Tuesday, November 30, 2010

There's something wrong with Market Dimensions' City of Vancouver Budget Survey Report

In preparation for a discussion re the forthcoming City of Vancouver budget deliberations on Bill Good's CKNW Civic Affairs Panel, I decided to read the Budget Survey Report commissioned by the city. I was suprised by some of the statements in the Executive Summary.

For example, on page 7, the Exec Summary says residents think the city should pay more attention to green projects or infrastructure....including placing charging stations in public areas for electric vehicles. For the life of me, I couldn't believe that Vancouver residents thought this was something warranting further attention. So I started to plow through the detailed statistics in the appendix, but never found any clear support for this. But more importantly,

On page 4 it says "after a declining trend in the past two surveys, signs of recovery are evident in residents' perceptions about the change in quality of city services. While 28.1% see a decline, 37.1% think the quality has improved.....

HOWEVER, at the top of page 61, the detailed survey results show that 46% say things are worse or much worse. In fact, whereas during the past 11 years only 4% to 8% said things were much worse, this year 35% said things were much worse. 35%! And yet this is completely ignored in the Executive Summary.

I think there is something wrong with the Executive Summary of this report, and I invite people to review the document themselves and let me know if I am mistaken. And if I am not wrong, then I would like to know why a professional firm would present such a distorted view to the public and City staff and Council. You can find the document at http://vancouver.ca/ctyclerk/cclerk/20101130/documents/rr1_appendix2.pdf

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Dundarave Festival of Lights: November 28 to January 7, 2011

I spent a good part of Saturday with my daughter Georgia and former Vancouver Social Planner Susan Anderson decorating a Christmas Tree as part of the Dundarave Festival of Lights. Geller Properties, which is proposing an infill development in the 2000 Block of Esquimalt Avenue is happy to be a Tree Sponsor. Funds raised from the sponsors support the North Shore Emergency Lookout Shelter, providing services to the homeless and those in need. Yes, sadly, there are people on the North Shore in need too.

Susan was happy to help out since she lives across the lane from the proposed redevelopment and wants to see it approved. Like many West Vancouver residents, she knows there is a growing need for more well-designed housing choices in the area.

The Dundarave Festival of Lights can be found at the foot of 25th Street and continues until January 7th. A number of different events are planned including a Christmas Wassail and Bonfire Night on December 18th. Details can be found at http://www.dundaravefestival.com/ Thanks Georgia for helping out. And congratulations to Mary and all the organizers for what seems like a very well organized and successful event.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Helping the Homeless: a few propositions and provocations

France Bula reported this morning that the City and Province have reached an agreement on the funding for additional homeless shelters this winter. While I was pleased to read this, I couldn't help but think about some other cost effective approaches that might be worthy of further consideration to help the homeless. So here's what I posted on Frances' Blog. I'd welcome any comments, or better still, I'd encourage anyone who agrees with some of these ideas to help promote them and make them happen.

When I first started volunteering with the Building Community Society in the DTES, my first proposition was that we should build more shelters as a short term solution. I was attacked by a number of community organizers for proposing this, noting that shelters are nothing more than stop-gap. But the realty is that they are an effective way to get people off the streets. I think the current administration should be complimented for getting some new shelters in operation. But they can be surprisingly expensive to operate, so other solutions are required.

Two years ago this administration also supported proposals from Gregory Henriquez and myself to create additional housing stock using prefabricated modular housing, located on ‘temporary sites’. It could then be relocated to other future development sites. I was encouraged by the city’s interest; however, other than a subsequent announcement by Kerry Jang that he would like to explore the idea further, nothing has happened. I have offered to meet with Kerry Jang and Dennis Carr in the housing department to discuss this approach further. Both indicated an interest in getting together, and I expect to meet with them in the coming weeks.

However, the real purpose for this note is to suggest some other things that the Mayor and city could be doing, in concert with the Province, the private sector, and the non-profit sector to further address homelessness. I have written about some of these ideas before, but here they are again, since they may warrant further consideration.

1. house the homeless in existing apartments, rather than wait for purpose built housing to be completed. This is the approach followed by Toronto’s Streets to Homes program, with considerable success. In addition to getting instant housing, Toronto also arranged for a variety of support services. This program took more than 2000 people off Toronto’s streets in a cost effective way. I don’t understand why we haven’t tried it. To those who say it’s because we don’t have available rental stock, I say, nonesense. We have hundreds of units coming available every month…many would be suitable.

2. help create more employment. I have supported Shirley Chan’s BOB and EMBERS in the DTES. I am convinced that with a concerted effort by City Hall, these organizations and others could do much more. We need to talk about this, and do something about it. While I appreciate many of the homeless are not able to work a full time job, or even a part time job, many could benefit from some employment programs. Christmas is a time when many of us feel a bit more charitable…perhaps we can help get a few more people working.

3. one reason the homeless have a hard time getting a job is that they don’t have an address, and they don’t have suitable clothes and they often need support with hygiene. Since the shelters do not offer an ‘address’, I would like to think that we could come up with a creative way to give people an address, if only for the purposes of job applications. Why not Post Office boxes for the homeless who want them? the city doesn’t have to provide them…just promote the idea.

Similarly, the city could be helping people get cleaned up…..why aren’t there free barber shops for anyone who wants to get a haircut and shave in order to get out and find work? Again, the city doesn’t need to hire barbers and hairdressers…just be a catalyst…talk about the idea, promote it and it may well happen. there are lots of retired barbers and hairdressers who I suspect would be happy to help out…

Similarly, the city could help find clothing for those who need clothes… Many of us have clothes we would happily donate to those looking to keep warm or clean themselves up to get work. Often, we just need a nudge and info on where to take things to follow up. I think the city could work with other social agencies to help in this effort.

Many people can’t find work because they need dental work and other similar assistance. Again, I know there are some volunteer programs operating in the DTES, but we need more. I’d like to think the city could make this sort of thing happen. Perhaps what is needed is a public call to get dentists to help out, in the DTES, or in their own offices. I’m convinced that some real help could be offered in a short period of time.

4. family/friend reunification..I know that many are on the streets to escape unhappy family lives. But many more have cousins and uncles or grandparents or just friends with whom they might like to be reunited, if only they had some encouragement and assistance. There are lots of us who love surfing the internet who could volunteer some time to help people reconnect. I am told the Salvation Army has such a program…But so much more could be done. Just as libraries have a day when people can bring back their overdue books without fines, we should establish a day when people are encouraged to reestablish overdue relationships.

I’m sure some of you are probably thinking that I have lost my mind by suggesting that the Mayor should be doing some of these things…

I know that many people have mental illnesses and addictions that need to be addressed. These are major challenges. But I know there have been successes in other communities with the kind of programs I am suggesting.

I would like to think that this Mayor, with all of the publicity and attention his office can muster, could and should play a role in promoting a broad range of intiatives to help improve the lives of the homeless and destitute. And why not do so at this particular time of year.

Last year Pete McMartin, one of my favourite columnists, wrote about school kids who helped create Holiday Greeting Cards for the homeless and others in the DTES to send to family and friends…they got stamps and helped find addresses …. it was a lovely story and I’m convinced that so much more could be done along these lines.

So to conclude, yes it is important to build new, suitable designed permanent housing. And yes, additional shelters are helpful, especially if they have lockers (and too many do not). And yes we need more facilities for those with mental illnesses and addictions…..

But there are many more small, complimentary things that could be done. They take leadership and caring, and I’d like to see some of these ideas discussed, and if valid, implemented this holiday season.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Official Opening! University Highlands Elementary School

It's not often that I spend Tuesday morning in a school gymnasium with Andrew Petter, George Abbott and Derek Corrigan listening to 175 children singing a song. But that's what happened this past Tuesday as hundreds of public officials, proud parents, and local residents gathered to hear the ringing of school bells to celebrate the official opening of the first new school at UniverCity.

As one of the onlookers said to me, it's gratifying to see a dream come true.

Here's the story.

While there is much talk these days about the City's Olympic Village in South East False Creek, many people forget about the City's highly successful first phase redevelopment of the South Shore of False Creek which began in the 70's. I worked on this new community as the Federal Government's Special Coordinator. To ensure a broad social and economic mix, it too had a high level of social engineering. In order to attract families to what had been a derelict industrial area, the city planners included a school as part of the intial phase of development. If you take a look, it was designed to look not unlike the adjacent housing development, the False Creek Cooperative.

Twenty five years later, when I was appointed President of the SFU Community Trust, I wanted a new school to be an integral part of the new community at SFU, and built as part of the first phases of development. I was convinced that this would help attract new families and contribute to the sense of a complete community.

During the initial planning charrette when three different architectural teams developed conceptual plans, it became obvious to me that the best location for the new school had unfortunately already been taken.... by the East Academic Anex, part of the university. However, as one of my early professors once suggested, "If you have a mistake, make a feature of it".

In this case, I decided to approach the university administration with the proposition that the building be converted to an elementary school. I suggested this might accelerate the timing of the school, and contribute to the community's proclaimed 'sustainability', since the most sustainable building is one that is already built!

As you can appreciate, this led to a lot of head scratching and complex negotiations involving the Minister of Education, the Minister of Advanced Education, the City of Burnaby and its School Board and many others. But where there's a will there's a way, and while it took a lot longer than I would have liked, thanks to the efforts of MLA Harry Bloy and many, many others, the school opened this fall with 175 students. At the opening, Greg Frank, with whom I worked many hours on the school planning advised me that there is already a need to think about expansion!

UniverCity has been founded on four cornerstones of sustainability: environment, economy, equity and....education. Now the fourth cornerstone has been realized. Congratulations to Gordon Harris, President and CEO, and David Gillanders, Chair of the Board of Directors for making it all happen. And thanks to former President Michael Stevenson and all those university officials who didn't do their best to get me fired when I suggested converting much needed academic space into an elementary school!

ps...The if you look at the two illustrations above, you'll observe that the elementary school, including its signage, is quite similar to the conceptual drawing prepared by Paul Nowarre ten years ago...although there is a slight change in the name of the school!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Olympic Village in Receivership: Now What?

Here is the announcement made by the city on Wednesday:

The City of Vancouver and Millennium agree to receiver

The City of Vancouver and Millennium Southeast False Creek Properties, the company that owns the Millennium Water development, have today negotiated an agreement that will see Ernst & Young Inc. appointed as the receiver for the company. Ernst & Young Inc. will assume control of Millennium Southeast False Creek Properties and the Millennium Water development

Over the past few days, many media outlets and people have been asking me why this happened, and what it means. Since I am not a lawyer or accountant, I must confess that I do not fully understand what exactly has been agreed upon, or why. Furthermore, I think it is easy to misunderstand what is really happening, and what might happen. However, here are a few questions and answers, along with some specific recommendations for the city. I would encourage those who have a better understanding of the situation to correct me where I am wrong.

Why have there been so few sales since the sales program started last spring?

I think there are a number of reasons why the sales program was so unsuccessful. For one thing, the prices were too high. Who set the prices at this level? The developer and Rennie, in conjunction with the city in its capacity as the lender. Why were the prices so high? Presumably to recover the increased construction and development costs and generate enough revenue to pay off the city loan and make some profit for the developer.

Another reason for the poor sales was the 'ghost town' feeling. This is a challenge faced by many new communities including the first phase redevelopment of South Shore False Creek and St. Lawrence in the 70's, and more recently, the first phases of UniverCity at SFU.

What is particularly odd in this case is the status of the 252 city developed 'social housing' and rental housing units. These units were completed prior to the Olympics, and could have been occupied as soon as the Olympics were over.

While I suggested last November that the city should sell, rather than keep these units, at that time city staff and members of Council essentially agreed to keep the units, rather than sell them.

However, rather than select the operator last November, as they were urged to do, the City chose to wait until late summer before issuing a Proposal Call to select non-profit owners and managers. As we now know, given the city's business terms and other considerations, only three proposals were received, and all were rightly rejected by the Province. Now, you might ask why was the province involved. It was involved since it was being asked by the city to guarantee the loans the non-profit operators required to purchase the projects from the city.

While many want to blame the Campbell and Sullivan administrations for the current situation facing the Village, one thing is undeniable. It was this administration that allowed these units to remain empty for almost nine months. And the fact that they were empty contributed to the 'ghost town' feeling and project controversy that most definitely affected sales. The uncertainty as to who would manage and live in the social housing units was also a factor affecting sales.

While some people want to blame the province for allowing these units to remain empty, I think this is ridiculous. The city owned the units and it should have put arrangements in place to ensure they were occupied as soon as the Olympics were over.

Bob Rennie claims to have been trying to get the city to allow him to reduce prices for the past four months, but the city would not let him. Why?

The city did not allow the Rennie Marketing campaign to proceed because if the units were sold at the lower prices being proposed, Millennium would not receive enough money from the sales proceeds to pay off the city’s loan and outstanding land payment. For this reason, the city wanted the developer to put up additional equity to secure the loan and land payment. The developer was not prepared to do this.

Now, some might ask why would the developer and Rennie even propose a sales program that would not generate enough money to pay off the loans…and expect the city to accept it (as lender). One explanation is that they did not expect all the units to be sold at the lower prices. Rather, the reduced prices would be used to resurrect the sales program, and start to create ‘momentum’ in the sales.

Why did the city and developer agree to the appointment of a receiver?

Some city officials have been saying in confidence that this development has been in a 'soft receivership' for some time. However, given the poor condominium sales, it was increasingly evident that the developer would not be able to meet his next loan payments. While he did try to sell the 119 rental units that he owned, there were no buyers at the price being asked. While he could have sold the retail spaces, their value was less certain given the current situation. With few residents, there was only one commercial tenant (Canada Trust) and uncertainty as to when the others might move in. Furthermore, not all the space was leased.

If the developer did not pay up, the city would have had the right to go to court and this would have set in motion what may well have been a very unfortunate chain of events, no doubt involving lawsuits from both sides. This could have further delayed any sales activity. I don't think either side really wanted a lawsuit, especially since the city's very substantial control and decision making related to the project would have been exposed for all to see. While an extensive legal process might have allowed the city to recover more cash and assets from the developer to offset its potential losses, on balance the parties agreed it was best to reach a more amicable settlement.

Frankly, I think this was the right thing to do. Just as I hate family divorces that result in significant legal fees and ill-feeling, I would not have liked to see an extended legal battle between the city and the Maleks, who I like and believe to be very genuine in their desire to create good communities. There is no doubt that both sides were to blame for the current situation. What I will be interested to know, however, is just what additional monies and properties did the city get in return for effectively forgiving the outstanding land payment of $171 million, and allowing the developer to walk away from its other obligations.

What is the financial condition of the project?

None of us know for certain the value of the unsold condominiums, the rental building and the retail space. However, Rob Macdonald did put forth his estimate of values in his October 16, 2010 Op-Ed article in the Vancouver Sun. The full article was posted on this blog on October 16 , but here is his assessment of the situation:

So what is the real financial condition of this project? The value of the market condos after paying sales commissions, marketing costs and further interest charges is about $500 million. In addition, the extra residential rental tower and the commercial space in the project are together worth about $70 million, so the total net asset value is about $570 million.

The city now owes about $530 million on its debt, so the surplus of about $40 million could be applied to the remaining purchase price for the land on which the developer purportedly still owes the city $170 million.

So now what will the city do?

Ironically, we may now see the city do the same thing with Rennie, that the Maleks wanted to do…lower prices to get the sales underway, and then increase prices as there is more interest and confidence in the project.

However, there are other options. The city could sell some of the units as a block to another developer, who would then undertake their sale. While this might not seem like a viable way to recover the costs, since the units would be sold ‘wholesale’ rather than ‘retail’, it might be worthwhile exploring, especially since there may be some international buyers willing to buy a block of units at prices much higher than what a local developer might pay.

When I was in Shanghai this past summer, there was considerable interest in how one might buy some of the Olympic Village units. While I am sure some local politicians and officials would cringe at the thought of marketing the project overseas, as Roger Bayley, one of the project designers has very publicly noted, the project is held in much higher regard around the world than it is here, at the moment.

Renting vs. Selling?

Both Rennie and the city have indicated that they might not sell all the units. Rather, they may well chose to rent some of them, until market conditions improve, in order to bring life to the community. This will have pros and cons. One of the pros is that it might help populate the community, and reduce the ‘ghost town’ feeling. And indeed, it could well be that in time the units will sell for considerably more than at current prices.

However, while I do not know all the numbers, the market rents that might be achieved will not cover the financing costs, strata fees and property taxes for these apartments…especially the more expensive apartments. Indeed, in some cases the rents may only cover 1/3 to 1/2 of the costs, (and this assumes that the city has a very attractive borrowing rate, and the operating costs for these very energy efficient units will be lower than normal.) The city will also be losing property taxes from the community, and potentially upset some of the people who have already bought, since they did not expect to be living in a community nwith a large rental component.

Furthermore, one should not underestimate the challenges of renting these units at acceptable rent levels. My understanding is that not all of the 119 Millennium rental units are yet leased (at rental rates averaging $2.40 a square foot), and we now have another 126 city owned rental units coming to market.

Should these 126 city owned rental units now be sold? Of course they should be, so that we can offset some of our losses. However, the city is now in the process of negotiating with the Coop Housing Foundation to convert some into a coop. Some may ask why I think they would they sell when the expensive condos have not? Because they could be sold at $600 a foot, while other units are currently priced at twice this price. As Rennie boasted yesterday, he has sold over 400 units on a site adjacent to the Olympic Village, at very similar prices. (Yes, these are pre-sales, but I am convinced the OV rental and yes, Social Housing units could have been sold as finished product, if brought to market.) Maybe the receiver can convince the city to reconsider this option once it realizes just how much money we could lose.


I expect that the receiver, in consultation with the city and Rennie will start ‘crunching the numbers’ to determine which units should be sold, and at what prices, and which should be rented. Presumably they will also consider 'block sales' to other local or international developers.

While I know that neither the city nor Rennie were particularly impressed with my previous suggestions as to how best increase revenues, I do have a few more suggestions which I hope will be considered.

In addition to rebranding...it may be time to change the name from Millennium Water to something else, and repositioning the marketing materials...I would also redo some of the display suites which, to my mind, were more about showing off the designers than showing off the suites. Many of the 'look at me' furnishings are too large for the rooms, something any of the city's many fine apartment stagers can attest to. Here are three more ideas:

1. Increase the value of Millennium's 119 unit Rental Housing Apartments

Over the past few months, Millennium has preparing to sell its 119 rental housing units to another investor. The city could increase the value of these units by allowing them to be 'strata-titled' now, and sold-off after a predetermined date. Say five or ten years. SFU did the same thing with the Cornerstone Rental units at UniverCity, with considerable success.

This could add tens of millions of dollars in value, without affecting the current lease up program, since few, if any renters are expecting to be in these units for 10 years.

2. Offer Innovative and Creative Financing Programs: Rent to Own, Shared Equity, Shared Ownership, etc.

I do not think the city should be renting out too many more units. On the contrary, more owner-occupiers will benefit the community character and the value of the other condominium homes.

While we tend to think in terms of buying or renting, there are many 'hybrid' forms of tenure elsewhere in the world, especially in the UK and US. These programs often allow people to purchase homes that they might not otherwise be able to afford through 'shared ownership'. While such programs may not be appropriate for the very high priced units, they could be effective for the lower priced units. Furthermore, when properly structured, these arrangements need not cost the partnering agency money.

In this case, while the prices may be lower in the beginning, the city would recover the balance of the purchase price over time. And the city does have a long term horizon. While I generally prefer to avoid programs that depend on price appreciation, in this case, given the nature of the area, I think it is reasonable to assume that values will increase over time.

From Wikipedia:

Equity sharing, also known as shared ownership or in the US as housing equity partnership (HEP), allows a person to purchase a share in their home even if they cannot afford a mortgage on the whole of the current value. It is generally used in affordable housing, providing a "third way" of land tenure between home ownership and renting.

There are various detailed methods to implement equity sharing, and it is implemented in over a hundred community land trusts in the United States. The remaining equity share may be held by the housebuilder or by a landlord such as a housing association. In some models the resident pays rent on that share.

3. Enliven the Community

As I wrote in previous posts, and reported by Jeff Lee in the Vancouver Sun, in order to accelerate sales there is a need to create more community life. This means more than just filling up units. It is necessary to get more retailers in place, if only on an interim basis, to provide services and activity. For example, there are no cafes or places to eat at the moment. Why not set up businesses in the vacant spaces? I'm told that the Salt Building was going to be a pub, but the tenant has decided not to proceed. If this is true, why not set up a temporary pub operation in the large space, until a permanent tenant is ready to lease and undertake costly improvements?

The city also needs to carry out some repairs and improvements. Unfortunately, a vehicle has driven into one of the columns ourside of a future retail space, breaking the pre-cast panels. This and other deficiencies need to be repaired right away. The city should also finish off the landscaping it was planning to do. It should also remove the gravel areas along First Avenue and ugly chain link fencing surrounding its social housing/rental projects. Now that the Hornby Bicycle Lane is almost finished, those crews should be mandated to upgrade the grounds around the Olympic Village with a similar level of diligence and haste. Other landscaping needs upgrading and improving. Much could be done to improve the general look of the neighbourhood.

The city should also start planning a program of festivals, sustainability fairs, and other events to bring people down to the area. We could start with a Christmas Tree lighting ceremony and other similar activities. While I know the sales program may not start until February, let's not put this off too long. If nothing else, the city owes it to those residents who have moved in to see a better community environment.

And finally, the city should instruct its traffic wardens never to ticket and tow cars parked in front of the presentation centre ever again. This is not good for sales!

I hope this is helpful.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Real Estate Foundation: Land Awards Gala Dinner November 18, 2010

This is the first time the Real Estate Foundation has held an awards program and it should be an event well worth attending. I will be there since I was pleased to be invited to be one of the judges, along with Gary Runka, Moira Quayle, and a few others who will be there to present awards.

I will share some secrets. The jury was very, very diverse. I was the only architect and developer...the others were an agrologist, landscape architect, leader of the Enviromental Youth Alliance, etc. Furthermore, there were a lot more submissions than any of us expected. In order to facilitate the jurying process, we each had to evaluate all the submissions in the weeks leading up to the jurying date.

However, when we finally got together, we were astounded to discover that in nearly all cases, we were unanimous on the selections. Gary Runka , (one of the principal creators of the ALR and the first GM of the Agricultural Land Commission) and I agreed on 8 of 9 selections. In the past 35 years, we have hardly ever agreed on anything!

It should be a gratifying and entertaining evening. Kennedy is an impressive thinker and speaker, and Gary Mason is still on a roll from his successes at the Webster Awards. While the event is almost sold out, at the time of writing I am told there are some tickets left.

I hope you can join us.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Remembrance Day movie for those who appreciate those who fight to expose the truth

On the recommendation of members of my Men's Book Club, and the Roundtable Discussion Group, I went to see Fair Game, a movie now playing at the Park Theatre and other cinemas. It is excellent, and well worth seeing for anyone who admires those who are prepared to risk their lives in order to expose the truth.

The movie, based on a couple of books, covers true events leading up to the US war in Iraq. It is not a happy movie, since the tragic consequences of this war will take decades, if not centuries, to overcome. But I recommend it to anyone who would like to see how decisions were made in the Bush administration, to justify a war that should never have happened.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Arbutus Village: One more neighbourhood on the warpath about development?

Frances Bula had a recent post about the community opposition to a proposal to redevelop the Arbutus Village Shopping Centre with a new 'urban village' with a mix of retail, office and housing. Apparently thousands of people have signed a petition opposing the development since the Arbutus Kerrisdale Shaunessey Vision Statement opposed new housing on this parking lot.

I was once a consultant on this proposal. While I suspect the developer and architect would prefer that I not comment, given the many ill-informed comments on Frances' blog, I think some thoughtful planning judgement and common sense needs to be brought to this situation. This is the type of development that must be allowed to proceed.

You can find Frances Bula's post and the notice from ARKS at http://www.francesbula.com/olympic-village/arbutus-one-more-neighbourhood-on-the-warpath-about-development/comment-page-1/#comment-52986. Here are my thoughts:

As a former advisor to Larco on this redevelopment, I am astounded at the mis-information and some of the opinions expressed on this post.

Firstly, unless the proposal has changed dramatically since I was involved, there is no intention to replace retail with housing. Rather, the intention is to retain the food store, liquor store, neighbourhood retail (dry cleaners, restaraurant, etc) and professional offices and ADD housing above, and around the commercial space. The retail will be transformed from a very uncomfortable ‘mall experience’ to a more pleasant street oriented retail.

The architects are Dialogue (formerly Hotson Bakker et al) who were the architects and planners for Granville Island. I was involved with their selection and thought they were a good choice because of their ability to create a pleasant shopping environment.

The residential densities are much highert than the current zoning, but modest compared to some of the new projects around the city. In my opinion, they are quite appropriate for the size and context of the property. The building form is terraced mid-rise, rather than high rise, to relate to the nearby buildings.

I have not seen the latest plans, but if they look like a bunker as one critic has suggested, then they should be modified, since the developer’s intention has always been to create something attractive that will appeal to residents of the area. I understand there is a mix of housing types and sizes.

So why the substantial objection to all of this? Why doesn’t it fit with the ‘vision’?

Because the vision does not support any housing on this large parking area. The vision is absolutely wrong, and those who support it are wrong.

If you can’t add well designed housing to a large parking lot in the middle of an established area, on an arterial road, where should you add housing?

As for those concerned about ‘spot rezoning’, it should be noted that this proposal did go through a comprehensive two stage planning process, establishing a policy framework to serve as the basis for the subsequent rezoning application.

While I like many of the people who are opposed to this development, they should realize that this is precisely the type of redevelopment that should be occuring in our city. I just hope that all of the people in the community who support this development, and I know that there are many, will speak up.

But even if they don’t, it will be a tragedy if this Council would reject this proposal just because hundreds or thousands of people sign a petition against housing on a large parking lot on an arterial road in a part of the city that desperately needs alternative housing choices.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

From the North Shore Outlook

Return of the cottage?

by Michael McCarthy

At one point, West Vancouver resembled more of a forest – a tiny slice of country life, far away from busy urban life. There were beachfront cottages with lovely gardens and porches that boasted scenic ocean views.

And, if well-known local designer Michael Geller begin_of_the_skype_highlighting end_of_the_skype_highlighting gets his wish, the return of the Craftsman Cottage will soon be upon us, harkening back to the those early, seemingly simpler times.

“What I have in mind is a ‘downsizing but not downscaling’ demonstration project in the block bounded by Esquimalt, 20th Street, Fulton and 21st Street,” says Geller, over a cup of tea. “It’s really infill housing, but making maximum use of the available space in a fashion that fits into the character of the neighbourhood or ‘gentle densification’ that would allow two or three homes to be built on one appropriately located lot.”

Geller’s proposal has been going through the planning and approval process in West Vancouver for some time.

Known as Bowling Green, the properties sit adjacent to the West Van lawn bowling club, next to the seniors’ and community centres just off Marine Drive.

Geller describes this location as a “most suitable” place for this type of housing. His proposal is to redevelop three single-family properties with three smaller duplexes and three coach houses.

West Vancouver city planner Stephen Mikicich explains that the cottages – which are really just duplexes and coach houses – will average about 1,400-square-feet, with one larger unit at 1,700-square-feet. But after several public meetings, he says the community seems split on the proposal.

“There has been some concern expressed about changes to the character of the neighbourhood and about parking,” he says. “Also, will it set a precedent for other projects? But there has also been a lot of interest in new housing like this and a lot of people have told us they like it.”

City staff will report to council in December or January about changes to the Official Community Plan (OCP) amendment effecting this particular block. Any rezoning will not set a precedent for other sites in the city.

In order for this type of housing to be built, Geller says, the proposal will need some help. Required first are both an amendment and a rezoning. Rather than “spot-zone” just these three properties, the District of West Vancouver, with the support of the adjacent property owners, is proposing to amend the OCP) for the full block.

This will allow council to consider re-zoning for the remaining properties, which could be redeveloped over time with similar forms of housing providing they respect the surrounding neighbourhood’s single-family character.

“I am hopeful that this project will be approved in order to help people understand what ‘gentle densification’ could look like in West Vancouver,” says Geller.

On May 18, West Van hosted a public forum on housing titled: “Housing that Fits Us and Fits In,” focussing on the topic of infill housing which said infills could include a detached modest-sized dwelling (1,500-sq.-ft.) added to a property with an existing single-family property.

It could also be two smaller houses sharing one lot. Or, a smaller house on a smaller subdivided plot. A modest-scale attached dwelling units in a duplex (two units) or triplex (three units) would also fit the bill. As discussed in the forum, infill housing is seen as “bridging the gap” in housing choices between the two most prominent options in West Vancouver, a single-family house or an apartment in a multi-family residential building.

“The demand is huge, and there are two main target markets for this sort of development,” Geller explains. “First are the owners of large lots and large houses where the family has left. These ‘empty nesters’ may wish to move to a smaller unit, but they don’t want to move to an apartment or townhouse. Then there are those owners of small houses on small lots. Either way, there is a demand for a new type of housing in West Vancouver. I use the word ‘infill’ because that’s what it really describes.”

Nowhere in the discussions about densification and retaining neighbourhood character is there any mention of another, more serious, subject of aging.

West Vancouver is one of the oldest communities in Canada, and there remains a huge need for appropriate accommodations for those people who have outgrown the homes in which they have always lived.

Geller says he has given this topic much thought, and incorporated his thinking into the overall design of the cottages.

Not only will there be front porches to put up one’s feet and space to raise one’s rose bushes, but each of the two-bedroom duplexes will have its own ensuite bathroom. Not for unwanted offspring to hang around beyond their past due date, but just in case one’s spouse happens to snore or you might need a caregiver nearby. When it comes to building quality infill developments in choice locations, it helps to think of everything.


Friday, November 5, 2010

Olympic Village Update

Lots of media coverage today on the Olympic Village. There are two stories: one relates to a last minute Vancouver City Council decision last night to lease one of the three social housing/market rental housing projects to a soon to be created entity under the auspices of the Coop Housing Federation (CHF), and appoint another arm of the CHF as interim operators of the other two parcels.

The other story relates to the sale of the market condominiums. Frances Bula writes in the Globe and Mail that the city is refusing to approve the revised pricing schedule, prepared by Bob Rennie and Millennium, until Millennium posts more equity as security.

So what do these stories really mean?

First the social and rental housing. The 252 units cost $110 million excluding land. While I suggested it made sense to sell these units, and make a profit of between $25 and $68 million, (according to the city staff report), to be used to fund other social housing, rather than subsidize them to the tune of $64.1 million, in April Council voted to keep the units as affordable and rental housing. With assistance from BC Housing, the City issued a call for proposals to take over and manage these units. However, only three bids were received and all were rejected by the Province, which was being asked to guarantee the financing for the operators. As a result, six months after the Olympics, the units are all vacant.

The only organization to submit a bid for all three parcels was the Portland Hotel Society, a very capable organization which historically provides housing and services for the 'hard to house' in the Downtown Eastside. Jim Green and many others were advocating that this group be selected by the city to manage the units. I was concerned that if PHS was selected, it could have negative impacts on the value of the unsold condominium units.

Last night Council decided to enter into a lease with a new entity, to be created by the CHF for one of the three projects, rather than the PHS. However, the City also agreed to write down the cost of these units substantially, and to guarantee the financing. While CHF is a better choice than PHS, it seems a shame to be heavily subsidizing the cost of these units, three quarters of which will be 'rented' at market, when they could have been sold. While I am disappointed the units won't be sold, I do have confidence in the CHF to fill up and manage the project in a responsible manner. It will fill up and manage the units for up to two years until the city can find a permanent operator, most likely through another Call for Proposals.

The Condominium Units The bigger story is what is going to happen to the condominium units? Everyone agrees that the prices established by the developer and his marketing team, at levels sufficient to repay the city's loan, are too high for the marketplace. After six months, I'm told that less than 40 units have been sold. Bob Rennie wanted to put in place 'momentum pricing' in order to get sales started, on the expectation that prices could be raised over time. This was the right thing to do. However, since the city is now the lender, it had to approve any price reductions, and it won't. That's right, it won't since it wants assurance that any shortfalls will be covered by the developer....up front. Since the projected shortfall could be in the hundreds of millions, the city is looking for substantial 'security'....either cash or other properties.

However, while I do not know the developer's corporate and personal financial situation, it is unlikely that he can or will put up a lot more money or security at this stage. So, as Frances Bula notes, there's a stand-off. Meanwhile, Millennium is apparently obligated to make another $75 million payment in January.

My prediction? Given all the publicity surrounding the fact that the prices are too high, and the city's decision on the social and rental housing, I suspect that there will not be a lot of sales in the coming months (unless prices are reduced). As a result, the city will take back the project from the developer in the new year, and then what?

Well, I am told that City staff have had discussions with at least one other developer to see if he's interested in buying the project as a block. The problem with this is that the price could well be below the loan amount, and everyone will know just how much the City is losing. I therefore suspect that a more likely scenario is that the majority (or perhaps all) of the units will be rented out...yes, rented out. This way, no one will really know just how much we are losing since we can say that we'll make a big profit on their sale in ten years. And indeed, we might. But my analysis suggests that the monthly losses (since the rents may cover only a third to half of the costs), and the loss of property taxes, etc. will cost the city hundreds of millions for the next ten years.

Will this affect our taxes? Only indirectly, since all the money will likely come out of the Property Endowment Fund..it will likely affect our credit rating, but the losses won't come out of operating budgets. But considering that the city was hoping to get another $173 million from the developer to cover the costs of the shoreline works, parks, community centre, daycare, plaza, etc....the reductions in the Property Endowment Fund will be very, very significant.

A final comment. One of the main financial objections by city staff to my proposal to sell the social/rental housing was that this might compromise the sale of the market units. The mayor also questioned whether there was a market for these units. Meanwhile, Peter Wall has just sold 280 units at prices comparable to what I was proposing for these units...(yes I know these are pre-sales, but....) and at the end of the day, there is a good chance the market units will not be sold! Another irony.

The Heritage and Sustainability Nexus

I am delighted to serve as the moderator for a Vancouver Heritage Foundation symposium happening today at the Wosk Centre for Dialogue. The featured speaker is Carl Elefante, the guy who coined the phrase: “The greenest building is the one that is already built.” He is Director of Sustainable Design at Qunin Evans Architects, Washington, D.C.

While the event is sold out, it is being videotaped and much of the discussion will be available afterwards. Here is the line up:

Keynote Speaker

Carl Elefante, FAIA, LEED AP, Quinn Evans Architects, Washington D.C.

Carl Elefante is Director of Sustainability for Quinn Evans Architects, with offices in Washington DC and Ann Arbor, Michigan, and design principal for a broad spectrum of projects including architecture, historic preservation, and community revitalization. Mr. Elefante lectures nationally on historic preservation and sustainable design topics. Mr. Elefante served on the Sustainable Communities Task Force of President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development and sits on the Board of Directors of AIA Maryland and the Association for Preservation Technology International.


Mark Hartman, Buildings Energy Programs Manager at City Of Vancouver

Mark works in the Sustainability Group at the City of Vancouver. He is responsible for meeting city council's climate protection and sustainability-related targets to lower the energy use and associated greenhouse gases in new and existing buildings. In addition to working on Vancouver's new Green Homes Program, Vancouver's upcoming commercial renovation by-law, and projects related to the retrofit of civic facilities, Mark has established a number of community incentive programs to encourage conservation in existing residential and commercial buildings to help Vancouver work towards its goal of becoming the greenest city in the world by 2020. Mark has worked 25 years in the energy industry, holds an M.B.A. from Heriot-Watt University and is a LEED accredited professional.

Now House® -- Zero Energy Retrofits

Lorraine Gauthier, Partner, Work Worth Doing

Lorraine Gauthier is co-founder of Work Worth Doing a design firm with a mission to create positive social and environmental change. Since 2006, Lorraine has led the firm’s boldest enterprise, the Now House project – an award winning process for retrofitting older homes to near zero energy use. Their first Now House was completed in Toronto in 2008, and was selected as one of 12 winning projects from across Canada in CMHC’s Equilibrium Sustainable Housing Design Competition. The team has replicated the Now House process in four cities in Ontario including, most recently, the Now House Windsor 5 project carried out with Windsor Essex Community Housing Corporation. Lorraine has served on the faculty of design at OCAD University and is a member of the board of Homes First Foundation, supporting homeless families and individuals in Toronto.

Energy Efficiency in Traditional Homes


Natalie is a recent graduate of the Environmental Technologies program at Camosun College. She has been involved in many local environmental groups, including Swan Lake Nature Sanctuary, LifeCycles Project Society, Camosun Students for Environmental Awareness, and the Compost Education Centre, where she has been a board member for the past two years. Past work experience in this field includes stints as Project Assistant for the Black Gold Challenge at the Compost Education Centre and as Project Coordinator for the Homes and Habitats project – a four-home naturescape project at Habitat for Humanity site. Recently Natalie’s focus has shifted to urban issues, including participating in her local neighbourhood action group and conducting a research project on boulevard trees health and sustainability. Natalie assists the Executive Director and Coordinators in a variety of business and program development projects.

  1. Pam Copley or Richard Linzey,

Province of British Columbia Heritage Branch


Daniel Roberts, Dip. Eng. Design, LEED® AP, Kane Consulting

As Founder of Kane Consulting, Daniel is committed to providing a synergistic approach for the advancement of sustainable design from individual buildings, to our community and beyond. He has a strong understanding of the integrated design process and believes this holistic process is ideal in aiding a project team to fulfill their sustainability goals. Daniel has a proven track record as a strong resource for implementing sustainable design practices and has extensive project experience utilizing the LEED at every level.


David Dove, MAIBC, MRAIC, LEED® A.P., Busby Perkins + Will

David Dove is a Principal with the award-winning Vancouver office of Busby Perkins+Will, which has been producing leading-edge Green building designs for 25 years. David leads the firm’s Civic, Corporate, Commercial / Mixed-use studios. With a portfolio of projects that range from the 65 s.m. White Rock Operations Centre (Canada’s first LEED Gold new construction building) to a 95,000 sm Marine Gateway mixed-use development, the common thread of David’s work is an adherence to a rigorous modern aesthetic and a commitment to sustainable design solutions. David has worked on projects in Canada, the US and overseas and has lectured broadly on issues of Sustainable Architecture and the work of his office.

NATHANIEL FUNK M Arch, IA (NCARB), Shape Architecture

Case Study: 662 + 666 Union Street

Nathaniel brings a critical and exploratory approach to SHAPE. His experience with large commercial projects, residential design and material fabrication enables him to deliver projects of all scales and complexity. Before arriving in Vancouver, Nathaniel spent several years practicing architecture in Chicago where he played a significant role on the award winning Macomb Daily Press Hall, Hospira Laboratory and Technical Center and the Kalamazoo International Airport. His work with the University of Chicago, Michigan State University and Abbott Laboratories has given him experience managing technical and visioning aspects of institutional projects. Nathaniel holds a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture from Judson University and a Master of Architecture from UBC. He continues to pursue research in digital design and fabrication and he maintains an architecture instructor position at Arts Umbrella in Vancouver. Nathaniel is currently taking the lead on coordinating the construction of the UBC Tennis Centre.


Principal, Recollective Consulting

Case Study: Friedman Building, UBC

Eesmyal has over eight years experience in the field of sustainable design and has worked as a green building strategist and LEED consultant since 2003. His building industry experience includes office, institutional, laboratories, residential, mixed-use, and heath care facilities. Eesmyal was a LEED project reviewer for the Canada Green Building Council and has played a leading or support role on over 40 LEED projects. He is very active in the Vancouver green building community and serves on several committees and initiatives. In addition to his green building background, Eesmyal spent several years working for environmental organizations in the fields of renewable energy research and climate change education. Eesmyal is a Director of Open Green Building Society, an NGO dedicated to the creation and advancement of freely available open-source green building resources. He is also a Director of Vancouver Design Nerds Society, a network of collaborating designers and artists who share a desire to engage design opportunities with a spirit of creative play and to challenge the normative environment of the city.

STEPHANIE MAINGOT, (and John Flipse)

Case Study: 1636 Charles St.

Stephanie & John’s Edwardian house just turned 100-years-old and is still standing strong! It was featured on the 2008 VHF heritage house tour, as well as in VHF publication “New Life, Old Buildings.” It’s in the heart of Commercial Drive, one of Vancouver’s most eclectic neighbourhoods. Stephanie says, “I first fell in love with Commercial Drive when studying for my undergraduate degree. I shared the upper floor of a heritage home just a few blocks away from where we live now. My roommate and I each had a little balcony off our bedrooms, with stunning views of the cityscape and mountains. That’s when my dream of buying and renovating a character home in the area first took root.” In 2004, Stephanie and John renovated their unfinished basement with these principles in mind: a long-standing appreciation for heritage architecture and preservation, energy efficiency, and the effective use of space. Now we’re official amateur designers, decorators, building contractors, painters, and much more!

Homeowners are often left so shell-shocked by renovating heritage properties, they swear they’ll never do it again. This is unfortunate, since learning effects are lost and preservation is such an important contribution to sustainability. To help remedy this, Stephanie is currently working on a book proposal entitled Dodging Divorce Dust: A Homeowner’s Guide to Renovations with Happy Endings. The book concentrates on the emotional world of homeowners, helping them navigate the psychological pitfalls of renovating. Sample chapters include “Keeping Renovations Family Friendly,” and “Renovating with a Conscience.”