April 24, 2007

Gordon Campbell Disconnect

Our Premier was interviewed on the BBC at the beginning of April. Here’s what jumped out for me:

I am excited by the initiatives that we are taking with regard to cities. I think too often we’ve allowed our cities to sprawl.
I think creating compact, livable, walkable cities is a huge shift and it’s a very exciting thing for me. I was the Mayor of Vancouver for seven years so we did some things that started that in Vancouver. But I think it has to be part of our urban form.

There is still a mysterious disconnect between these sentiments – which I think he truly believes – and the message being sent by the Gateway Project. Which is a commitment to a car- and truck-dominated transportation system. Which means any sensible investor, business owner or home-purchaser will make their decisions based on that assumption. Which means land-use planners and transportation engineers will plan for that. Which means more roads, more bridges, more sprawl, in a self-reinforcing cycle.
You don’t get a ‘compact, livable, walkable’ city that way.
I have a hunch that if Gateway was being considered today – rather than two years ago, when Kevin Falcon announced the twinning of Port Mann Bridge out of the blue – it would be a very different kind of project.
But the Premier must nonetheless reconcile the two visions.

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The New York Times columnist Tom Friedman talks and writes in sound bites: clever distillations of his thinking that, at worst, are fatuous catch-phrases, and, at best, enter the global vocabulary because they effectively sum up in a memorable way the currents of our time.  Some think “the world is flat” is both.
He just wrote an extended essay in the Sunday magazine this weekend – “The Power of Green” – that is chock full of Friedmanisms.  Here’s a sampling:

…. the three major issues facing every American today: jobs, temperature and terrorism.

How do our kids compete in a flatter world? How do they thrive in a warmer world? How do they survive in a more dangerous world?
… these problems are so large in scale that they can only be effectively addressed by an America with 50 green states — not an America divided between red and blue states.
We don’t just need the first black president. We need the first green president. We don’t just need the first woman president. We need the first environmental president.
The next president will have to rally us with a green patriotism. Hence my motto: “Green is the new red, white and blue.”

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Larry Beasley was speaking at a forum – “Framing a Capital City” – at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.  Here’s the Washington Post:

Larry Beasley, a former planning director for Vancouver, B.C., brought this nugget of Canadian wisdom: “The whole world is going mad about security,” which has become, in terms of architecture and planning, the most important force shaping our cities. He lamented the return of above-ground parking garages (to prevent a car bomb from taking out a building placed above underground parking) and the use of huge setbacks (they create dead zones in the urban fabric). Cities that are finally reflecting the virtues of density, mixed-use development and walkable spaces are being shoved in the wrong direction by security-mad bureaucrats.
When Beasley advised the assembled crowd (a mix of students, planners, activists and scholars) that it was time to just say no to more needlessly complex, anti-democratic, isolating, intimidating layers of security, the audience broke out into spontaneous applause. It was a hometown crowd.

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Knute Berger, a writer for Crosscuit’s Mossback section, throws some cold water on the over-heated praise for places like, well, Vancouver: 

Take Vancouver, the Cascadian city green urbanists most admire. It’s a dense Hong Kong in the making. But wait. Those skinny towers haven’t stopped suburban sprawl; the tax policies that created the modern city are likely unsustainable; the cost of living is sky-high; and the boom in condos is making it more difficult for the city to offer the full range of jobs and services a city requires to be healthy. Downtown is so stuffed with rich, idle baby boomers that some critics worry that Vancouver is turning into Canada’s Miami Beach.

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Those with a stake in more and wider roads have relied on the Standard Argument (the one the Province is using to justify Gateway) : increased capacity will allow for freer flowing traffic – and hence less pollution.
But that logic is based on the assumption that new capacity won’t fill up with more traffic – and hence, in the end, neither solve the congestion nor the environmental problems they generate. So they’re pulling out reports that purport to prove that new capacity won’t result in increased traffic.
Here’s one:

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development is playing up its conclusions:

Roads ‘good for the environment’, says study
EurActiv.com, 11 April 2007 – Bigger and better roads contribute to cutting pollution by removing bottlenecks, states a report commissioned by the EU Road Federation. The study follows criticism from green groups that investing in roads is contrary to Europe’s sustainable development goals.
Citing a study undertaken by an independent Norwegian research organisation, the SINTEF Group, the ERF claims that infrastructure capacity increases are directly linked to decreases in polluting emissions from motor vehicles.

I can only assume that they expect most readers (and newspaper editors who reprint their quotes) will never actually read the report.
Here’s page 10:

And here’s the most significant quote in the paper:

The results of the study show that we get a substantial growth in car traffic when the capacity of the congested urban motorway is increased by one extra lane. An increase from 43% to 62% in use of car is actually ca 45% increase in car traffic and decrease from 43% to 24% in trips by public transport. In reality it will not be sufficient to increase the capacity with only one extra lane. Two or three extra lanes will be needed to get free flow on the motorway. In most large cities in Europe there will be a lack of both the economic resources, land space and political will to go for such a solution and the results more or less emphasizes the “old truth” that when cities are larger than a certain size, it is more or less impossible to solve the traffic problems by increasing the road capacities.

May I repeat that:
… when cities are larger than a certain size, it is more or less impossible to solve the traffic problems by increasing the road capacities.
They’d argue for even wider roads, of course, always hoping that another lane or two will get the traffic moving. I’m still looking for a successful example in North America, where instead, highway expansion invariably leads to more car- and truck-dependent land use, as we’re currently seeing with the Sea-to-Sky corridor.
The motto of Gateway, however, is: “It won’t work, we know it won’t work, we’re going to do it anyway.”

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April 15, 2007

The art may be coming down (see below), but something far more controversial will be going up:

…the Squamish Nation (intends) to erect 13 10′ by 36.5′ billboards near the exits of three of the bridges leading in and out of downtown Vancouver. Because the base of each sign will be planted firmly on reserve land, strict municipal sign laws won’t apply. That means the billboards, which will rotate and glow 24 hours a day, will be bigger, brighter and more visible than anything else in the district.

 As The Tyee reports here, they won’t be going up without protest:

Organizers for a group called Citizens for Responsible Outdoor Advertising (CROA) plan to suspend a giant jet-black sign from a crane looming over the north exit to the bridge sometime in the next two weeks. If all goes as planned, the sign will bear a single boldface word: SEX….
“We must display in an unquestionable, unequivocal way that we don’t want these signs,” Wayne Hunter, the man behind CROA, said Thursday.

Thanks to PT reader Lorin Gaertner, here’s a  story in the International Herald Tribune on Sao Paulo – a city going in the opposite direction:

Come the new year, this city of 11 million, overwhelmed by what the authorities call visual pollution, plans to press the “delete all” button and offer its residents unimpeded views of their surroundings.

Sao Paulo before:

That was back in December.  Now that the rule in effect, Tony de Marco has documented the sight of a city stripped bare of commercial visuals. 

You can see more results here.

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April 13, 2007

I can’t believe that the Jaquar is coming down already!  John Henry’s brilliant red sculpture has dominated the entrance to the city since September 2005 (it’s on the current cover of Price Tags).  But it’s coming down next Wednesday.
You can join the wake, see the de-installation and hear the results of the ‘legacy puchases’ which, according to the Biennale release, will ‘hopefully’ be permanently installed.
The wake is on Wednesday, April 18th at 10:15 am in Devonian Park (Denman and Georgia).

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Last November, I wrote a post (here) on the dilemma of the three-storey walk-up, the plain stucco boxes that proliferated in the apartment districts of Vancouver from 1945-55:

For the last three decades, these buildings have been a reserve of lower-middle-income affordable rental housing….
When the real-estate market was hot in the late 1980s, … low-rise apartments were being replaced by highrise condos with less units. Result: population density reduced, housing affordability lost, views compromised, tenants distressed, neighbours angry, politicians unhappy. Pretty much a lose-lose all the way around.
The Council responded by imposing a rate-of-change condition on vulnerable neighbourhoods like the West End, in addition to a rezoning that took away much of the incentive to redevelop. More positively, developers were redirected …
This combination took the pressure off, rents remained stable, evictions were almost unheard of, and, as they say, the dog didn’t bark…. (But) if there’s any significant loss in the affordability of the three-storey walkup, then, believe me, the pit-bull of politics will be unleashed.

So … who let the dogs out?

As regular PT reader Sungsu noted in a comment, a just-released report from City Hall tallies up some of the recent damage:

In Kerrisdale, an issued development permit allows 41 strata units to replace 67 rental housing units at 5951 Balsam (Bermuda Manor). The sale price for the new units is almost $900 per square foot. A second approved development application at 2260 West 39th allows the replacement of 23 rental housing units by 12 strata units … (The city has already had to issue demolition permits for 260 rental housing units this year alone.)

In the Sun today, Frances Bula sums up the recommendations from staff:

…. any demolition or conversion to strata would have to come to council for approval. While the door is left ajar for developers who come to the city with creative proposals to build replacement housing, it would be shut for anyone who simply wants to tear down old rental apartment buildings to replace them with strata-title condominiums.

Next Tuesday, Council will be asked to approve a recommendation to go to a public hearing – effectively freezing any further development applications.

I don’t think Council has much choice on this. As the report notes, the city no longer has large (or even many small) development sites to take the pressure off the existing rental stock. And another story in the Sun explains why that pressure is so excrutiating:

(Relator Bob) Rennie thinks prices may level off, but doesn’t see any dramatic drop.

It can’t keep going up as fast as it has been,” he says.

But we watch for what levels it off — interest rates, if we’re not working, or there’s an oversupply. You just watch those three things, and none of them seem to be visible on the horizon.”

The other factor, of course, is that a substantial amount of Vancouver real estate sells to people who don’t live here. Some are from Europe and Asia, some from the U.S., some from Alberta. Rennie estimates 15 to 20 percent of downtown condos are sold to non-residents. And he sees the 2010 Olympics as a $5 billion advertising campaign for Vancouver’s high quality of life, which may attract more international attention.

The thing that nobody likes to admit is that Vancouver at a certain level is looked at as a resort city,” says Rennie.
“Nobody likes to talk about it, but we are.”

I hesitate to use the cliche ‘perfect storm,’ but there are a lot of heavy breezes blowing – and any local politician who fails to respond could well be blown away.

The problem, of course, is that stopping change rarely achieves any solution. Some way has to be found for the aging housing stock to be replaced without sacrificing the lower-middle-income renters.

Over 50 per cent of Vancouver households, and over 80 per cent of younger households, are renters. They face a triple whammy: Rapidly rising condominium prices price low-income earners out of home ownership; redevelopment of rental buildings is eroding the housing stock; and income growth is not keeping up with increasing rents.

That’s a lot of voters.

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What happens when one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made, performs anonymously at a Washington, D.C. Metro stop?
The violinist: Joshua Bell.  The set-up: Washington Post.  The results: here

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