December 16, 2006

Revenge of the Small

Author Karrie Jacobs – the keynote speaker at mid-October’s Affordable Housing by Design conference – has some nice things to say after her tour of Portland, Seattle and Vancouver:

In these three Pacific North­west cities, the progressive power of urban planning is taken very seriously, and concepts like livability and sustainability dominate the local civic culture to such an extent that to visit all three in rapid succession, as I did in October, is to drop in on another country. It’s not the United States or Canada, but a more highly evolved combination of the two.

In her Metropolis Magazine column – Revenge of the Small – she was impressed with how Vancouver came up with a “a new menu of housing variety,” potentially creating 20,000 additional units.  Approved styles here and in Portland seem too traditional for her contemporary taste, but she recognizes the signficance of the move to smaller homes:

In an era when ever-bigger houses are the norm, Portland and Vancouver’s carefully vetted plans might help other North American cities and towns promote domestic downsizing. That would be no small accomplishment.

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December 10, 2006

Timothy Thomas, regular PT reader, sends the following plea:

Here’s a piece on the superb new Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, with instructive parallels for Vancouver. It is hoped that this building, its compelling design matching its dramatic harbour-side setting, will spark a re-birth of progressive architecture there, in a city not not for its creative contemporary architecture.

Boston has done for brick what Vancouver done for sea foam green glass. Enough already! This kind of architectural kick-start is a fond wish many of us have for the much-rumoured possibility of a new site for the VAG. (Wanted: bold elegance. Please: no more polite pablum!). Any update on the plans for the new VAG (and the other new cultural sites in the offing, if possible). Is it still planned for False Creek?

I’ve recently heard that the cultural precinct planned for the old Larwell Park site (between Cambie and Beatty) is on hold. Any news anyone?
Update: Sources from City Hall say the project is still on track – but no details.

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December 6, 2006

This is the biggest construction hole in the Lower Mainland:
It’s at the corner of Ioco Road, between Murray and St. Johns Street, in Port Moody.  (Here’s the webcam.)
And this is what will fill it:

The Onni Group is developing this mixed-use complex next to Polygon’s Klahanie, across the street from the Port Moody City Hall and cater-corner from Newport Village – the precedent-setting Bosa development from the mid-90s.  (You can fine more on the village in Price Tags 63.)
Suter Brook will have 1,250 residential units, 200,000 square feet of retail, including a 30,000 square-foot supermarket (Thrifty’s) and 45,000 square feet of office.  Architect Larry Doyle’s design is very urban, incorporating many of the elements of the ‘Vancouver Style’ – point-and-podium towers, townhouses, underground parking, smaller blocks, hard- and soft public spaces, a regard for the street, and an expectation of transit.  (The Evergreen Line will run by the southeast corner.)
Port Moody is one of the Lower Mainland’s smaller communities – about 15 miles (24 km) from downtown Vancouver at the head of Burrard Inlet, only 10 square miles (26.21 sq. km) inarea, home to 29,000 people.  It’s also second only to West Vancouver in average income.  Not the kind of place you’d expect would embrace growth and high-profile urban design.
Perhaps because of its dynamic leadership over the last decade, Port Moody has become the precedent-setter for Vancouver suburbs.  Mayor Joe Trasolini just got back from China, there to accept an award recognizing Port Moody’s achievement: 

Port Moody captured first place in the international “Planning for the Future” award (over 50 competing cities included Honolulu, Seattle, Westminster, U.K., Camden, Australia as well as cities from Australia, U.S., Czech Republic, and Ireland). The city also captured third place overall in their population category for the “most liveable community in the world”.

Well, there goes Vancouver’s title.  And good thing too.  The future is in the suburbs – or what the suburbs will become as they evolve.  Port Moody is already there.

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While the ‘Vancouver Style’ (the so-called point-and-podium) has much to recommend it, particularly the way it relates to its neighbours and the ground plane, there are rather a lot of towers that look so much the same.  All that glass, so little distinction. 
Now that residential towers are becoming popular in other cities, we’ll have a chance to compare.  Here’s a building just being completed in Minneapolis.  Very much in the deco style, it has very pleasing proportions, and enough use of brick to give it weight.

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Last night, Brent Toderian, the City’s new Director of Planning, explained at an SFU City Program ‘conversation,’ why he chose to come to Vancouver.  It was the opportunity, said the ex-Calgarian, to help a city that was already heading in the right direction to really take off, to build on the successes already achieved in order to tackle the issues – affordability, homelessness – that confront it today.
While civic optimism is compulsary for planning directors, it contrasts with the gloom and despair one hears from commentators in bigger cities.  Examples: Elizabeth Farrelly in the Sydney Morning Herald (How could Sydney get it so wrong?) and Christopher Hume in the Toronto Star (Why T.O. isn’t on road to better future).  Wrote Hume:

There was an excellent example several weeks ago when the city refused to change its policy against laneway housing. The argument was that lanes are unsafe because they’re too narrow for fire trucks and garbage trucks. … It’s exactly this kind of thinking that keeps Toronto from realizing its potential, and, if not changed, will lead to its decline.

This backward step on laneway housing by Toronto (you can read the staff report here) must be a particularly bitter loss for the city’s design professionals , as The Globe and Mail reported:

The vision of revitalizing Toronto’s 311 kilometres of back alleys with tiny, cheap homes that has tantalized architects and city planners appears to have been extinguished by city officials’ concerns about the costs of utility servicing and garbage pickup.
A 2003 report by two Toronto architects financed by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. touched off a wave of excitement in the media and among architects and urban designers. It pointed to hundreds of potential sites for nifty new laneway dwellings, to replace ramshackle garages and abandoned industrial sheds in the alleys that crisscross the city.
The report by Jeffery Stinson and Terence Van Elslander included designs for four styles of compact homes that would not encroach on neighbours, and called for a loosening of city regulations so that building in laneways would entail a less arduous bureaucratic process.

Ironically, the City  had even given an urban design award in 2003 to architects, academics and students for their studio on ‘laneway architecture and urbanism.’  Said one juror:

Long overdue. This design studio recognizes and explores the unique opportunity the existing laneway network provides as a resource for the City, defining a new and important built form and open space framework within the existing fabric of Toronto.

These examples from Toronto were used most recently at the “Affordable Housing by Design” conference, cohosted by the Vancouver City Planning Commission, Smart Growth B.C. and the City Program, as an example of an achievable housing choice.  In fact, laneway housing is seen as one of the most viable opportunities for the Mayor’s EcoDensity Initiative. 
As it happens, CMHC is funding a study in Vancouver – “Livable Lanes” – by Joaquin Karakas, a planning analyst at Holland Barrs.   The City has an infill housing strategy that has resulted in many examples in Mt. Pleasant and Kitsilano.  And it has introduced a new zoning schedule – RT-10 – that allows for small-lot infill, which likewise allows for laneway housing in Kensington-Cedar Cottage.  Presumably, the Mayor’s Ecodensity Policy will encourage this form across the city.
Brent Toderian acknowledged how different the dialogue is in Vancouver, among politicians, staff, developers and the community, founded on the willingness to work together, to try new ideas, and, as he would say, ‘constructive candour.’  That contrast with other cities – and the success of both the Mayor’s policy and Toderian’s abilities – will be evident if laneway housing becomes a reality throughout Vancouver.

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October 28, 2006

Everyone likes a good demolition.  There’s just something perversely gratifying about an implosion.  And ever since they blew up Pruitt Igoe  back in 1972 live on television, failed public-housing projects have made remark- ably satisfying targets. 
Glasgow, Scotland, built more of these tower blocks than anywhere in Europe, and some years ago started a program of demolition and replacement with more humanely designed, mixed-income housing. I’ve often thought it a waste – not just of good intentions, materials and embedded energy – to blow these up without at least doing something more, um, artistic with the opportunity. 
And so someone has. Here’s a Toryglen tower block awaiting demolition (or possibly repair): 
And here’s the commercial that Sony made to promote its LCD TV. 

Or click here for the better-quality version. 
For those who have seen the “Balls” commerical – here – set in San Francisco, you’ll recognize the work.  But you may not have seen the soft-drink parody:

Some would say: a waste of good fruit.

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October 23, 2006

I just came across this:

There’s a rule of thumb that a building is considered attractively slender if it has an aspect ratio (which is to say, height to width) of 8:1.

Who came up with that? Is there an iconic building of precisely that ratio?
And what is the most attractive ratio of street width to building height? I seem to recall, from the Haussmann era in Paris, that the height of the streetwall was two-thirds the width of the street. Or was it the reverse?

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