Sunday, January 29, 2012

DENSITY Part 3: Little Mountain: A challenging Situation

Last May, I wrote about the uncertaintly surrounding the Little Mountain property. My blog posting was followed by a response from Ned Jacobs, a local community activist.

Yesterday I attended the latest Open House for the proposed redevelopment and left shaking my head.

My Conflict of Interest

Before proceeding, I need to declare a real and perceived conflict of interest. I was a member of a Development Team led by a very major Vancouver development company that was shortlisted by the Provincial Government to submit a competing proposal back in 2007/2008.

We made two proposals: one under the existing zoning, which could have proceeded quite quickly with approximately 950,000 sq.ft of woodframe housing, and another assuming a rezoning. Given that higher densities generally translate into higher sales prices, we proposed a plan comprising up to 1,460,000 sq ft which included the customary allowances for storage, enclosed balconies and amenity spaces. It included buildings up to 10 storeys in height along the westerly portion of the site, as well as dedicated roads and open spaces. The plan resulted in a Gross FSR of 2.0 and a Net FSR of 2.3. (This is discussed further below.) We noted that this was considered a reasonable upper limit on development potential noting that this was a competitive Proposal Call competition and the monies received were to be used to fund other social housing projects.

When it became apparent that the Province was seeking proposals that would result in greater densities and sale proceeds, my client withdrew from the process.

We subsequently learned that Holborn was the successful bidder. While details of their proposal were never made public, knowing what we bid, and from discussions with the other short-listed bidders, we surmised that they must have offered a very large sum of money.

This was not Holborn's only active development proposal in Vancouver. They also owned the Bay Parkade property and a prominent site along West Georgia where the Ritz Carlton Hotel/Residential complex had stalled. At one point, I was introduced to the young President of the company as someone who might be able to assist with their various projects. After a short meeting, no further discussions ever took place. I mention this since a prominent Vancouver journalist once shared with me that it was being whispered that my public concerns with the Little Mountain redevelopment project were rooted in Holborn's decision not to hire me!

In reality, I do not deny that my concerns relate in part to the fact that a number of very knowledgeable, experienced development companies spent a lot of money preparing very sound proposals for this property; but we were all 'blown out of the water' by the Holborn proposal which did not seem to be going very well. Furthermore, as noted in my team's submission, this is the first major redevelopment proposal for the 'regeneration' of an older Public Housing Project in British Columbia, something I worked on while with CMHC. It is therefore very important that it ultimately be successful, in order that other such regenerations can be allowed to proceed. So far, this is not happening either.

Little Mountain: a challenging situation

I first suspected that the redevelopment of this property would be challenging during the Request for Proposals (RFP) process when proponents learned that there would be no further input from the City other than that set out in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that had been approved by Council. As a result, we had no indication as to what density and building heights the City might consider appropriate, other than a general understanding that the city would consider a density above 1.45 and building heights above 4 storeys.

At this point, I would like to return to the topic of density. As noted in my February 2008 Vancouver Sun story and Bob Ransford's recent Sun WestCoast Homes story, calculating what is an acceptable density can be very difficult. Not only should one consider FSR, there is a need to look at the number of units and people per acre, number of floors, floor to ceiling heights, etc.

Furthermore, in the case of a very large site, such as Little Mountain, one must carefully consider the Gross Density, which is a measure of the amount of building over the total site, and the Net Density, which measures the size of buildings in relation to the individual development sites after excluding the area of roads and parks. This after all, is how we measure density on most individual sites around the region.The density at Bayshore: To put this in perspective, the Bayshore development along Coal Harbour between Denman and Cardero Streets, with which I was involved for many years, comprises approximately 1,100,000 sq.ft of residential on approximately 9 acres of parking lots. This equates to an overall gross density of 2.79. This development has buildings ranging in height from 3 to 25 storeys with floor to ceiling heights between 8.5 and 9 feet. (I would add that by virtue of its location on the water, separated from other developments by major streets, this site can accommodate density better than a site surrounded by existing single family and low scale buildings.)

Olympic Village Density: I am told that the Olympic Village development has a similar density, but the building forms are much lower. My personal view is that Bayshore is a very attractive and comfortable development with adequate landscaping and parks. However, I find portions of the Olympic Village, which is comprised of mid-rise buildings up to 13 storeys, too dense, especially along the narrow streets. (Again, this site is also on the water, away from existing development, and should be able to accommodate a higher density successfully.)

Gross and Net Density: In the case of Little Mountain, the current zoning is 1.45 which is the density generally associated with 3 and 4 storey apartments. (By comparison, the 4 storey mixed use developments found along arterials such as Main or Fraser or Fourth Avenue range between 2.2 and 2.5 FSR) However, this is on the individual sites. The Little Mountain property is approximately 15.2 acres and will require dedicated roads and park/community areas. Allowing for roads and the city's normal parkspace requirement of 2.75 acres parkspace/1000 people, a net density of 1.45 equates to a gross density of approximately 1.1. If a reduced amount of parkspace is required, the corresponding gross density would increase.

So what's my point? In considering what is the appropriate density for this site, one must pay close attention to both the net and gross FSR figures. One should also consider the average unit size and resulting number of people per acre, the number of storeys and also the floor to ceiling heights and the amount of dedicated and non-dedicated roads, park and open space. (Dedicated spaces are those legally transferred to the city, whereas other roads and open spaces may form part of the strata parcels.)

Building height along Main Street: Other factors that I consider important include the height of buildings along the flanking streets, and the location of taller buildings within the site. This will influence how the density feels for passers by and surrounding neighbours. Personally, I question the appropriateness of the proposal for an 8 storey building along Main Street. Rather, I would argue that 4 or 5 storeys should be the maximum height permitted at this time. The final decision should consider the height of the ground floor and the extent of terracing of upper floors. ( I believe the 'Capers Development' at 2211 West 4th Avenue is an example of what could fit along this portion of the street.)

Building design and materials also affect sense of density: While this can be very subjective, I believe the neighbourhood 'fit' can also be influenced by building design and exterior materials. For example, buildings that are terraced or stepped back are often much more acceptable than buildings with flat facades. Similarly buildings with lighter colour materials often feel less imposing that those of say red brick, especially if there is little red brick in the neighbourhood. The site setbacks and landscaping can also impact how a project 'feels' for surrounding residents and passers by. In this case, while I don't know if the materials have been finalized, I would question what appear to be large buildings with significant amounts of darker brick.

Public sector conflicts of interest: Just as I declared my conflicts of interest, I think it is also important to examine the Province and City's conflicts of interest.

To start with, the higher the approved density, the more the developer can likely pay for the site. I say likely since higher densities may result in concrete rather than wood frame construction, which can increase the cost of social housing and market units. It should also be noted that mid-rise concrete construction of between 6 and 10 storeys is generally more expensive than a tower with a more repetitive building form.

Initially the Province was going to receive all proceeds from the sale of this property. These monies were to pay for new social housing, including replacement units on site, and projects on the14 City-owned sites. I now understand that the City is going to share in the proceeds from the land sale. Therefore, one may well question whether it is willing to accept densities that are higher than if it wasn't a direct beneficiary. (I know everyone in the City administration will deny this, of course, but...)

The situation is further complicated by the arrangements in place with respect to the on-site replacement social housing. Our 2008 proposal offered serviced sites to the Province at no cost, but we would not be financially responsible for the construction of the units. However at the Open House, it was noted that Holborn has offered to pay for the social housing units. I find this surprising, since the cost of building 234 units is likely in the order of $45M to $65M. Remember 252 social housing units at Olympic Village cost $110M (excluding any land cost.)

Project economics: At the Open House, there were panels illustrating financial analyses undertaken by Coriolis, a real estate economics consulting firm, on behalf of the city. They indicated a value of $60 to 65 million under the existing zoning and a rezoned value of approximately $95 to $100 million (based on the current scheme). While this seems somewhat low when considering the value per square foot of multi-family development sites around the city, one needs to know the estimated cost of providing the streets and park spaces to City standards, and other Community Amenity Contributions that may have to be paid.

For example, a major project such as this would normally require the developer to build a child day care facility. The cost is estimated at $8.8M to $10M for a 69 child facility. Yes, that's what the City estimates a facility meeting municipal and provincial standards would cost. (Now you know why very few new childcare facilities are being built in Vancouver, but that's another story.)

Province and Holborn should disclose the terms of this deal: In the past, a private developer would not normally be expected to disclose confidential business terms of a real estate transaction. However, in recent years, when an applicant seeks a rezoning, it has become customary for municipalities to request copies of Purchase and Sale agreements and other financial information, along with independent appraisals, to assess the economics of a project and the Community Amenity Contributions that will be payable.

In this instance, it would appear that the very high density being sought is in large part attributable to the financial aspects of the project. This of course is unfortunate. As the Director of Planning often points out, "first we determine an appropriate density, and then we look at the financial consequences of it." In this case, notwithstanding the benefits of higher density development, I don't think there are many planners and architects who would argue in favour of net densities much in excess of 2.0 FSR for this site in what is essentially a very low density neighbourhood. Yes, it is going to change over time. But as Arthur Erickson was fond of arguing, change should happen buildings should relate to the old, even though one knows bigger buildings may come along over time.

(As one of Vancouver's most prominent architects reminded me last night, we often enjoy looking at old photos of Vancouver when the Sylvia Hotel and Marine Building were the largest buildings on the horizon. Yes, today they are dwarfed by surrounding developments; but it was important that the changes occur incrementally.)

In this case, given how much the development seems to be driven by money, which will be spent on other social housing, I believe it is important for the Province and Holborn to make public the terms of their deal. Is there a base price that must be paid, regardless of the density achieved? What, if any is the additional payment tied to density? What are the financial implications of Holborn's deal with the Province with respect to the social housing units? Is interest accruing on outstanding payments? Is there an escape clause in the agreement? What are the other payment terms?

I would like to think that if the community and City knew the deal, we might all be in a better position to assess just how much more density can be justified, given other pubic interests.

In conclusion, as I wrote before, I still worry whether the Province and City are going to get the money that has been amount which was sufficient to out-bid many experienced and knowledgeable Vancouver developers. I also worry about the community fit; and I worry about the implications of this project for other rezonings around the city.

(In this regard, one might say to me "don't worry!" If the city approves something well in excess of 2 FSR, it might be easier to get 1.0 to 1.5 in other single family neigbhourhoods!)

So with all that being said, I will therefore watch with interest the next chapters in this very fascinating story.

DENSITY Part 2: We're beginning to get the 'Eco' -- but what's Density?

Depends how it's measured; it doesn't have to mean taller

Michael Geller, Special to the Sun

Published: Thursday, February 28, 2008

'How much does your house weigh, madam?"

Buckminister Fuller, the famous architect who invented the geodesic dome, used to delight in asking this question at parties.

Of course, no one knew the answer, although people always knew how many storeys their homes had.

I was reminded of this by the EcoDensity debate taking place in our city.

This time, the issue is not weight, but rather density. Most of us do not know the density of our home or neighbourhood.

However, we generally assume that higher densities result in higher buildings. This is not necessarily the case.

Density, as a planning term, has a number of different meanings. It can be an expression of a building's size in relation to its lot, or the number of housing units or people in a particular area. It is not a measure of height.

In most Metro Vancouver municipalities, density is measured as the floor space ratio (FSR). To understand how it is calculated, let us look at an older home with 1,200 square feet on the upper floors, and an 800-square-foot, partly submerged basement.

If this 2,000-square-foot home occupies a 4,000-square-foot (33-by-120-foot) lot, it has an FSR of 0.5. The same house on a 6,000-square-foot (50-foot) lot has an FSR of 0.33. Newer single-family homes are typically built at the maximum permitted FSR of approximately 0.6.

A duplex or low-density townhouse zone has an FSR of 0.75. Apartment zones can vary significantly. Fairview Slopes was developed at 1.25; many new apartments are built at 1.45. Kerrisdale apartments are in the order of 1.7.

Other jurisdictions measure density in terms of UPA or units per acre.

In the Village of Anmore, the community is being developed at a density of 1 UPA. Most conventional single family neighbourhoods are in the order of 5 UPA, although more compact single-family neighbourhoods can be designed at up to 12 UPA. Apartment developments can be developed anywhere between 50 to 150 UPA, or more.

An apartment building with 100 small suites will likely place different demands on neighbourhood services than a similar size building with 40 larger suites.

For this reason, some jurisdictions measure density in terms of PPA or people per acre. A typical suburban development might accommodate 15 to 20 people per acre, while a dense urban area could easily accommodate 100 to 250.

Whether density is measured in terms of FSR, units per acre, or people per acre, higher density buildings are not necessarily higher buildings. We can double or triple the density of a neighbourhood without any significant increase in building height.

A major community concern is that additional density will require additional services and amenities. I agree with this concern.

However, by collecting Community Amenity Contributions from the builders of higher density developments, and demanding payments from developers undertaking rezonings, the city will have additional funds to pay for the upgrading and expansion of parks and community centres and the construction of new facilities.

Concerns about traffic and parking can be addressed through better transit, and creative off-site parking solutions.

Instead of building taller buildings, the focus should be on more compatible forms of densification, including rear-lane infill units; secondary suites in townhouses and apartments; duplexes, and more townhouses, apartments and mixed-use buildings along arterial roads.

The focus should also be on greener, more sustainable building designs that are more energy- and resource-efficient. While the development industry has some concerns with the city's proposed requirements, it agrees these new standards are not unreasonable given our collective desire to reduce our ecological footprint on the environment.

By building alternative forms of housing, we can create more affordable housing choices and livable neighbourhoods without altering the character of most single-family neighbourhood streets in Vancouver.

Over the next 20 months, city politicians and officials will have to move slowly, and test out these ideas on a "demonstration project basis" before any widespread application.

I hope we will give them the chance.

Michael Geller is an adjunct professor at the Centre for Sustainable Community Development at Simon Fraser University.

© The Vancouver Sun 2008

DENSITY! Part 1: Lessons from the South Shore of False Creek

In the last couple of weeks I have attended Open Houses for two major developments in Mount Pleasant and on the Little Mountain property that are causing considerable concern in the surrounding neigbhourhoods. Before sharing my thoughts on these proposals, I decided to go back into my archives and dig up a couple of stories I wrote in February 2008 after returning from an around the world Sabbatical, during the very heated debate over EcoDensity. The first was published February 9, 2008 under the headline: "For me, EcoDensity is a 60-year adventure. It led to a meeting with the Vancouver Sun Editorial Board and another story which I'll post in Part 2. I believe these stories may be helpful in setting the stage for evaluating what should happen on these two sites, and other neighbourhoods around the city and Metro Vancouver.

For me, EcoDensity is a 60-year adventure

Once upon a time, in my capacity as an architect and planner in the Vancouver office of Canada Mortgage and Housing, I championed a green-for-its-time initiative that generated the same public declarations of apprehension and suspicion that Mayor Sam Sullivan's EcoDensity initiatives are generating.

Once upon a time, in my capacity as an architect and planner in the Vancouver office of Canada Mortgage and Housing, I championed a green-for-its-time initiative that generated the same public declarations of apprehension and suspicion that Mayor Sam Sullivan's EcoDensity initiatives are generating.

Then, as now, an affordable home that would permit a household to minimize its environmental footprint motivated those of us who supported the initiative. Then, as now, at least two fears motivated much of the opposition: a fear of dramatic and quick change to the character of the city, and a fear of the unknown. I thought those fears misguided then, and I think their EcoDensity equivalents misguided today.

The early 1970s were years of a major planning debate over the proposed redevelopment of city-owned lands on the south shore of False Creek.

Planners wanted an entirely new approach to urban residency taken on the industrial lands there. They wanted alternatives to the single-family-detached home built.They wanted mixed-use buildings constructed. They wanted richer and poorer to share the neighbourhood and pedestrian and automobile to share its byways.

Opposition came from a variety of sources. The Vancouver Board of Trade argued that family housing had no place in the False Creek redevelopment. "Housing on the city's False Creek lands should be based solely upon the needs of the executive-type city," a board statement said.

George Puil, then-chair of the Vancouver park board, thought the land should only be used for a park. A citizens' review panel also wanted the land used only for park. A city councillor thought the area was "not a sane site for housing."

A city planner resigned over the proposals. "I believe the city-owned land on False Creek to be among the very worst spots in the entire city to build a lot of housing on," his letter of resignation said.

Notwithstanding the significant opposition, city council eventually approved the development. I was appointed the federal government's "special coordinator", since I was one of the few people in the CMHC Vancouver office who thought the project could be a success.

As construction began, the criticism continued, and many people feared the community would become an instant slum. However, then-mayor Art Phillips and his wife, Carole Taylor, announced they would be moving into the first neighbourhood "above the corner store," and soon attitudes started to change.

As the first residents started to move in, a January 1977 Vancouver Sun story was headlined "Life in dreamland on the creek." And then-councillor Mike Harcourt declared: "False Creek is a success."

Over the years, the community has been heralded as a model for higher density, mixed income housing, and applauded around the world. As I look at the draft EcoDensity Initial Actions, I cannot help but think that in 30 years, if many of these proposals are allowed to proceed, they will also be applauded.

They address the need to reduce greenhouse gases by creating more energy and resource-efficient buildings, and more transit-oriented development.

They will result in new housing choices, especially near the 70 per cent of our city zoned for single-family housing. More options for secondary suites within buildings will result in new affordable housing choices in townhouses and apartments, which would create "mortgage helpers" in multi-family developments.

This idea was implemented at SFU's UniverCity community, with few negative consequences. New options for backyard laneway infill housing will also result in new housing choices. Again, it must be emphasized that this planning change would not happen everywhere, or right away. It will take time to develop a comprehensive plan and strategy with appropriate zoning. But one only has to look at London and other world cities to see how laneway and "mews" housing can add to the character of a neighbourhood.

New options for arterial midrise housing will also increase housing choices. However, having developed apartments and townhouses along Oak Street and West 41st Avenue, I am the first to caution that midrise buildings should not be permitted along all arterials.

As I reflect on some of my own developments, I believe the seven-storey Elm Park Place fits in well at the corner of West 41st and Larch Streets. However, it would be the wrong building form for further down the street between Carnarvon and Balaclava streets. Here, the three-and four-storey Lanesborough development is much more appropriate.

However, midrise buildings would be desirable in certain areas along arterial streets, especially near key intersections. Not only would they allow for more homes on a site, but taller buildings would be built out of concrete and steel, which many renters and buyers prefer to wood frame construction. I am sure city planning staff agree with this approach.

The Vancouver Planning Department is now undertaking a series of workshops on the proposed EcoDensity Charter and Action Plan leading up to a public meeting on Feb. 26.

I recently attended one of the sessions and was pleased to see a broad range of ages and interests in the room. Those in attendance were invited to fill in a feedback form to provide their views to the mayor and councillors. I spoke to a number of people after the workshop, and while a few told me they had not changed their minds, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that most were leaving with fewer worries about the EcoDensity proposals than when they arrived.

With Vancouver's escalating land and housing prices, many of the participants saw EcoDensity as a way for parents, children and grandparents to live in the same neighbourhoods in the years to come. In addition to saving our planet, what could be more important than that?

Michael Geller is an architect, planner, property developer and adjunct professor at SFU's Centre for Sustainable Community Development. He recently traveled around the world and shared his observations with Westcoast Homes readers.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Another journalist realizes it's time for some changes!

We need to look at a greater variety of housing options

Jon Ferry

Jon Ferry

Photograph by: Graphics, The Province

Why does the Lower Mainland have such high house prices? Well, lots of people want to buy homes here . . . for a grab bag of reasons.

It's easy to blame everyone from wealthy Asian buyers to greedy developers and eco-obsessed urban planners. But there is no single villain.

For years, Vancouver's been ranked by outside rating agencies as one of the world's most livable cities. And we've lived up to the hype. We've become the victim of our own success and are pricing ourselves out of the market.

However, my view is that slapping on foreign-home ownership restrictions, as many have suggested, would simply kill the golden goose. It would put at risk the investment of scores of Lower Mainland homeowners who've battled over the years to build up a real-estate nest egg.

That doesn't mean, though, that government should do nothing to help provide affordable housing, especially for young people with families.

We just need the political will and public interest to do so. And that's been rising fast. Everybody seems to know somebody who's either left or leaving town, driven out by high rents or humongous mortgages.

In fact, sky-high Vancouver housing prices were one of the reasons why my son, a young engineer, and his wife chose to move to Montreal, where they were able to buy a townhouse for half what they'd have to pay here.

They miss Vancouver terribly, and we miss them and our little granddaughter. But we realize the vast distance separating us is the penalty we pay for living in Lotusland, and my son pays for having a real job.

Vancouver is many things, but not a manufacturing hub. It's more tourist town than business city. As former Province paper boy Chris Perry says: "You simply can't make enough money as a working stiff to buy a decent house, without some kind of additional injection of money."

It's little wonder many working people feel priced-out, especially when those who aren't working seem to matter more to our local politicians.

"People from all over the country move here and get a room on the taxpayer," notes salesman Brett Carels. "Meanwhile, the average Joe can't afford to live in this city or to have a family."

Carels, 36, told me Thursday he's considering leaving Vancouver because, down the road, he doesn't see it as an affordable place to raise a family.

As I said, there are no easy solutions. But I have two suggestions:

1. Forget caviar dreams on a Costco budget. Reduce your housing expectations. Think Kia rather than BMW, and Arborite rather than granite.

2. Allow forms of housing other than traditional single-family homes and conventional condo buildings.

As Vancouver architect/planner/developer Michael Geller points out, there is no good reason why municipalities can't zone for cottage-style houses, non-strata row houses, "stacked" townhouses or other attractive and less expensive housing common elsewhere.

Sure, NIMBY-minded residents will worry this will lower their property values. But when they are older and find they can't keep up their hard-to-maintain, single-family houses, where will they go? Will they be forced out of the area, too?

Yes, Lower Mainland housing affordability is a huge problem. But, no, housing restrictions aren't the solution. Housing variety is.

Read more:

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Housing Affordability Symposium Feb 2 & 3, 2012

While there is a lot of talk and media attention surrounding housing affordability, too often there is insufficient attention given to specific 'Action Plans' that can address the problem. Below is information on a forthcoming symposium which is designed to lead to specific actions for governments, the home building industry, and others. Tsur Sommerville and I presented at the first symposium and have been invited back to present another song and dance on addressing the need for affordable housing at the macro and micro levels.

The event is being organized by the Canadian Home Builders' Association.

On February 2 & 3, 2012, the issue of market housing affordability will be addressed in person, not just in headlines. Bringing together the residential construction industry and members of government, the Housing Affordability Symposium will provide the forum to openly discuss barriers and solutions to improve market housing affordability in BC. More than an educational conference, this symposium provides interactive roundtable discussions amongst all delegates to address various issues related to community planning, maximizing housing stock, economic issues, and regulatory constraints.

JOIN US at HAS: Housing Affordability Symposium on February 2 – 3, 2012 to develop action-oriented strategies to lower housing costs and remove barriers to entry for all British Columbians. Let’s make market housing affordable and within the means of everyone.

British Columbians live in some of the most expensive real estate in North America. The high price of housing is no longer limited to just Greater Vancouver, but has extended to most of the populated areas across the province. In November 2010, the Canadian Home Builders’ Association of BC along with industry and government partners hosted the first Housing Affordability Symposium. This event was ground breaking and brought together stakeholders from industry and all levels of government to openly discuss the issues and solutions to housing affordability in BC.

The results from the symposium and the roundtable discussions have been compiled into a follow-up report. This Action Plan will form the foundation for future discussions among all stakeholders. At this year’s Symposium we will re-examine and report back on the lessons learned, innovative solutions and how each of us has worked to Build a Better BC by addressing market housing affordability.

The Second Housing Affordability Symposium will follow up to the first event and provide issue specific workshops sharing ideas to balance housing costs requirements and community needs. This event will revisit the Action Plan, review our collective Progress Report results and provide additional roundtable discussions between various government leaders, industry professionals and other related stakeholders to result in a revised Action Plan to Address Market Housing Affordability.

Have your voice heard. Learn the issues. Build the solutions. Take action and register today for this critical event.

Further details can be found here.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

What's going to happen along Granville Street?

Last week, I had lunch with Faaiza Lalji, an Urban Planning and Real Estate Development Student at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design. I always enjoy chatting with Faaiza because as anyone who knows her can attest, she's a remarkably bright and inquisitive person who one day will be a major participant in the Vancouver real estate scene.

Over lunch Faaiza and I were discussing various new projects around the region and the subject of Granville Street came up. Not the downtown portion, but the area south of 41st where a parade of 'For Sale' signs has recently sprouted up. "What do you think should happen there?" she asked.

Rather than spend our remaining minutes focussing on this one topic, I promised to post my thoughts on my blog. So here they are!

For decades I have argued that Vancouver's arterial roads should be rezoned and redeveloped with higher density forms of housing. As some readers know, I have twice put my money where my mouth is, resulting in the redevelopment of Oak Street between West 42 and West 43 and West 41st between Balaclava and Carnarvon Streets. It has been gratifying to see a couple of new projects follow suit, although I can't say the same for the redevelopment on Oak Street immediately south of Oak Gardens, which to my mind is an awful development that should never have been approved by the City. My biggest concern with this project is its relationship to the street and the almost complete absence of vegetation between the buildings and the curb. (Why no oak trees along Oak Street?)This brings me to Granville Street. I cannot forget the visitor who once commented to me how exceptional he thought it was driving into Vancouver along Granville Street. What stuck him was the lush green lawns and hedges lining the street, especially in Februrary when the rest of Canada was white. He noted that the vistas along Granville were so very different from what what one usually found driving from the airport into the downtown of most other major cities.Recently there have been a couple of redevelopments along Granville. Granville Mews south of West 49th is currently under construction and replaces three single family homes on large lots with two rows of townhouses. Designed by Formwerks, the architectural firm I am working with in West Vancouver, the units have a traditional look and would not be out of place in nearby Shaughnessey. Most people are not even aware of this development that is offering a housing choice generally not found in the area. And there seems to be a strong demand with prices starting above $1million and good sales activity.

Nearby, Wall Financial recently received Council approval for what will be a very significant redevelopment of Shannon Mews. The Arthur Erickson townhouses will be replaced by a variety of apartment buildings, some of which are well above the three storey height of surrounding buildings. While I have seen the plans, I will wait to see how this will look. To my mind, the key will be to maintain the trees along the street, and to add new vegetation along the perimeter of the development.

Last year, at 49th and Granville, NSDA Architects received approval for a three or four storey seniors complex. I have worked with this firm on many occasions and will watch with interest to see how their development will transform the property owned by Ben Wosk for many decades. My hope is that the greenery at this major intersection will either be maintained or replaced.

At 16th and Granville another controversial project is currently under construction. Also designed by Formwerks, I think we have to wait until it's finished before casting final judgement. However, there is no doubt that much of the greenery that used to be at this important intersection has disappeared and we can only hope that new trees will be planted so that the building edge is not as severe as it appears today.

And this brings me to how I feel about the rest of the street. I still believe that many of the single family properties along Granville Street south of Shaughnessey should be redeveloped over time. But rather than continue with ad-hoc spot rezonings, I would like to see the city put in place a comprehensive plan and design guidelines that provide for variety along the street including semi-detached/duplex units, street row housing, and some low-rise apartments in appropriate locations.

However, whatever the building form, I think it is important that the sense of greenery be maintained. This might be accomplished through a greater landscaped setback than generally required, and specifically guidelines mandating a double row of trees, lawns and extensive planted areas, etc.

In this way we might increase the density along this well serviced transit arterial, while maintaining the 'green aesthetic' that both visitors and residents have come to appreciate along the street.

That Faaiza, is what I'm currently thinking. Now I'd like to hear from you and others....knowing that it will likely be a while before the City gets around to rezoning this important city street.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Remembering Sam Geller Born January 14, 1912

Today would have been my father's 100th birthday. Given that he was in very good health at his 90th birthday party at the Richmond Golf and Country Club, I often thought he would make it to 100, and we looked forward to celebrating on this day. Sadly, there will not be a party, but a day of rememberance and recollection.

It was perhaps unrealistic to expect my dad to live to 100 since he was lucky to make it to 40! Born in England, he enlisted in the Kings Royal Rifle Corps as World War II began. After some exciting times in North Africa, he was relocated to Europe and after many close calls, taken prisoner in Italy from where he was transported to Germany. As a Jew he was lucky to survive in a German prisoner of war camp. But he did.

Everyone who knew my dad liked him. It was hard not to. A very gentle man with a great sense of humour, he was interested in everyone and everything. Although he always wanted to be a journalist, for many years he was a barber to the lawyers and judges who frequented the Osgoode Barber Shop, across from Osgoode Hall in Toronto. However, he eventually pursued his true selling his business and taking a low level position in the Scott Library at York University. Over time, he advanced through the library system and eventually was put in charge of the periodical section. This allowed him to read and enjoy French and German magazines in a much safer environment than in previous years.

After formally retiring at 65, he was asked to return to the Library where he worked until he and my mother moved to Vancouver in the mid 80's. They lived in Langara Gardens where he could swim everyday and enjoy a very comfortable life with his friends and family.

After my mother died in 1992, his life changed quite significantly. He and his best friend, another widower named Nat Cannon enjoyed the symphony and theatre and were active in a variety of Jewish community organizations and events. But sadly, many of his friends died and he was often off to funerals.

This prompted my daughter to ask him one day..."Grandpa, why are you always going to funerals?" "Georgia", he replied. "If you don't go to theirs, they won't come to yours!"

When I finished building Oak Gardens at 42nd and Oak, I suggested that he check it out. He had no interest in leaving Langara Gardens but he liked one of the ground floor one bedroom and den suites with a west facing patio. Over lunch at Kaplans delicatessan he decided that perhaps he should move, since he could walk to Louis Brier where he volunteered and the Jewish Community Centre where he partook in various activities and spent time in the library.

Moving into Oak Gardens changed my dad's life, since he was often the only unattached man in a building with about 30 unattached women! He soon learned bridge and other card games and was never lonely. He put on a lot of weight!

When he turned 90 we had a big celebration. My dad was a keen follower of municipal politics and one of his favourite politicians was Philip Owen. He was therefore quite delighted when the Mayor showed up at his party and presented him with a signed book on the history of Vancouver. When my dad protested that there were not to be any presents, the Mayor assured him this wasn't a present.

All of my dad's friends from Oak Gardens were there and some were quite astonished to see the Mayor. "Sam", one of them said. "Is that the Mayor? What would he be doing here?"

Two years later he had a fall, and that was the beginning of the end. Concerned that he was no longer capable of living on his own, my sister and wife urged him to move to the Weinberg Residence, an assisted living facility next to the Louis Brier Home and Hospital. He didn't want to move, but agreed to try it out for a month or so, while keeping his apartment.

Sadly, he died two weeks after moving in from a sudden heart attack. At the time, Sally and I were at a wedding in Alberta and it was a very difficult trip back. As is the Jewish tradition, the funeral took place a day later. It was followed by a reception at Oak Gardens.

In going through his apartment after his death, we understood why he might have died so quickly. There in a bedroom drawer were hundreds of pills that he was supposed to take, but hadn't. At the Weinberg Residence he was being too well looked after. They made sure he took all his pills!

The administration was very sad to lose such a very easy going resident, especially since I had been very involved in the development of the building and served on the Board.

A year after his death, the unveiling of his headstone took place. On it was written in memory of Sam Geller, a husband, father, brother, and grandfather. A true gentleman.

Last November, his friend Nat Cannon turned 100. He and his family celebrated at the Weinberg Residence where he now lives.

Dad, I'm sorry you're not around to celebrate your 100th birthday today. We would have bought you an IPad!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Mayor's Task Force on Housing Affordability: the story behind the story

So often we read stories in the newspaper without any idea how they originate. For example....

At the Inauguration of Vancouver's new City Council, the Mayor announced the creation of a task force to examine how the City might address housing affordability. This was was followed by the announcement that Olga Ilich, a developer and former UDI President and BC Cabinet Minister would co-chair. I was curious to know who the other co-chair would be until I was told this would be the Mayor.

Following the announcement I was often asked if I had been invited to serve on the Task Force. I hadn't been, but would serve if selected, adding that this initiative could lead to some significant results if it focuses on what the City can do, rather than on what the Feds and Province should do. I also thought it would be important to have balanced representation with experienced people from the broader housing industry.

I didn't give the Task Force much further thought until last week when I received a call from the Georgia Straight's Carlito Pablo. While I don't know him well, he is someone I have often spoken to over the past few years on housing and real estate matters. He wanted to know if my name had been put forward for the committe, or if I had submitted my resume. He added that the deadline was Friday January 6th.

I was very surprised by his call since I wasn't aware potential Task Force members were expected to nominate themselves. Certainly no one from the City had advised me of this, and presumably other potential candidates were equally ignorant. However I told Carlito that I would put my name forward, along with those of two other people who I thought could make a significant contribution....Cameron Gray, the city's former 'Director of Housing' and Bob Ransford who has written about housing for the Vancouver Sun for the past ten years, and who I believe has a very good grasp of the issues.

I added that I feared that by talking to him, I was likely reducing my chances of being appointed to the Task Force, and that he could quote me!

After hanging up, I reviewed the committee's Terms of Reference and submitted two letters; one confirming my interest in serving, and one recommending Cameron and Bob.

I subsequently received an acknowledgement of my letters along with the suggestion that if Cameron and Bob wanted to serve, they had to submit their own letters and resumes.

My understanding is that due to travel plans in February, Cameron has decided not to apply, but will offer to serve as an advisor and share 'institutional memory', if asked. Hopefully Bob will submit his credentials.

While Carlito didn't quote my fear I might reduce my chance of being selected by talking to him, below is the story he wrote. Now you know the story behind the story! At least my version!

Experts step up as potential appointees to Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability

Comments (2)

By Carlito Pablo, January 4, 2012

Michael Geller wears many hats. A number of them are related to housing development. He’s an architect, planner, real-estate consultant, and property developer. He’s also on the adjunct faculty of SFU’s Centre for Sustainable Community Development.

Geller believes that he can help ease the housing situation in Vancouver. That’s the reason he’s putting forward his name as a potential appointee to the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability.

On December 13, council unanimously approved the terms of reference for this task force that is cochaired by Mayor Gregor Robertson, a former NDP MLA, and Olga Ilich, a developer and an ex–B.C. Liberal cabinet member.

Robertson and Ilich will select experts from various fields based on submissions from the public. The deadline for recommendations is Friday (January 6).

A former federal government manager for social housing, Geller knows what to do if he gets tapped for the group.

“The first thing I would say is let’s focus on what the city can do, not focus on what the province and the federal government should do,” Geller told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.
Geller said that he will also submit the names of other experts like Cameron Gray, a former director of the city’s housing centre. He also plans to recommend Bob Ransford, a former director of the Vancouver-based Urban Development Institute and ex–federal Conservative strategist.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

So what's wrong with a white picket the Olympic Village!!!

I know....I know...many of us want a house with a white picket fence...but at the Olympic Village?

Last night former Vancouver City Planner and urbanist Frank Ducote shared this wonderful photo that he took of one Olympic Village resident's effort to turn his house into a home.

Should it stay or should it go? Can't wait to see what the City decides!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Remembering Milton Wong

I was very saddened to learn last night of the death of Milton Wong. I knew that he had been ill with cancer since Easter, but was always optimistic he would beat the disease and return to community life. Sadly, this didn't happen. Milton Wong was a remarkable man and he'll be mourned by people from all walks of life.

I'll never forget the first time I met Milton. It was an event on the North Shore of False Creek celebrating his role in the creation of Vancouver's Dragon Boat Festival. He was joined on the stage by his beautiful family and I vividly remember thinking what a lucky man he was.

I got to know him much better in his role as Chancellor of SFU. We both started at SFU in 1999 and over the next six years spent quite a bit of time together. Milton was very interested in community planning and building and took a keen interest in the creation of UniverCity. He was particularly interested in sustainability, and played a significant role in advancing the discussion about sustainability both within the university, and also within the broader business community.

When I returned from my around-the-world Sabbatical in 2007, Milton was one of the first people I met with. He and Michael Clague, Gerry Zipursky, Joe Wai, Ray Spaxman, Mike Harcourt and others had created a new entity called Building Community Society (BCS). The goal was to bring together a group of professionals and the various interests in the Downtown Eastside to develop a comprehensive plan and development strategy to improve the neighbourhood and the lives of the people living there. I was invited to join the group and for the next eight months we met on a regular basis. While I eventually left the group to run for City Council, a very dedicated Milton continued until his illness. At BCS he demonstrated his trademark patience and ability to bring consensus to controversial issues.

I mention these three things because they exemplify the breadth of Milton's interests and commitment to community.

He started the Dragon Boat races and the Laurier Institute because of his interest in both multi-culturalism, but also 'inter-culturalism'.

SFU became a canvas for a variety of interests, from programs in sustainability to a new school in Africa. Here he loved to mix with students, faculty and staff and the broader community. Today the Milton and Fei Wong Theatre is a key component of SFU's School for Contemporary Arts in the Woodwards Building.

He had a real passion for Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside and this was demonstrated by both his commitment to BCS and his collaboration with Joe Wai in the restoration of a building housing Modernize Tailors, the family business. He loved to reminisce about his youth in Chinatown and I believe this was a major factor in his efforts to improve the lives of people in these neighbourhoods.

And all of this was just a fraction of his life and interests. I don't need to talk about his financial acumen and career. But this was really a means to an end.

I was always impressed by the fact that although Milton was a wealthy man, he lived for many years in the same house on Cambie Street. It was a very nice, comfortable house, which had been added onto over the years; but it was modest when compared to where people of similar wealth might live. Milton loved his house and his life there with Fei and his family.

(Although after we combined two penthouses at SFU to create a very nice residence for the university president, he did approach me to see if there might be a similar opportunity to create something like that for him and Fei. That discussion didn't last very long!)

In a way, Milton was a lot like another former SFU Chancellor.... Jack Diamond. Why? Because both had the ability to walk with kings and with the common man. Both were revered by an incredibly broad range of people; and both were very generous, often doing things anonymously. I know this will be evident when a memorial service is held for him later this month.

While Milton lived a very full 72 years, he died much too young. There was so much more he wanted to do and I hope that his vision and passion for Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside will live on in the work of others.

I am so glad that I got to know and work with Milton, and my thoughts go out to Fei and his family, and all those who worked very closely with him for so many decades. Rest in Peace, Milton.