such thing as a truly free market in housing anywhere in North America), there is a tremendous incentive to standardize and in a standardized market, the advantage goes to conservative capital (aka ‘big development’). This is especially true in Vancouver where an unbalanced market does not allow for the market to express design preference in a meaningful way. This is a problem when we need diversity of housing options and development models (aka innovation).One easy (and very cheap) way for the City to tilt the balance towards towards creative (and especially non-mainstream development models) is to use its discretionary authority to incentivize creative and affordable solutions and to empower City staff to champion creative solution and to help not-for-profit and non-traditional developers committed to affordability minded solutions navigate the City’s complex development rules and approval process. The City can also lead the way by initiating rezonings as a valuable assist to innovative solutions (which often have to save every possible penny to be viable).
  1. Rethink the CAC. Community Amenity Contributions (CACs) are a key tool that the City of Vancouver uses both to help offset the costs of growth and to ‘value capture’ some of the private gains from public actions where those action increase the value of land (the ‘land lift’). I am a strong advocate and supporter of Vancouver’s CAC system and the City’s broader financing growth strategy. I remain unconvinced by the poorly supported argument that, in aggregate, CACs add to housing costs. That said, there are cases where CACs can be a barrier to more affordable housing options and that is where the City should consider a focused rethink.We need a CAC calibrated to differentiate between affordability-centric projects and a standard proforma project.
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I spend a lot of time in Los Angeles – and have been for many years. It is a city I dearly love – it is truly a world city, a city of endless complexity, a wonderfully messy city, and a city of free spirit. But it was also a place of endless frustration – where a culture of sustainable, livable, and joyful urbanism struggles to take hold. That is changing. LA is a city ascendent. A place where the optimism and excitement of a different kind of city seems to be everywhere.
LA has a long way to go to catch up to the kind of fundamentally sound urban planning, design, and development practices that have taken root in Vancouver, but its starting to pick up its pace. The wonderful architecture critic for the LA Times (every great urban culture needs a great urban critic), Christopher Hawthorne, has termed this new LA a ‘Third LA’ (The first LA, from 1880s to WWII was the streetcar city, fast growing but with a dense walkable centre. The second LA was the era of the suburbs and the freeway city. The third LA is a city ‘doubling back on itself’).
Nowhere is this shift more dramatic than in downtown LA (DTLA). A few tweaks to the zoning code (a much needed ‘adaptive reuse ordinance’ that dropped parking requirements and allowed historic loft buildings to be repurposed for residential) and a lot of entrepreneurship has led the way to the emergence of a livable centre city. And in the heart of it all is a re-imagined street life and attitude to the public realm. CicLAvia, the frequent (I believe four times a year, mostly) opening of city streets to non-motorized movement, is an amazing part of this transition (CicLAvia is amazing – and worth a trip to LA to experience). But more is happening as well.
This new street culture is wonderfully captured in this short video that caught my eye recently (and includes some recent impressive UCLA planning grads!). I thought that I would share it here as a taste of what’s happening in our sister city to the south.

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Like most responsible city planners, I’ve been thinking a lot about housing affordability lately and I wanted to take advantage of my guest editor stint on Price Tags to float a draft essay I’ve been working on with some ideas to address the issue here in Vancouver. Its not polished, but I would love to hear what you think…
There are few, if any, issues that stoke the collective anxiety of Vancouverites as much as the cost of housing. As the saying goes, the rent is too damn high and we can’t make sense of a housing market that appears completely detached from the realities of our local economy. Housing affordability is front page news in this town on a regular basis and any conversation on the state of the city struggles to escape the gravitational pull of housing costs, real estate speculation, and the debates on foreign investment and the local impact of global capital flows.
So what should we do about it? It’s a tough question. Housing markets are complex (especially in an open market like Canada’s) and affordability is a classic example of a ‘wicked’ problem (a problem so complex and with so many interconnected parts that trying to solve it often simply leads to unintended consequences further down the line). That said, we have to act. The high cost of housing is having profoundly disturbing effects on the social cohesion and economic sustainability of our city. I, for one, am tired of hearing stories of bright young people looking to leave Vancouver because the city simply costs too much (not too mention the many talented people who might be a great fit for our city but can’t afford to move here). And an unbalanced housing market skews what might otherwise be rational decisions about major personal investments in irrational directions.
In response, I’ve identified 10 ideas that I believe are essential to a holistic municipal housing affordability strategy. These are 10 ‘big picture’ ideas and one could group many smart ideas into anyone of them. And they are focused on what the City can do. This is very limiting because the simple reality is that the big tools are in the hands of senior government (they have the resources and the authority).
There just isn’t a large solution space at the municipal level. Canadian cities don’t have the necessary flexibility to introduce the kinds of innovative and/or bold taxation or finance regulation interventions that can really move the needle on affordability. And with Vancouver so far out on the edge of the housing cost orbit, it’s difficult to build momentum for provincial and federal leaders to take the challenge seriously beyond some slapdash band-aids designed for optics and not impacts.
Nevertheless, in the absence of meaningful senior government action (or a more collective rational market, without the red hot culture of speculation and anxiety over the need leverage as much as possible to get a foot on that ladder), there is a need and opportunity for Vancouver to lead. And as a city planner myself, it’s the local level solutions that I understand the best. So, in the spirit of problem solving and doing my part to advance the local conversation on housing affordability, I am offering ten ideas that the City can do to help Vancouverites afford a place to live. This post will introduce the first five and tomorrow I’ll follow up with the final five.

  1. Get the facts out. Better data doesn’t make housing more affordable, but it’s critical to helping understand the key drivers and ensuring that a productive public discussion can happen. And while there are key gaps in the available data that can only be filled with senior government involvement, the City does have some pretty good data and one of the smartest research and data teams in local government (as does Metro Vancouver). Vancouver needs to compile what it knows and what it needs to know, and get those facts out in a comprehensive and comprehensible format. When I look at how well the City responded to the Kinder Morgan proposal with smart in-depth research that was well-communicated to the public and officials, I see a template for housing data. Showing our work in a coordinated and intelligent fashion would not only advance the conversation locally and with senior governments but provide coherence to our efforts (much more effective, in my opinion, than seemingly random press releases and letters to the Premier or ad hoc single-issue studies).
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Last night I attended the first Turncoats event in Vancouver (and saw a few of the Price Tags community there) – the first of what I hope to be many. For those unfamiliar with the Turncoats format (which included most people in the room last night), it was inspired by a series of events in London where a panel of four take two sides (two people per side) of a ‘fundamental issue facing contemporary (architecture) practice’. That said, the real intent of the format is to provoke a playful but combative debate and discussion, something many feel is missing in today’s Vancouver. To that end, no recording, tweeting, or other social media-ing is allowed to permit the participants full scope to speak freely without consequence (we all need to have a discussion in Vancouver about the state of discussion and dialogue – are we able to be critical in today’s city?).

Vancouver’s Architectural debates are rubbish.
We’ve all been there: a panel of similar designers with similar views taking it in turns to talk at length about their similar work – too polite, too deferential, too dull. At best they are lukewarm love-ins, critically impotent, elitist and stuffy. Turncoats is a shot in the arm. Framed by theatrically provocative opening gambits, a series of debates will rugby tackle fundamental issues facing contemporary practice with a playful and combative format designed to foment open and critical discussion, turning conventional consensus on its head.
– from the Turncoats website

Following a profoundly funny introduction on the importance of unimportance (I think?), there was a feisty debate on the question of originality versus style. Key arguments included the impossibility of originality (we live in a culture and context that situate even the most brazen attempts for true novelty will be seen, in time, as part of a distinctive style) and the primacy of process over iterative style as key to problem-solving and authenticity. The panel was exemplary: Clinton Cuddington of Measured Architecture, Fernanda Hannah of Monzu and Hannah Design, Javier Campos of Campos Studio (and President of Heritage Vancouver), and Alicia Media Laddaga of the Laboratory of Housing Alternatives and  Marianne Amodio Architectural Studio (one of my most favourite design firms). Kudos to the organizing team of Tony Osborn and Kees Lokman, not only for making Turncoats happen (the first export of the format outside of London), but for choosing a panel of folks beyond the ‘usual suspects’ but all sharp, smart, witty and insightful.
In the end, it was one of those events that reaffirms my optimism about Vancouver. There is a tremendous bounty of smart and engaged young(ish) people ready and willing to take on the difficult debates we need to have to advance our city forward. All we need are the right platforms and opportunities to have those debates and discussions. Turncoats can be one of them and I both look forward to the next iteration and recommend all Price Tags readers to check it out (I found out about the event through the also wonderful Urbanarium).

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Word is starting to come out of Victoria that the Province will move on the housing affordability issue that has become a key political issue in Metro Vancouver and introduce a suite of new policy tools designed to take some of the heat out of the high end of the market. After having no success in trying to brand the issue as a West Point Grey problem or simply a problem of cities not allowing enough supply, the BC Liberals seem ready to take the challenge seriously. At the centre of the proposals, to be announced later today, is a new ‘speculation’ tax on real estate transactions. The tax, similar to the proposal advocated by a group of academic experts from UBC and SFU, would charge a 2.5 percent surcharge on all residential real estate transactions over $500,000.

However, unlike most calls for any proceeds to be reinvested back into housing (through an ‘Affordability Fund’), the government has identified regional transportation investments as the primary benefactor. In a classic ‘two birds with one stone’ approach, proceeds from the surcharge would be invested into a regional transportation fund with the proposed Massey bridge to be the first in line. Apparently, this is seen as the best way to address speculation and affordability in a way that grows the economy and doesn’t deflate established housing values (a key issue for the government). Readers of this blog may have other opinions.
A detailed proposal is expected to be announced later today.
It seems like a crazy proposal, but I guess its that time of year.!

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Recently on the twitters, there have been some interesting discussion on new models for small-scale infill development. I am always super interested in this topic as I believe there is both a need and demand for new residential types that fit the evolution happening in our city’s neighbourhoods (for example, I very much appreciated and support Michael Mortensen’s discussion of a ‘New Vancouver Special‘ – right here on Price Tags!). Myself, I have long been an advocate for the triplex and its something we championed in the Norquay Village Neighbourhood Centre plan (we called them ‘stacked flats’) as the triplex is a very flexible housing type (and one that doesn’t require significant land assemblies). So naturally, I was very interested in a proposal by Bryn Davidson of Lanefab (one of our city’s exemplary design/build firms and the designer of some of Vancouver’s most innovative laneway houses).
Basically, Bryn’s proposal (being worked out incrementally through discussion and testing – so its not fully formed yet) is to subdivide existing lots (seems to work best on 50 foot frontages), relax some setbacks, and allow for triplex + laneway houses to provide real housing options that fit the DNA of Vancouver’s neighbourhoods. Some examples:


for 33 foot lots:



 
What I appreciate about this scale of development, and really any approach that doesn’t require assembly or lot consolidation, is that its a scale that doesn’t require a deep-pocketed developer and can work with many different development and ownership models. And I believe that Bryn thinks it can be done to Passivhaus standards for hard costs of approximately $250 per sq. ft.
To help make this happen, the City should be proactive and help innovative solutions like this navigate the rezoning and development approval process (and even initiate rezonings itself), as well as help with public engagement and consultation (critical to refining any proposal to fit the neighbourhood). This is what the City does best, so it doesn’t require heavy lifting or investment.
For more detail, check Lanefab’s twitter feed.
 

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I, for one, am very excited by the arrival of bike share in Vancouver this summer (finally!). Certainly it will have its challenges (ahem, helmet law) but also tremendous potential. But it does need a catchy name. Cyclehop (the operator) and the City of Vancouver is asking for names. Any ideas?
Details here. Deadline to enter is April 3, 2016. (thanks to Melissa Bruntlett of Modacity for letting me know via my twitter feed!)
 
 

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