Saturday, December 31, 2011

From today's Vancouver Sun....Happy New Year!

Looking homeward

Much has been written about the ongoing residential challenges facing a growing Metro Vancouver. Today, as we say goodbye to one year and prepare to welcome another, guest columnist Michael Geller ponders some solutions

By Michael Geller, Vancouver Sun December 31, 2011

'Our house is getting too big, but we're not yet ready for an apartment."

"My girlfriend and I both have good jobs, but can't afford to buy in Vancouver."

"I'm ready to downsize. I'm just not ready to downgrade!"

As we look to 2012, we can expect to hear more of these comments from baby boomers and seniors ready to sell the family home, and younger singles and couples struggling to purchase their first home. Most analysts do not foresee housing prices coming down over the next 12 months, but governments and the homebuilding industry can help both first-time buyers and "last-time" buyers satisfy their housing needs and aspirations in a number of ways.
These include creating new forms of housing, new types of financing and new approaches to zoning.

Many long-standing Vancouver residents are ready to move out of larger single-family homes - if only they could find what they want. For some, this might be a smaller house and lot near transit or where they currently live. They no longer need separate living and dining rooms; instead, a large open kitchen, dining and living space will suffice. Instead of a larger master bedroom and smaller second bedroom, many seek two good-sized ensuite bedrooms, knowing that the day may not be far off when one of the bedrooms is "his bedroom".

Across the U.S., an increasing number of smaller homes are located in what architect Ross Chapin calls "pocket neighbourhoods'. They comprise a collection of cottage-style homes designed around a common green and communal building. Cars are kept to the perimeter and neighbours socialize, while still enjoying the privacy of their homes. I foresee a significant demand for this type of housing in the Lower Mainland, especially since the Vancouver Foundation recently identified neighbourhood isolation and loneliness as major community issues.

Of course, not everyone wants a single-family house, even a small one. Many seek a low-maintenance townhouse. While some are prepared to try condominium living, they often prefer not to be part of a strata association with the attendant problems that can sometimes arise. Instead, they are attracted to the idea of individually owned "feesimple" townhouses.
This is one of the most generic forms of housing in the world; however, few are being built in Metro. This is partly due to restrictive zoning and subdivision bylaws, and other municipal regulations. I hope this will change in the coming year as consumers begin to appreciate the benefits offered by this type of housing.

However, given the high cost of land in Vancouver, these townhouses will not be inexpensive. As a result, it will be necessary to create higherdensity forms of "ground-oriented" housing, especially for younger households seeking an alternative to apartment living. One popular option in Metro Toronto these days is known as "stacked towns".

Stacked townhouses have been around for many years. Many of the low-rise buildings along the south shore of False Creek and nearby Fairview Slopes comprise townhouses stacked above the other. There are also new stacked townhouse developments in Burnaby and North Vancouver. However, in recent years, most developers have chosen to build lowrise apartments instead.
Many of Toronto's stacked townhouses are quite affordable since they are often "back-to-back" with shared side and rear walls. This results in an efficient, cost-effective building form, with every suite having its own grade access. While there are many stairs, there are no interior corridors to build or maintain.

One of the barriers to home ownership is the substantial down payment often required. In the U.K. and the U.S., a "hybrid" form of ownership known as "shared equity" or "shared ownership" has become popular for those who cannot afford a large down payment. It essentially allows someone to purchase a percentage of a property, and increase their ownership as their financial situation improves.

Another interesting option, especially for older singles and couples, is a "life lease". It provides a lifetime right to occupy an apartment with a single upfront payment, and small ongoing maintenance payments. The amount of the upfront payment depends on various factors, including age and life expectancy, and the redemption value of the unit at the end of the lease. The Performing Arts Lodge at Bayshore in Coal Harbour is a successful example that combines life leases and subsidized rentals for retired performing artists.

To meet the demand for small-lot detached housing, townhouses and stacked townhouses, municipalities are going to have to increase the availability of suitably zoned land. To accomplish this, I would like to see governments plan and "pre-zone" land, rather than require developers to come forward with often contentious "spot rezoning" applications. Municipalities should also establish fair development charges to fund new community amenities, rather than negotiate payments on a caseby-case basis. While this may take considerable political will, the result will be greater planning certainty and a broader array of more affordable housing choices.

Will this all happen in the coming year? Of course not. But given the housing demands from a growing and aging population, I am hopeful that governments and the homebuilding industry will pursue many of these alternative housing choices, financing, and zoning arrangements in 2012. We could all be the beneficiaries.

Happy New Year.

Michael Geller is a Vancouver architect, planner and property developer. He also serves on the adjunct faculty of SFU's Centre for Sustainable Community Development. He can be reached at

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Looking back at my 2011 Predictions

At the beginning of 2011, Vancouver's 125 Birthday, I set out 12 predictions for the coming 12 months. Did they come true? Well of course not! But some did, to a certain degree

Here they are if you want to take a look

Andrew Michael Geller 1924-2011 Architect of Happiness

I was shocked this week to receive a Google Alert for Michael Geller architect announcing my death!

In fact, this time it wasn't me, but an American architect named Andrew Michael Geller did pass away at the age of 87. Although I once wrote to him, sadly he didn't write back. However, retired Vancouver architect Herb Auerbach once worked with him and thoughtfully passed on a link to an extensive New York Times obituary.

I wrote to him because we had a few things in common, other than our name. Both of our forefathers came from Odessa (indeed, most Gellers who I have met have roots in Odessa). But more significantly, we both had a longstanding fascination with affordable prefabricated housing.

In my case, on-the-ground projects are limited to two CMHC seniors' housing developments made with factory produced modules. However, readers of this blog are familiar with my ongoing desire to create factory produced laneway cottages and housing for the homeless, based somewhat on my 1971 Architectural Thesis.

Andrew Geller, on the other hand, had many of his projects, especially prefabricated cottages built, including a model that was set up on the 9th Floor of Macy's in New York. From the excerpts below, readers may also detect a couple of other similarities in our personalities and attitudes towards the establishment!

Andrew Geller, an architect who embodied postwar ingenuity and optimism in a series of inexpensive beach houses in whimsical shapes and who helped bring modernism to the masses with prefabricated cottages sold at Macy’s, died on Sunday in Syracuse. He was 87 and lived in Spencer, N.Y.

Mr. Geller designed the “typical American house” shown at the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959. The model shown in Moscow led to a line of vacation houses, sold in the 1960s under the name Leisurama. One of the houses, complete with picture window and carport, was displayed on the ninth floor of Macy’s in Herald Square; people came in to buy house-wares and walked out owning houses. (A basic model required a down payment of $490, followed by monthly payments of $73.) Some 200 Leisurama houses were built.

“Geller posed something of a threat to the status quo. He was incredibly prolific, experimental, friendly, never took himself too seriously, could be irreverent, and even had dared to live a normal family life in suburban Long Island. He was successful in his own right, well outside the inner sanctum of the design world. He wasn’t practiced in the priestly double-speak of the architectural establishment. He didn’t care. He had the nerve to be playful, make jokes, have fun, be funny, breezy, light, even joyful. He’d made up his own rules and didn’t care much what the mainstream thought of him. “

“Geller could be an irritant, a speck of sand in the establishment’s eye. They were hoping he would just fly away, disappear somehow, but he didn’t. His freshness and originality kept popping up again and again, being “rediscovered,” until he was able to claim his own level of notoriety and acclaim.”

Rest in peace Andrew Michael Geller, Architect of Happiness. I'm so sorry we never met.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Day 2011

A lot of people assume that because I am Jewish, Christmas may not be a special time of year for me. Nothing could be further from the truth. Being born in England, where they do Christmas well, I have always celebrated Christmas. While the past two years were spent in the Caribbean, this year we are home with a growing family and friends coming for a traditional Christmas dinner.

Christmas is also a special time for my children who have grown up with both latkes and decorated trees at Christmas. (When a young Claire filled out her application for Crofton House School, she was required to fill in her religion. Not sure what to write she asked her mother who said say what you feel. She wrote "half Jewish-half normal".)

Like most people, I regard Christmas as a religious festival, but one with corporate overtones. Over the years, I have enjoyed regularly designing and sending out Christmas Cards as a way of keeping in touch with friends and colleagues. In the late eighties, after the failure of our proposal to rezone the Spetifore Lands, I somehow got the idea of creating a card out of the newspaper headlines related to the project. I was subsequently retained by Tanabe, the Japanese company that purchased 1000 acres along the Sea-to-Sky highway, to prepare plans and obtain approvals for what what would become the Furry Creek community. That year's card featured the first three holes of the golf course layout, and an appropriate message inside:The following year, the card featured yet another project, Langara Gardens. Having successfully rezoned the property in the late eighties, we were unable to get approval for another three towers. Sitting in the dentist's chair that year, I heard the song "Santa Claus is coming to town". This gave me the idea for that year's card, which even was featured in the Vancouver Province and Courier.I did have to point out, of course, that NIMBY's would not likely be able to stop the 600,000 people moving to the Lower Mainland over the next 10 years, "so you better watch out!"Subsequent cards rezoned City Hall for a Santa's Workshop...celebrated Clinton's efforts to create peace in the Middle East...And one year when we were late, even tried to help friends and colleagues keep track of New Year's Resolutions. ( I have often thought, if you make a mistake, at least make a feature of it!)In 1997, I had a few requests from Santa, some of which have now come true, and some of which still haven't...Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 23, 2011

My ABC's of Appreciation

In the spirit of the holiday season, and recycling, I am pleased to reprint last year's Holiday Greeting Card. While we didn't have the Olympics, Lesli Boldt replaced Jim Green on the Civic Affairs Panel, and I didn't get to Shanghai this past year, it's amazing how little else did change over the past year. I'm still appreciative of the other A to Z's