Policy & Planning
April 16, 2007

How Dense Can They Be?

Knute Berger, a writer for Crosscuit’s Mossback section, throws some cold water on the over-heated praise for places like, well, Vancouver: 

Take Vancouver, the Cascadian city green urbanists most admire. It’s a dense Hong Kong in the making. But wait. Those skinny towers haven’t stopped suburban sprawl; the tax policies that created the modern city are likely unsustainable; the cost of living is sky-high; and the boom in condos is making it more difficult for the city to offer the full range of jobs and services a city requires to be healthy. Downtown is so stuffed with rich, idle baby boomers that some critics worry that Vancouver is turning into Canada’s Miami Beach.

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Those with a stake in more and wider roads have relied on the Standard Argument (the one the Province is using to justify Gateway) : increased capacity will allow for freer flowing traffic – and hence less pollution.
But that logic is based on the assumption that new capacity won’t fill up with more traffic – and hence, in the end, neither solve the congestion nor the environmental problems they generate. So they’re pulling out reports that purport to prove that new capacity won’t result in increased traffic.
Here’s one:

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development is playing up its conclusions:

Roads ‘good for the environment’, says study
EurActiv.com, 11 April 2007 – Bigger and better roads contribute to cutting pollution by removing bottlenecks, states a report commissioned by the EU Road Federation. The study follows criticism from green groups that investing in roads is contrary to Europe’s sustainable development goals.
Citing a study undertaken by an independent Norwegian research organisation, the SINTEF Group, the ERF claims that infrastructure capacity increases are directly linked to decreases in polluting emissions from motor vehicles.

I can only assume that they expect most readers (and newspaper editors who reprint their quotes) will never actually read the report.
Here’s page 10:

And here’s the most significant quote in the paper:

The results of the study show that we get a substantial growth in car traffic when the capacity of the congested urban motorway is increased by one extra lane. An increase from 43% to 62% in use of car is actually ca 45% increase in car traffic and decrease from 43% to 24% in trips by public transport. In reality it will not be sufficient to increase the capacity with only one extra lane. Two or three extra lanes will be needed to get free flow on the motorway. In most large cities in Europe there will be a lack of both the economic resources, land space and political will to go for such a solution and the results more or less emphasizes the “old truth” that when cities are larger than a certain size, it is more or less impossible to solve the traffic problems by increasing the road capacities.

May I repeat that:
… when cities are larger than a certain size, it is more or less impossible to solve the traffic problems by increasing the road capacities.
They’d argue for even wider roads, of course, always hoping that another lane or two will get the traffic moving. I’m still looking for a successful example in North America, where instead, highway expansion invariably leads to more car- and truck-dependent land use, as we’re currently seeing with the Sea-to-Sky corridor.
The motto of Gateway, however, is: “It won’t work, we know it won’t work, we’re going to do it anyway.”

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April 15, 2007

The art may be coming down (see below), but something far more controversial will be going up:

…the Squamish Nation (intends) to erect 13 10′ by 36.5′ billboards near the exits of three of the bridges leading in and out of downtown Vancouver. Because the base of each sign will be planted firmly on reserve land, strict municipal sign laws won’t apply. That means the billboards, which will rotate and glow 24 hours a day, will be bigger, brighter and more visible than anything else in the district.

 As The Tyee reports here, they won’t be going up without protest:

Organizers for a group called Citizens for Responsible Outdoor Advertising (CROA) plan to suspend a giant jet-black sign from a crane looming over the north exit to the bridge sometime in the next two weeks. If all goes as planned, the sign will bear a single boldface word: SEX….
“We must display in an unquestionable, unequivocal way that we don’t want these signs,” Wayne Hunter, the man behind CROA, said Thursday.

Thanks to PT reader Lorin Gaertner, here’s a  story in the International Herald Tribune on Sao Paulo – a city going in the opposite direction:

Come the new year, this city of 11 million, overwhelmed by what the authorities call visual pollution, plans to press the “delete all” button and offer its residents unimpeded views of their surroundings.

Sao Paulo before:

That was back in December.  Now that the rule in effect, Tony de Marco has documented the sight of a city stripped bare of commercial visuals. 

You can see more results here.

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April 13, 2007

I can’t believe that the Jaquar is coming down already!  John Henry’s brilliant red sculpture has dominated the entrance to the city since September 2005 (it’s on the current cover of Price Tags).  But it’s coming down next Wednesday.
You can join the wake, see the de-installation and hear the results of the ‘legacy puchases’ which, according to the Biennale release, will ‘hopefully’ be permanently installed.
The wake is on Wednesday, April 18th at 10:15 am in Devonian Park (Denman and Georgia).

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Last November, I wrote a post (here) on the dilemma of the three-storey walk-up, the plain stucco boxes that proliferated in the apartment districts of Vancouver from 1945-55:

For the last three decades, these buildings have been a reserve of lower-middle-income affordable rental housing….
When the real-estate market was hot in the late 1980s, … low-rise apartments were being replaced by highrise condos with less units. Result: population density reduced, housing affordability lost, views compromised, tenants distressed, neighbours angry, politicians unhappy. Pretty much a lose-lose all the way around.
The Council responded by imposing a rate-of-change condition on vulnerable neighbourhoods like the West End, in addition to a rezoning that took away much of the incentive to redevelop. More positively, developers were redirected …
This combination took the pressure off, rents remained stable, evictions were almost unheard of, and, as they say, the dog didn’t bark…. (But) if there’s any significant loss in the affordability of the three-storey walkup, then, believe me, the pit-bull of politics will be unleashed.

So … who let the dogs out?

As regular PT reader Sungsu noted in a comment, a just-released report from City Hall tallies up some of the recent damage:

In Kerrisdale, an issued development permit allows 41 strata units to replace 67 rental housing units at 5951 Balsam (Bermuda Manor). The sale price for the new units is almost $900 per square foot. A second approved development application at 2260 West 39th allows the replacement of 23 rental housing units by 12 strata units … (The city has already had to issue demolition permits for 260 rental housing units this year alone.)

In the Sun today, Frances Bula sums up the recommendations from staff:

…. any demolition or conversion to strata would have to come to council for approval. While the door is left ajar for developers who come to the city with creative proposals to build replacement housing, it would be shut for anyone who simply wants to tear down old rental apartment buildings to replace them with strata-title condominiums.

Next Tuesday, Council will be asked to approve a recommendation to go to a public hearing – effectively freezing any further development applications.

I don’t think Council has much choice on this. As the report notes, the city no longer has large (or even many small) development sites to take the pressure off the existing rental stock. And another story in the Sun explains why that pressure is so excrutiating:

(Relator Bob) Rennie thinks prices may level off, but doesn’t see any dramatic drop.

It can’t keep going up as fast as it has been,” he says.

But we watch for what levels it off — interest rates, if we’re not working, or there’s an oversupply. You just watch those three things, and none of them seem to be visible on the horizon.”

The other factor, of course, is that a substantial amount of Vancouver real estate sells to people who don’t live here. Some are from Europe and Asia, some from the U.S., some from Alberta. Rennie estimates 15 to 20 percent of downtown condos are sold to non-residents. And he sees the 2010 Olympics as a $5 billion advertising campaign for Vancouver’s high quality of life, which may attract more international attention.

The thing that nobody likes to admit is that Vancouver at a certain level is looked at as a resort city,” says Rennie.
“Nobody likes to talk about it, but we are.”

I hesitate to use the cliche ‘perfect storm,’ but there are a lot of heavy breezes blowing – and any local politician who fails to respond could well be blown away.

The problem, of course, is that stopping change rarely achieves any solution. Some way has to be found for the aging housing stock to be replaced without sacrificing the lower-middle-income renters.

Over 50 per cent of Vancouver households, and over 80 per cent of younger households, are renters. They face a triple whammy: Rapidly rising condominium prices price low-income earners out of home ownership; redevelopment of rental buildings is eroding the housing stock; and income growth is not keeping up with increasing rents.

That’s a lot of voters.

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What happens when one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made, performs anonymously at a Washington, D.C. Metro stop?
 
The violinist: Joshua Bell.  The set-up: Washington Post.  The results: here

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Rick Balfour’s proposal for a forum at Jericho in Point Grey provoked the expected reaction: here.  But it also drew reaction from Joe Thompson.

Joe is a truly civic-minded Vancouverite.  (If there’s a public meeting or debate, chances are, you’ll see Joe.)
As a resident of CityGate, at the east end of False Creek, Joe has come up with a vision for an amphiteatre tucked into the park next to Science World.

 The semi-circle of tiered seating, focused on a shared event is a classic form.
There is a curve of hill here in town which seems to me to be calling out for seating to an audience’s engagement. It is beside Science World. A landscaping berm in Creekside Park, in Vancouver, has an open curve facing towards the building’s north-east wall. It is about a dozen feet high (~3.5 metres), and about 50 feet wide (~15 metres). Terraced with seating it would hold about 50 to 80 people.

Lots more at Joe’s website here.

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Ever tried to find a detailed map of the Agricultural Land Reserve for your region?  As far as I know, there’s nothing on the web that would show at a glance, for instance, the ALR lands south of the Fraser. 
That’s not the case in the Victoria area – thanks to Ray Zimmerman:

Zimmerman, best-known as an environmental activist with the Sea to Sea Greenbelt Society, has collaborated with a cartographer in producing a series of maps showing, municipality by municipality, the changes to the land reserve since it was implemented in 1974.
His intent is clear: Demonstrating how much valuable farmland has been squandered, lost forever, even as predictions show we will need more land under cultivation, not less.
“It’s really outrageous, what’s going on,” says Zimmerman, adding that he is ticked that it was left to a couple of guys working on their own to come up with maps he believes should have been produced by government.

The maps are on line here.

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Occasionally some remarks I make provoke a reaction. (Not as often as you’d think, or I’d sometimes like.) But a speech I made to the Urban Development Institute in Kelowna on March 29th seems to have done the job.
Let’s begin with the coverage in the Daily Courier. Reporter Steve MacNaul basically got it right:

Kelowna on right track

 

Kelowna has made some inspired decisions – and some wrong turns – as a rapid growth desirable city.  “Let’s start with the good stuff,” former City of Vancouver councillor Gordon Price said during a stop in Kelowna.

 

“You have the assets of natural beauty, good food, good wine and good times. The downtown waterfront redevelopment, cultural district and Bernard Avenue are all things to be proud of.”

 

Price, who is now director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, spoke at a luncheon at The Grand hotel put on by the Kelowna chapter of the Urban Development Institute.

 

“But Kelowna has also made some major errors,” Price said.

 

“The car-based planning of the past has made Highway 97 the worst example of highway strip. Westbank is not well planned. The university (UBCO) on a hill by the airport frankly looks like a business park and you have your street issues downtown (such as homelessness, drug dealing and crime.)”

 

Price, who is also on the board of the International Centre for Sustainable Cities, characterizes Kelowna as an adolescent city on the cusp of adulthood.

 

“Make good decisions and go with them,” he urged.

 

“What is happening in downtown Kelowna is more important right now than whatÕs happening in downtown Vancouver.”

 

The direction of downtown Vancouver has already been set and is very densely “more natural, more urban and more connected” than ever before, according to Price.

 

There’s still a lot of development yet to be done in downtown Kelowna, therefore the opportunity to do it right – or wrong – according to Price.

 

“Bernard Avenue is revitalizing and still has a very pedestrian people scale, which is good,” he said.

 

“The residential highrises are good because it keeps people downtown and creates a vibrancy. Many people are against highrises, but really height is irrelevant. A highrise done well creates density but provides green space and storefronts at its base to keep people engaged.”

 

Downtown Kelowna has ‘anchors’ such as Prospera Place arena for sports and concerts, the cultural district for art and plays and non-mall stores, restaurants and services, pointed out Price.

 

“But a better job could be done of filling in the spaces between these anchors with housing, other facilities, parks and trails,” said Price.

 

“People will accept growth if they see the public benefits that come along with it.”

 

Price told the developers present that’s why it’s important to do public consultations before launching a project to outline the public benefits such as parks or unique stores and amenities that go along with it.

 

“What developers are doing is really selling lifestyle with nature and all the urban amenities to both the people that will buy their homes and the existing neighbourhood,” said Price.

 

And then came the reaction.

 

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