Sunday, June 16, 2019

Images of New York City

While exploring New York City last week by foot, subway and the hop-on hop-off buses, I often felt like a kid who had just come in from the farm. While I am preparing some columns for the Vancouver Sun and Courier on housing ideas that are worth trying out in Vancouver, here are a few photos from my album.
Yes, it's a golf driving range on the Manhattan waterfront
While Vancouver's parking rates are high, they are nothing compared to NYC

The Vessel, a public art installation at Hudson Yards is a must see, but is it worth the reported $75 to 150 million it cost to build? I don't think so! 

I don't know what the high-line park cost to create, but it's worth it.

When is big, too big? 

Most architects will know who designed this luxury apartment building as viewed from the high-line

While many oppose illuminated billboards in Vancouver, I don't and would like to see more of this! (As long as it is not shining directly into MY bedroom window!)

Yes, there is bike-share in NYC and used to varying degrees
Wonderful new pedestrian spaces thanks to Mayor Bloomberg and his team

Whether you are a first time visitor, or have been to NYC many times, I still recommend the hop-on-hop-off buses 
I would love to see this type of development in Vancouver

I hope we will never see this in Vancouver 
Calatrava's new shopping centre replaces portions of the former World Trade Centre

Hudson Yards from the water. I will give it some time to age, but it does not have the pedestrian scale we are used to in Vancouver

Modular housing! 
Now why can't we do more of this?

NEW HOUSING SOLUTIONS: Innovations for Affordability, Community and Health. NewCities New York City June 6, 2019

     A couple of months ago, I received an invitation to attend an affordable housing symposium in New York, from the New Cities Foundation, an organization I had never heard of. But it had been a while since I was in NYC, and although limited details were provided, I decided to attend in the hope I would learn how American cities are addressing homelessness and other affordable housing challenges.  I subsequently received the one-day program. Key topics were right up my alley and included:

  • Co-living; models for affordable housing; building for new demographics; balancing growth and equity; construction innovations (including modular housing), and the future of cooperatives and Land Trusts.
     While a lot of the conversation was not relevant since the US has a very different governmental tax structure to support affordable housing, other topics were most relevant and at times fascinating. For example co-living, something for which I have long advocated, is considerably advanced in American cities where new companies like Ollie and Common are providing forms of housing unlike anything currently available in Vancouver. While we have many examples of younger, and older people living together in shared arrangements, I suspect it's just a matter of time before we see companies like this operating here.
     I knew it was worth travelling to New York when I heard participants talking about the benefits of 'pressure walls', a term I had never even heard of. What are pressure walls?
     Another session which I found particularly interesting was on the topic of ADUs or accessory dwelling units. In Vancouver, we call the laneway houses or coach houses. While not very common in the United States, State of California does allow ADUs as a matter of right, and this is led to some innovative initiatives including the backyard homes project which incentivizes homeowners to create an affordable rental unit in their backyard. While this might sound like the Vancouver program it is in fact very different.
     Under this program, a non-profit organization offers homeowners a one-stop shop for financing, designing, permitting, constructing and leasing an ADU to a low-income resident receiving government rental support for a minimum of 5 years. While the program is new, and relatively untested, it remains to be seen if it will work. However, it is an innovative approach to house the homeless, and others seeking affordable housing.
     I was also intrigued by United Dwelling which encourages people to turn their garages into affordable dwelling units. 
     Another program of interest is Nesterly which arranges home-sharing between generations. One of the co-founders grew up on Cortes Island and has very close family ties to Vancouver. I have been promoting similar programs in Vancouver since there are hundreds of thousands of empty bedrooms in Metro, many of which could be used to house those looking for affordable housing.

     I knew I had made the right decision to attend this event when one exercise involved assessing the various ideas presented using Edward deBono's 6 thinking hats. As many know, I am a great fan of deBono and have often promoted his books at my lectures.
     At the symposium, there were architects, government officials and housing planners from across the US, but also France and Spain. I was particularly delighted to meet Antoni Font, Social Innovation Officer for the City of Barcelona who is overseeing a relocatable modular housing initiative very similar to what I proposed for my university thesis and now currently underway in Vancouver and elsewhere around the province.
     For those interested in the current Vancouver experience with modular housing for the homeless, go here:
     While most of the attendees familiar with Vancouver recognized that our situation is quite different from most other North American cities, there is no doubt that we can learn from the US experience, and they can learn from us.  A future symposium might examine in detail the different housing programs offered by federal, state, and municipal governments in the US and federal, provincial and municipal governments in Canada.
     I was impressed with the program arranged by New Cities and look forward to participating in future symposiums and events. There are many good ideas out there that should be shared.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Opinion: This Vancouver resident has taken it upon himself to beautify city, one box at a time Vancouver Courier June 3, 2019

Tired of graffiti along Arbutus Corridor, Courier reader regularly paints colourful designs on the old signal boxes

My recent columns about the disgusting condition of city-owned public parking garages, the need for more public toilets, homeless people camping on sidewalks and diminishing civic pride generated many responses from Courier readers.

While some saw my columns as an unnecessary attack on the homeless, most agreed the city should do a better job of cleaning its parking garages, removing discarded needles from public areas and managing graffiti.

However, I received a surprising email from one reader who wrote to share what he personally has been doing to address what he saw as the deteriorating condition of our public infrastructure.
His story is about the Arbutus Corridor where the lingering conflict between CPR and the city resulted in 15 years of neglect. Graffiti was everywhere, along with garbage and an extremely poor sense of civic pride. However, as we all know, this has changed.Thanks to an agreement between the city and CPR, the rails were removed in 2016, and the Arbutus Greenway came into existence. It took a while, but it has become an important commuter route for cyclists and a pleasurable walkway for joggers and dog walkers. 
As both corridor users and passersby may have noticed at every level crossing there are large metal boxes that once controlled the railway’s flashing lights and bells. They had become unsightly and covered with graffiti. However, at his own expense, this individual regularly paints over the graffiti on each of the 17 boxes with colourful designs.  
He has also built street furniture at 16th and Arbutus — a place he calls Crossbuck Park — in an attempt to preserve a tiny bit of railway history, something he claims the city has very little interest in.
While city officials might worry about the consequences of other citizens deciding to take the beautification of the city into their own hands, I would like to think that, with some management, this could be a positive thing.
The Greenest City 2020 program encourages neighbourhood residents to volunteer to care for gardens o
The Greenest City 2020 program encourages neighbourhood residents to volunteer to care for gardens on public property. Photo Michael Geller
After all, we have a precedent in the Greenest City 2020 “street garden” program in which neighbourhood volunteers attractively landscape public boulevards and traffic circles.
City-organized neighbourhood cleanups are another example of residents undertaking what most usually expect government to do.
Another surprising response to my last column was the number of people who urged me to watch a Seattle KOMO 4 television news special titled “Seattle is Dying.”
This controversial program has attracted almost four million views and deals with the problems of homelessness, drug addiction and crime in that city. While the situation portrayed is horrific, and much worse than what most of us think is happening in Vancouver, Seattle wasn’t always as bad as it is today.
Moreover, the problems featured in the film are found in many cities throughout America, especially those on the West Coast.
The program is the third in a trilogy. The first was called "There But For the Grace of God..." which explored homelessness in 2016.
The second was called "Demon at the Door" about heroin addiction.
As the producer notes, this third program is about the consequences of homelessness and drug addiction. It interviews citizens who no longer feel safe taking their families into downtown Seattle and parents who won't take their children into neighbourhood parks. It's about the growing degradation in the downtown and related theft and crime.
But it does offer a solution, namely the Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) program in Providence Rhode Island administered by that state’s Department of Corrections.
An online review of the “Seattle is Dying” documentary reveals considerable angry debate about the program and how it proposes addressing the related problems of homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness.
I shared the documentary on Twitter, adding that Vancouver is not Seattle.
However, a False Creek resident responded: “The personal sickness and despair shown is exactly what we see in our 'hood daily. The garbage and filth on the streets, the stench, the crime — all the same. The successful approach in Rhode Island saves lives and preserves quality of life for all. Why can't YVR do better?”
I agree. Vancouver must do better. But it will take combined action by politicians, city officials, police and caring residents like the Courier reader who regularly paints Arbutus Corridor electrical boxes.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Opinion Vancouver Courier Disgusting’ state of parkades and city streets reflects diminishing civic pride in Vancouver May 21, 2019

Despite social ills, city shouldn’t become complacent

     The fentanyl overdose crisis. Money laundering. Unfair evictions. Unaffordable housing. Inadequate public transit. Limited childcare. Loneliness.
     These are just some of the issues facing Vancouver. However, this week’s column is not directly about any of them.
     Instead, I want to revisit a topic I wrote about in March, namely, the filthy, disgusting condition of an EasyPark managed, city-owned parkade in Gastown.
     While the column was critical of EasyPark, it also explored why so many downtown stairwells and back lanes have sadly become public toilets.
     It proposed increased public toilets and improved property maintenance while we await more facilities.
     Last week, I parked in EasyPark’s Lot 2 parkade at Cambie and Pender. This is the site of Vancouver's first hospital and, in 2018, was designated with a Vancouver Heritage Foundation plaque as part of the “Places That Matter” program.    
     Although I didn’t see the plaque, I did find a parkade in even worse condition than the Gastown parkade. The stench in the stairwell was not just unpleasant, it was sickening.To get this parkade cleaned up, I tweeted the following:

$5.50 an hour to park at filthy, urine soaked @EasyParkVan parking garage at Beatty & Pender. I will be writing to EasyPark president & Board of Directors to join me on tour of this & Gastown parkades. Maybe I should ask @globalnews @CBCVancouver @CTVVancouver
to join us.
     While EasyPark did not respond, Global TV emailed and offered to join me on a tour at 11 a.m. last Friday. I proposed that we meet at the stairwell I found so unpleasant, but the cameraman found one that was even more putrid and littered with discarded needles and other drug debris.
     On Saturday, Global broadcast its story, which included interviews with parkade users, all of whom complained about the stench.     One young woman, who uses the facility every day, said she must hold her jacket over her nose every time she uses the stairs.
     Hopefully, EasyPark's general manager will personally visit this parkade and arrange for the stairwells, one of which resembles a cesspool behind a reinforcing bar gate, to be thoroughly cleaned.
     I also urge EasyPark directors, Vancouver facilities officials and politicians to visit the parkade, if only to see that I am not exaggerating the disgusting and unhealthy condition of this city-owned facility.
     While EasyPark spokesperson Linda Bui apologized to Global TV for the “unsatisfactory experience the customer was subject to during their last visit,” noting a third party maintenance contractor provides onsite janitorial services six days a week, what is really needed is a long-term strategy to address the problems facing this and other parking garages.
      The issue is not just the smell and unsightly appearance. It is also the crime that regularly occurs. Next to where the TV cameraman filmed his interviews, broken glass from yet another break-in was clearly visible.
     I would like to offer EasyPark a few suggestions. Firstly, why not install portable toilets in these parkades? They would benefit both the homeless and others using the stairwells as toilets and car parkers. Surely it will be easier to clean a portable toilet than the stairwells.
     Also, why not install video cameras and notices letting everyone know they’re being monitored?
     Why not organize a neighbourhood watch program and invite volunteers to community clean-ups in return for food or parking vouchers and a barbecue?     
     However, my concern is not just these parkades. I am also troubled by the increasing amount of unwanted graffiti on electrical boxes and other structures around the city and garbage on the streets.
     I’m worried about the increasing number of homeless people sleeping on sidewalks and dangerously wandering into traffic at busy intersections, begging for change.
     Finally, I fear that, collectively, we are becoming too complacent about what is happening around our city. Too many Vancouverites appear to be losing their sense of civic pride.
     I realize cleaning parkades and graffiti is not going to solve the serious problems listed at the top of this column. But that is no reason why we shouldn’t be making more of an effort to beautify our city. I hope some of you will join me in speaking out.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Opinion: More Vancouver car owners are going electric, and for good reason Vancouver Courier May 6, 2019

Rising fuel costs, environmental concerns, government rebates enticing more drivers

Have you been thinking about buying a hybrid or electric car?
If so, you are not alone.
With gas prices exceeding $1.70 a litre and growing concerns about air pollution and impacts of climate change, fuel-efficient and zero emission vehicles are gaining in popularity.
At this year’s Vancouver Auto Show, considerable attention was devoted to PHEVs (plug-in hybrid electric vehicles), BEVs (battery electric vehicles) and FCEVs (fuel cell electric vehicles).

Hyundai was one of a number of manufacturers of fuel cell vehicles on display at the Vancouver Auto
Hyundai was one of a number of manufacturers of fuel cell vehicles on display at the Vancouver Auto Show. Photo Michael Geller
On May 1, a federal program took effect offering rebates to purchasers of nineelectric cars and 13 plug-in hybrids. Fully electric cars with starting prices of less than $45,000 are eligible for the full $5,000 rebate. Plug-in hybrids can get up to $2,500 off.
These are in addition to B.C. program rebates announced last year offering $6,000 for a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle and up to $5,000 for a new battery electric or plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.
I first drove a hybrid vehicle in 2000. It was an early Prius brought over from Japan to accompany Severn Cullis-Suzuki and my niece and some friends on a bicycle ride across Canada, in a campaign for clean air called Powershift 2000.
After the Prius was introduced in Canada, I purchased one as a car-share vehicle for the burgeoning SFU UniverCity community.
This seemed appropriate since the car-share concept was developed by a part-time SFU student named Tracey Axelsson as a school project. She subsequently co-founded the Co-operative Auto Network in 1997.  Car-sharing has come a long way since then.
When I left the SFU Community Trust in 2007, I traded in a Lexus SUV requiring 20 litres per 100 km for a Prius requiring sixlitres per 100 km. A neighbour who owned a Porsche, Range Rover and Mercedes convertible called me a snob as I first drove by her house.
At the 2010 World Fair in Shanghai, a variety of electric cars were on display and in use. I decided then to one day buy an electric car.
In 2013,Tesla arrived in Vancouver. I booked a test-drive appointment and loved the car, but worried the company might go broke, until a year-end trip to California where many Teslas were on the road.

In 2014, Michael Geller ordered a Tesla just before the expiry of a $5,000 government rebate program
In 2014, Michael Geller ordered a Tesla just before the expiry of a $5,000 government rebate program. He’s driven it ever since without any problems. Photo Michael Geller
Returning to Vancouver, I ordered one for delivery in March 2014, just before expiry of a $5,000 government rebate program.
I have driven it ever since without any problems. My daughter continues to drive the 12-year old Prius. Neither vehicle requires much maintenance.
A key consideration with an electric car is how to charge it. As noted on the BC Hydro website, there are three basic approaches: Levels 1, 2 and DC fast charger.
Level 1 refers to the standard 120-volt outlet found in homes and businesses. Realistically, this is not a practical way to charge a car on a regular basis.
Level 2 power supply is the same as that provided for a stove or clothes dryer. Level 2 chargers can be installed in a garage by an electrician at a cost between $800 and $2,000.
The ongoing energy costs for electric cars vary but are often estimated at about $2 per 100 km.
The third type of charging is DC or direct current fast charging using 480-volt. Increasingly, these chargers are being installed in public facilities and commercial buildings. Charging time for most cars is significantly reduced. While some stations are free, others cost about three times as much as Level 1 and 2 charging.
Given the federal and provincial rebates, gasoline costs and environmental benefits, I highly recommend buying an electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle. However, a key consideration is whether it can be easily charged overnight.
While this is relatively easy for those living in single-family houses, it can be more difficult and complicated for those living in older rental or condominium apartments.
I cannot leave this topic without sharing a recent tweet from former city councillor and current chair of the David Suzuki Foundation Peter Ladner.
“If EVs are worth a $5k subsidy, why wouldn’t e-bikes and regular bikes get a subsidy? They produce far fewer emissions, promote greater health and are far more affordable. Why do we continue to pamper cars?”

If EVs are worth a $5k subsidy, why wouldn’t e-bikes and regular bikes get a subsidy? They produce far fewer emissions, promote greater health and are far more affordable. Why do we continue to pamper cars?

413 people are talking about this

Just one more consideration.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Notre Dame Cathedral rebuild raises issues regarding many heritage restorations, including West Vancouver's Vinson House

     This week I wrote in the Vancouver Courier about the future restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral and a discussion that took place at West Vancouver City Hall regarding a proposed Heritage Revitalization Agreement (HRA) for a 1954 Ron Thom House.
     At issue is how much should a heritage building, whether it's one of the world's most famous buildings, or a modest house overlooking Park Royal, be allowed to be altered over time. A similar issue has arisen with regard to our West Vancouver Vinson House.
Should a future home buyer be allowed to paint all the woodwork in this heritage house off-white?
     The 1913 Vinson House  has been completely restored including the replacement of original pearlized push-button light switches with modern replicas.
      A new sprinkler system has been carefully concealed within the beamed ceilings and new electrical and mechanical systems have been installed, along with state-of-the-art telecommunications and security systems.
     While the heritage look of the kitchen has been retained, it too has been completely rebuilt with modern cabinets and appliances.
      This heritage house is still for sale. While this may no doubt be due in part to market conditions, it is also due to the reality that West Vancouver homebuyers do not appear to appreciate 100-year old houses with elaborate mahogany beams and wainscoting as much as those yearning for similar homes in Shaughnessy and Kitsilano.

     One potential buyer said he would consider buying the house provided he would be allowed to paint all the dark wood off-white. While it may come to this if the house does not sell soon, one hopes there will be a buyer who appreciates the distinctive interiors and craftsmanship of yesteryear.