Thursday, August 15, 2019

A July weekend in Toronto

I moved to Toronto in 1952 and stayed there until 1972 when I moved to Ottawa, and then Vancouver. I returned in 1977 for 2 years during which time I managed the St.Lawrence Project, next to the market, on behalf of CMHC and assisted with the preparation of the Cabinet Submission to guide the redevelopment of  Harbourfront.
For me, no trip to Toronto is complete without a Saturday morning at the St. Lawrence Market. While Granville Island's Public Market has it's own unique character, the choice of food at St. Lawrence, is much more impressive.
For a lover of lox, there are many choices!
    When I was involved with UDI, the Canadian Housing Design Council and other national organizations, I used to return quite regularly. But in recent years, my visits have become quite infrequent.
   Last month, I returned to Toronto for a weekend with my daughter to attend a family celebration. I must confess I was quite shocked with many of the changes I discovered. While we think there is a lot of development happening in Vancouver, it’s nothing compared to Toronto. 
One of the city's newer condominiums is this unusual building by Daniel Libeskind, with whom I worked in Toronto for a year at Irving Grossman's office. This building is unique in that for a year or more, they couldn't figure out how to remove the construction crane!
One of the many new buildings that have popped up in the downtown in recent years.
     Indeed, while attending an Urban Land Economics conference in Toronto three years ago I was told that while Vancouver had approximately 161 highrises under construction, Toronto had 431. And they haven’t stopped building. I am told that approximately 70% of these new units are purchased by investors and rented out, although, it seems that quite a few are also used as AirBNB units, which are not outlawed to the same extent it is in Vancouver. 
     We stayed in a very nice two-bedroom apartment downtown, and while I had to register with the concierge, and couldn't use the swimming pool, I did not have to hide the fact I was staying in someone's suite that is only used for this purpose.
     Toronto is now a very big city. An estimated 100,000 immigrants move there annually, (compared to about 30,000 who move to Metro annually) and now more than 50 per cent of the population was not born in Canada. While Vancouver is a cosmopolitan city, I could not get over how many people on the street and excellent public transit spoke a language other than English.  I was also very conscious of the number of people from Africa and the Caribbean.
     As I noted in a post from three years ago, while Vancouverites are proud when we rank highly as a livable city, Toronto has become one of the world’s top ranked cities when it comes to most categories.
University Avenue does not have a rival in Vancouver. Georgia Street? Cambie Street?
     Pearson airport ranks along with New York, London, Hong Kong, and Mexico City when it comes to connections to other cities. Vancouver has a similar ranking to Montreal, Boston, Lisbon, and Geneva.
     Toronto ranks very highly when it comes to innovation, as measured by the number of patents registered each year. It also comes fourth in Price Waterhouse Coopers’ Cities of Opportunity ranking. Only London, New York and Singapore rank higher. Sadly, Vancouver was not even on this list of 22 international cities.
     Vancouver was also missing from the Economist magazine’s ranking of top cities in which to live and work. According to a Globe and Mailstory reporting on the study, Toronto ranked first.
     My friend and former colleague Joe Berridge (who recently authored a very good book called the Perfect City once attributed Toronto’s success to its influx of immigrants, excellent universities and library system, a high standard of peace and order, and with the exception of Rob Ford’s reign, good government. The consensus seemed to be that amalgamation of the various suburban municipalities had worked.
     As I wandered around the city with my daughter I couldn't help think that while many of the changes that have occurred over the past few years are for the better, I was sorry to see that Yorkville is no longer Yorkville, and many other favourite streets are now dominated by new highrise developments.
It's as if the various neighbourhoods compete with one another to see who can create the most beautiful planters. Now compare this to most Vancouver streets.
     However, I was impressed by and enjoyed some new neighbourhoods, such as the Distillery District, and greatly admired the lovely street planting throughout the city which I was told is the result of partnerships between the local Business Improvement Associations and the city.

     For those who haven't been there for a while, here are a few more photos.
Queen Street West still has much of the charm it had when I was last there....
Although every once in a while, a new highrise appears along the street!

or behind the street. 

For some reason, this building seemed somewhat familiar! :-) 

Travelling with my daughter, we couldn't miss Grafitti Alley! 

Toronto highrises tend to have larger floorplates compared to Vancouver buildings, although we are quickly catching up.

A poor photo of the Distillery District

Since I couldn't take the bottle of BC Ice wine that I purchased for my cousin on the plane, I tried to by some in Toronto. What a joke. BC wine is found under Pacific Northwest and there were about four choices. When I asked why; I was told they need to protect the Ontario wineries!  
You don't have to have a dog to enjoy this dog fountain near Front Street

One of the cities most impressive privately-owned public spaces (POPS) This one, designed by Calatrava is in the Brookfield Centre

Why is this street called Northern Dancer Blvd? Because it's part of the redevelopment of the former Woodbine Racetrack! 
Most people don't realize that Toronto has beaches. After all, this is known as the Beaches Neighbourhood!

A trip down memory lane. Once known as the Beaches Synagogue, this is where I first attended Hebrew School, taking the bus on my own from Scarborough Bluffs!  

Friday, August 2, 2019

Opinion: Want to increase Vancouver’s rental supply? Lift restrictions on duplexes Vancouver Courier July 31, 2019

Currently, city doesn’t allow laneway houses on duplex lots

Vancouver city council’s decision to reject a rezoning proposal that would have resulted in 21 rental housing units on a large single-family lot continues to prompt much debate amongst planners and housing advocates. While some saw this as a council attack on renters or a misguided desire to protect the sanctity of single-family zoning, others recognized the unique circumstances of the proposal.
     Since this decision, Mayor Kennedy Stewart has repeatedly told us we are in a housing crisis. He therefore wants to rezone other properties around the city for higher density rental apartment developments.
     While I generally support these proposals, especially within the context of overall plans, there are other planning and zoning approaches that the city should pursue to increase the supply of more affordable housing. We might take some lessons from Toronto, from where I recently returned.
      Although Vancouver and Toronto share similar concerns when it comes to housing affordability, there are significant differences in the types of housing found in each city, especially within the “mature ring” — those neighbourhoods outside of the downtown core but not the suburbs.
     In Vancouver, these neighbourhoods are generally dominated by older, single-family houses with basement suites. Recently, these neighbourhoods were rezoned for duplexes, but few duplexes are being built. In Toronto, comparable neighbourhoods are predominantly higher density “semi-detached” dwellings.
     While duplex and semi-detached dwellings each comprise two units, duplex units are both located on the same property. However, semi-detached units are located on two separate properties, joined by a common party wall.
     As a result, a duplex is a form of strata development, whereas semi-detached dwellings are not. As Vancouver attempts to gently densify single-family neighbourhoods, city planners and politicians should be promoting both duplexes and semi-detached dwellings.
     But they must do more.
     Over the past 10 years, Vancouver has approved laneway houses in single-family neighbourhoods. This is commendable. However, laneway houses are not permitted on duplex lots.    Although Vancouver now allows legal basement suites in single-family houses, it is not well known that it also now allows basement suites in duplexes.
     If the city allowed basement suites and a laneway house on a duplex lot, the result could be five, rather than three separate dwellings on a 50-foot lot, without significant change in neighbourhood character.
     This brings me to a somewhat sensitive subject. While Vancouver did not allow secondary suites in duplexes until recently, there are in fact many duplexes around the city with one or more basement suites.   
     Yes, they are illegal. But they often provide good, safe, and affordable accommodation…. until a neighbour complains. Then, a city inspector is likely to show up and offer the homeowner a difficult choice. She can seek to legalize the situation, which usually involves a complex and expensive development permit or rezoning process, or “cease use of the unauthorized dwelling units in the basement.” In other words, she must evict the tenants.
     That’s right. Even though we have a housing crisis, homeowners around the city are currently finding themselves facing this dilemma. It is not realistic for them to obtain the necessary approvals to allow the secondary suites to continue, and for various reasons they do not want to evict their tenants, despite receiving notifications from the city that they must do so.  
     If the units are unsafe, the tenants should be evicted.  However, in those situations about which I have become aware, the homes have been independently inspected and adequate fire safety measures are in place.
     Often the properties were purchased with suites in place. Over time, they have been upgraded with new kitchens, bathrooms and fire safety systems.
     The owners do not want to evict their tenants. Nonetheless, the city is demanding that tenants be removed since repairs were undertaken without all the necessary permits and the suites are not in conformance with the zoning.
     In order to increase the supply of rental housing sooner, rather than later, I would like to see the city develop a new duplex zoning that allows both basement suites and laneway homes.

This would also make it easier for the city administration to then address the many safe, but illegal rental suites around the city, resulting in greater peace of mind for both tenants and landlords.


Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Today's most unusual email!

Like everyone on the internet, I get a lot of strange emails. Fortunately most of the cranks get caught in my SPAM filter. But today this one came through. So what do you think? Should I design his house? :-)

Hello, Trust you are well. I got your details through the internet as a
reputable Architect. I would like to know if you offer Architectural
Drawing and Building Design service for a proposed new building on a
raw piece of land?

I would like to have a house plan design for a one-story bungalow with
the following features;

Three Bedrooms (All rooms en suite)
Three Bathrooms
One Living room
One Island Kitchen
One Laundry room
A Garage ( That can accommodate at least three cars)
Area of Land : 3108 sq/ft

I just inherited a piece of raw land through my family and I would
like to build from scratch.The size of the land for the building is
3108 sq/ft.  I am open to suggestions as well. I have a budget of
$1,500,000 for this new house. I would like you to work up a house and
floor plan for me with the estimated cost. If possible send me more
than one plan you would suggest as well as the quote for the house

How do you bill for your service and which modes of payments do you accept?

Best Regards,

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

North Shore Heritage Society's Summer Tea Vinson House July 21st, 2019

A few months ago, I was asked by Peter Miller of the North Shore Heritage Society if they could hold their summer tea at Vinson House on July 21st. While I was hoping the house would be sold by then, I happily agreed, since who better to show off our handiwork than to members of a heritage society and their friends.  The invitation was subsequently sent out and read as follows:

     We hope that you can join us at the North Shore Heritage Society’s Summer Tea on July 21st from 1-4 pm at the Vinson House at 1425 Gordon Ave, West Vancouver. 
     As one of the first houses constructed in the Upper Hollyburn area, the Vinson House is a vital piece in West Vancouver’s rich history. Originally built in 1913 for Valient Vivian Vinson, renowned photographer and Reeve of West Vancouver, this iconic Craftsman Style home enjoyed considerable significance and prestige over the years. Its decorative elements and exceptional construction saw it featured in a West Vancouver Publicity Program in 1918 and it was honored with a Heritage Achievement Award in 1997.
     The Vinson House project is an excellent example of a successful Heritage Revitalization Agreement (HRA) in West Vancouver by Michael Geller, a well-known Vancouver architect, planner and developer, and Trasolini Chetner, a respected developer and builder of high-quality homes and innovative infill and heritage revitalization projects. The heritage house has been fully restored with the addition of a garden level suite and 2 new detached cottages surrounded by Edwardian style gardens.
     A tea party is not complete without fancy headgear so please wear your fanciest fascinator! There will be prizes for best male & female hats. We will also be playing fun summer games in the garden so be ready for some friendly competition!
     Tea sandwiches, goodies and non-alcoholic beverages will be provided.

I am pleased to report that the good weather and interest in the house resulted in a very good turnout. Many paid attention to the invitation and showed up in appropriate headgear and other fancy dress. It was gratifying to hear the positive response to our restoration of the heritage house, as well as the fine comments about the two infill houses that are also still for sale. Below are some photos. Next year you can come to the Major Rush House, if the owner agrees!  


Wednesday, July 17, 2019

In memory of Sam Geller who passed away 15 years ago.

After my mother died, my father was quite popular with the ladies. These photos were taken at a birthday....not his birthday... on a cruise we took together through the Black Sea en route to Odessa!
It was a beautiful sunny Sunday. We were watching the Open Championship at a golf club near Rimbey Alberta after celebrating the wedding of my friend John Hull's daughter. That's when we got the call from our daughter who said grandpa just died. In fact, he died on Saturday July 17th. He was 92.
     We rushed back to the house, packed up and drove to Edmonton where we dropped off a rental car and raced into the airport. I was going through security when I realized I still had the rental car keys in my pocket. 
     Those who knew my father knew him to be a very gentle man who had survived a World War II German prisoner-of-war camp, which was not always easy for someone of the Jewish faith. But after he returned to UK, and then Canada, he appreciated each and every day for the rest of his life.
     My father was not a golfer, but I took him golfing at Musqueum one day. He was 81 at the time. A friend saw us and asked him if he was a regular golfer. "Yes" he said. "Once every 81 years."
     In writing this piece, I came across the following account of his 90th birthday party which was held at the Richmond Country Club.

 Sam Geller turns 90

Ninety of Sam Geller’s friends and relatives recently attended a party at the Richmond Country Club to celebrate his special birthday.  They included friends from the Jewish Family Services Agency, Louis Brier Home and Hospital, and the Jewish Community Centre, three of Sam’s favourite community organizations.  Many of his neighbours from Oak Gardens, and card playing friends were there, enjoying the antics of a magician brought over from Victoria by Sam’s daughter Estelle Paget.  Also in attendance were Mayor Philip and Brita Owen. A few years ago, the mayor helped arrange a meeting for Sam, and his son Michael, with the deputy mayor of Odessa, Vancouver’s sister city, from which Sam’s father had emigrated to England at the turn of the last century.

Details of Sam’s life were presented in an amusing skit by his grandchildren, Claire and Georgia Geller, and Julie and Gontran Paget.  Based on the TV show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, relatives were asked personal questions about Sam’s life including his war years, his life in Toronto, and the past 14 years in Vancouver.  Following the skit, 9 candles were lit by friends and relatives.

Those present all remarked on Sam’s wonderful sense of humour and  kind and gentle personality. When asked the secret of longevity, Sam responded that it is simple. “Just keep breathing!”

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Opinion: Vancouver needs innovative approach towards affordable rental housing Vancouver Courier July

Hardly a day goes by when affordable rental housing is not front and centre in the media. Recently much has been written about the rejection of controversial rezoning applications in VancouverNorth Vancouver and White Rock.
Increasingly, we read about other municipalities using “rental-only zoning” to protect older buildings or “inclusionary zoning” requiring new rental units alongside new condominiums.

Reflecting on my five decades as an architect, CMHC official and developer, other innovative affordable rental housing ideas come to mind. I recently shared some of them in an interview with The Scrivener, the publication of the BC Notaries Association.
In 1970, on a CMHC Travelling Scholarship, I toured modular housing factories across the U.S. Returning to university, as my thesis I designed a system of relocatable modular units to be set up on vacant sites across Toronto. The objective was to create affordable housing by avoiding or minimizing the cost of land.
Four decades later in 2009, I studied this concept for B.C. Housing, and today relocatable modular housing has become an effective affordable housing solution for the homeless around the province.
However, it need not be just for the homeless. Private and non-profit companies can create affordable rental housing for a broader population by setting up relocatable modular units on other vacant lots awaiting redevelopment. Governments might offer tax abatements to those who allow their land to be used for this purpose, similar to community gardens.
As a student, I lived in a large house with six other people. We each had our own bedroom but shared the bathroom and living spaces. No doubt many of you did the same.
In1972, I moved into Ottawa’s Pestalozzi College, a Trudeau government-funded 22-storey cooperative-living highrise. Older Torontonians will remember Rochdale College, part of the same cooperative housing experiment.
One of the things that made Pestalozzi College unique was its design. Half the building comprised of one-bedroom apartments and the other half offered communal suites for six to 14 people. The latter included partially furnished bedrooms, shared bathrooms and living areas with kitchens, not unlike some student residences and the house I left behind in Toronto.
The one-bedroom apartment design was different from the typical Vancouver one-bedroom layout, which usually has an open living-dining-kitchen space and separate bedroom.
The Pestalozzi apartments had an eating area in the kitchen and a lockable door to the living room. This allowed it to become a bedroom at night. Consequently, the suite was comfortably shared by two unrelated people with undisturbed access to the kitchen or bathroom.
At SFU’s UniverCity community, we built similar suite layouts within the Cornerstone Building. However, they had a double-door to the living room creating a more deluxe one-bedroom or smaller two-bedroom unit, all within 600 square feet. By simply adding a door to the living space, the apartment layout become much more flexible and affordable.
Another UniverCity innovation is the “lock-off suite.” It was an attempt to create the equivalent of a basement suite within a multi-storey apartment building. The key to its design was an additional door from the corridor into the second or third bedroom, and a small closet area that could be converted to a kitchenette.
Thanks to the open mindedness of Burnaby staff and Council, UniverCity’s zoning allowed lock-off suites in up to 50 per cent of the homes, resulting in both affordable rental housing and “a mortgage helper in the sky.” West Vancouver and Vancouver now allow similar arrangements, but the idea has not really caught on. It will.
But back to co-living. Today, many companies such as Welive,Common and Ollie are developing buildings offering fully furnished studios and shared suites with hotel-styled services, amenities and even organized events. A colleague calls it supportive housing for millennials.
While not everyone wants to share, increasingly co-living is becoming a viable affordable housing solution, and not just for singles. Kin, a collaboration between Common and Tishman Speyer, a major international real estate company, is now offering co-living for urban families.
Given our urgent need for more affordable rental housing, let’s hope these options will be added to other choices available in the city.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

From The Scrivener: published quarterly by BC Notaries Association: An interview with Michael Geller

While it is always dangerous, especially for someone like me, to sit down with a stranger and share one's life stories with a voice recorder running, that's what I did last month with the editor of The Scrivener. I was invited to do the interview following an after-dinner talk I gave at the BC Notaries' Annual General Meeting.
     While much longer than anticipated, it does include some of my favourite stories about 10 years at CMHC, as a real estate consultant planning the redevelopment of the Steveston waterfront, as Development Manager for Bayshore, Project Manager for the Convention Centre Expansion, first President of the SFU Community Trust, and developer of boutique residential projects including Oak Gardens and Elm Park Place, and two Heritage Revitalization projects in West Vancouver that are currently for sale. Following the interview is an advertorial for the West Vancouver projects and an article on heating systems that should be of interest to anyone who buys a condominium. You can find a link to the full magazine here: