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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There’s a new proposal to convert half of each of Vancouver’s three city-owned golf courses to up to 10,000 homes, with the other halves converted to parkland. In total, it could create housing for 60,000 Vancouverites, ranging from low-income to market rate.

In past years, the Vancouver Park Board has voted to keep its courses for golf, with one Commissioner emphasizing their importance for senior recreation and combating social isolation.

But the number of golfers is declining. And the Park Board recently voted for its staff to “evaluate the full spectrum of realized and unrealized benefits of Park Board land currently used for golf,” and to look at past, present and future golfing demand. This year, they’ll ask for the public’s preferences – your preferences.

 

Scot Hein is an author of the housing and park proposal. He’s an Adjunct Professor in the Master of Urban Design program at UBC, and formerly Vancouver’s Senior Urban Designer.

Tricia Barker is a Vancouver Park Board Commissioner. In her day job, she is a certified personal trainer who specializes in working with seniors.

 

Thursday, February 20

12:30 PM

SFU Vancouver Harbour Centre | Room 7000, 515 West Hastings Street

Free Event | Registration is required.  

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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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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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The North Shore News just reported on a release from BC Stats of its annual population change estimates.  No surprise here: “the North Shore continues to lag behind other Lower Mainland municipalities when it comes to population growth.”

District of West Vancouver’s population: up by 228 or people 0.5 per cent between 2018 and 2019.

District of North Vancouver: up 78 people, a growth rate of 0.1 per cent.

(No. 1 complaint on the North Shore: the intolerable growth in traffic congestion.  Gee, what could have caused that?)

But here is the surprise:

Five Metro municipalities posted a net loss, the starkest of which was Pitt Meadows, which saw its population contract by 0.8 per cent. The District of Squamish, however, led all of B.C. in shedding citizens with 2.9 per cent drop, year over year.

Squamish?  The place where a headline is, typically, “Squamish attracts new population and hip businesses, along with growing pains“. Maybe that’s the difference between a city and district.  But an outer suburb like Pitt Meadows?

What’s going on here?

 

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Who’s not here?

This was one of the main questions posed on November 21, 2019 to a room filled with attendees of “Smart City Talks: Putting People First: a dialogue on Vancouver’s public spaces” hosted by Urbanarium and UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.

This key question was asked first by Jay Pitter, author and placemaker whose practice mitigates growing divides in urban centres, and similarly posed by additional speakers, John Bela from Gehl Studio, and Kelty McKinnon representing PFS Studio.

As my first time attending an Urbanarium-hosted event, I enjoyed the evening’s dialogue and it likely won’t be my last. The discussion was thought provoking and interesting – but above all, it was bold and honest. No bushes were beat around on this evening as panelists shared what was on their mind loud and clear. Whether they agreed with each other or not.

The discussion was guided by three defined topics:

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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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The New York Times published a wonderfully interactive perspective on “A Decade of Urban Transformation” – the changes in the American urban landscape (with enough applicability to much of urban Canada), as seen from above.

 

Vast new exurbs have been carved from farmland, and once-neglected downtowns have come to life again. The tech industry has helped remake entire city neighborhoods, and it has dotted the landscape with strange new beasts, in data centers and fulfillment hubs.

The Exurbs Boom Again

At the beginning of this decade, for a short period after the housing bust, it looked as if the exurbs were over. Housing construction and population growth there ground to a halt. Briefly, central cities and denser suburbs were growing faster than exurbia. But the exurbs eventually boomed again, a pattern we can see in rings of new development around most major metro areas in this map, especially in the Sun Belt:

For more images:

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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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