Saturday, May 25, 2013

Some Lessons from San Francisco in today's Vancouver Sun

San Francisco's design, transit initiatives worth emulating here

By Michael Geller, Special To The Sun May 25, 2013

The receptionist at the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Architects was amused when I told her I was a Vancouver architect looking for interesting new projects to visit. "Why would you come here?" she asked. "Most San Francisco architects go to Vancouver for their design inspiration."
While it is true that San Francisco's recent glass towers would look more at home in Vancouver than they do in the City by the Bay, a recent visit to the United States' 12th largest city offered a potpourri of planning and design ideas for Vancouver.
Everyone who has visited San Francisco is impressed by the cable cars - the only moving historic monuments in America - the Golden Gate Bridge, the lively Fisherman's Wharf, second only to Disneyland as California's top tourist attraction, and the city's many historic neighbourhoods.
It was in these neighbourhoods that I discovered ideas with application to Vancouver. Pacific Heights and Nob Hill feature many grand residences that look like detached homes when viewed along the street. However, if you look closely, you notice they are, in fact, attached to the property next door on one or both sides. In planning terms, they are "zero lot-line" structures with one or both walls built to the property line. A key advantage is a much more efficient use of land.
In Vancouver, we develop zero lot-line commercial and mixed-use buildings along commercial streets, but rarely in residential neighbourhoods. However, by eliminating often useless side yards, it is possible to achieve more living space on a lot without going higher. While some may worry the result would be monotonous looking buildings, by incorporating both subtle and dramatic variation in architectural styles, as evidenced throughout San Francisco, this need not be the case.
I believe this planning approach could have application in redevelopment areas such as the Cambie Corridor or Marpole, where entirely new building forms and patterns of development are being proposed. It would also be appropriate in other municipalities prepared to consider alternatives to traditional single-family subdivisions.
Wandering around Pacific Heights and Nob Hill, I thought about Shaughnessy and the large mansions along Vancouver's Southwest Marine Drive. Recently, proposals have come forward to convert some of these heritage properties into multi-suite residences or, in one case, a seniors' retirement home.
Throughout San Francisco's historic neighbourhoods, many grand old buildings have been successfully subdivided or converted to other uses to preserve their heritage significance. I think Vancouver should allow the same to happen, both to protect heritage, and to increase housing choices in these neighbourhoods.
(Additional note for this blog: While is support converting Casa Mia into a retirement home, I do NOT support the large addition being proposed for the property.)
Travelling around San Francisco, I came upon other fascinating ideas with application to our region.
San Francisco streets, such as Lombard Street, famous for its steep, one-block section consisting of eight tight hairpin turns, are being enhanced by new landscaped medians down the middle. While Vancouver has created attractive landscaped roundabouts in some neighbourhoods, and Metro municipalities have planted landscaped medians (favourite examples are in Richmond along Gilbert and No. 2 Road and the easterly portion of SFU's University High Street), other streets such as Kingsway in Vancouver and Burnaby could benefit from planted medians.
In the Presidio, a former military base, residences have been renovated and leased out at high rents. This prompted me to wonder about the future of Vancouver's Jericho lands, perhaps the most under-utilized federal and provincially owned properties in the city. While we discuss funding options for rapid transit to UBC, perhaps we should also discuss how future transit-oriented development on these properties could generate significant revenues to offset the costs.
One of the things I noticed in San Francisco is something I did not see: the plethora of large project marketing signs one typically finds in Vancouver. New development in the city is very limited. However, I did notice real estate listings often include a property's walkability index, measuring proximity to shops, services, and transit. Perhaps this is something local realtors should include more often.
A few final observations: . The California Academy of Science has installed an Earthquake Exhibit to remind people what an earthquake feels like, and to promote greater awareness and preparedness. I visited a somewhat similar exhibit in New Zealand and think it might be time to create a Vancouver version - just in case.
Taxis can use bus lanes in San Francisco, making it easier to get around and better serve people who don't own cars. I have often thought we need to do more to improve taxi service in our region. Allowing taxis in bus lanes would help.
Last year, the Giants swept the World Series. Now, the Giant Sweep adopt-a-block program is designed to track, reward, and promote the actions of individuals, organizations, and companies that adopt a San Francisco block and volunteer their time to keep it clean and beautiful.

Finally, in recent years, San Francisco has been trying to deal with two challenging problems: excessive panhandling and a large number of unwanted dogs in shelters. This has led to the creation of a somewhat controversial, experimental program called WOOF (Wonderful Opportunities for Occupants and Fidos). It encourages formerly homeless low-income residents to give up panhandling and become foster parents to unwanted dogs in return for a weekly stipend of $50 to $75, and food and other supplies for the dogs. While time will tell if the program works, I would like to see Vancouver consider creative approaches to give our homeless and low-income street people opportunities for greater participation in society.

Although there are many differences between San Francisco and Vancouver, each city has much to learn from the other. However, I suspect it will be many years before we do what San Francisco did in the 1940s, and relocate all the cemeteries away from the city to free up more land for housing!

Michael Geller is a Vancouver-based architect, planner, real estate consultant and property developer - and a frequent contributor to Westcoast Homes. His blog can be found at and he can be reached at
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1 comment:

sathya said...

Thanks for sharing, I will bookmark and be back again

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