Architecture
February 10, 2020

The Coupland Primer 4: Random Acts of Density

Stats-and-numbers guy Andy Coupland does a backgrounder on The Grand Bargain and what Vancouverites (City and Metro) should know about this town.

Here’s the first post in the Andy Coupland Primer. Here’s the second. The third.  And now the fourth and final:

Random Acts of Density

Can the city or the region build itself out of the current ‘housing crisis’? The proportion of rental households actually went up in Vancouver between the 2011 and 2016 censuses (and in the rest of Metro too, although with a lower overall proportion renting). The past five years have seen over 33,000 starts in the city – the past four years have seen over 28,000.

But for the city to achieve an average 8,500 new units a year (the target the mayor has mentioned) would mean moving away from the caution we generally see.* Perhaps it won’t be as difficult as it seems. It was a bit surprising that there wasn’t pushback when Wall built a huge complex on Boundary Road, quite a way from the SkyTrain. That was the most extreme example (in Vancouver) of a street of modest houses replaced by over 1,000 condos in 32 floor buildings.

The take-up of the Cambie Plan also shows a different approach – not so much the six-storey buildings along Cambie already mentioned but the more recent additions. The City now has a method to fast-track rezoning for 1.4 FSR townhouses. One existing house can become six or even eight units, half of them 3-bed family-sized. There are already 32 projects as current rezonings – all but two approved in the past year. There are nine other sites already at Development Permit stage, and they represent 341 townhouses – which for Vancouver is a huge change.  The same sort of thing is happening in Marpole and Grandview Woodland, as those plans took the same forms and density.

That will be another way in which Vancouver will continue to grow in ways other municipalities don’t, because there’s actually a lot of change happening in some of Vancouver’s single-family neighbourhoods, which really isn’t the case in other municipalities. It would be interesting to know who is buying them. The family homes generally cost well over $1 million each – so more affordable than most existing Vancouver houses, but still a pretty steep haul to finance as a young couple.

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Fred London* visited Vancouver in 2018 as one of 12 case studies on ‘Healthy Place-Making‘ – the title of his newly released book.

In modern-day society the main threats to public health are now considered ‘avoidable illnesses’, which are often caused by a lack of exercise and physical activity. Practitioners must now consider how they can encourage people to lead healthier lifestyles and improve health through urban design.

This book presents the path to healthier cities through six core themes – urban planning, walkable communities, neighbourhood building blocks, movement networks, environmental integration and community empowerment. Each theme is presented with an overview of the issues, the solutions and how to apply them practically with exemplars and precedents.

Here are some excerpts from his Vancouver chapter: .

Vancouver’s diverse character.

Old buildings remain along (Yaletown streets) reinforcing local identity, and former commercial loading bays create an appealing street cross section for eateries and retail, with walkways raised a metre or so above street level forming promenades unencumbered by the cars parked below.

Vancouver’s cultural heritage is also reflected in the varied social environment, strongly represented by the Pacific east coast. These are mainly from China and Japan, and notable for the extensive choice of good grocery stores and places to eat, catering for a range of income levels that serve as the bedrock for lower income communities.


Vancouver’s towers enjoy uncluttered views onto North Shore Mountain slopes saved from urban sprawl:

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There’s a trend in city architecture and in North American vehicle purchase that tests how we view ourselves and what we value in  current culture. This is the time of importing starchitects to Vancouver to build structures that do not really respond to their environs or surroundings, but are rather signature statement towers that clearly carry the stamp of who is the designer. And they are not unique to the place~you can see the same Bjarke Ingels Vancouver House twisty forms in this winding development at 76 Eleventh Avenue in New York City.

Take a look at Kenneth Chan’s current article in the Daily Hive on the 2016 proposed Holborn Group development for the Hudson’s Bay parkade on Seymour Street which challenges Vancouverites to think “bigger”.

That Holborn parkade redevelopment plan proposed three towers, one which will be 900 feet (that’s about 90 potential storeys) with just one small problem. The proposed height is 600 feet over the 300 foot limit because of the City mandated view cone to protect the views to the mountains. Kenneth Chan states “this is the same view cone that severely constrained the height of the adjacent TELUS Garden office tower”.

The project’s tower looks like an undulating lipstick tube and is described as bringing “a design flair that is common in modern Asian metropolises like Singapore and Hong Kong, this concept was designed by Beijing-based MAD Architects, which has international offices in Los Angeles, New York City, and Rome.”

The Holborn Group is the same developer who built Vancouver’s Trump Tower and who controls the former social housing  fifteen acre Little Mountain site. They state on their website that they intend to build 1,400 units on that land. There’s been all kinds of discussion on how this land was purchased from the Province, and how for nearly 12 years nothing has happened on this site which previously housed 224 social housing units.

It appears that the  story for this decade is still the focus on building downtown architecture to be a developer and architect’s  standalone showpiece. It does not really need to fit into the existing vernacular or reference the outstanding mountain and sea views. The trend is to outperform other buildings in size, shape, height and shock value. The iconic buildings anticipated for the downtown also do not appear to be responding to any local housing market needs with the exception of the Burrard Bridge located towers proposed by The Squamish Nation. Naoibh O’Connor has created a little compendium of twelve new buildings proposed for  Vancouver which allows you to look at some of the designs.

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A History of St. Paul’s Anglican Church

St Paul’s Church’s historian/archivist Leslie Buck will share stories and photos of that West End landmark, and we look forward to hearing your own memories of worshipping, attending events, and otherwise enjoying the community spirit at this vital centre of West End community life.

There will also be an opportunity for you to share other West End related stories of your own after Leslie’s presentation and the ensuing discussion.

 

Thursday, January 30

4 to 6 pm

JJ Bean on Bidwell at Davie

 

 

Tales From The West End will take place on the last Thursday of every other month through 2020. Dates to note are Thursdays March 26, May 28, July 30, September 24, and November 26.

Thanks to Dale McKeown for picking up the torch, the baton and the feathered boa from Janet LeDuc.

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Last November, PT did a series on the development of Brentwood station area (Burnaby Builds a City, starting here) – including a shot of the redesign of Lougheed Highway adjacent to ‘Amazing Brentwood’ at Willingdon:

While searching for images of new towns in Singapore, I came across this rendering for the proposed redevelopment of Pasir Ris, a residential town in the northeast corner of the island nation:

From the shape of the elevated MRT station to the design of the landscaping, from the separation of the paths to the location of the coffee bar, the similarities are so exact that it’s hard to believe this is all coincidental.  Perhaps it’s a reflection of a global similarity in high-density station-area design, with an emphasis on walkability and mixed-use.

While Amazing Brentwood is practically finished, Pasir Ris station and adjacent mall still looks like this:

Brentwood, on the other hand, used to look like this:

 

Vancouver is a settler city that has been influenced by the culture of the West – the ultimate movement of European DNA to the coast of the Pacific.  Today, of course, it is a hybrid city, as migration from the other side of the Pacific is shaping our new reality.  (It’s what the ‘West Pacific’ series of images attempts to reveal.)

While Singapore and other Asian cities have looked to us for examples of city-building and urban design, the exchange, as revealed above, seems to be mutual.  So logically we should be looking to what is happening in the dynamic cities of the eastern Pacific Rim, notably places like Singapore, for our inspiration as much as we do from the European and American antecedents we have typically turned to.  The origins of who “we” are is ‘both sides now.’

(Michael Gordon, a retired Vancouver City planner and PT contributor, just took a trip to Singapore, as it happens, and in upcoming posts he’ll be reporting back on what he saw.)

 

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(Click on headline above for illustrations.)


We asked stats-and-numbers guy Andy Coupland to do a background on The Grand Bargain and what Vancouverites (City and Metro) should know about this town, especially if they are going to weigh in on the housing crisis and to participate in the City-Wide Plan. 

Here’s the first post in the Andy Coupland Primer.  And now the second:

 

WHO GROWS WHERE

If you lived your life only shuttling up and down the rapid-transit system, you’d be convinced that all the growth is happening in the suburbs – or at least some of the suburbs – far more than in the City of Vancouver. Just look at the apparent density, and certainly the height, bulk and prominence of some of the transit-oriented clusters in Burnaby at Brentwood and Metrotown, and in Surrey at King George. Even in Richmond (where the height limitation means less density), the number of projects stretches to the skyline. Each of these would seem far greater than the few towers here and there in Vancouver.

So appearances can be deceptive.  A lot of lower density developments and a series of Random Acts of Density can generate more new homes than a few clusters of very obvious towers.

In fact, Vancouver is developing clusters of new towers as well. Nearly 1,000 of those 33,300 housing starts over five years in the City of Vancouver are on Davie Street, near Denman, (right) where there are five new rental buildings under construction.  Because they’re being developed in the context of other older towers, and because they are (by today’s standards) being built to modest heights, they don’t really stand out.

There’s a similar set of towers coming on Robson Street. They’re almost invisible when compared to the very prominent Vancouver House by Granville Bridge, but overall the three towers under construction add over 400 units, half of them rentals – nearly as many as Vancouver House in total, and more of them rental.

Many of Vancouver’s new homes are even more invisible. To the annoyance of some commentators, the Cambie Corridor Plan initial phase was cautious. The plan allowed six-storey buildings along Cambie and four storeys on adjacent parts of King Edward, for example. The heights were limited because the sites all held single-family homes – often 1950s ranchers. There was a recognition that, one, not every house would sell, and secondly, across the lane the zoning wasn’t going to necessarily change, so ‘fitting in’ was important.

The Grand Bargain was still in play – but in this case it was houses that were going to be torn down up and down Cambie and replaced with apartments. Without taking into account the higher numbers and densities on the big sites like Oakridge, Pearson and Langara Gardens, there have already been over 6,000 units associated with the Cambie Plan. There are 16 tower cranes along Cambie today.

Those who lament that the densities are far too low for a transit corridor forget the huge backlash against the plan, and the parade of residents who objected to the earliest projects when they came to Council for rezoning.

Even less visible are the suites and laneway houses. Over 500 laneway homes get added every year, all rental, and all modestly sized. More rebuilt homes these days have a suite than don’t, but it’s not that far back in time that there was no way of adding a suite – or legalizing one that had mysteriously appeared underneath a home. Now, providing there’s a lane, almost every plot in RS zoning can have three homes – two of which can’t be sold off, only offered for rent. It has been argued that one unintended consequence is that house prices have been maintained higher thanks to the presence of two ‘mortgage helpers’.

This situation doesn’t apply in most of the rest of Metro Vancouver, and it might explain why the numbers of new units in Vancouver is so much higher. Of the 33,000 starts over five years in Vancouver, less than 7,000 are single detached or semi detached, (many one-for-one replacements) and that includes over 2,500 laneway homes.

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A big shout-out to author Jesse Donaldson:

“Land of Destiny: A History of Vancouver Real Estate” is a fun, fascinating book … that more than delivers on its title. His publisher Anvil Press will host a Vancouver launch Dec. 19 at 6 p.m at Resurrection Spirits, free to the public.

Here’s an excerpt from The Tyee: 

Larry Cudney hated architects. In fact, he hated the entire architectural profession. For a time, years earlier, while still a young intern with a local firm, he had harboured dreams of becoming one himself, until a falling-out with the company prevented him from obtaining the certification he needed. …

Working as a draftsman from his cramped office on Main Street and 33rd Avenue, he designed single-family homes (the only buildings a draftsman could legally design), and his work was known for being simple and practical …

… sometime in the mid/late-1960s, Cudney sat down and drafted the plans that would become his legacy. It came to be known as the “Vancouver Special,” and for the next 20 years, it would be the most widely-discussed — and hated — type of housing in town. …

“Those brash new houses with slightly pitched roofs and aluminum balconies (known in the trade as Vancouver Specials), which are now squeezed into lots where once a single house stood in a magnificent garden are here not just to stay, but to increase,” complained the Sun, in 1978.  …Between 1965 and 1985, an estimated 10,000 Vancouver Specials were built, and by 1980, according to a Young Canada Works survey, eleven per cent of Hastings-Sunrise, and five per cent of Marpole were made up of Vancouver Specials. And as more and more were built, the backlash only grew. …

“Right now, to buy a house in the city’s east side, you have to have $20,000 in assets and a $20,000 income,” wrote the Sun’s Mary McAlpine in 1978. “Most young people with children don’t have that sort of money. The people who do are developers who tear down the house and put up Vancouver Specials …

But in the years that followed, attitudes — including city council, and the Sun’s McMartin — began to change. For many lower-income and immigrant families, council later recognized, the Vancouver Special was their only chance for home ownership. In 1987, City Councillor Gordon Price even praised the architectural style as “a tradition of our cultural diversity,” and “worthy of heritage preservation.* …

In 2005, a renovated Vancouver Special was awarded the Lieutenant-Governor’s Award for Innovation in Architecture. …

Privately, Larry Cudney was said to have been proud of the disgust his brainchild had engendered. “Creating a completely tasteless form of housing,” stepdaughter Elizabeth Murphy later opined, “was his revenge on the architect profession with which he was in conflict.”

 

*It’s true!  I remember saying that.  Still do.  But with respect to heritage preservation, I meant only that we should designate an intact original and perhaps try to save a complete block like the one above.  Let the rest evolve or eventually be replaced by higher density ‘missing-middle’ alternatives.  

Vancouver has always been in need of some kind of Vancouver Special.  The two-storey carpenter-built single-family houses along streetcar lines in the 1890s and 1900s were the originals.  Even West End one-bedroom apartments in West End highrises in the 1960s were a form of simple, affordable, mass-produced housing.  So in a different way was the illegal basement suite.  Now it’s the modular house for the otherwise homeless.  But with the high land costs, design controls, heritage preservation, and inflexible zoning, we aren’t likely to see another version anytime soon.

 

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The New York Times explores the Boardwalks of real-estate development:

… the surface lots that are peppered throughout cities, a vestige of a time decades ago when car ownership had surged and mass transit use had declined. Surface lots bloomed throughout the country, in big and small markets. Now, these lots are becoming more valuable.

“It’s like when you’re playing Monopoly, and you get your ticket for Boardwalk — that’s how rare it is,” said Gina Farruggio, a broker …

Sales of such lots in the U.S. have surged to more than 200 in 2016 – more than double the amount in 2006 through 2014.  It’s something that’s been going in Metro Vancouver for several decades – and at a vastly different scale.

The Times profiles a major development in Los Angeles at Culver City along the Expo Line:

The 500,000-square-foot development (on 5.2 acres), called Ivy Station, is expected to open next year with 200 apartments as well as 240,000 square feet of office space, 55,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, plus a hotel.

Amazing Brentwood by comparison is on 28 acres: 1,300,000 square feet of retail, 500,000 square feet of office, and about 1,700 residential units.

Perhaps not comparable given the difference in area – except for one thing.

  • At Ivy Station: 1,500 parking spaces.
  • At Amazing Brentwood: 1,400.

 

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We have a new downtown neighbourhood – or at least a new name for a neighbourhood.

The Chandelier District.

 

The blocks between the Burrard and Granville Bridges, south of Pacific, are labelled as “Beach” on some city plans, or Granville Slopes.  Maybe it’s south Downtown South.  Or west Yaletown east of the West End.  No one calls it any of that.

The Hornby-Howe blocks serve as the squared-out equivalent of a cloverleaf off-ramp from the Burrard Bridge to get vehicles to the West End, or as a bypass to avoid Pacific.  Wait til Vancouver House opens. Wait til the grocery store and other services go in under the bridge.  One guess what the identifying graphic will be for this commercial hub.

 

Ian Gillespie of Westbank consolidated the public-art requirement to fund the $5-million price tag on Rodney Graham’s artwork.  The media immediately grabbed on to a presumed controversy, thereby achieving what progressives believe art is supposed to do: create a conversation.

So far the conversation consists of a lot of swipes and doubts: bling for the rich, a slap in the face for those who can’t afford the unaffordable city, a gesture of contempt on the day after the homeless count was released.  It will be vandalized.  It will be a target for the stoned, the drunk, and the pigeons.  It will get dust covered*.

Could the money have been better spent on housing for the homeless?  Of course.  So could the money we spend on flower gardens.  That’s zero-sum budgeting.

Development-required public art is not, strictly speaking, funded by taxpayer dollars, nor is the extraordinary collection that comes with the Sculpture Biennale.  But the perception that there’s tax dollars involved or the millions could have been better spent is a consideration when political leaders are asked to devote more to the arts and they’re wondering if they’re going to end up on the wrong side of a microphone.

Artists, on the other hand, cry out for more – more public art, more protected studio space, more galleries and even more housing.  They assume the public wants a city with art and a place for them.

Fortunately, the city does.  Particularly if its Instagram and selfie-friendly.

 

 

Graham did get an ideal location: lots of room for the work to breathe, perfectly balanced on all sides, high enough to avoid vehicles, with a backdrop of uninterrupted sky to the east that will not change, thanks to the park beyond.

 

So if not ‘Chandelier District,’ what’s better?

 

 

  • *Fair warning: art with moving pieces will have to be scrupulously cleaned and maintained. This one drops and spins.  Unfortunately, I can’t think of an artwork with moving pieces that still does. Except the Steamclock, and it gets a lot of care and attention.

 

 

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The conversion of Brentwood into a municipal town centre is really about the conversion of car-dependent development from post-war suburbia into the transit-oriented centres of today.  It’s the fulfilment of the regional vision that began in the 1970s.

This is the Grand Bargain in action, concentrating development on the brownfields: the asphalt parking lots, the obsolete industrial sites, the empty lots, all within walking distance of a SkyTrain station.  (Debate: Can the same thing happen along the Frequent Transit Network or even a light-rail line?  Or is grade-separated rapid transit – concrete, trains! – a necessity?)

 

The success of these station areas is unquestioned.  There is a lot more of them happening, a lot more to come, as evident at the next SkyTrain stop to the west – Gilmore:

Today:

Tomorrow:

 

The bargain so far has been a push to extremes: highrise sacrifice zones to protect the iconic single-family neighbourhoods (regardless of the number of units within those houses).

And it leaves untouched the vast stretches of Motordom in between the station areas:

Lougheed Highway at Gilmore, looking west

 

The City of Vancouver has taken the first steps to rezone the blocks just beyond the arterials and transit corridors for medium-density rental, and there are a few, but very few, examples where a whole single-family district has been rezoned, bulldozed and rebuilt (Moodyville) to offer the middle-missing choices for which there is general agreement of their necessity.

This region’s ability to plan, approve and build complexes on the scale of Brentwood makes us an urban leader, certainly in North America.  By comparison, here is Miami Worldcenter, said to be the second largest real-estate development in the US, next to Hudson Yards:

More commercial, denser (and eventually underwater) – but not that different from what we do in our distant suburbs.  Okay, way more jobs, highly desired in places like Coquitlam, but in form and size, it’s just another megaproject.

Just another version of Brentwood.

 

 

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