Friday, January 28, 2011

The Third Annual SCARP Symposium Metropolis: Growing Just or Just Growing?

Here's an event happening next Friday that I think could be most interesting....I'm looking forward to participating on a panel discussing social diversity and in particular, a desired future for the Downtown Eastside

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Some more musings on 150 foot buildings in Chinatown and the DTES

The discussion regarding the appropriateness of more buildings up to 150 feet in height in Chinatown and the DTES is continuing. Frances Bula has written about it, and many are talking about it. In the last few days, I have often been asked my views. So the following is a modified version of comments I posted this morning on Frances Bula's site.

I am troubled by the notion that we should consider taller buildings in Chinatown because some businessmen in the Chinatown community think this will lead to economic revitalization.

Conversely, I am troubled by the claims of 30 ‘learned’ academics that we should not allow taller buildings since they will result in a loss of affordable housing for the poor, and gentrification in the area.

With respect to the first comment, revitalization is already happening in Chinatown and in a limited number of DTES locations. I appreciate that some of the Chinatown merchants may not like the changes being brought about by the two new condominium projects V6A and Ginger, and the new restaurants and professional offices opening up in the area that are bringing a new demographic into the area, but the reality is that our Chinatown has changed forever, as a result of the emergence of Richmond’s ‘Chinatown’ and other 'Chinatowns' around the region.

In my opinion, there will continue to be new condominium developments catering to hip young buyers in Chinatown regardless of whether the height limits allow 10 storeys or 16 storeys. But I fear that allowing 5 new buildings up to 16 storeys along Main Street, (as staff are suggesting might be possible), will ultimately lead to a very different character for the area. It’s not just the five buildings…it’s the five more buildings that come afterwards, and then another five buildings and so on....

I worry that these taller buildings along Main Street will likely detract from the heritage character of the area. One reason I worry is that I don’t know what the new buildings will look like. That is why I have suggested to staff that they prepare drawings illustrating what 16 storey buildings might look like from different angles.

Now I admit I might be wrong. So please show me and others the pictures. Then we will all be in a more informed position to comment.

I also admit that some of my concerns are rooted in the above mentioned notion that taller buildings are necessary for economic revitalization. To me this is nonesense. I just don’t believe it.

So what’s the solution, In addition to seeing some illustrations, I would like to hear from architect Joe Wai, who has been working in Chinaotwn for four decades, and knows the area much better than me. He also understands what tall buildings can, and cannot do.

And although we have heard from 30 ‘learned academics’, I would also like to hear from other academics, especially those who are knowledgeable about architecture and planning.

I am troubled by the silence of professors from the School of Community and Regional Planning and the Faculty of Architecture at UBC. I would like to hear their views on the staff report.

I would also like to hear from more professionals in Vancouver’s architectural and planning community. I know some are conflicted, and some may be reluctant to speak out since they worry doing so might compromise their ability to get approvals from staff or Councils in the future. But the planning of important heritage areas in the city are at stake.

I think we all deserve second or third opinions on these important planning propositions.

(And while the professors and architects/planners are at it, I hope they will comment on the building heights/views/capacity report for the downtown.

And then they can comment on other current proposals for taller buildings and higher densities around the city.)

To be honest, I don’t know what they will say. They may completely disagree with my concerns, but I think it is important for staff and Council to hear from these people…not just from caring sociologists and related academics who might have been asked by activists concerned about the potential gentrification of the DTES (or by other colleagues who were approached by activists concerned about the potential gentrification of the DTES).

I would like to conclude on the subject of gentrification, which along with ‘revitalization’ seems to be at the root of this discussion,

I understand gentrification to mean the eviction of lower income households by the ‘gentry’ who move into an area as it is being revitalized and improved.

In the case of the DTES, a lot of the lower income households are living in affordable housing stock that is protected…since it is owned by governments and non-profits, or covered by anti-demolition bylaws. I acknowledge that some of the housing may be deliberately allowed to run-down, but the city can take steps to prevent this from happening too.

Furthermore, whether the building heights are 10 storeys or 16 storeys, we are going to see condominium development in both the DTES and Chinatown…and I think this is a good thing….they will result in healthier, more interesting and diverse communities.

The current situation in the DTES and Chinatown is not acceptable…there is a need for a broader social and income mix, and yes revitalization. But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. This might happen unless we better understand the ramifications of more 150 foot buildings.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Chinatown Towers: my suggestion to the Planning Department

I note that Council has pulled the proposal for the new heights in the DTES, but is sending the Chinatown increased heights, including the tower proposals to Public Hearing. So here's my suggestion.

While I'm sure the buildings will not look like the 16 storey buildings illustrated above, I think I'm right that 150 high (16 storey) buildings will be out of scale on most if not all of the proposed Chinatown sites, but I could be wrong. So, in advance of the Public Hearing, it would seem entirely appropriate for the city planning department to prepare drawings illustrating what buildings of this height would look like from different angles on each of these sites. Then we'll all be able to formulate more informed opinions.

So far, I have seen the long term view impact of the proposed height increase, and would note that while the additional height doesn't obliterate the top of the mountains, it does reduce the amount of mountains visible from the designated viewpoint. However, I think the neighbourhood views are more important, and we should be able to see these...

This seems quite reasonable, doesn't it. Perhaps if enough people make this suggestion to the city staff and members of council, it may happen.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Form and Character in Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside.

A report is going to Council today supporting what some might call modest increases in building heights in Chinatown and the DTES. The issue of building height in this area has been under consideration ever since a few developers proposed a few very tall towers in the area about four years ago.

I became involved in this discussion in late 2007 when I became a director of the Building Community Society (BCS), that included Mike Harcourt, Ray Spaxman, Larry Beasley, Michael Clague, Gerry Zipursky, Joe Wai and others. From the onset, I was opposed to the taller buildings, and found myself in an unusual alliance with DTES activists who also opposed taller buildings, albeit for different reasons than me. My major concern was that they would dilute the unique heritage character of the area.

Now, three years later, there is a proposal from City staff, as directed by Council, to increase building heights in a much more modest way. Some increases are quite nominal, but in some instances, Council is going to consider allowing buildings to increase to 150 feet, equal to a 16 or 17 storey building. I remain opposed to this, along with DTES activists (many of whom do not want to see any condominiums in the area). But now Mike Harcourt, as Chair of BCS has written a very public letter to Mayor and Council urging them to not approve the additional heights in the absence of a comprehensive local area plan for the area. I agree with this position.

Furthermore, 30 UBC and SFU professors have written a letter arguing that Council should not approve the additional heights since it will lead to a loss of affordable housing, due to gentrification.

Robert Matas has a short story on the Council Report supporting building height increases in the DTES, and the professors' response in this morning's Globe & Mail.

As Matas notes, the issue is whether the proposal to allow towers will directly result in the demolition of low income SRO's. I don't think it will. Many of these hotels are now owned by the Province and non-profits. Moreover, Council has a variety of measures at its disposal to ensure that the privately owned facilities are properly maintained and not demolished ...unless new replacement housing is built.

One city councillor stated on the CBC news this morning that this modest proposal is simply to contribute to the revitalization of Chinatown. However, Chinatown is already starting to be revitalized. I realize that some longstanding Chinese merchants and others may not like the changes that new developments like Ginger and V6A are bringing. However, the reality is that the old Chinatown will never come's now in Richmond.

But there is no doubt in my mind that the character of the area is starting to change....for the better, as evidenced by the new restaurants, and some new condominium buildings offering ownership and rental housing, and this revitalization will slowly continue...slowly... and yes it is slowly. Chinatown now has the potential to become a special character area in the city, with a very diverse mix of businesses and households. Some may call this gentrification, but I would argue it is only gentrification if the low income households are forced to move out.

The city can ensure that this will not happen. But first it needs to listen to Harcourt, Spaxman and the Building Community Society, and yes, to the university professors, and reject today's proposal for additional heights. Because, while are reasons may vary, one thing is clear. The proposals for higher buildings in the DTES and Chinatown are misguided.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

I love the irony. Geoff Meggs no longer supports socially mixed communities

Off course, Geoff Meggs does support socially mixed communities. but if you read on, you'll see that he may be supporting a motion that removes low income housing from the north shore of False Creek, where it is needed, and added to the DTES, where it is not needed.

Jeff Lee has a story in today's Vancouver Sun about Concord's proposal to donate 2 DTES sites in lieu of including social housing in the next phase of False Creek north. I can't help but note the irony of Geoff Megg's reluctant support for the proposition.

When I suggested a while back that the city not meet the social housing requirement at Olympic Village, and instead sell the sites and use the much needed money to build out social housing on the north shore of False Creek or elsewhere, Jim Green wrote in the Vancouver Sun that was prejudiced towards poor people. At the time, Geoff Meggs, who I consider a bright and capable guy, took great delight in posting Jim Green's mean-spirited article criticizing me on his website.

And now Geoff seems to be prepared to support a proposal that excludes social housing from the next phase of False Creek North! Why, because the city doesn't have the money to build out the sites it already has on the North Shore of False Creek....something I pointed out in my earlier proposals.

But there's a big the case of the Olympic Village, there was over $100 million at stake...the difference between the city selling and keeping the sites. $100 million that the City would not lose on the OV project. In this instance, if the Council approves the deal, the city gets two sites with assessed values of under $10 million. Thats a difference of a very significant zero! It is worth noting that the total number of units is not that dissimilar.

Furthermore, in this particular instance, the proposition will result in two more social housing sites in the DTES and a further concentration of low income people in that community....a community that desperately needs a broader social mix.

I supported a previous proposal by Concord to build affordable condominiums on the site at 58 West Hastings and still think it is an excellent location for affordable condominiums next to a social housing project. Alternatively, I can forsee a plan for a mix of condos and housing for local and international artists, that would be a great addition to the DTES community.

So what's the solution? A better deal would be for the city to work out an arrangement with Concord that will see new social housing developed on one of the previously identified social housing sites on False Creek North. After all, Geoff and Jim Green and their colleagues keep pointing out how important it is to have socially mixed communities....and a different solution for Concord's DTES sites.

If Geoff does support the staff report and motion that goes before Council on Tuesday, I do hope he will acknowledge that maybe I wasn't being prejudiced towards the poor when I made a proposition that would have added social housing to the north shore of False Creek. And Geoff need not have any concerns about compromising his re-election campaign, which a reporter recently noted is now underway on his website. I am not planning to run in November's election.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Aussie Humour: the latest in ladies footwear

Never let it be said the Aussies don't have a wonderful sense of humour. Someone in Brisbane sent this photo of the latest in ladies' footwear to a my Aussie colleague Ian Thomas.

Tragedy in Brisbane

On this, the one year anniversary on the Haiti earthquake, my thoughts are with the city of Brisbane. Above is a photo I took four years ago as my plane took off after four wonderful days in this sophisticated, urbane city. I just heard someone speaking from the city tell Rick Cluff of CBC's Early Edition that the water is up to the 14th floor of their 26th storey office building. Say this isn't so. It can't be true.

When I was there, the city was suffering through an incredible drought. Now it's flooding. What's next?

Note: I read in today's paper (January 13) that a waterfront restaurant called Drift is now literally adrift, as a portion broke away and is now being carried down the river. I can just hear some Aussies having a good chuckle about the sad irony of this happening. Aussies have a wonderful sense of humour, as evidenced by the latest footwear illustrated above!)

Friday, January 7, 2011

Monte Paulsen's Going Green in The Tyee

Monte Paulsen knows more about housing than most people I meet in the housing industry. A few years ago he focussed on housing affordability in a series for the Tyee. Now he's examing the costs and benefits of 'going green'.

Here are links to his first two columns. In a future posting, I will share some observations on what's he's written. But in the meanwhile, I would urge you to read what he has to say.

First installment:

Second installment:

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Barney's Version: Don't miss it!

Late last year I had a chance to see 'Last of the Wild Jews', a documentary about the life of Mordechai Richler. Ever since, I have been waiting for Barney's Version to arrive in Vancouver. Thanks to Rory Richards, the extraordinary media/PR/Events lady, I was able to enjoy an advance screening last night. The movie will open to the general public on January 14 at Fifth Avenue, and hopefully other theatres. My advice? Don't miss it.

The movie is an excellent adaptation of the somewhat autobiographical book by Mordechai Richler. However you do not have to have read the book to enjoy the movie. Similarly, you don't have to be a Montrealer. However, since it is filmed in and around Montreal, former Montrealers and visitors to Montreal alike will enjoy seeing familiar sights and settings.

One thing that did strike me about the movie was the excellent casting. From the outrageous Dustin Hoffman as Barney's dad, who manages to upset the Rabbi's wife with his earthy language, to Minnie Driver who plays a very realistic Jewish Princess most concerned that Barney has 'washed it properly' before she's heading under the covers, everyone is surprisingly credible and entertaining in their roles.

Since this is an independent Canadian film, it's hard to know just how long a run this it will have. Apparently, the better the initial turnout, the greater the number of screens and the longer the run. So please go and see it as soon as you can. If you don't like it, let me know and I'll give you your money back. Or lend you one of my Richler books. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

12 Predictions for 2011

As we look forward to another year, here are 12 predictions for 2011

With both the Liberals and NDP seeking leadership candidates, one extremely popular figure steps forward and offers to serve as the leader of both parties simultaneously. While the Liberals agree to the arrangement, the NDP does not. Jenny Kwan subsequently runs for the NDP leadership and narrowly defeats Moe Sihota, thus ensuring a Liberal victory in the next election.The Liberals pick one of the two women who ran in the contest. Many delegates claim that it was her honesty, wicked wit and no-bullshit approach to politics that won them over.

The City of Vancouver follows the Receiver’s advice and selects three companies to market the unsold Olympic Village units. Bob Rennie sells Millennium’s 119 rental housing units to his portfolio of investors at higher than expected prices after the city agrees to strata title the building. George Wong’s creative international marketing program for the Erickson ‘sardine cans’ is a great hit with buyers from Singapore to Geneva. MAC Marketing’s highly publicized OV Auction is also a resounding success. Nonetheless, after it is realized the sales proceeds are still not sufficient to cover the city’s outstanding loan and site development costs, one Vision Councillor proposes that perhaps a few of the social housing units could be sold to make up the difference. He is re-elected in November.
Following a continuous flurry of accidents, new traffic lights are installed at the north end of the Burrard Street Bridge to guide motorists and cyclists. Although there is a substantial turnover in local businesses along Hornby Street, the Bike Lane Trial is deemed a success. However the Mayor wisely announces a moratorium on any more Bike Lane Trials until after the November election.On April 1st, the Mayor announces that last year’s April 1st proposal for a shelter for homeless chickens was really an April Fool’s Day joke, and he was disappointed that most Vancouverites didn’t get it. He then announces that any residents who turn their front yards into vegetable gardens will get a $200 rebate on their property taxes. Vancouver bloggers are divided over whether this too is a joke.That evening, after 11 nights of Public Hearings, Vancouver City Council decides not to approve the 1401 Comox STIR rezoning, but agrees to allow the developer to add the same square footage to his Telus proposal in exchange for an additional $21.7 million Community Amenity Contribution. After the meeting, outside the Council Chamber, the developer asks the Vancouver Sun’s Jeff Lee whether this might be another April Fools’ Day joke.Vancouver’s first BikeShare Program, orchestrated by Gordon Price and Peter Ladner is a great success after the Vancouver Police Department decrees that those riding the chunky fluorescent green bikes at less than 20 kph need not wear helmets.Coquitlam becomes the first Canadian municipality to convert its minimum parking standards into maximum parking standards. In making the announcement, Mayor Richard Stewart encourages other municipalities to follow suit. “What were we thinking?” exclaims the Mayor noting in light of climate change, society’s goal should be to decrease the number of cars on the road, not increase them.After its directors spend a night sleeping in a city homeless shelter, Vancouver’s Streetohome Foundation decides to broaden the range of its activities. New programs include housing the homeless in scattered apartments around the city, personal grooming, job training, and friend and family reunification.Three Metro Vancouver municipalities agree to participate in a Metro Vancouver Research and Demonstration Initiative to encourage the rezoning of neighbourhood sites to permit small single family houses, duplexes and coach houses. At the announcement, the respective Mayors admit that they grew up in homes of less than 1000 square feet and thought others in their municipalities should now be given the same chance.Urged on by many Vancouverites’ seeking a change at City Hall, Carole Taylor agrees to run as an independent Mayoral candidate, and wins. Following her victory, a number of international companies, including some whose Chairmen served with her on the HSBC Board of Directors, announce their decision to relocate operations to Vancouver.After a year of neighbourhood parties and celebrations, the Vancouver 125 Birthday Organizing Committee holds a very successful New Year’s Eve party for the public at the Convention Centre and surrounding plazas and walkways. After some children complain that all the fireworks were only one colour.... green, Committee Chairman Joel Solomon makes an eloquent public statement explaining the significance of his colour choice. Mayor Taylor assures the children that in 2012 there will be a broader selection of colours!

All being well, I look forward to twelve months from now when we can review just how many of my predictions come true. In the meanwhile, Happy New Year!