March 30, 2016

High Rise. High Design. High Performance?

Recently the Planning Commission convened a series of workshops and an enjoyable public event reflecting on the major planning milestones of the past year. One of the ‘milestones’ identified was the recent boom in very tall (by Vancouver standards) towers with significant architectural pedigrees (many by international firms new to the city). While the planning for these taller buildings has been years in the making (most notably the recent view corridor review and the West End Community Plan), it does seem that we’ve entered a new era of the high design high rise. It is an interesting time for local architecture watchers (did we ever settle on a twitter hashtag? #vanarch?) and some of the towers are extremely compelling. But do they demonstrate exceptional urban design performance?
The principle of ‘urban design performance’ is an important one in Vancouver. Not only is it a standard by which development proposals are judged by (along with many others), the city incentivizes design performance by allowing for increased height and/or density ‘subject to urban design performance’. As a member of Vancouver’s Urban Design Panel (a privilege that I take very seriously), we are often asked to adjudicate development proposals based on urban design performance (although notably, the Panel does not approve or deny approval to projects, it only advises and decides whether it supports or does not support a project). Urban design performance is, to my mind, a very interesting concept in that it is flexible and inclusive, recognizes the variability of sites and neighbourhood contexts. Some of the performance variables are timeless but others evolve with the times (for example, livability or sustainable building performance). Many are well-documented in the City’s policies and bylaws while some are subjective. And one variable I often struggle with is architectural quality.

Clearly, architectural quality is an important component of urban design performance. A well-designed building does provide delight and, in composition with others, makes for a pleasing urban environment. But how much weight should be given to high-quality architecture? Although I do expect good architecture in all development, I personally tend to discount the value of high-end high-rise design because, while innovative architecture, I question whether it innovates and demonstrates exceptional urban design performance since it solves a challenge that Vancouver doesn’t have (high-end design for high-end condo buyers). Instead, I would ask all observers and commenters to question if the buildings pass the bar of good urban design by other metrics (quality of the public realm, neighbourliness, building performance, etc.). Notably, some of the new towers employ dramatic architecture to solve some key challenges (I was impressed by the Kengo Kuma tower proposal for 1550 Alberni Street and its use of an undulating tower to enhance neighbourliness in place of a standard 6500 sq. ft. floor plate and 80 ft. tower separation. I was also impressed by the Bing Thom tower proposal for 969 Burrard Street (the First Baptist Church) for its use of expanded lobbies on each floor (called ‘garden courts’) to enhance sociability among residents) and these innovations should be celebrated.
But above all, I want to draw attention to the concept of urban design performance. These towers are only some examples. The bigger question is, what should urban design performance mean for today’s (and tomorrow’s) Vancouver? Should the concept be fixed and timeless or should it expand, contract, evolve for a changing city (and why can’t it do both)? Should the City engage the public in defining urban design performance for a new generation? And what is the relationship of urban design performance to broader City objectives such as Greenest City or the Healthy City Strategy? Personally, I think urban design performance is worthy of a robust public discussion, hence I raise it here. And I would love to know what you think.

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This recent article in Business in Vancouver caught my attention as it represents a key planning challenge in our region: the rising cost of commercial real estate. While increasing commercial land values is not the critical challenge that deeply entrenched housing unaffordability and neighbourhood gentrification can be, when the cost of a storefront increases beyond the ability of local-based and local-serving retail to pay for it, it can be a real loss for any community. This issue came up a few times when I was working on the OCP update for the City of North Vancouver and there are no easy answers.

“In a growing number of transactions this year, speculators appear willing to pay up to $1,000 per square foot – equal to $44 million per acre – for Vancouver commercial land assemblies. This is about three times higher than the prices that shocked the market in 2015.”

When a local business makes an investment in community, is part of the attractiveness of a community, and then is priced out by the desirability of a community, that is a real challenge that planners, urbanist and civic leaders need to put some energy into solving. Furthermore, the high cost of commercial land assemblies narrows the range of developers able to pay the price, typically privileging large-scale developers who prefer to work with large-scale retail tenants. Here in Vancouver, this challenge is heightened by the emphasis on commercial ‘corridors’ as potential ‘mixed-use’ redevelopment sites (a topic I may touch on in greater depth later this week).

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Ed and Eddie / Flickr
A few of the students in my UBC Urban Transportation Planning class are doing a major project on autonomous vehicles (driverless cars), so it has sparked some thinking on the topic. That’s why I found this post on Planetizen by William Riggs and Michael Boswell intriguing. In the transportation planning world, autonomous vehicles (AVs) are a wild card – we simply don’t know how they will impact the future of urban mobility. At a high level, there are two basic models in thinking about how AVs will change mobility and the cities: 1. radically increased efficiency will allow cities to accommodate increased auto-mobility without infrastructure expansion; and 2. the convenience of AVs (with electric/battery technology) will expand motordom through the constraints of congestion and resource limits, further feeling sprawl and auto-centric urban development. The Planetizen post takes the first model as its starting post and the argument is compelling.

“In this environment of uncertainty, we argue that the only certainty in how autonomous vehicles (AVs) will manifest in cities is uncertainty. While this unclear future might imply no need for a policy response, we believe there is a pragmatic approach to planning for the future of AVs: a temporary moratorium on roadway expansion. Under this moratorium, safety enhancements and regular maintenance would continue, but projects aimed primarily at capacity expansion would stop. This moratorium would include new freeways, interchanges, and major arterials as well as lane additions and intersection widening”

This conservative approach to estimating the future is probably the wisest considering the uncertainty (and the huge costs of expanding auto-centric infrastructure) and calls into question multi-billion dollar boondoggles like the proposed Massey Bridge (as if we needed another reason). But it also highlights the need for some serious policy thinking on the issue. Closer to home, UBC SALA’s AnnaLisa Meyboom (someone I respect) has called for Vancouver to play an agenda-setting role on planning for AVs. Meyboom, the director of UBC’s Transportation Infrastructure and Public Space Lab (what a fantastic initiative), identifies the uncertainty and the need for proactive work to determine whether these technologies will have negative or consequences for social equity and the environment. Notably, Vancouver City Councillor Geoff Meggs has called for City staff to look into this issue and I am looking forward to their report (of course, I think this is a great area for collaboration between the City and UBC – I know that my students would make some amazing contributions).

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This week I take the role of guest editor of this well-loved and always appreciated blog and I am looking forward to it. First, a brief introduction. For those who don’t yet know me, I’m a city planner (formerly of the City of Vancouver and the City of North Vancouver), I’m an academic (working on my PhD in Urban Planning at UCLA) and I teach (currently a sessional instructor in the Langara Applied Planning program, the UBC Masters of Urban Design program and the UBC School of Community and Regional Planning). I am fortunate to serve Vancouver as the vice-chair of the Planning Commission and as the Commission representative on the City’s Urban Design Panel. Many may also know me from Twitter (@nlamontagne).
I’ll try to post a few interesting things related to my interests in urban design, planning, and complex urbanism, as well as other topics relevant to Vancouver and the region. I believe that it’s an interesting time in the region and we need dialogue, debate, and collaboration to take on the big challenges of our time, including the need for an equitable, sustainable, and joyful city that is greater than the sum of its many and diverse parts. I believe that we need more open, engaged, collaborative + reflective planning practice and I look forward to your thoughts on the state of planning in Vancouver and beyond.

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