Design & Development
January 28, 2009

Give My Regards …

Lisa Brideau sends along a link to every streetcorner in Manhattan:

Photographer Richard Howe has indeed captured every intersection in the borough, and every corner on every intersection, and put them all on his website in an easily accessible format.

So here’s an intersection I chose – 41st and Broadway, southwest corner:

Why this one?  Well, since in this case the sidewalk is under construction, it reminds me that the Traffic Commissioner of New York City is coming to Vancouver to tell us, among other things, how she’s making New York more pedestrian friendly.

Janette Sadik-Kahn is one of the featured speakers in “Shifting Gears” – the lecture series on transportation and health that the SFU City Program is hosting with UBC’s BombardierChair, the B.C. Recreation and Parks Association, and in this case, TransLink.   Stay tuned for details.

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Economists talk about ‘clustering’ – the concentration of companies in a similar field.  A computer cluster, on the other hand, is “a group of linked computers, working together closely so that in many respects they form a single computer.”

Brad Danks at Out TV sends along an illustration both literal and metaphorical: “the most amazing map that the Washington Technology Institute has put together about the corporate development of tech companies in Washington State.”

Check it out here.

Brad thinks we should do something similar for the film/TV/videogame/new media biz in Vancouver.

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January 22, 2009

Last night at the Vancouver Museum, David Suzuki introduced Dr. Göran Carstedt, a Swedish executive (IKEA, Volvo) who spoke on “Harnessing Human Energy for Climate Change.”

My favourite anecdote was a description of a conversation with a high Chinese official, who, after remarking on the success of the West as a civilization, made three astute observations.

“Your food supply is based on transportation, no?”

Indeed.

“And your transportation system is based on oil.”

Yes.

“But you don’t have the oil.”

[The talk was sponsored by, among others, the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, a BC-based inter-university initiative.  PICS  just released a white paper authored by the Adaptation to Climate Change Team based at SFU – “Climate Change Adaptation: Planning for BC” .]

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January 20, 2009

We’re in a crumple.

William Watson coined the word in a Sun column last week:

A bubble, as we have all learned, is a run-up in prices going beyond anything that reasonable economic calculation can justify….

But here’s where I find all the bad news encouraging. If social contagion and information cascades can carry us all off to manic highs, presumably they can also drive us down to unwarranted lows…

In effect, we’re in a negative bubble. (I think of a negative bubble as “a crumple.”) We’re quickly talking ourselves into depression. We’ve gone from the subprime to the ridiculous, you might say.

Why do I find this encouraging? Because a crumple is no more reasonable or justified than the bubble was. And because it may turn around just as quickly.

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At least the Olympic Village will get built.  In Dubai and other real-estate hotspots around the world, the dominoes are falling, along with the public offerings.  Like the $100-billion Jumeirah Gardens development, with One Dubai as its centrepiece: 

More here in Der Spiegel:

The international economic crisis has caught up with the nouveau-riche high flyers in the Middle East and Asia who, until recently, had gloatingly watched the collapse of the West, where one skyscraper project after the next has been abandoned. But now the brakes are also being put on one construction project after another in Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

And here’s a sample of the fantasies that were being pedalled up until just a few weeks ago.

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A one-bedroom in the Shangri-la for $1,800 a month?  Sounded like a good deal to one West End observer.  Or more particularly, a downer for landlords in older buildings who were hoping for an upward squeeze in rents.

If Craigs List is another indication (and it certainly is), there are pages and pages of suites on the market.  Anecdotal reports suggest that even stated prices are negotiable. 

I’d predict that Vancouver will become a renter’s market over the year as more condos come on to the market to be rented out or, less voluntarily, as the result of liquidated investments from speculators.

There was a time in the 1990s when the West End saw a competitive housing market, and even a loss in population, as renters decamped into Downtown South.  And that, frankly, was the idea. 

When the City approved the rezoning of the area between Burrard and Yaletown in 1991, it was meant in part to take the pressure off the West End, which had been effectively frozen by the rezoning of 1989 and contraints going back to the 1970s.  (The West End is a vivid illustration of my maxim that “as the rate of change slows down, people’s perception of change increases.”  Attempts to add density, or even change the status of existing buildings, will be meant with significant resistance.  Better to accommodate change where growth will be accepted.)

We expected that with the flood of development outside the boundaries of the West End, affordability and stability would be maintained within.  And despite what some activists would maintain, it apparently has.  New housing, though seen to be expensive, has taken the pressure off the existing stock – a generality can be applied across the region. 

Of course that’s small consolation to those whose income has declined.  Which is probably another reason why rents will not increase significantly, if not actually decrease.   There may even be nostalgia for the boom-boom days when the squeeze in the rental market was a reflection of a burgeoning economy, leveraged as it was on credit and unrealistic expectations of the future.

UPDATE: The Goodman Report, the most authoritative newsletter on sales of apartment buildings in Metro Vancouver, just put out its 2008 Year in Review.  On the subject of vacancies, here is its prognostication:

CMHC predicts that “vacancy rates for 2009 will stay below 1%.”  We in turn forecast that owners will experience a more challenging rental market due to a lessening of demand.  Having been in contact with owners on a continuous basis throughout Greater Vancouver, we have learned that fewer people are responding to “for rent” ads, more tenants are vacating their suites because of financial hardship, and significant numbers of tenants are moving into their recently purchased condos.  Finally, expect significant numbers of frustrated investors unable to sell their vacant condos, to “throw in the towel” and tenant their suites.

More optimistically: “Expect a renewed sense of cooperation from all levels of government to help foster the development of rental projects.”

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Imagine the corner of Carrall and Hastings in the 1920s. 

At the B.C. Electric Railway headquarters (foreground on right), interurban trains were arriving  from places as far away as Chilliwack and Steveston.  From here, passengers could immediately transfer to a streetcar on Hastings that would connect them to any part of the city.

Down the street was City Hall, located in the Holden Building (centre left), one of the tallest towers in Vancouver. 

Across the street: the Beaux-Arts Merchant’s Bank building.  Up the street: the city’s premier department store, Woodward’s.

At the centre: the Hotel Pennsylvania.

Previously known as The Woods, the hotel must have been a place to meet, for business and pleasure.

And none who passed through this intersection could ever imagine how dramatically it would decline in the later decades of their century.  Just as we today are sceptical of the possibilities of change for the better in the Downtown East Side.

In fact many are fearful of any sign of improvement, concerned that gentrification will displace the most vulnerable.   In the stratified politics of Vancouver, that’s often why change is only embraced when the Left sees benefit.  So it was that COPE (later Vision) councillor Jim Green, who justifiably deserves the credit for the Woodward’s project, provided the catalyst for change that will transform this neighbourhood in the next few years.

And yesterday, another sign of that change was lit.

The opening of 44 units for the homeless or at risk marked the end of a long journey for those in the Portland Hotel Society who struggled to transform a dismal, dangerous SRO into something of pride and hope for the Downtown East Side. (That’s Tom Laviolet of the Portland Hotel Society at the window.  The “Portland Hotel” was another name this building has known, preceded by “The Rainbow”.)  More here.

The hotel has been wonderfully restored, including the turret at top and a replica for the sign that punctuates the corner with a touch of neon:

But credit also to the City for extending the corner sidewalk and adding a gentle curve to Hastings where it bends:

And for allowing a replacement of the areaways underneath the Carrall Street sidewalk, including the glass tiles lit from below:

And to those who doubt this intersection will regain its vitality, just wait.  As the Carrall Street greenway is completed, as the streetcar is extended through the neighbourhood, as social housing projects replace the SROs, as more residents and businesses are welcome, the Pennsylvania will once again become the place to meet.

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Some advice to the new council, and for that matter to TransLink and the Province: forget trying to push grade-separated transit through Point Grey to get to UBC.  

For sure, there won’t be an elevated line.  But even a subway, horrendously expensive whether tunnelled or, as on Cambie Street, built by cut-and-cover, will be fought off – and not just because of the construction disruptions.

These west-side neighbourhoods will unite to stop any fundamental change in the character of their communities – and they will defeat any politician who refuses to take their side.  That includes their MLA, who in this case just happens to be Gordon Campbell, Premier.

Grade-separated rapid-transit line will change the character of the neighbourhood.  That’s the point!  More people, more density, more development.  Otherwise, why build it?

But one thing I learned in politics: no one from City Hall ever goes to a neighbourhood meeting and says, “Hi, I’m here to change things.   After we’re finished, you won’t recognize the place!”  What they invariably do say is this: “We’ll protect the character of your community.”  And then they promise a process which allows for lengthy discussion about what constitutes ‘change’ and what satisfies as ‘mitigation.’

The neighbourhoods along the Point Grey route to UBC already have reason to believe densification is the quid pro quo for improved transportation.  TransLink has indicated that it hopes to finance new infrastructure by capitalizing on real-estate opportunities created by its investments – like, for instance, highrises around transit stations. 

I wrote a column in Business in Vancouver on what that might mean in Point Grey:

… let’s imagine the reaction of those who live within spitting distance of 10th Avenue and Sasamat, the heart of West Point Grey’s commercial village, to the announcement that ten 25-storey higrises will be placed on the surrounding blocks, without any additional money for community amenities, park space or services. Or how they’ll react at a public meeting when told, “Hey, it works in Hong Kong!”

This is not a defense of the creme-de-la-creme.  Many elsewhere in the city will argue that they should take their share of development, especially when it will benefit those who don’t have access to their leafy domain.  But that is a losing strategy.  It will be too easy to delay and defer the project, or to compromise the benefits that might otherwise come.

And there’s another way to do it.  As Portland has demonstrated, it’s quite possible to integrate light-rail transportation into the fabric of existing neighbourhoods. 

And with it can come change that doesn’t overwhelm the community.  In this case, the Jericho defense lands between 4th and 8th Avenues await redevelopment.   (In fact, much of the studies has already been done.)

Better to pursue a win-win strategy that has some chance of success than a win-lose strategy that doesn’t.

As the Province found out, a politician who speaks up for those negatively impacted by change can ride an issue into, well, City Hall – which is just what Gregor Robertson did for the merchants on Cambie, and for himself.

 

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