Architecture
October 17, 2019

The Grand Bargain, Illustrated

 

You won’t likely find “The Grand Bargain” in a planning text, even though it explains in a phrase the de facto understanding that has shaped many of the places where Canadians live.

The bargain looks like this:

This is North York* between the Sheppard and Finch subway stations – a one-block-deep corridor of high-density mixed-use development on either side of Yonge Street.

Go another block further and there is a cliff-face drop in scale, where single-family suburbia begins under a canopy of street trees.

Post-war Toronto and its suburban cities decided to accommodate density (those concrete towers especially) where there was primarily commercial and industrial zoning.  With the opening of the Yonge Street subway in 1954, the station areas made ideal locations, especially where there was already a streetcar village.

To deal with community blowback at the sudden change in scale and alienating architecture, especially if the bulldozing of existing residential neighbourhoods might be required, planners and councils struck a compact: we won’t touch a blade of grass in your single-family zones.  Your status will be maintained.

Hence the Grand Bargain: high-rise density, low-scale suburbia, little in between.  Massive change for one, almost none for the other, and spot rezonings thereafter.

On the other side of the country, something similar was going in Burnaby.  In the fifties, the Lower Mainland Regional Planning Board produced a vision – ‘cities in a sea of green‘ – and provided the guidelines to go with it, notably where to consider apartment zoning.  David Pereira details the evolution of Burnaby’s commitment to the regional vision and its apartment zones, renamed town centres, in the 1960s.

That bargain when built out looks like this:

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From Daily Scot:

Walking through Victoria’s Harris Green neighbourhood located just east of downtown, you witness first hand the city’s density boom as construction cranes and development-proposal boards proliferate. I noticed an intense cluster of projects around the Cook and Johnson Street corridors.

A new Bosa development on Pandora has condos built above an urban Save-On-Foods location, a new precedent for mix use in Victoria:

There is also preservation of heritage for two developments (Wellburns Market and The Wade)  which incorporate existing landmark structures with new apartment living.

 

Keep your eye on this area as Victoria pushes for more options to address the housing crisis.

 

 

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Shaping Vancouver 2019: What’s the Use of Heritage?

Conversation #2: What do we do about neighbourhoods?

Some argue that “neighbourhood character” must be maintained to preserve the diversity of the city. Others note however that “neighbourhood character” frequently serves as an instrument of exclusion, making people feel unwelcome and marginalizing them.

Neighbourhoods that do not evolve risk stagnation, while neighbourhoods that change too rapidly erase the attributes that make them unique.

Are there then qualities of neighbourhoods that should be cultivated or protected? As Vancouver faces a housing crisis, how do we go about discussing neighbourhood change?

Four panelists share their insights about their local places:

Richard Evans – Chair of RePlan, a committee of the False Creek South Neighbourhood Association

Scot Hein – adjunct professor in the Master of Urban Design program at UBC, previously the senior urban designer with the City of Vancouver

Jada-Gabrielle Pape – facilitator and consultant with Courage Consulting

Jennifer Maiko Bradshaw – renter, pro-housing activist and director of Abundant Housing Vancouver

 

Wednesday, October 9

7-9 PM

SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts (SFU Woodwards) – 149 West Hastings Street

Free, donations appreciated.

Tickets here.

 

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The latest from Michael Anderson at the Sightline Institute:

For three years, Portland’s proposal to re-legalize fourplexes citywide has been overshadowing another, related reform. …  This proposed mid-density reform, dubbed “Better Housing by Design,” includes various good ideas  … like regulating buildings by size rather than unit count; and giving nonprofit developers of below-market housing a leg up with size bonuses.

But one detail in this proposal is almost shocking in its clarity. It turns out that there is one simple factor that determines whether these lots are likely to eventually redevelop as:

  1. high-cost townhomes, or as
  2. mixed-income condo buildings for the middle and working class.

The difference between these options is whether they need to provide storage for cars—i.e. parking.

According to calculations from the city’s own contracted analysts, if off-street parking spaces are required in the city’s new “RM2” zone, then the most profitable thing for a landowner to build on one of these properties in inner Portland is 10 townhomes, each valued at $733,000, with an on-site garage.

But if off-street parking isn’t required, then the most profitable thing to build is a 32-unit mixed-income building, including 28 market-rate condos selling for an average of $280,000 and four below-market condos—potentially created in partnership with a community land trust like Portland’s Proud Ground—sold to households making no more than 60 percent of the area’s median income.

This is worth repeating: As long as parking isn’t necessary, the most profitable homes a developer can build on a lot like this in inner Portland would already be within the reach of most Portland households on day one.

But if we require parking on these lots, we block this scenario. If every unit has to come with an on-site garage, the most profitable thing to build becomes, instead, a much more expensive townhome.

When people say cities can choose either housing people or housing cars, this is what they’re talking about. 

I’ve never seen a more clear-cut example.

Lots more detail here.

 

 

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Maybe, actually, the development absurdity of the year.

An application has come in to build a five-storey commercial building on the northeast corner of West Broadway and Granville Street – identified as the location for the South Granville station on the proposed Broadway line.

To repeat: a five-storey building on top of a subway line.

But that’s not the absurdity. This is: “Also included in the project are six levels of underground parking.”

To repeat again: a five-storey building with six levels of parking. On top of what will be one of the busiest metro stops in the region.

 

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A major entrance to Pacific Centre Mall off Dunsmuir Street:

Scaffolding clutters the space, but that’s temporary.  The real problem is permanent: the ramp to the underground parking:

It must have seemed like a small intervention when Pacific Centre was being designed in the sixties.  The project was three blocks long; underground parking spaces numbered in the thousands.  Taking up so much sidewalk space for a necessary exit wouldn’t have been a serious worry.

On the Dunsmuir Street of 2019, it looks like a scar.

 

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September 16, 2019

Via Durning, a  gentle black-and-white video from the CBC Vancouver program the 7 O’CLOCK SHOW special series on “Urbanism.”  (Click title for video.)

This footage depicts the oldest neighbourhood in Vancouver (near the Port) Gastown and the Downtown Eastside area of Vancouver.*

Older buildings (many vacant) on Alexander, Columbia, Carrall and Powell Streets are featured. In 1964 this was an area of the city in transition, where heritage buildings were neglected and vulnerable to idea of modernism.

*In the days when it was necessary to inform people where Gastown was, and before part of it was renamed the Downtown East Side.  And in the days when the fabled ‘7-O’clock Show’ would commission and run a visual essay without narration.

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In the recent history of Vancouver, it’s unusual when the built-out parts of the city – places where people happily live and work – suddenly change scale and character, when a new urban form, usually larger and different in use, replaces the local urban landscape.

Sudden change was the way we used to do it: when a single rezoning swept away the architecture (and many of the people) in early streetcar neighbourhoods, and converted them into the concrete highrise versions. (See Kerrisdale Village, Ambleside, the West End).  It can also happen where obsolete uses and rising land values come together, when industrial lands convert to residential megaprojects.  (See Collingwood Village).

Or where new transportation infrastructure aligns with new land use. See the impact of the Canada Line on Cambie Street.

Here’s the northwest corner of Cambie and King Edward in May, 2015 – a half decade after the Canada Line opened:

And in September, 2019:

Along the Cambie boulevard, the shift in scale is dramatic.

… compared to what was there just five years before:

 

It won’t take too long to get comfortable with this scale of change.  In fact, the spectacularly treed boulevard will be so much more appreciated now with gallery walls of apartment buildings, all about the same height and setback.  The parkway becomes more an elongated arboretum, less a well-treed highway median.  The entire landscape shifts with your viewpoint on the elegant curves that so gently rise and descend over Queen Elizabeth Park.  On the Cambie Boulevard, the tradition of  Olmstedian landscape architecture lives on.

When Oakridge was laid out, this was the best of Motordom in the City Beautiful, designed for the aesthetic and practical experience of moving by car.   Now, underneath, real change has come but out of sight.

The consequences of planning done after the Canada Line corridor have accelerated; the transformation is apparent, and a little jarring.  But because what was best about the boulevard looks like its being respected, what could have been traumatic change looks like it will be just fine.

When you’re hoping that Vancouverites will come to accept more sudden change in scale and character of the city and its neighbourhoods, it’s helpful to have something done well to show them.

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