Architecture
September 29, 2016

An evening with Gil Kelley-General Manager of Planning, Urban Design, and Sustainability


The Urbanarium held an event last night at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre playhouse where Gil Kelley, the new General Manager of Planning, Urban Design and Sustainability spoke about himself, his new role, and his perception  of the new directions for the City of Vancouver.
Vancouver has always had an intense familial  relationship with planning and the Director of Planning for the city. We all want to know what is going on, and what mettle that person has for city making, kind of like keeping an eye on an obscure relative you want to like but want to assure yourself that they are truly related to you. I would say as a City we take this position very seriously, and embrace the process of city planning as a tacit expression of our own exuberance, hopes, dreams, and futurism.
Gil may have said it correctly when he alluded to the fact that both Portland Oregon and Vancouver have  passionate focus upon “urban planning substituting for major league sports”. We want to watch, participate, and if our team is losing, we sure want that Planning Department to know.
Describing himself as an active listener that likes to ask “why are we doing this?” Gil perceives his role as part planning director, and part doctor, diagnosing challenges and creating capacity building opportunities with his staff.
Gil worked for the City of Berkeley California for 14 years, was Director of Planning in Portland Oregon for 9 years, and worked and consulted for the City of San Francisco lastly as the Director of Citywide Planning. He also has an abiding passion for educational advancement of planning and was a Loeb Scholar at Harvard University. He has the unique experience of working in the four big cities in Cascadia “where land and sea converges” and described the issues facing San Francisco in terms of housing affordability and access as the harbinger of what could occur in Vancouver.

Describing the years of  Director of Planning Ray Spaxman’s leadership and that of  Co-Directors of Planning Larry Beasley and Ann McAfee as the decades of “big thinking” in the planning department, Gil noted that Vancouver’s big picture may seem fuzzy, but it is a moment in time to talk about the global impacts of climate change and the transformative global economy. Foresight and imagination are needed to avoid a two class society. Gil described the City of San Francisco where millennials and baby boomers are drawn to the inner core of the city while lower-income people and families left the city. While 70,000 people come to San Francisco annually, 60,000 leave, resulting in a 10,000 annual population increase in a city of 850,000 people.

A new diverse economy supportive of inclusivity and equitable for all people is needed. In the past, traditional city planning and the civic tradition was popular, but now a new alignment is needed to bolster livability, and address the need for social equity. Add to this mix the need to bolster our waterside city against earthquakes and floods, and Gil points out the need for a “four city compact” where San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver can discuss and compare urban issues and solutions to common challenges, and the paradigm of inequity.
To create affordable housing, community engagement is needed and trust created with the community. Gil notes in his review Vancouver has the zoned capacity to take growth up to the year 2041, and stresses the importance of dealing with housing as a regional issue. He also mentioned the importance of good city planning for public health, but did not elaborate.
The rapid pace of development in Vancouver means that there needs to be staff empowerment and mentoring for planning staff to problem solve. Gil proposes revisiting the area plans to assess what worked, and what didn’t work. He identifies the need to be proactive, re-evaluate the effectiveness of layered by-laws, and bridge the generational gap, where there are new attitudes about density, development, lifestyle and transit. Couple this with a look at whether community amenity contributions from development are going to their best use, and how sustainability goals can be best achieved.
This Urbanarium event had three men on the stage-one the guest, two other prominent local architects with Urbanarium, all older males, all dressed the same, not reflecting the diversity of the audience and certainly not Vancouver. Gil took aim at the architectural profession, noting that it was time for architectural design to do a better job on the street,

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Since the story on the cube house on Point Grey Road generated so much interest, let’s go for another architectural and open-space controversy.
Michael Geller starts it off in his Courier column:

The third important event that happened last week has nothing to do with housing. It has to do with how we plan our downtown.
The story started with a call from CBC’s Early Edition inviting me to comment on a proposal to replace a glass rotunda and plaza with a new commercial development. …
The researcher wanted to talk about the plaza and rotunda at Howe and Georgia streets, part of Cadillac Fairview’s Pacific Centre, for which a proposal was going to the city’s Urban Design Panel (UDP) later in the week. …
I subsequently attended the UDP meeting where I was shocked to see plans and a model for a three-storey retail complex on the plaza. However, I was told the proposal was in accordance with a 2006 rezoning.
When I subsequently asked why a proposal for such a prominent site was proceeding without any community input, I was told by an official city spokesperson that this was standard procedure for a development permit application in accordance with zoning, and staff would be seeking public feedback through the neighbourhood notification process.
Surprised by this response I decided to review the 2006 rezoning decision myself.
While it confirmed council had approved a deal to allow the plaza to be redeveloped in return for a developer contribution towards the cost of the nearby SkyTrain station, council also decided “in the preparation of a development application, the public should be consulted about proposed land use and design concepts, through workshops and open houses.”
Compared to most world cities, Vancouver has few public open spaces and plazas, and sadly we seem to be losing many of the spaces we do have.
Before we lose another plaza at Howe and Georgia, I urge the mayor, council and the city’s planning department to instigate a proper public consultation process to find a better solution to retain all, or at least a portion of this important downtown open space.

 
Ray Spaxman weighs in:
This is so awful!
It is bad architecture at this location, bad urban design for this location, bad loss of public usable space, bad scale in that location, terrible corner and frontage to Howe Street. It looks as if it was relocated from Robson Street (where it might fit well).
Perhaps some people want Georgia Street to look like Robson Street – crass commercialism overwhelming public good and opportunity. The design rationale in the application seems unaware that there is something called Urban Design.  We seem to have lost the ability to visualise the potential design and functional richness of a whole street.
And where is the city’s Downtown public open space plan?

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A great anecdote told by a first-hand observer – Ray Spaxman when he was Director of Planning – about attitudes to growth and development in the Vancouver of the 1980s:

 
 
This is an event that probably illustrates some of the good and not so good parts of the development control processes that we were developing in the mid 70’s and early 80’s. …
When I came to the City in 1973 one of the first priorities was to produce a Downtown Plan to guide change over the next 20 years or so.  …
As a result of years of community work in developing the Downtown Plan, we had overhauled the whole system from the overall vision of the Downtown through the urban design guidelines, from views, overall shaping and details of those things that made the place more liveable, like canopies and signage, to development control processes and zoning. Council.  …
Some strong feelings about development had been expressed by the community. They did not want to see the public realm go underground into malls and passageways. They wanted our mild climate to be experienced primarily at grade.  They were looking for neighbourly developments that emphasised good relationships between buildings and to the street. They wanted active pedestrian streets. They were looking for well designed buildings that enhanced the overall cohesive vision for the area, not  individual “stand outs.” At the time there was much debate about the height and shape of future highrises, the overall shape of Downtown and there was a strong lobby to retain the views of the mountains and especially the iconic “Lions” from important public places in and around Downtown.
Developers were informed about these policies when they came to ask about the city’s plans and generally went off to prepare their plans in that context.
At one time, (I cannot remember the exact date, as I write this draft), a development group came to my office with their proposal for development of the Georgia, Burrard, Alberni, Thurlow block. I do not yet recall what process they had been through but my recollection is that there had not been much contact with us before this meeting …

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The block today

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As I reviewed their presentation I began to see numerous features that were not compatible with the City’s plans for the Downtown. I described where their plans were in conflict and suggested they needed to revise accordingly. They were shocked that the grand plans that they were so proud of were not accepted by me. They said they would take their case straight to the Mayor. I said that was of course their right, but explained how our plans had come about and they could expect the Mayor to support those plans.
[I should explain here that the developers, while having a local development consultant advising them, were internationally renowned developers and architects from New York. They conveyed the sense that we were rather a small, unsophisticated sort of place that would be best advised to see the special benefits of their scheme.]
A few days later I briefed the mayor about their proposal and how it related to the city’s policies. The subsequent meeting with the developers was held in his office. …
At one moment, when we seemed unable to communicate with them and they continued to push us about how good their scheme was, the Mayor took them to the window, which looks north across downtown to the spectacular mountain ranges. Changing the tone somewhat, he described the scene and then asked them where their proposed big highrise would be seen from this point of view.
After some reflection, one of them said, something like this, “Well, if you look at the mountains behind Downtown you can see a couple of small but noticeable peaks sticking up. Do you see them?” The mayor said, “Yes, I do.  We call them the Lions.”  “Well,” said the developer, “Our tower would be right in front of them from this viewpoint.”
The Mayor suggested we return to the table and said he would like to summarise his position for them. He then came up with this description.
“I can summarise our position under three headings. I will call them the three Ms: they are Moles, Mountains and Monuments.”

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More commentary on the SFU City Program’s panel of planners.  From City Hall Watch:

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(Below is a meeting report kindly submitted by Devon Harlos. After Vancouver’s current chief planner retires in the near future, Vancouver will need to hire a new one. The search is on, and many people are watching carefully.)

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Previous city planners, Ray Spaxman, Ann McAfee, Larry Beasley and Brent Toderian came together on Thursday, Oct. 29 to discuss the open position for a new planning director in Vancouver. They also talked about personal experiences in their former positions and their visions for the future of the city.
Starting the discussion, Brent Toderian shared his concern about the current political culture in City Hall, particularly in terms of the relationship between planners and City Council. He emphasized the need to re-evaluate the way planning decisions are being made and whether or not the current culture is working well for the public. According to Toderian, we need to ask ourselves the fundamental question of what kind of planner we really want—whether this is someone who routinely goes along with political will, or who acts independent of it.
Ann McAfee hopes that a new planner will reintroduce heavily research-based planning initiatives that are the product of a high amount of public consultation—a process she claims has been lost in recent years. She also commented on the new position title of “general manager, planning and development services,” and is worried that a more diverse set of responsibilities might mean time taken away from actual planning.
In Larry Beasley’s view, strong leadership qualities are essential for our new planning director and he claims that an aggressive, proactive planner with a strong vision is needed to move planning initiatives foreword. Affordability and housing supply problems can be attributed to a lack of proactive planning. Therefore, a new director of planning must have the ability to stimulate public support and the create political will to address these issues. He says that communication skills as well as passion will create a planning figure that leads rather than follows, and at the same time will build a constituency of support behind them.
Ray Spaxman cautions that if the new director of planning comes up too strongly against Council, difficulties could emerge. Instead, more success could be found with the encouragement and support of ruling party Vision Vancouver’s current principles, but without fear of speaking the truth. He hopes that when deciding on a new chief planner, Council will look for a balance of both technical and ethical aptitude and someone who will promote an honest relationship with Council and the public.
The panelists went on to discuss their visions for the future of city planning in Vancouver, followed by a question and answer period. All panelists agreed that the public needs to have a bigger role in the planning process.

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Larry Beasley, Co-Director of Planning in the 1990s, has passed along his opening notes:

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SFU Panel – The Next Planning Director October 29, SFU Downtown

NOTES BY LARRY BEASLEY

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The themes that came out of the first two events are a great context for today’s discussion – well done to the conveners and participants of those sessions.
Let me contribute to this opening by talking about characteristics of a new Chief Planner and then about what the new Planner has to bring back to our city’s planning culture.
On the qualities of the new Chief Planner, I would remind everyone that the planning role in Vancouver is about both PLANNING and DEVELOPMENT MANAGEMENT so, over everything else, I would emphasize two key characteristics:
-For planning, REAL VISION – I hope the new Chief Planner will confound everyone with a very proactive, progressive, and surprising planning agenda – we have not had that over the past few years; we are still working from an increasingly obsolete city-making template.
-We are out there as an exemplar; our citizens have an expectation – we have to deliver the best…
-with the vision, there must be the ability to COMMUNICATE to build constituency and there must be PASSION – we have to believe because the planner believes.
-For development management, REAL TRANSACTIONAL PROWESS – the Chief Planner has to make things happen and happen right and in a way that works for most people – we have the best transactional system in the world and it is coming apart because it is not well understood or well used…
-that involves NEGOTIATING STRENGTH, POLITICAL STRENGTH and GRAVITAS.
Then, on the nature of the planning culture that has to be embraced by the new Chief Planner:
-To a great existing system, we have to bring a renewed commitment to total PUBLIC INVOLVEMENT and public engagement with transparency – every day; on all topics; managed well; latest techniques (including social media inventions); we seem to have lost that…
Over-riding need for new Chief Planner: COURAGE – to advocate and do the right thing against all odds and opposition and even when it puts the planner at risk.  This is the essential and unique principle for the Chief Planner that Ray Spaxman established back in the 1970’s and when we have lived by that we have done well; when not, we have floundered.
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Ann McAfee, Co-Director of Planning in the 1990-2000s, was talking about the planning department at City Hall, and held up two pieces of paper which, from any distance, were some black blurs with that illustrated personnel changes in the Planning Department.  So Ann went back and sent along some slides from her collection.
Here are two:

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City of Vancouver Planning Directors 1973 to 2012

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Ray Spaxman’s Recruits

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As time goes by and more and more “spectacular” high rise proposals appear in the newspapers, as do the anxious cries of affected neighbours, I become increasingly appalled at the lack of neighbourliness in our development processes.

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Surely, no sensitive and respectful person would propose to shove a high rise slap in front of an existing high rise whose residents obviously enjoy some of our gorgeous views without trying as hard as possible to minimize the impact on those views. Surely, you would think, the City would require, at the outset of any proposal, that the proponent account for how they intend to address such issues? . Instead, residents wake up one morning to see in the local newspaper another iconic “world class” tower, and then suffer the dreadful shock of noting that it is proposed on the site right in front of them. It gets worse as they attend the public open houses to review the details of the proposal. There, at significant expense, the proponent has prepared a lovely, gallery-quality display to describe the proposal. (Visitors may be asked to take no photos to ensure that the proposal is not misrepresented by people who may be unable to recognize the real values of the design proposal!). . . At the open house there may be no description, discussion or recognition of the impact these “internationally attractive” icons would have on their neighbours. Instead poetic descriptions of the wonder of the creativity of the architecture and carefully crafted statements that the building will meet all the city’s requirements are provided. It takes some  knowledge of the city’s bylaws and development processes to find out that the real and vital issues of good neighbourliness have been hidden in the imperative of persuasion. . What has happened to clear and honest explanation? Why aren’t developers required to describe accurately all the implications of their design on the neighbourhood?  You’d think they might want to meet their neighbours when they start thinking about what they intend to do on the site. . It is so disappointing to know that such practices and requirements used to be common practice in Vancouver. It was those principles that helped to create the neighbourly city. It seems that while consideration of growth, density, height, variety, iconicism, value uplift, international recognition and investment is relevant, they should not be pursued at the expense of good neighbourliness. . While this discussion focusses on the need to improve the processing of major high rise proposals, we need to get the processes of respecting neighbourliness in order if we are to be successful in densifying other areas of the city. Read more »
Further to this post on an offering of a site in the West End that could accommodate 24 FSR (floor-space ratio, a measure of density), some context from Changing City: .

If the site can really achieve 24 FSR (and let’s nor forget it’s a realtor trying to sell the site who suggests that it might), then it won’t be unique in terms of density. Jameson House, right, (which has an office base, but a similarly small site) was 23 FSR. The Capitol residences, with space for the Orpheum back-of-house and the VSO in the podium is also over 23 FSR on a larger site. The

Private Residences at Hotel Georgia tower, left, which also has an office base, is 515 feet tall and is over 30 FSR.

There are several other sites in the West End Plan where up to 550′ towers were contemplated. Any tower here will have to provide 25% of the space as social housing or one-for-one replacement of the existing market rental housing with social housing units, whichever is greater. Most of the Plan limits new development to 7 FSR or 8.75 FSR, but a few sites between Thurlow and Burrard have a height and floorplate limit, but not a density cap.

Rezoning is never guaranteed, and certainly density isn’t. The plan says “Rezoning applications will be subject to urban design performance (including consideration of shadow analysis, view impacts, frontage length, building massing, setbacks, etc.)”

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Ray Spaxman received this from a contact:

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There is a real estate listing today for 1070 Barclay Street:

(The full marketing brochure is downloadable under the “Documents” heading.)

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The listing notes that with purchase of 1080 Barclay Street (north-east corner of Thurlow and Barclay), the site represents:

… an opportunity to develop one of Downtown Vancouver’s tallest residential buildings. Located near the southeast corner of Barclay Street and Thurlow Street, the property is ideally situated in the heart of the downtown peninsula. The 8,646 SF site falls within the West End Community Plan, which allows for the development of a residential tower up to 550 feet in height (if assembled with neighbouring property at 1080 Barclay Street – also available for sale).

Under “Features” the listing notes:

Achievable density upwards of 24.0 FSR with allowable 7,500 SF floorplates. 25% social housing requirement.

We have never seen FSRs of anything close to 24 for residential development – the Brenhill development in Yaletown was at 17.2 FSR.  And because of the bizarre way the City has redefined “Social Housing” this really means that one-third of this space is truly social housing (or just over 8%) and the rest can be market rental.

Be interesting to see the shadowing impacts on Nelson Park for this project.  And god help the people that currently live within this block and the development proposed for this site, and the two other gigantic towers fronting on Nelson Street in the same block.

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