Design & Development
January 24, 2009

I wanna live on Tilly Street

Lots of great comments under “One Last Loop,” notably this one from John Wilson:

“Why does there need to be a Rolston Way at all? If there’s going to be West Rolston and East Rolston, I think that’s enough Rolston. It’s actually so much Rolston that it will be confusing.

“If we are honouring Tilly Rolston, why not name it Tilly Street?”

‘Tilly Street’ – what a great name!  I’m guessing it’s not too late to get the City to think about it, especially if it hasn’t been approved by the Street Naming Committee.

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Richard Johnson, the planner at City Hall who came up with the concept for the North Granville Loops, sends along some notes:

1. The main motivation and sole original purpose came from the Downtown Transportation Plan and the desire for better pedestrian connections. The redevelopment came from me recognizing that you could redevelop and therefore pay for the improvements. It was never a desire for the City to develop more land. Quite the opposite, senior staff were very reluuctant due to leases and complexity.

2. The traffic lanes on Pacific are actually four in this area if you count the “crossover” bridge access lane. We would be eliminating that lane because it is a). very dangerous for cyclists using the north bike lane, b). not great for cars either, and c). not needed with right angle turns and new intersections.

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January 21, 2009

We’re down to the last loop on the Granville Street Bridge.

Now that a City report is recommending the reconfiguration of both loops at the north end of the bridge, only the southwest loop (lower left above) will remain.

Opened in 1954 at the height of the post-war infrastructure boom, the Granville Bridge was vastly overscaled for its purpose.  This high-elevation eight-lane structure would never reach its design capacity unless the feeder roads to it were likewise enlarged. 

But back then, they presumed that the city would be rescaled for the car, so they built freeway-style cloverleafs at both ends.

In 1997, the Pacific Press building, a bland modernist box squatting on the block just above the southeast loop, was acquired with the intent to build what is now the Portico condo complex.  The City took the benefit moneys to develop an adjacent park, requiring the removal of the loop.  Vehicles now have to make two right turns to get on to the bridge from Fourth Avenue.

The landscape architects retained the memory of the curving on-ramp in their design of a pathway between the tennis courts and water feature.

The changes at the north end will be even more dramatic.  Here’s the current situation:

When the loops are removed, the blocks will be subdivided, squared up, and sold as development sites.  To eventually look like this:

Several new streets will be created:

Tilly Rolston, after whom the streets are named, was the first woman cabinet minister in British Columbia, given the Education portfolio by Premier W.A.C. Bennett.

Most of the land is currently under asphalt, mainly a parking lot for a taxi company.

The city-owned Continental currently serves as social housing, to be replaced as part of the redevelopment.

It’s not quite clear how pedestrian linkages and bikeways will work to connect Granville Street to False Creek – but the changes will be far superior to the near-impenetrable barrier there now.

Another sign that we are in a post-Motordom city, reversing the insensitivities of the era when the car was king and the pedestrian an interloper.

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The transformation is underway:

In two or three weeks, said the delightful traffic manager on site, this block of Granville will look more like this:

And the construction will move north until the street (according to this rendering that looks south from Helmcken) is more like this.  (Note the widened sidewalks with the optional parking between the curb row of trees.)

This design is adapted from Alan Jacobs’s proposal (more about that here in Price Tags 44.)  

I’m surprised at how dramatically this block of Granville between Davie and Drake has been transformed by the medium-rise residential buildings.  Not a surface parking lot remains.   And yet, the blocks to the north are largely untouched (how do those porno shops survive?). 

I had assumed at the time we were rezoning Downtown South that the influx of residents on all sides would transform the southern blocks of Granville into more of a neighbourhood shopping street – and therefore, like the other commercial arterials in the West End, should retain its low-rise scale.  No need for boosting the densities and encouraging lot consolidation.

Granville has resisted.  Some will say thanks for that; the street shouldn’t be homogenized into another low-rent Robson.   Still, change will come.  It’s just not clear quite yet what that will be.

One thing I will continue to bet on: when the Granville Bridge loops are rebuilt and the street is connected to the False Creek neighbourhoods, Granville will regain some of its lustre as Downtown’s Main Street.  More on that tomorrow.

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Peripatetic urbanist Sam Newberg (aka Joe Urban) was recently in Miami Beach and had a chance to check out the art-deco district.  His main observation: it feels in some surprising ways a lot like Vancouver’s West End:

… It was all quite dense and wonderful. It reminded me of Vancouver.

It was no coincidence that Miami Beach and Vancouver’s West End are similar. I am speaking of the historic Miami Beach, from Lincoln Mall to the south. The two were laid out on a grid and developed at roughly the same time, although Miami Beach is a little newer, dating back to the 1920s. The main similarity is that of the size of the area, its walkability and livability.

Vancouver’s West End is northwest of downtown, and from Granville Street is a little over a mile long and less than a mile wide, with Stanley Park beyond to the northwest. Starting from 17th Street or Lincoln Road Mall and heading south, Miami Beach is similar in size and shape.

More uncanny, both areas are served by three commercial/transit streets that form a U-shape. In Vancouver they are Robson, Denman and Davie, and in Miami Beach they are Washington Avenue, 5th Street and Alton Road. These commercial streets contain most retail and service needs, and are rarely more than a quarter mile walk from any residence or office in either city.

In essence, Vancouver’s West End and Miami Beach are fantastic examples of walkable urbanism.

I did a survey of Lincoln Road back in Price Tags 62.

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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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From the Washington Post:

History hints that this downturn could change our tastes. Homes built in the 1940s and ’50s, for example, were usually smaller and simpler than large, frilly Victorians that had been in style before the Great Depression and World War II. …

Virginia McAlester: “We are going to have far more small houses and attached houses,” she predicted. The cost of building the roads, sewers and utility lines to serve compact neighborhoods is lower. And soundproofing will become more important to buyers when they’re living closer to their neighbors — and possibly closer to retail and commercial properties. …”

If owners find them unsustainable, some large suburban houses might get turned into multi-family homes, just as many of the large homes of the late 1880s and early 1900s were converted into duplexes once lifestyles grew more spare.

We at the SFU City Program are wondering what kind of courses and lectures are needed today when we want to transform the McMansion and the dead-worm suburb.  In other words: what do we do with what we’ve already got?

On the other hand …

UPDATE: New homes being built smaller.

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It’s stunning.

From Georgia and Bute in the late afternoon, when the building captures the sun and is fully lit from base to crown, its height revealed without obstruction and its slenderness and angularity exaggerated by the bulk of the towers that frame it, there is no doubt: the Shangri-la justified the risk.

This hotel/condo is the second of the super-tall towers (the first was the Wall Centre hotel) that began with the 1996 skyline study, authorizing buildings up to 180 meters (about 600 feet) on a few selected locations in the downtown core.  (More here.)  The study began with a motion I moved (with helpful wording by planner Larry Beasley) in 1995, Ray Spaxman led the consultants, and the  new limits were approved in 1997

By the mid-90s, it was clear that developers wanted to break the 450-foot height limit that had been in place for decades.    Better, I thought, to take a look at the skyline as a whole before adjudicating the merits of a single building.  Without a rationale, the public would be justifiably concerned that a single approval would establish a precedent for ever-taller towers without constraint.

Fortunately, the City had already established designated view corridors in 1989, guaranteeing that mountain views would always be preserved from particular points south of False Creek.  While still contentious (developers are always arguing for exemptions), that guarantee allowed for more open-minded consideration of taller towers in the spaces between the corridors. 

Ultimately, seven sites were approved for consideration:

What gives the Shangri-la so much of its power is in fact the view it has had to respect.  The western face of the tower, slicing across the site, is the physical expression of one side of the corridor.

The most compelling argument in favour of taller buildings, however, was their collective effect: without them, the city skyline would eventually flatten out as towers bumped up against the 450-foot limit, reducing the drama of the downtown profile by benching it out.  Rather, I felt, it would be better to effectively duplicate the profile of the mountains behind – a series of peaks and valleys, producing a sense of climax similar to that of arguably the most renowned skyline in human history:

But the height increase would not be given away.  Additional density would have to be transferred from some other site, in the process preserving a heritage building or providing a public amenity.  A special design panel would be convened to ensure the building met a higher standard of architectural design.  And additional public amenities would have to be provided on site.

Since the Shangri-la is not yet complete, particularly the sculpture garden on the podium, we’ll come back to that later.   One thing for sure: the building has already transformed a previously bleak block of Alberni Street.

UPDATE: Another view of the Shangri-la from Robson and Burrard:

From Lost Lagoon:

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