March 25, 2016

NIMBY Rage: Not just for towers any more. Townhouses too.

809 West 23rd Avenue

The last PT Guest Editor wrote about comparing Burnaby’s density to Vancouver’s in Who Does Density Better?
A 1920s-era church at 23rd Ave & Willow could be saved if it’s turned into 6 townhouses with the flexibility of 4 lock-off suites. It’s 600m from King Edward Station and the neighbours are outraged it will no longer be a Single Family Home (SFH). There seems to be more outrage about this lot than there is about skyscrapers going up in Burnaby.
Let’s start with what we know then learn a bit more:

  • Metro Vancouver has mountains to the north, a border to the south, and an ocean to the west. Therefore it can only expand to the east, which it has been doing. We need to limit urban sprawl for all kinds of environmental, health, and economic reasons.
  • It is estimated that by 2030 the region’s population will be about 1 million more people than it is today. They will need places to live.
  • The City of Vancouver has, for about 2-4 mayors now, been encouraging density and running on platforms of density.
  • Friendly-density or “gentle densification” describes alternatives to high-rises such as 3-7 story multi-unit dwellings, townhouses, quadruplexes/fourplexes with a coach house, etc. and this density debate article is more amusing/sad 4 years later, depending on your point of view.
  • Transit-oriented development (TOD) “is a mixed-use residential and commercial area designed to maximize access to public transport and often incorporates features to encourage transit ridership.”
  • The Marpole Community Plan, approved in 2014, allows for RM8 (Townhouse, Rowhouse) and RM9 (Townhouse/Rowhouse/Low-rise).
  • The Cambie Corridor Planning Program Phase 3 was approved by City Council in April, 2015. It covers Ontario to Oak Streets, 16th Ave south to the river. Since then the City has held launch events, walking tours, and workshops on Phase 3. It is currently in progress.
  • There was an open house in September, 2015. From the City’s website: “Staff have completed their initial review of the rezoning application and have requested revisions to the application including changes to improve the heritage conservation approach, explore further on-site tree retention and improve the relationship of the proposal to the surrounding residential neighbourhood. Once revisions are received staff will notify the public and invite further community feedback.
  • I asked staff what “improve the relationship of the proposal to the…neighbourhood” meant. Basically, due to feedback, revisions have been requested. They want to give people more time to give feedback. They would like to hear from people why this church is worth saving.
  • There is still time to provide online feedback on this development application (with no clear deadline in sight).

Hair splitting leads to split ends:

  • This property is within the Cambie Corridor near Douglas Park but about 1 block outside the area where changes are likely to be permitted.
  • Once Phase 3 is complete, it could be applicable without rezoning but this application was submitted months before the completion of Phase 3.
  • The residents who don’t want it say it’s spot zoning.
  • The City and developer say it’s not spot zoning it’s an application to rezone from RS-5 (Single Family) District to CD-1 (Comprehensive Development) District under the City’s Heritage Policies and Guidelines, including the Heritage Action Plan.

This Vancouver Courier article from October, 2015 explains what’s going on in depth.
What do you think?
SFH – (Single Family Home) is also the abbreviation for at least 2 other meanings. Those who don’t want more density in Vancouver – are they Stronger, Faster, Healthier or So F’ing High?
When people are outraged at building townhouses on a large lot in Vancouver, is it a sign that the reality of density, the people who want different housing options, and the future Vancouverites who don’t usually get a say are winning?

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We featured Wendy Sarkissian before in Price Tags (and at SFU City Program lectures).  She currently resides in Australia but also consults in Vancouver  (and hopes to be back soon).

Here’s a recent piece of direct interest to us and our Australian cousins: Vancouver’s EcoDensity Policy:  Reflections on Australian Planning’s Cultural Cringe and Cultural Imperialism.

It’s easy for those outsiders to assume that Australia is “just like” Canada, the USA or the UK.

How wrong they are! …

As state governments in Australia try to find ways to sell increased housing densities to a reluctant public and recalcitrant local councils, one model has slipped into the conversation that should, in my view, quietly slip away. That’s the recent Vancouver invention of EcoDensity.

This failed housing density initiative with a dodgy pedigree is being touted by visiting Vancouverism boosters as one of the answers to our housing density needs. Nothing could be further from the truth, as a significant amount of recent scholarly and practical research reveals.

Of course you want to read more.  Find it here.


[Also by Wendy: Activism in Planning in Australia: A Delicate Balancing Act .]

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Gordon Gibson manages to write a whole op-ed  in the Sun on stopping growth in the City of Vancouver without ever mentioning the impact on land prices, housing supply, the labour market, regional equity – or any other kind.

“The city is growing and we have to put people somewhere. If not here, then  where?”

Good question. Simple answer, which is “elsewhere.” Try Surrey.

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Some recommended reading from Scot Bathgate – and it’s downloadable for free.

What It’s About and Who It’s For

It’s about business, but not business-as-usual. It’s about cities, but not the big ones. It’s about people. What kind of people? The artists, changemakers, and entrepreneurs redefining our physical space: no to suburban sprawl, yes to revitalized downtowns! It’s about regular people who want to live in walkable communities and strengthen a local economy.  It’s about the dreamers….and the doers.

Skip the text and download it just for the photos! It’s filled with the award-winning photography by Pat Jarrett.

More here.

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Mike Klassen over at City Caucus did a survey on “The Top City Story of 2011.”  Most commentators thought it was the riot.  

Here’s my contribution:

Rather than a specific story (protests, elections), I’d go with a  trend: the embrace of urbanism by suburban leaders – that is, the  welcoming of density, whether measured as quantity or quality; the move  to transit and transportation choices like walking and cycling; and the  recognition that post-war, car-dependent suburbia is not the future.

Best example is Surrey, I suppose – particularly well represented by the  new library and city hall at Surrey Central. But Hazel McCallion,  Mayor of Mississauga, and Naheed Nenshi of Calgary are also good  examples of the changing attitudes toward urbanism.

Gord Price, commentator, Director, The City Program at Simon Fraser University (@PriceTags)

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“The carbon devil,” says Griffith U urban researcher Jago Dodson, “is in the detail on urban density.”

When different building scales are compared on objective environmental criteria the evidence suggests that high-rise apartments are often the worst performers. The building scale with least overall ecological impact – measured in energy, CO₂ and water use per capita – tends to be medium-rise of between three to six storeys, with individual detached dwellings the next best. …

Sydney, Australia’s densest city with 20 persons per hectare, is only three quarters as dense as Los Angeles, which has 27 persons per hectare. Yet public transport commuting in Sydney is five times the Los Angeles rate. Transport policy, Mees argues convincingly, is at least as important as urban form in shaping a city’s transport outcomes.

More here. 

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Japanese densities, apparently:

Seattle is the center of one of 10 “megapolitan clusters” that will drive the U.S. economy over the next 30 years, according to a new book.

This growth will drive the Puget Sound area’s density from less than that of Germany to about what Japan has now, according to “Megapolitan America: A New Vision for Understanding America’s Metropolitan Geography…”

… it would boost Cascadia’s population density from 482 people per square mile (roughly that of Switzerland) to 679 (more than in the United Kingdom). Puget Sound density would surge from 576 people per square mile (less than Germany) to 809 (similar to Japan).

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David Owen, author of Green Metropolis, will  deliver a talk at the Playhouse on March 17; the event starts at 7:30 p.m – and it’s free (thank you, Sam Sullivan).   The Straight has a piece on him here.  He’ll be making the case for urban density – and the highrise buildings that make a place like Manhattan possible.

Meanwhile, over at Grist, the always irascible (in a good way!) James Howard Kunstler weighs in:

Do you find yourself swayed, even a little, by these defenders of urban density?

A. I am completely on board with compact, dense urbanism. It’s a mistake, though, to think that’s the same as an urbanism of mega-structures — either skyscrapers or landscrapers.

A lot of this misunderstanding derived from David Owen’s 2004 New Yorker article, “ Green Manhattan,” which declared that stacking people up in towers was the ultimate triumph of urban ecology. Owen is a very nice fellow, but this thesis was a crock.

… We are entering a capital-scarce, energy-scarce future. The skyscraper is already obsolete and the architects and academic economists remain tragically clueless about it.

Oddly, the main reason we’re done with skyscrapers is not because of the electric issues or heating-cooling issues per se, but because they will never be renovated! They are one-generation buildings. … You cannot have a city of buildings unavailable for and unsuited for adaptive re-use. This final exuberant generation of skyscrapers built the past few decades — including the mis-named “green” skyscrapers — may be considered the architectural expression of the final cheap oil blow-off.

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Michael Mehaffy of New Urban Network has a counterpoint to the Atlantic article by Ed (“Triumph of the City”) Glaeser.  And he references Vancouver frequently.

Often cities like New York and Vancouver are cited as stellar examples of dense ecologically superior cities with tall buildings. It’s usually assumed that it’s the tall buildings in these cities that give them the edge.  (Indeed, Glaeser himself makes this conflation.)

These cities are indeed very positive when it comes to carbon and other ecological metrics. But it’s often overlooked that tall buildings are only a fraction of all structures in these places, with the bulk of neighborhoods consisting of rowhouses, low-rise apartment buildings, and other much lower structures. They get their low-carbon advantages not from density per se, but from an optimum distribution of daily amenities, walkability and access to transit, and other efficiencies of urban form.

Uh, okay … and the point is?    I’m confounded why this issue is always either/or – as though highrises and lowrises cannot co-exist, why one must be chosen as preferable to the other. 

Full article by Mehaffy here.

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An announcement from Planning Director Brent Toderian:

On behalf of the staff team and the EcoDensity Steering Committee from so many departments, I’m very pleased to announce that EcoDensity has been awarded the 2009 Canadian Institute of Planners Award of Planning Excellence, in the category of “City Planning”. This is out of what we are told were 43 exceptional submissions received from across the Country.

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