This morning, Sam Cooper of The Province took me up on my offer to do a walkabout in the Olympic Village to see and hear firsthand my suggestions to enhance the marketing program now underway in the community.
We discussed 12 suggestions that I made almost two years ago when I thought Millennium and the City were not doing everything they could to accelerate the sales program. http://blogs.vancouversun.com/2010/09/24/12-ideas-for-how-to-sell-the-troubled-olympic-village/
While some of these items have been addressed, unfortunately many have not. The following are some of the things noted and discussed during this morning's walkabout.
Entry to the neighourhood along Columbia
For many potential buyers, their first approach to the community by car or the Canada Line is along Columbia Street. This is what they find.
If they walk further along Columbia Street, this is what they see. It doesn't, in my opinion create a positive impression.
Why do residents have to stick paper signs with their suite numbers on windows? Surely the developer can offer coordinated stick on numbers or maybe even something better. Again, this detracts from the attractiveness of the project.Similarly, rather than allow people to stick signs on building facades, why not install some community notice boards? This is a sign of bad management
If the potential buyers are driving, which is likely the case for many, they will have a hard time finding a place to park. Both the photographer and I had this problem at 10 am on a Friday morning, even though the Sales Centre was closed. All the on-street parking was either being used, or restricted. After driving around a couple of times, the photographer directed me to the underground parking he had discovered by chance.
After some difficulty finding the pay station, I read it was broken with this sign stuck to it. Surely while we are encouraging customers to come to the new commercial operations, or visitors to the Presentation Centre, the City should reconsider its decision to charge for parking. Instead of this sign, how about a sign saying 'Free Parking: Thank You for visiting and supporting our neighbourhood'?
I would also again recommend that the large gravel area along First Avenue near the Sales Centre be converted to Sales Centre parking. (The City Manager and Jeff Lee will recall I got quite upset two years ago when I learned the city was towing the cars of potential buyers from this area!)
Town square maintenance
Walking around the Town Square potential buyers are attracted to the views and yes...the large birds. But they can't help but noticed cigarette butts and dirt underneath these often photographed birds and elsewhere throughout the Square. Surely it would be a simple thing to sweep the area on a regular basis. And yes, remove the weeds growing through the pavers and around the benches.
Speaking of seating, I would remove the awflul yellow benches and replace them with something simple. They are ugly, collect water and graffiti and detract from what is a very nice space.
I would again suggest that the large green electrical transformers be wrapped in graphics as they often are elsewhere in the region. Perhaps the graphics could inform visitors that OV has been awarded LEED Platinum status. Put the logo on one of the boxes, along with other good news stories. And reconsider my old idea to put some food carts in the square to animate it, and provide additional amenity for visitors and potential buyers.
Outside the Presentation Centre
Again, everyone who has ever sold real estate knows you do what you can to improve the appearance of the product whether it be a house or a neighbourhood. While I am the first to admit we often overlook things that we see every day, I can't understand why steps away from the Presentation Centre the public boulevards must look like this.
Decades ago, Andre Molnar taught many of us the value in dressing up entries, often by simply adding flowers around the front door. I thought of this as I walked by the oftentimes barren apartment building entrances throughout the community. They are just not inviting and could benefit from some attractive planters or other measures.
(At SFU's UniverCity, inspired by Molnar and other community developers, during the early stages of neighbourhood marketing, we placed crates of fresh fruit and vegetables outside the corner store to enhance the look of the mixed use Cornerstone Building. (The operator of the store refused since he maintained the produce kept getting stolen or rotten before sale!) You do what you can!)
The social housing
Over the past few years, there has been much discussion about the social housing at the Olympic Village. Given the potential financial losses that I estimated the City would incur many years ago, I advocated the sale of 126 social housing and related 126 market rental housing units as affordable housing. The city decided against this idea. When I was subsequently told the Portland Hotel Society might manage the social housing, I publicly stated that 'hard to house' people would detract from the marketablilty of this neighbourhood.While some tried to discredit me by suggesting I was opposed to mixed income communities, this was not the case at all.
The fact is, neither the Portland Hotel Society nor any other non-profit organization was selected to manage these units. Instead a cooperative housing organization is managing the buildings on a special arrangment. I raise this point since I wondered this morning what is happening to a barren grassed area outside the social/rental housing units. It looks quite sad at the moment. Is there supposed to be play equipment installed? Is it intended for some other purpose? To my mind it certainly doesn't add to the neighbourhood. (NOTE: I have subsequently been told that this is a City park, not part of the social housing. It was intended that a large piece of industrial equipment be installed to celebrate the area's industrial past, but this is on hold for financial reasons.)
Two other buyers' concerns
I don't know if the marketing team has done any exit surveys, (if not, I think they should), but from my discussions with many potential buyers, two factors are affecting their potential purchasing decisions. They are:
a) concerns about building
construction quality and deficiencies; and b) the long term performance and operating costs of the various
I am told by the project publicist that these problems have both been
worked out. If this is the case, there is still a need to share and promote this information. I would suggest that highly respected third parties be asked to inspect and investigate and provide independent reports to offset these concerns. Otherwise I maintain some price adjustments may be required for some of the units, especially as the neighbouring buildings are completed and more units come back to market in this emerging part of the city.
I recognize that the look and upkeep of a neighbourhood is just one factor in any potential buyer's decision. But it is a factor that could be relatively easy to address. As I believe these photos demonstrate, the Olympic Village neighbourhood needs more attention to its grounds.
There is also a need to address the oftentimes mentioned concerns about construction quality and sustainability features.
However, the neighbourhood is now greatly enhanced by Urban Fare,Terra Breads and Daniel Frankel's new wine bar. People are enjoying the outdoor patios and while the Square is occasionally used, it should be animated much more than it is, especially in the fall.
The drugstore will soon be opening bringing more people into the neighbourhood and one day the Salt Building will be occupied. (I still maintain additional signage or graphics should be added to this building so that people know what might be coming.)
While the Olympic Village is intended to be a sustainable walkable community (and I compliment the city on the audio tour), parking is becoming a significant problem that needs to be addressed in a much better fashion than it is right now. Otherwise, I maintain this will affect traffic to the Presentation Centre and sales performance.
As an architect/planner/developer who has been involved with a number of large scale communities including the original phases of the South Shore of False Creek, Bayshore and SFU's UniverCity; and as a taxpayer and proud Vancouverite, I want to see this neighbourhood succeed. It has a lot going for it, but some things are being neglected, years after they were first pointed out. This is no doubt contributing to my frustration. More importantly, they are contributing to what I consider a less than stellar sales performance.
But I hope that I can now stop writing about the Olympic Village; and if I write about it two years from now, it will be to point out what a complete and happy neighbourhood it has become, and how the next phases of South East False Creek are being creatively planned.
I hope these observations will be helpful to the team responsible for
the project. If I'm off base, I invite readers or those involved to tell
me (publicly or privately) and I'll happily respond.