Sunday, April 26, 2009


Yesterday, an impressive selection of Vancouver developers, architects, housing advocates, and government officials gathered at the Mountainview Cemetery Celebration Hall, at the invitation of the mayor, to discuss how best to accelerate the supply of new rental housing. Prior to the meeting, each participant was asked to prepare a 'one-pager' setting out their thoughts. Below is what I submitted. In future posts, I will report on the discussion, and what I think the city should do.

1. Why has rental housing not been built?
• The economic rent is greater than the market rent; due to GST, land and construction costs, ‘rent controls’, etc.
• Development of market condominiums has been more profitable;
• Federal tax policies have ‘discriminated’ against rental: GST, depreciation policies;
• Previous government programs have distorted the market: Limited Dividend, ARP, CRSP, MURB, etc; developers became ‘addicted’ to government programs.

2. What are some potential solutions put forward by others?

• Provincial/municipal subsidy programs
• Reduction in municipal DCC’s, CAC’s, etc.
• Reduction in Development and Building Permit Fees
• Deferment of property taxes for specific periods of time;
• Density bonusing;
• Inclusionary zoning;
• Offer city-owned lands/ schools, etc. for sale or lease for rental housing;
• Allow laneway housing to create rental units;
• Reconsider conversion and demolition policies;
• Reduction/modification of certain standards: eg: parking, sprinklers in basement suites;
• Allow legalized secondary suites in multi-family buildings;
• Require developers to pay into ‘affordable housing fund’,etc.
• Levy business/property tax on empty units
• Increased demolition tax ($20,000 instead of $1,000)
• Allow site remediation as an offset against property taxes
• Creation of a City housing department or Community Housing Trust;
• Mandate the development of rental housing as part of other types of development;
• Create ‘rental zones’
• Get the federal government to eliminate GST
• Get CMHC to revise mortgage insurance premiums
• Allow relocatable modular affordable housing as an temporary/interim use with property tax ‘holiday’

3. What I think should be done?
• The city should allow density bonuses for projects that remain rental for 20 years or longer;
• The city should accelerate rezonings and development approvals for purpose built rental;
• The city should relax both parking, and minimum unit sizes;
• The city could offer certain lands for affordable rental housing on a preferential sale/lease basis;
• the city might consider allowing relocatable modular housing as affordable rental housing, with a property tax holiday;
• The city should accelerate approval of laneway housing, and reconsider some of the requirements that may increase the cost and decrease affordability;
• HOWEVER, the city should NOT start to offer property tax relief, reduced DCC’s, permit fees, etc. since it is likely going to be too expensive, cumbersome to administer, this brings in the question of equity, and the market is ready to build market rental housing anyway;
• Furthermore, this simply exacerbates the historic problem of government ‘intervention’ in rental housing;

For more information, contact Michael Geller 778 997 9980

Friday, April 24, 2009

The future of Vancouver's Downtown

On Tuesday night I found myself in a very unusual position. For a while I thought I might be the only person at a Public Hearing defending residential uses in the downtown. Fortunately, a few others, including respected former City Planner Chuck Brook came forward to state a similar position.

I did not enjoy being in disagreement with either Brent Toderian or Kevin McNally, two very capable planners. However, as Edward de Bono noted in his book "I am right, you are wrong" we both came at the topic with different information. My thoughts on the topic were recently posted at but are repeated below:

On April 21st, 2009, while most Vancouverites were in front of their televisions watching the Canucks defeat the Blues in overtime, a very small group of people was gathered in the Vancouver City Council Chamber at a Public Hearing. It is a sad irony that so few people were watching this ‘game’ since its ramifications for our city will be even greater than a Stanley Cup victory. Let me explain.

The purpose of the Public Hearing was to consider a staff report, almost five years in the making, under the heading: Metro Core Jobs and Economy Land Use Plan: Part One, Proposed Downtown Policies. The proposals before Council included zoning changes affecting the Central Business District (CBD) and adjacent lands. The thrust of the initiative was to provide sufficient job space potential in the Downtown to meet future demand, to strengthen and intensify commercial uses in the CBD, and to maintain the commercial mix of historic Yaletown.

Now I appreciate that these seem like noble goals, and one might wonder what the problem is. Let me explain.

I do not have any disagreement with the overarching goals set out in the staff report. The problem is the manner by which the Director of Planning is proposing to achieve these goals. More specifically, the recommendations include increasing the permitted commercial density by 2.0 FSR across the CBD. I support this.

However, the report also recommends ‘the removal of residential as a permitted use across the expanded CBD to ensure that potential development capacity is not taken up by residential, and that land values remain reasonable for commercial development as a result of reduced land speculation for residential use.’ I do not support this.

As respected former City Planner Chuck Brook, one of only seven speakers at the meeting passionately told Council, what distinguishes Vancouver from Cleveland or most other North American cities is the inclusion of residential as a permitted use in the CBD. This is what has contributed to the vitality of our downtown neighbourhoods and allowed an increasing number of people to walk to work. It is what has made Vancouver distinctive.

Now, there is no doubt that as Trevor Boddy and others have exclaimed, in many instances city planners may have gone too far in allowing residential development to replace commercial development. Boddy’s fear is that Vancouver is “heading towards a fate as a dormitory suburb” and ‘resort city’, rather than a major commercial centre. I do not entirely disagree.

I would point to the conversion of the former West Coast Transmission building, the cabled box on Georgia Street, from office to residential use, as a perfect example of what should not have been allowed to happen. However, to now propose that we protect job space potential by eliminating residential as a permitted use is simply wrong. It is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I also disagree with the concern that permitting residential development will result in land speculation that will prevent office developments from proceeding. Office developments will proceed when policies encourage commercial development, and there is a market for more space. A speedier and less convoluted approval process will also help.

At the Public Hearing, a number of councillors expressed their desire to see new large corporate head office buildings in the downtown. However, as Mr. Brook cleverly responded, given the changing trends in corporate office development, these types of buildings are becoming ‘the Hummers and Escalades’ of urban development. Instead, vibrant mixed-use buildings and developments are what we should be striving to achieve.

I attended the meeting on behalf of a client who controls the block along Georgia Street between Richards and Homer Streets. Under the proposed zoning changes, he would not be allowed to build any housing, even though the site is adjacent to L’Hermitage, a mixed-use development that was recently completed on a site sold by the city for the purpose of mixed use development!

This irony was not missed by a L’Hermitage resident who spoke at the meeting on behalf of his neighbours at home watching the hockey game. He moved into the development with the expectation that it would be a vibrant new neighbourhood. He did not want to be surrounded by commercial only buildings.

I encouraged Council to seek zoning changes that would encourage more commercial development, while still permitting vibrant mixed use developments. I noted that this is what City planners, architects and developers have been working towards for the past twenty-five years. In response, the Director of Planning agreed that mixed use developments were indeed desirable, and advised Council that they would still be possible…. through a rezoning. He reminded Council that a rezoning process would also allow the city to extract the desired financial contributions and amenities from the developer.

In other words, the city should downzone properties by removing residential as a permitted use, (even though we agree it adds to the vitality of the city), on the understanding that developers can always apply for a rezoning and hopefully offer sufficient ‘public amenities’ to be allowed to do what they should be encouraged to do in the first place.

This is the wrong way to plan a city.

Council should reject the current proposals and direct staff to come forward with revised zoning schedules and other policies that encourage commercial development, while allowing mixed-use where appropriate. These should include Development Cost Charges and Community Amenity Contributions that address any additional costs associated with residential development.

In the lobby of the HSBC building is a giant pendulum. I enjoy watching it swing. However, in the case of theses proposed Bylaw changes, the pendulum is swinging too far. I hope Council agrees we should not remove residential as a permitted use in our downtown, and insist that the Director of Planning continue Vancouver’s tradition of thoughtful, carefully crafted Zoning Bylaws to create a city worthy of international acclaim.

Council will make its decision at 2 pm on May 5th. Hopefully there’s no hockey game to divert our attention.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Spring Cleaning for Vancouver

I think I have touched a nerve.

As I have been wandering around the downtown, and other parts of the city, I have become increasingly disturbed by the mess on our streets...not only chewing gum and litter, but an increasing number of cigarette butts just strewn about. This prompted me to write an op-ed piece for the Vancouver Sun which was published on April 16th. Since then, I have been inundated with emails and calls from radio stations wanting to discuss the article, and some of the suggested solutions.

In case you missed it, below is the story from the Sun. I would welcome any comments, and suggestions on what we might do to improve the litter control in our city.


As a teenager growing up in Toronto, I was always a bit dismissive of American relatives who constantly commented on how clean our city was. After all, was that really so important, especially since Toronto seemed somewhat dull and boring compared with many American cities. However, four decades later, I now find myself constantly focusing on urban cleanliness.

By international standards, Vancouver is a relatively clean city. We particularly excel in the management of unwanted graffiti, which is now plaguing many cities around the world. One only has to visit the ancient sites of Greece, or Sao Paulo where graffiti artists tag the upper floors of luxury apartment buildings, to appreciate how well we are doing.

However, while we have managed to contain graffiti, we are failing when it comes to controlling chewing gum, cigarette butts and other litter.

Now I realize many may question whether this is really something to get worked up about. After all, given the terrible gang violence in our city, the tragic death of Wendy Ladner-Beaudry, and the serious economic times we are facing, is it really that important to worry about our city’s cleanliness?

I think it is, especially since the cleanliness of a city says something about the sense of pride of its residents. Furthermore, it is an aspect of urban life that we can do something about.

To better understand my concern, take a look at the areas in front of the Burrard Street SkyTrain station or most downtown office buildings. Or look at the sidewalks and tree grates along most downtown streets. Not only are they covered with ugly stains from chewing gum, but far too many people are turning these areas into ashtrays.

Around the world, other cities have come up with various solutions to deal with these problems. In Dublin, the city administration has placed provocative posters on buses and bus shelters proclaiming: If you behave like a piece of filth, that’s how the world sees you. Litter is disgusting. So are those responsible.

In Galway, posters urge people to bin your gum. Others remind people that cigarette butts are not biodegradable. They harm marine and animal life and they account for a large percentage of public litter. And if these messages do not deter residents, the ‘on the spot’ fines of 150 Euros usually do. The fine for not cleaning up after your dog? Up to 1900 Euros. Galway is extremely clean.

Elsewhere throughout the country, towns and cities compete to win a ‘Tidy Town’ award with many shopkeepers participating in ‘litter patrol’ programs every day as they close up their businesses.

Ireland is not alone in such programs. In Singapore, public housing residents compete each year to see who can maintain the cleanest project. The prize monies are more than offset by savings in maintenance. In Hong Kong, there is a fixed penalty of $1500HK for littering. And In Fort Lauderdale and many other American cities, ‘smoking poles’ are found outside building entrances, resulting in the easy collection and disposal of cigarette butts.

If Vancouver truly wants to become the greenest city in the world, we should emulate Curitiba, the greenest city in South America. Here one finds five colour coordinated bins for paper, plastic, metal, glass and organic waste.

To help keep poorer neighbourhoods clean and tidy, the city pays residents to pick up their own garbage…with bus tickets! These allow travel to other parts of the city to find work. And the numbers on the tickets are good for a weekly lottery.

As Jaime Lerner, the former Mayor of Curitiba, once told a Vancouver audience, “If you want to see creativity in a city department, just knock a zero off its budget!”

Over the coming months, it is my hope that residents throughout our city, including the Downtown Eastside, will agree that it is now time to embark on a community ‘Spring Cleaning’. To help keep some neighbourhoods clean over the longer term, residents might want to consider setting up an ‘Adopt a Block’ program, similar to programs that help maintain American highways

In less than a year, the world will be coming to Vancouver. I would like to think that we have enough civic pride to start a cleaning program without the threat of fines. Let’s start by not throwing chewing gum and cigarette butts on the ground, and more carefully disposing of litter. If we need more ashtrays, I would invite businesses to install and maintain ‘smoking poles’ where required.

As the ‘broken windows’ programs in many American cities have shown us, often when we tend to the small problems, the bigger problems also get addressed.

A good spring cleaning might be a good way to get started.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Laneway Housing: 'off the shelf' modules!

While I have spent the last 35 years working on some of the largest projects in Canada, now I want to work on some of the smallest...Laneway Homes. For this reason, I have established Laneway Cottages Inc. ( to take advantage of pending zoning changes in Vancouver, and other Metro municipalities.

To create affordable units, with minimal disruption to homeowners and neighbours, I have been exploring the feasibility of using factory produced modules for the laneway homes. (These should not be confused with the relocatable factory modules I have been proposing as affordable housing on vacant lands. See below.)
In discussions with city planners, I discovered that what I thought would be a preferred approach for a cottage on a 33' lot will not be allowed under the planning guidelines currently being prepared. More specifically, I thought a single 12 wide module, between 30 and 40 feet in length, would be ideal for many narrow lots. It would allow two parking spaces, and need not be more than a single storey. However, the city's preference is a building with similar dimensions to a double car garage, even if it is 1 1/2 storeys high. Alternatively, they might reconsider the requirement for two parking spaces.

This discussion came to mind this past weekend as I traveled down to Portland Oregon. On the way, I came across numerous recreational vehicle lots selling precisely what I have been proposing....12' modular 'cottages' that could be sited along the rear portion of a lot. They come in all styles, many with 4 foot 'lofts'. Inside, they are surprisingly spacious. And all under 400 sq.ft. in size.interestingly, these units are classified as Recreational Park Trailers! However, unlike those primarily designed as temporary living quarters for recreation, camping and seasonal use, these are built quite similarly to a regular built home.
While these designs are not necessarily exactly what I would create, they do have a certain appeal...especially considering the price...between $50,000 and $75,000 USD. Fully Furnished! I am now going to explore the feasibility of bringing one to Vancouver, just to show planning how well it could fit on many narrow lots. Stay tuned!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

10 Solutions for Homelessness from 24 Hours

24 Hours Newspaper recently invited its readers to submit ideas to address homelessness. Readers are now invited to vote on what they consider to be the best idea. Below is a message from the editors. I would invite you to check out the best ideas submitted at (you will have to cut and paste this URL)

I am pleased that my proposal, 'Solution C' is one of the 10 finalists. If it is selected, I will donate any prize money to a worthy DTES organization.

"We received over 800 entries to this contest and it has been an interesting and stimulating challenge to evaluate them all. The editors want to thank all the readers who took the time to think and write about this complex issue . Many of the entries had common elements – build shelters, revamp/reopen institutions that used to provide support, tax breaks for new housing, etc. The letters & essays published at feature the opinions and ideas that we found to be most unique or the ideas we felt were best thought out.

To vote for your favourite simply send an email to: (again, you'll have to cut and paste) with the letter of your choice clearly marked in the subject line. Your votes will help us in determining the winner of the Vancouver 24 hours Homelessness Solutions Essay competition. Check our paper on Tuesday, April 14, 2009 when we announce the winner!

(Ed. Note: Solution B, which provides a thoughtful overview with short, medium and long term solutions, including a 'Home Run' for homelessness, was declared the winner.)

Friday, April 3, 2009

April Fools' Day

Sadly, April 1st has come and gone. However, I would like to publicly congratulate the Courier's Mark Hasiuk for his clever prank which you can read on the Courier's website It reminded me of a couple of my earlier efforts, as part of the advertising for Elm Park Place, a condominium project I developed at 41st and Larch.

One year, tied in with a visit by Prince Charles to the city, it was reported in the Courier that the Prince had purchased a Kerrisdale condominium, rumoured to be in Elm Park Place. A number of excited purchasers contacted me to confirm whether the story was true, although one lady was furious that I would sell to a member of the royal family without consulting with other purchasers. "How are we going to manage with all the extra security?" she wanted to know.

The following year it was reported that the provincial government had secretly approved a SkyTrain extension along West 41st with a station across from the building. A surprising number of people were fooled, including one of my daughter's Crofton House classmates who brought in a copy of the Courier as her 'show and tell' story. "There's going to be a SkyTrain to Crofton House" she exclaimed. My daughter had to explain that it was just one of her dad's April Fools' Day jokes. Unfortunately, the girl had never heard of April Fools' Day.While some people get quite upset about April Fools' Day pranks, I think they can be wonderful. Below are a few excerpts from the list of 100 pranks that I particularly enjoyed reading about on the website:

3: Instant Color TV

1962: In 1962 there was only one tv channel in Sweden, and it broadcast in black and white. The station's technical expert, Kjell Stensson, appeared on the news to announce that, thanks to a new technology, viewers could convert their existing sets to display color reception. All they had to do was pull a nylon stocking over their tv screen. Stensson proceeded to demonstrate the process. Thousands of people were taken in. Regular color broadcasts only commenced in Sweden on April 1, 1970.

10: Planetary Alignment Decreases Gravity

1976: The British astronomer Patrick Moore announced on BBC Radio 2 that at 9:47 AM a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event was going to occur that listeners could experience in their very own homes. The planet Pluto would pass behind Jupiter, temporarily causing a gravitational alignment that would counteract and lessen the Earth's own gravity. Moore told his listeners that if they jumped in the air at the exact moment that this planetary alignment occurred, they would experience a strange floating sensation. When 9:47 AM arrived, BBC2 began to receive hundreds of phone calls from listeners claiming to have felt the sensation. One woman even reported that she and her eleven friends had risen from their chairs and floated around the room.

20: The 26-Day Marathon

1981: The Daily Mail ran a story about an unfortunate Japanese long-distance runner, Kimo Nakajimi, who had entered the London Marathon but, on account of a translation error, thought that he had to run for 26 days, not 26 miles. Reportedly Nakajimi was now somewhere out on the roads of England, still running, determined to finish the race. Various people had spotted him, though they were unable to flag him down. The translation error was attributed to Timothy Bryant, an import director, who said, "I translated the rules and sent them off to him. But I have only been learning Japanese for two years, and I must have made a mistake. He seems to be taking this marathon to be something like the very long races they have over there."

#38: Operation Parallax

1979: London's Capital Radio announced that Operation Parallax would soon go into effect. This was a government plan to resynchronize the British calendar with the rest of the world. It was explained that ever since 1945 Britain had gradually become 48 hours ahead of all other countries because of the constant switching back and forth from British Summer Time. To remedy this situation, the British government had decided to cancel April 5 and 12 that year. Capital Radio received numerous calls as a result of this announcement. One employer wanted to know if she had to pay her employees for the missing days. Another woman was curious about what would happen to her birthday, which fell on one of the cancelled days.

#43: An Interview with President Carter

2001: Michael Enright, host of the Sunday Edition of the Canadian Broadcasting Corpation's radio program This Morning, interviewed former President Jimmy Carter on the air. The interview concerned Canada's heavily subsidized softwood lumber industry, about which Carter had recently written an editorial piece in The New York Times. The interview took a turn for the worse when Enright began telling Carter to speed up his answers. Then Enright asked, "I think the question on everyone's mind is, how did a washed-up peanut farmer from Hicksville such as yourself get involved in such a sophisticated bilateral trade argument?" Carter seemed stunned by the insult. Finally he replied, "Excuse me? A washed-up peanut farmer? You're one to talk, sir. Didn't you used to be on the air five times a week?" The tone of the interview did not improve from there. Carter ended up calling Enright a "rude person" before he hung up. Enright then revealed that the interview had been fake. The Toronto comedian Ray Landry had been impersonating Carter's voice. The interview generated a number of angry calls from listeners who didn't find the joke funny. But the next day the controversy reached even larger proportions when the Globe and Mail reported the interview as fact on their front pages. The editor of the Globe and Mail later explained that he hadn't realized the interview was a hoax because it was "a fairly strange issue and a strange person to choose as a spoof."

#58: Portable Zip Codes

2004: National Public Radio's All Things Considered announced that the post office had begun a new 'portable zip codes' program. This program, inspired by an FCC ruling that allowed phone users to take their phone number with them when they moved, would allow people to also take their zip code with them when they moved, no matter where they moved to. It was hoped that with this new program zip codes would come to symbolize "a citizen's place in the demographic, rather than geographic, landscape." Assistant Postmaster General Lester Crandall was quoted as saying, "Every year millions of Americans are on the go: People who must relocate for work or other reasons. Those people may have been quite attached to their original homes or an adopted town or city of residence. For them this innovative measure will serve as an umbilical cord to the place they love best."

#93: Eiffel Tower Moves

The Parisien stunned French citizens in 1986 when it reported that an agreement had been signed to dismantle the Eiffle Tower. The international symbol of French culture would then be reconstructed in the new Euro Disney theme park going up east of Paris. In the space where the Tower used to stand, a 35,000 seat stadium would be built for use during the 1992 Olympic Games.

#95: Chunnel Blunder

In 1990 the News of the World reported that the Chunnel project, which was already suffering from huge cost overruns, would face another big additional expense caused by a colossal engineering blunder. Apparently the two halves of the tunnel, being built simultaneously from the coasts of France and England, would miss each other by 14 feet. The error was attributed to the fact that French engineers had insisted on using metric specifications in their blueprints. The mistake would reportedly cost $14 billion to fix.

100: The British Postal Address Turnabout

In 1977 the BBC gave airtime to Tom Jackson, General Secretary of the British Union of Post Office Workers. Mr. Jackson was up in arms about a recent proposal that the British mail adopt the German method of addressing envelopes in which the house number is written after the name of the road, not before it (i.e. Downing Street 10, instead of 10 Downing Street). Jackson spoke at great length about the enormous burden this change would place upon postal employees, insisting that "Postal workers would be furious because it would turn upside-down the way we have learned to sort." His comments elicited an immediate reaction from the audience, many of whom phoned up to voice their support for Jackson's campaign. What the audience didn't realize was that there were no plans to change the way the British addressed their mail. Mr. Jackson's diatribe was an elaborate April Fool's Day joke.

Next year, I will try and come up with something!

ps I came across this story on a UK housing/planning website
Bristol City Council confirms plans to rear cattle to provide beef to local schools
Published by Jon Land for in Local Government , Education
Friday 3rd April 2009 - 10:10am

A council will rear its own herd of cattle to provide beef for schools and restaurants.

Bristol City Council will buy 200 acres of parkland to graze a herd of beef cattle.

Despite protests from vegan groups in the city, the authority's ruling Liberal Democrat cabinet has agreed the plan and is the first local authority in the country to do so. The herd will be raised organically on land next to the M32 in the Stoke Park area which is allocated as historic parkland.

It is currently owned by developers Barrett and George Wimpey, who under a section 106 planning agreement with South Gloucestershire Council now want to transfer the property to a long-term owner.

The council's 'Bristol Beef' project will supply meat to local schools under the healthy school meals programme. The council's beef could also be sold to 'high end' restaurants in the city such as the popular up-market stalls and cafes in St Nicholas Market. The council already markets organic venison reared at Ashton Court in the estate's restaurant.

A feasibility study will be carried out to recommend the breeds of livestock, such as Long Horn or Dexters, suitable for grazing on the land, which will continue to serve as parkland for the public.

Cabinet councillor for the environment Gary Hopkins said: "If schoolchildren are going to eat meat, I would much rather it is farmed organically in Bristol than imported from far away. "It will be of better quality, it will be a better product and it will very much be in the interests of Bristol and the children who will be eating it.

"Our primary objective is not going into the farming business but to guarantee Stoke Park for the people of Bristol, and I would rather see a cow on there than a tractor." Bristol-based vegetarian campaigners Viva! had staged a protest against the plans outside the Council House on Thursday.

APPARENTLY, THIS ONE IS NOT A JOKE! (although one person did criticize the excess methane gas that would be generated....)