Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Ned Jacobs' Response to my Little Mountain Post

Ned Jacobs, a Riley Park 'community activist' who has been interested in community planning since his mother Jane pushed him around their New York neighbourhood in a stroller, has responded to my last post on Little Mountain. Here are his comments. The article includes photos (to come).

I cannot respond to these comments at this time. However, I would refer readers to a story by Jeff Lee in the Vancouver Sun which provides some very interesting background to both my comments and Mr. Jacobs' response. It can be found here:

I think the following is most noteworthy:

(Minister Rich) Coleman doesn't have Holborn's money in the bank yet, other than a reported $20-million down payment. Nor will he say what the final price is. But in an unusual move he convinced the provincial Treasury Board to advance him $150 million against the sale so he can begin construction on 14 social housing sites Vancouver made available in other areas of the city. Holborn must pay the entire amount when the site receives rezoning approval. At that time the terms of the sale will become public

One final observation. Both Jeff Lee of the Vancouver Sun and Ned Jacobs refer to City Planner Brent Toderian's involvement in the planning for this site. Yesterday, it was announced that Brent is being dismissed from his position 'without cause'. I will write about this later, but there is no doubt that Brent's immediate departure will have some bearing on the timing and outcome of the Little Mountain planning process. I just don't know what.

From Ned Jacobs

Ned Jacobs’ response to Michael Geller’s Density Part 3: Little Mountain: a Challenging Situation.


Your informative and thoughtful commentaries on Little Mountain redevelopment are much appreciated by me and others in the Riley Park/South Cambie community. I know they will be of interest to City planning staff as well. Holborn Properties and their design consultants (e.g. James Cheng) would be wise to consider these points; clearly their current proposal needs major revisions that will necessitate reductions in height and density before it can be supported by the Community Advisory Group or planning staff.

Until recently, I thought that a gross FSR of about 2.2 might be acceptable in terms of performance. But as we have examined the particularities of the site and its surroundings, especially in regard to Queen Elizabeth Park, a public asset of regional as well as local importance, it has become increasingly clear that the heights—up to 14 storeys—and densities—about 2.8 gross FSR—that Holborn is seeking are not supportable without significantly lowering Vancouver’s standards for livability and urban design. You are quite right that there are not “many planners and architects who would argue in favour of net densities much in excess of 2.0 FSR for this site…”

In fact, the obstacles are even greater than you think. For example, the proposal you helped develop in 2007 for Polygon Homes “included buildings up to 10 storeys in height along the westerly portion of the site.” You were quite right in limiting heights to a maximum of about 10 storeys, for several reasons, not the least of which is that rooflines above that would significantly intrude into Queen Elizabeth Park’s unique view corridors, whose broad vistas to the southeast (overlooking the Little Mountain site) include Mount Baker and the northern Cascade Range as well as Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery, Burnaby’s Metrotown, and the Coast Mountains far up the Fraser Valley.

Sunrise from Queen Elizabeth Park over the Little Mountain Housing site

Holborn originally proposed buildings as high as 19 storeys; City staff will not support heights above 12 storeys because of view considerations, and also (in regard to the mountain itself), because they “would challenge its scale, and be more visible in the public view from the top of the mountain.”

What you didn’t realize at the time is that 10 storey buildings along the westerly portion of the site would be ruled out by the Advisory Group and planning staff because of severe shadowing of the eastern edge of the park, especially the sidewalk that runs uninterrupted on the east side of the Ontario Street Greenway bikeway between 33rd and 37th Avenues. During morning hours, and especially on nice weekends, this is used by walkers, joggers, parents with strollers (heading for the Hillcrest Centre) and dog owners (off to the off-leash area). The traffic calming makes it especially pleasant; I have frequently seen people stop along this stretch and chat with neighbours. At 8:30 a.m. on a weekday if it were not for all the cyclists streaking by on their way to work you wouldn’t think that it was rush hour.

I should make it clear that I am not faulting you for overlooking this conflict. When you studied the site in 2007, no doubt looking for development opportunities and obstacles, that sidewalk did not exist. It had been identified years earlier in a Parks Board planning process as a key piece of missing infrastructure, but was only installed a couple of years ago. Without such pertinent information, you and the other protagonists (including Holborn) were out on a limb groping in the dark.

Shadow study, Equinox, 10 a.m. Q.E. Park is on the left

While the Holborn plan does not include buildings as tall as 10 storeys along Ontario Street, the shadowing is problematic. The staff critique notes: “At 10:00 a.m. shadows from taller buildings extend far into the flat north east area of the park and the area around the duck pond. At this time there is not much sun on the Ontario Greenway bikeway.”

This area includes parts of the Disc Golf Course, a popular recreational facility of citywide importance, used from early morning until dusk, especially in sunny weather. Heights that would result in significant shadowing of the Ontario Greenway and Queen Elizabeth Park after about 7:30 a.m. should therefore not be contemplated. I don’t know how much density would be forfeited by reducing building heights on the western and central parts of the site to minimize shadowing of the park, but it would be considerable, to say the least.

The staff critique also points to unacceptable shadowing of other parts of the site, including the “very important” “’Green Wedge’ and 35th Avenue Open Space”; the “Public Square”; the “New Street”; and “neighbouring properties” on the south side of the lane. Moreover, “There are places in the plan where taller building faces are very close and would compromise livability of units. There is limited sunlight in private courtyard areas.”

Staff also echo concerns raised by the Advisory Group and the general public regarding transitions of scale to the 4.8 acre single-family area immediately adjacent to the northeast boundary of the L-shaped site. “The height of buildings along this edge should be reduced to make a better transition to the adjacent area. A six storey form along the new street that steps down to four storeys along the lane would create a more effective transition. Some height above six storeys may be supportable if the adjacent area redevelops.” How that area might be redeveloped is another issue of concern. Four to six storey apartment buildings are not supported under the Community Vision, nor will they provide the housing types that are most needed (such as row houses and multiplexes). The Vision document explains that “most future demand is from mature households who typically prefer ‘ground oriented’ units…”

There are more than 80 mature trees on the site. An arborist report identified about 50 of these as suitable for preservation. Besides providing important environmental services, mature trees greatly enhance the beauty and livability of a development from the moment it is occupied. The overall site plan was predicated on preserving these trees. They are seen as the most tangible “memory” of the Little Mountain complex, which for more than half a century contributed greatly to our neighbourhood’s social capital. Staff point out that “preservation of mature trees is key” and warn: “there are places where buildings are shown very close to the trees. The trees will likely need more room to survive and thrive.”

The Advisory Group has been so focused on these and other deficiencies that we haven’t yet given much attention to the buildings on Main Street. I tend to agree with you that 8 storeys are probably not suitable here. Five to six storeys with meaningful stepbacks might be acceptable; it depends in part on building length and depth. There is a just-completed five storey building on the west side of Main (# 3333) that spans the entire block between 17th and 18th Avenues. Despite being situated at a wide part of Main Street with a pocket park, and faced in white tile, many feel that it is too monolithic and overwhelms the surrounding area.

The very high densities that Holborn is seeking at Little Mountain cannot be supported for other reasons. Early on it became clear that allowing automotive traffic to access the site from the Ontario Street and 37th Avenue Greenways is a non-starter. The result is a site plan with good permeability in regard to pedestrians and cyclists, but only two access points for motor vehicles –off Main Street and off 33rd Avenue. Even with reduced parking and a hoped-for reduction in car use, the Holborn proposal would probably mean at least an additional 1000 cars (not counting visitors), with significant impacts at peak times. With only two automotive access points for a development that would be greater in density than any 15-acre area within the City of Vancouver, one can expect major tie-ups (if not gridlock) on both of these arterials. This could significantly lengthen trip times on the heavily used Main Street “Showcase” trolley route. The planning team has also confirmed that the site is too far from rapid transit or a major employment area to justify these densities.

Where do we go from here? Clearly Holborn’s proposal for a Development Framework (DF), also known as a Policy Plan, is not ready to go to City Council for consideration; and without major reductions in building height, placement and overall density, it will never be ready. Yet it appears that at this point Holborn is only prepared to make relatively small adjustments. That is in part why a planning process that was expected to produce a DF in about a year is going on 27 months.

The other bone of contention that continues to drag out this saga is who will pay for the 234 units of replacement social housing and/or the public amenities? Holborn and BC Housing say that (according to their secret deal) replacing the housing is the developer’s obligation. The City says the Memorandum of Understanding makes it clear that BC Housing is responsible. Holborn insists that because they must replace the housing, they are only prepared to pay Community Amenity Contributions (CAC) on what could turn out to be a very small “land lift.” Back in June, James Cheng handed us a memo, the gist of which was that in order for the community to get our long-promised Neighbourhood House (ca $10 million), a 69-place daycare centre (ca $9 million) and a couple million for park improvements, they would require a gross density from 3 to 3.5 FSR!

Essentially, what this means is that if the DF were to stipulate a gross density of 2.2 to 2.5 (which, as you say, “there are not many architects and planners who would argue in favour of”) there would be no additional amenities to serve the neighbourhood’s vastly increased population. The City says “No dice.” If City taxpayers have to cover the cost of amenities, which would normally be provided as a condition of rezoning, then Vancouver is in effect subsidizing the social housing—the province’s responsibility. Where this is leading is anyone’s guess.

There is also a considerable difference of opinion between what Holborn’s young CEO, Joo Kim Tiah, and planning staff are saying in regard to the development timeline. Tiah insists that he expects his proposal to be approved by City Council in “a month or two,” followed by a “fast-tracked” rezoning, with construction starting in early 2013 (if the market permits). But senior planner Ben Johnson, who heads up the Little Mountain Planning Team, suggests otherwise. He thinks that completing the DF and a staff report much before the middle of the year is unrealistic, and based on the immense amount of detail that would remain to be worked out he anticipates an 18-month rezoning/development approval process. He explained to members of the Advisory Group that if Holborn and City staff cannot come together on the DF, staff may have to go to Council and ask for further directions—so who knows?

If the staff estimates are correct (with Brent Toderian out of the picture all bets are off), then ground can’t be broken for the first phase before late 2013, which means that 2016 is the earliest that some of the displaced tenants can hope to get back to Little Mountain. When they were pressured into accepting relocation in 2007 they were told by BC Housing officials that they could expect to return in 2010. Realtors anticipate the condos will sell for about $600 a square foot on the global market. There will be 10 additional social housing units, but the apartments will be 5% smaller than the ones that were demolished. Even so, they will be more spacious than most of the condos. Perhaps that fact will serve as a social “leveler.” Perhaps not.

The ultimate absurdity is that Housing Minister Rich Coleman refuses to admit that his housing strategy is flawed. It appears that, the Little Mountain redevelopment will continue to serve as the “model” for replacing aging social housing stock throughout BC. What neighbourhood will be next? And Riley Park residents don’t expect that chain link fence to come down for at least another decade.

Note: the Little Mountain Planning Open House materials quoted above can be seen at:


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