Sunday, January 29, 2012

DENSITY! Part 1: Lessons from the South Shore of False Creek

In the last couple of weeks I have attended Open Houses for two major developments in Mount Pleasant and on the Little Mountain property that are causing considerable concern in the surrounding neigbhourhoods. Before sharing my thoughts on these proposals, I decided to go back into my archives and dig up a couple of stories I wrote in February 2008 after returning from an around the world Sabbatical, during the very heated debate over EcoDensity. The first was published February 9, 2008 under the headline: "For me, EcoDensity is a 60-year adventure. It led to a meeting with the Vancouver Sun Editorial Board and another story which I'll post in Part 2. I believe these stories may be helpful in setting the stage for evaluating what should happen on these two sites, and other neighbourhoods around the city and Metro Vancouver.

For me, EcoDensity is a 60-year adventure

Once upon a time, in my capacity as an architect and planner in the Vancouver office of Canada Mortgage and Housing, I championed a green-for-its-time initiative that generated the same public declarations of apprehension and suspicion that Mayor Sam Sullivan's EcoDensity initiatives are generating.

Once upon a time, in my capacity as an architect and planner in the Vancouver office of Canada Mortgage and Housing, I championed a green-for-its-time initiative that generated the same public declarations of apprehension and suspicion that Mayor Sam Sullivan's EcoDensity initiatives are generating.

Then, as now, an affordable home that would permit a household to minimize its environmental footprint motivated those of us who supported the initiative. Then, as now, at least two fears motivated much of the opposition: a fear of dramatic and quick change to the character of the city, and a fear of the unknown. I thought those fears misguided then, and I think their EcoDensity equivalents misguided today.

The early 1970s were years of a major planning debate over the proposed redevelopment of city-owned lands on the south shore of False Creek.

Planners wanted an entirely new approach to urban residency taken on the industrial lands there. They wanted alternatives to the single-family-detached home built.They wanted mixed-use buildings constructed. They wanted richer and poorer to share the neighbourhood and pedestrian and automobile to share its byways.

Opposition came from a variety of sources. The Vancouver Board of Trade argued that family housing had no place in the False Creek redevelopment. "Housing on the city's False Creek lands should be based solely upon the needs of the executive-type city," a board statement said.

George Puil, then-chair of the Vancouver park board, thought the land should only be used for a park. A citizens' review panel also wanted the land used only for park. A city councillor thought the area was "not a sane site for housing."

A city planner resigned over the proposals. "I believe the city-owned land on False Creek to be among the very worst spots in the entire city to build a lot of housing on," his letter of resignation said.

Notwithstanding the significant opposition, city council eventually approved the development. I was appointed the federal government's "special coordinator", since I was one of the few people in the CMHC Vancouver office who thought the project could be a success.

As construction began, the criticism continued, and many people feared the community would become an instant slum. However, then-mayor Art Phillips and his wife, Carole Taylor, announced they would be moving into the first neighbourhood "above the corner store," and soon attitudes started to change.

As the first residents started to move in, a January 1977 Vancouver Sun story was headlined "Life in dreamland on the creek." And then-councillor Mike Harcourt declared: "False Creek is a success."

Over the years, the community has been heralded as a model for higher density, mixed income housing, and applauded around the world. As I look at the draft EcoDensity Initial Actions, I cannot help but think that in 30 years, if many of these proposals are allowed to proceed, they will also be applauded.

They address the need to reduce greenhouse gases by creating more energy and resource-efficient buildings, and more transit-oriented development.

They will result in new housing choices, especially near the 70 per cent of our city zoned for single-family housing. More options for secondary suites within buildings will result in new affordable housing choices in townhouses and apartments, which would create "mortgage helpers" in multi-family developments.

This idea was implemented at SFU's UniverCity community, with few negative consequences. New options for backyard laneway infill housing will also result in new housing choices. Again, it must be emphasized that this planning change would not happen everywhere, or right away. It will take time to develop a comprehensive plan and strategy with appropriate zoning. But one only has to look at London and other world cities to see how laneway and "mews" housing can add to the character of a neighbourhood.

New options for arterial midrise housing will also increase housing choices. However, having developed apartments and townhouses along Oak Street and West 41st Avenue, I am the first to caution that midrise buildings should not be permitted along all arterials.

As I reflect on some of my own developments, I believe the seven-storey Elm Park Place fits in well at the corner of West 41st and Larch Streets. However, it would be the wrong building form for further down the street between Carnarvon and Balaclava streets. Here, the three-and four-storey Lanesborough development is much more appropriate.

However, midrise buildings would be desirable in certain areas along arterial streets, especially near key intersections. Not only would they allow for more homes on a site, but taller buildings would be built out of concrete and steel, which many renters and buyers prefer to wood frame construction. I am sure city planning staff agree with this approach.

The Vancouver Planning Department is now undertaking a series of workshops on the proposed EcoDensity Charter and Action Plan leading up to a public meeting on Feb. 26.

I recently attended one of the sessions and was pleased to see a broad range of ages and interests in the room. Those in attendance were invited to fill in a feedback form to provide their views to the mayor and councillors. I spoke to a number of people after the workshop, and while a few told me they had not changed their minds, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that most were leaving with fewer worries about the EcoDensity proposals than when they arrived.

With Vancouver's escalating land and housing prices, many of the participants saw EcoDensity as a way for parents, children and grandparents to live in the same neighbourhoods in the years to come. In addition to saving our planet, what could be more important than that?

Michael Geller is an architect, planner, property developer and adjunct professor at SFU's Centre for Sustainable Community Development. He recently traveled around the world and shared his observations with Westcoast Homes readers.

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