Architecture
September 22, 2020

Urbanist in the Okanagan 4 – Two Kind of Towns: Bisected or Bypassed

There are two kinds of towns in the Okanagan (and most of BC).

It depends on the provincial roads that connect them.  Some, as in Osoyoos, have a highway that divides the centre-right through its heart.


Very often the highway, like Crowsnest, is literally Main Street – a ‘stroad’ that has looked essentially the same for more than half a century: broad, muscular, low-slung and unambiguous.  Mid-century motordom, which even today, despite attempts to make them more friendly for people not in cars (which is the way most of them got there), are still car dominant.

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This gem provides a ten minute vignette of the 1976 office life of Chicago’s Prudential Building which was built in 1965. At just over 40 storeys it was the first skyscraper built in Chicago after World War Two. This movie introduced by director David Hoffman recalls a time fifty-five years ago when spoken diction was different, job roles more defined, and you could not carry a cell phone loaded with information with you.

People appear to be more softly spoken and you could smoke in an elevator. The telephone is the major communicative currency of this decade’s office, as well as the computer, which the video says is in two million offices in the United States.  A quarter century later,  it was estimated that 68.4 million computers were in offices and in homes, dramatically challenging  the concept of the  office as the one place to “get work done”.

Take a look at the YouTube video below.

 

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Portland’s BLM protests may capture the news, but the Sightline Institute summarizes what their city council is likely to approve today: “the most pro-housing reform to low-density zones in US history.”

Portland’s new rules will also offer a “deeper affordability” option: four to six homes on any lot if at least half are available to low-income Portlanders at regulated, affordable prices. The measure will make it viable for nonprofits to intersperse below-market housing anywhere in the city for the first time in a century.

And among other things it will remove all parking mandates from three quarters of the city’s residential land, combining with a recent reform of apartment zones to essentially make home driveways optional citywide for the first time since 1973.

Portland’s reform will build on similar actions in Vancouver and Minneapolis, whose leaders voted in 2018 to re-legalize duplexes and triplexes, respectively; in Seattle, where a 2019 reform to accessory cottages resulted in something very close to citywide triplex legalization; and in Austin, whose council passed a very similar sixplex-with-affordability proposal in 2019.

But Portland’s changes are likely to gradually result in more actual homes than any of those milestone reforms.

Full story here.

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Andy Yan of Simon Fraser University’s City Program notes that cities are not prepared for bio-medical emergencies like the  Covid-19 pandemic, and is emphasizing the importance of  creating safer environments.

Patrick Sisson with Bloomberg CityLab describes the change in building form and interior design that happened with the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic.  I have previously written about the remarkable innovations in public health planning that New York City adopted in 1918. 

That city had a lower fatality rate from the 1918 epidemic than other major North American cities.

The idea of light and air being important in building design was embraced  in the early part of the twentieth century by Alvar Aalto . That  translated into functionalism in designing a tuberculosis sanitarium. 

Spaces were designed to be easy to clean, large windows installed,  and minimal furniture used. This aesthetic was also embraced by Le Corbusier.  Richard Neutra   actually created a “health house” for a client concerned with fresh air and light which  was modelled after the clean lines of tuberculosis sanitarium design.

This connection between environment, health and design and the importance of  light and air also was also  a reason that radiator heating became popular in cities after the 1918 pandemic. Using radiator heating instead of coal or wood heating meant that windows could be open for fresh air and light while still heating the interiors of housing.

In New York City 80 percent of housing units are still  steam heated. The New York State Tenement House Act which was enacted in 1901  to deal with the atrocious tenement conditions stated that every room had to have an exterior window to allow for good ventilation as well as adequate light.

That followed up with a  1918 pandemic campaign  in New York City to have opened windows as the way to  ameliorate “influenza, pneumonia and tuberculosis”.

Lloyd Alter, a thoughtful editor at TreeHugger sees the current pandemic as a call to redesign housing units.  Mr. Alter  suggests  a separate entryway to leave outer clothes and to wash hands, bathrooms with more partitions, and kitchens that are no longer open to other rooms.

Look for a return to a more minimalist design in new builds, along with a new emphasis on bigger balconies with flow through ventilated air into units. Expect that new buildings will feature every bedroom having an opening outside window,  closer access to gardens and outdoor areas, and better ventilation in apartment halls and common areas.  Proximity to parks and open spaces will also be on trend. Here’s a thoughtful compilation from Lloyd Alter on where the  pandemic will take design innovation.

Meanwhile take a look at this YouTube video from Toronto where the developer of  “The One” at Yonge and Bloor  thinks he is building an 80 storey “pandemic proof” condo building. The comments below the video are good comedic discourse on this building and the developer’s new endeavour.

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The guys at Changing Vancouver have one of their ‘big picture’ views of the city this week:

This is all the way back to 1987, and the ‘after’ shot was taken in 2018 from the Global TV helicopter by Trish Jewison.

Thirty three years ago Downtown South (to the east of Granville Street) was still all low-rise, mostly commercial buildings, that had replaced the residential neighbourhood that developed from the early 1900s. We’ve seen many posts that show how that area has been transformed in recent years.

In the 1986 census, just before the photo was taken, there were 37,000 people living in the West End (to the west of Burrard and south of Georgia), and only 5,910 in the whole of the rest of the Downtown peninsula (all the way to Main Street on the right hand edge of the picture).

In 2016, in the last census, the West End population had gone up to 47,200, adding 10,000 in 30 years. What was a forest of towers in 1987 had become a slightly thicker forest in 2018. The rest of Downtown had seen over a 1000% increase in 30 years – there were 62,030 people living there. Both areas will have seen more growth since 2016, and the 2021 census should show several thousand more people in both the West End and Downtown.

Gord Price – The 1987 shot really resonates for me: it was my first year on City Council.  In the following 15 years, NPA councils would approve rezonings for seven megaprojects (four on the peninsula) and, notably, Downtown South – the area on the peninsula that has seen the biggest change (and continues to do so).

The ‘Living First’ strategy that came out of the 1980s (generally termed ‘Vancouverism’) was a ‘Grand Bargain’ for its time: we would take pressure off the existing residential areas, primarily the West End, through a 1989 de-facto downzoning (following the one that occurred in the early-1970s that resulted in an end to outright approvals for highrises), and concentrate growth east of Granville and north of Robson.  In return for stability in the existing residential area, growth would be accelerated in the rezoned commercial/industrial parts of the map. Highrises would be back, now marketed as condos, in a big way. That’s the ‘bargain’ – illustrated so vividly above.

I suspect everyone on Council and at City Hall would have nonetheless been amazed at the prospect of a thousand percent increase occurring so quickly.  And yet, it did the job: the West End remained a lower-middle-income neighbourhood, where rents were above the regional average and incomes of the renters (over 80 percent of the residents) were below.  (Most made up the difference by not having cars.)

There was effectively no change in the character of the community.  Even today, one can walk most of the streets in the interior of the West End and have difficulty finding any buildings constructed after 2000.  It is still the arrival city for immigrants and students (that’s why the Robson/Denman area is a ‘Little Korea’ of restaurants) and lower-middle-income renters.  It is still able to accommodate new highrises on West Davie and a few other blocks under the recent West End plan without affecting the stability, physical or economic, of most of the district.

Of course, some people will still be under the impression that growth is ‘out of control’ and rents unaffordable, especially when noting the development proposals for the peripheral blocks between Thurlow and Burrard, and Robson and Georgia.  Likewise with the rents in new buildings.

‘New’, by definition, is more expensive than depreciated ‘old.’  However, the argument that new development should be rejected because of gentrification could have been used in the 1960s to prevent the development of the West End as we know it today, arguably now an urban miracle of affordable housing, given its location.  That anti-growth argument was in fact used in the 1970s – filtered through Jane Jacobs’s writing – to successfully end the highrise era in Kitsilano.  Seven of the last them can be seen on the slopes below 4th. In fact, no residential highrises would be built in anywhere in Vancouver from the early 70s to the late 80s, save for a handful of super-expensive ones along the waterfront.

Today,

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PT: It’s been awhile since we’ve seen Daily Scot (né Bathgate) on this blog – even though on some weeks he does text a daily observation.  Here are some:

 

DS: A great idea from TransLink, for those with bikes who would like to rack them on a bus but are too intimidated to do it for the first time:

 

DS: Port Moody must use the suburban planner’s manual: shared asphalt walk/biking path when there is a wide road begging for a separated lane.

 

DS: Turks and Caicos meets Coquitlam.  Fun colours on the North Road border as it takes on a population closer to the West End.

 

DS:Corten steel is back.  Victoria does it!  LeFevre & Co. are the developers – do great work and restored a lot of heritage buildings over the years.

 

DS: Every helmet is missing on these Mobibikes.  Is that because of Covid?

 

 

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By Christina DeMarco and Peter Ladner

Great ideas are as much about timing as content.

Remember the first attempt to block a car lane for bikes on the Burrard Bridge? If you weren’t around for that debacle, ask Gordon Price how it went. Years later, after more careful planning and community education, the lanes are in and thrive today.

Similarly, for decades, any attempt to expand the parts of the city where basement suites were legal was met with vicious opposition. Then one day in the early 2000s, city-wide legalization of suites was passed by council without a whisper of opposition.

Now, with the city more desperate than ever for new revenue and affordable housing, the monopoly of car use on so much city land being widely questioned, and gentle infill density on the rise, Thin Streets may finally have their breakthrough moment.

Is this a good use of valuable City land? The City of Vancouver has an abundance of road and lane space in their quiet residential areas.

Look at the street in the Streetview above. The equivalent of two city lots—worth, say, $1.5 million each—is being tied up to provide the luxury of a passing lane for two cars driving on that block at the same time. How often does that happen? Three, six, a dozen times a day? A two-way street isn’t even necessary. Many Vancouver streets work quite happily and safely with one lane of traffic: oncoming cars pause at the intersection until the lane is clear.

Looking at our future city through the “pandemic prism” has caused many of us to question the large amount of space unnecessarily dedicated to cars.

What if that “wasted” pavement could instead provide land at no cost for affordable housing, parks or other uses, simultaneously providing newfound revenues for a cash-strapped city, increasing pedestrian safety, and reducing traffic volumes, traffic speed, automobile collisions, asphalt maintenance costs, heat island effects, and rainwater runoff?

In Vancouver, dividing the typical little-used two-way 66 foot right-of-way in half produces two new 33-foot residential lots per block, and a narrower 33-foot right-of-way, with a 17-foot thin street, easily enough space for one-way travel, parking for cars, a sidewalk for pedestrians, and boulevards for street trees.

The two new lots are now available for a variety of uses such as affordable housing, park space, community gardens, and daycare centres.

A couple of years ago, the City of Vancouver made duplexes a permissible use in all RS zoning districts (single-detached housing areas).  This change allows two dwelling units plus two secondary suites/ lock-off units on a conventional building lot. Narrowing the north-south street for just one block can now create twice as many housing units by creating two lots with a 33 foot frontage. The land could be sold on a long-term lease to individual owners or the City could develop the lots themselves.

Not only that, but converting wasted asphalt into leased land for housing would immediately create a new revenue stream that has the potential of raising millions of dollars a year, forever.

 

Thin Streets is an idea that has been around since the 1990s, been the subject of city council resolutions, and otherwise in the “great planning ideas” pipeline for decades. In 2012, Ted Sebastian and Christina DeMarco (right), former City of Vancouver planners, teamed up with Charles Dobson, Professor Emeritus of Emily Carr University and submitted the idea to  the City’s  “Re-think Housing” competition to help increase the amount of affordable housing. It was one of the winning ideas.

Unfortunately, at that time, as with every time this idea has been proposed for some kind of pilot project, it has failed. The killer issue is making peace with the adjacent property owners and neighbours. Without their buy-in, political pushback has been vicious. Understandably.

Equally important as making sure a proposed block is suitable – e.g. no sewer lines would be covered up — is figuring out how to make this attractive for the neighbours.

Some possibilities:

  • The City could start by coming up with some exciting design ideas for this form of ground-oriented housing.
  • The City could buy adjacent lots and then lease them and the reclaimed asphalt to a developer or individual owners to build out affordable housing.
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Shortly after the Notre-Dame de Paris fire in 2019, according to Architectural Digest, “Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced a competition for fresh ideas for the cathedral, and designers rushed to create original renderings and post them to Instagram. They range from the tasteful and restrained, to the borderline inscrutable, to social experiments never intended to be built.”

But how can you tell the difference, especially when some unserious interventions are justified as intended to ‘start a conversation’?  (A justification used so much these days – as though the ‘conversation’ was the purpose, not the process.)

Here are four of the seven that AD found on Instagram, all from practicing architects:

After all the conversation, the decision, announced a few days ago, was this:

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Until a few years ago, space beyond the curb was for parking, picking stuff up, getting on a bus and dropping stuff off.

Curb space was for accessibility by vehicle.   Very valuable space.

So logically, there was no place for uses that reduced accessibility – especially when the intent was just the opposite, to get people to linger.

Photo by Cal

Because of the pandemic, we’ve quickly made space for Non-Motordom users who need more space.   But now there is less parking and vehicle accessibility.

Is that a fair trade-off?  Only if there’s no alternative for those with no alternative.

And there is: the space beyond the patio.  As part of a slow street, double-parking and double-sitting is the expected way.  If on slow streets, pedestrians can walk down the middle of the street, cars can stop and linger for a bit too.

This way of thinking about a street violates the understanding we have had of Motordom, where the vehicle retains dominance.  Those who wish to maintain Motordom are using marginalization – ableism, ageism – as a defense, assuming that the needs of seniors and the disabled can only be respected with the full apparatus of a 20th-century road system.

Where the space beyond the curb is for cars.  And that’s so not so.

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