Monday, May 28, 2018

Redevelopment of West Vancouver's Heritage Rush House underway! North Shore News May 25th, 2018

     I am delighted to report that redevelopment of West Vancouver's heritage Rush House is underway. While I sometimes wonder if these small 4-unit developments are really worth all the effort, hopefully when nearby Vinson House Cottages and Major Rush Mews are finished, I will experience the same satisfaction I enjoyed from the acclaim granted to Hollyburn Mews. However, it sure is difficult getting these projects off the ground-literally. Thanks to Brent Richter, the following story appeared in the North Shore News on Friday. 

      The 1923 Rush House sits raised on blocks Friday morning in preparation of its move to the east side of its lot on the southwest corner of 12th Street at Jefferson Avenue in West Vancouver’s Upper Ambleside neighbourhood.
      In November, council voted unanimously to approve a heritage revitalization agreement for the historic home in exchange for allowing developer Michael Geller to move the structure nine metres (30 feet) to the east and build a laneway cottage and a garden cottage each just under 2,000 square feet on the lot.
      The Craftsman-style home was built by Maj. Frederick Rush, a First World War veteran who developed the lot into a 0.73-hectare farm following the war.
      The home is now legally protected as a heritage building. In addition to the two new dwellings, the developer will be creating a garden suite in the basement of the house, and building accessory garages on the property. The developer is marketing the project as Major Rush Mews.
Prior to lifting and relocating the house, I had to relocate a very old rhododendron tree on the property. While I don't know how old it was, some neighbours thought it was almost as old as the 1923 house. Below are some photos of its relocation. Thanks to Lee Brandt of Lee's Trees for its relocation, and to neighbour and former Vancouver city planner Mike Kemble for the photos. (I should add that Mike is also responsible for introducing me to this property and development opportunity!)
I'm told the tree weighed 15,000 lbs.
When it's all finished next August, all being well, this is how it will look.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Astana Master Plan Competition

It's an eclectic skyline, with a mix of contemporary and traditional styles of buildings.
In March, I received the following email:

Dear Mr. Geller 
Municipality of Astana would like to invite you to participate in the International contest for the development of the Master Plan Concept of Astana till 2030 (hereinafter referred to as - the Contest)  as an international expert in the jury of the Contest. Please find attached invitation letter with further information. Please kindly respond to this email and let me know if you have any questions.

Kind regards, Botagoz

Project Coordinator, Research and design institute “Astanagenplan” LLP, 22, A.Mambetov street Astana, Republic of Kazakhstan Z10K5C5

A model of the current Master Plan to be updated. I came back to Vancouver thinking our city really needs a Master Plan too.
At first I wasn't sure if this was a legitimate offer or some form of scam. However, since I had served on two juries in Russia, one for a 1000 acre property owned by Russia's largest bank in Moscow, and another in Kazan, I assumed it was legitimate and responded in the positive. 
I am so glad I did. Last night, I returned home after a week in Astana. While I knew nothing about the city when I first was invited, I now know much more. Astana (which means capital) became the capital city of Kazakhstan 20 years ago. Like Canberra, Brasilia and Chandigarh, this is a master-planned city. The first plan was prepared by Japanese archigtect Kisho Kurokawa.  Since then, it has grown to over 1 million people and needs to expand.

For this reason, the city launched another internatioal competition. It turns out that the other two international judges were Gil Penalosa, a highly regarded international planner originally from Bogata, and Riccardo Marini, who despite his name is really a Scot and who worked for many years as a Director for the Danish Planner Jan Gehl. In addition there were two judges from Moscow and the balance from Astana.
Each of the international judges delivered lectures to students at the local architecture school.
Over 4 days I got to learn about the city; participate in the consultant selection process; deliver a presentation to the Astana Economic Forum which included a most impressive array of speakers ranging from the former French President Holland to Roger Bayley of Vancouver!

I also gave a lecture to local architectural students on lessons in sustainability from Vancouver. I was exceptionally well looked after by the local organizers and think I may have received more than I offered. However, it was a very gratifying experience.

Astana was once labelled by CNN the world's weirdest capital city. Here are some photos. You can decide.
The Radisson Blu hotel where I stayed overlooking the river that bisects the city
Like many Asian cities, the buildings are lit up at night. This is an apartment complex

This and the sunset photo were taken from a revolving restaurant in the Beijing Hotel
While there, I met an individual in construction who spent 10 years in Vancouver. He kindly invited me home for lunch. This is a view taken from his 29th floor sub penthouse. It was as attractive and well-laid out as any high end luxury apartment in Vancouver.
While there are no longer a lot of Jews in the city, there are some and they have built a new synagogue.

Education is a high priority in the city. This university, named after the president, attracts students from around the world.
This delightful lady arrived at my hotel at 2:15 am to ensure that I got to the airport in time for my 4:50 am departure home! Thanks to you and everyone else who took such good care of me during my stay in your most hospitable and delightful city.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Opinion: 'Missing middle' competition offers residential housing solutions Vancouver Sun May 12, 2018

Haeccity Studio Architecture concept of a gentle densisifcation strata-style apartment block, designed to fit without clashing in area of single-family-house zoning. The building showing includes seven unit, three one-bedroom units of 525 sq. ft. each, three two-bedroom units of 740-to-870 sq. ft and a three-bedroom unit of 1350 sq.ft.. Courtesy: Haeccity Studio Architecture [PNG Merlin Archive] Haeccity Studio Architecture / PNG

     Back-to-backs, brownstones, bungalow courts, clustered housing, plexes, maisonettes, row-houses, stacked towns and six-packs.
     Throughout the world, these low-density multi-housing forms provide affordable homes for millions of households. However, in British Columbia, most of our housing is either single-family homes or apartments.
     As a result, architects and planners are increasingly referring to these other “gentle density” housing solutions as “the missing middle”.
     Given that much of Metro Vancouver is zoned for increasingly unaffordable single-family housing, there is a growing interest among local architects and planners in exploring how these new housing forms might help address housing affordability in our region.
     One key advantage of “missing middle” housing types is that they do not require large lot assemblies. Individual lots or two neighbouring lots can be redeveloped with higher-density ownership or rental homes without significantly changing the character of the neighbourhood.
While the result may not be low-cost housing, three to seven homes are more likely to be affordable than one larger home on the same lot.
     To encourage local architects and planners to further explore the design opportunities for these housing forms, Vancouver’s Urbanarium Society recently held a Missing Middle competition.
For those not familiar with the Urbanarium Society — — it is a registered non-profit founded by a group of architects, planners and other Vancouver citizens passionate about city planning.
    Recently, through a series of lectures and sold-out public debates, it has been addressing top-of-mind topics.
     Should we open up all neighbourhoods for densification? Should we legislate housing affordability? Should we build fewer towers? Who should plan our neighbourhoods — residents or professionals?
     The Urbanarium organized the Missing Middle design competition to generate ideas for how to make housing affordable in Greater Vancouver – particularly seeking models for increased density in residential areas where planning officials currently allow only single-family houses to be built on a lot.
     The goal was to generate inspiring possibilities for a single-lot landowner or a pair of neighbours to create affordable, higher-density, low-rise housing options that supported socially healthy housing configurations.
     The competition was co-ordinated by architects Catherine Alkenbrack and Bruce Haden. It was open to a broad range of applicants, from children to accredited professionals, who were invited to propose detailed design options for the redevelopment of one or two lots in one of four Metro single-family neighborhoods: Vancouver, Surrey, Richmond and Port Coquitlam.
     The competition was expected to appeal primarily to local firms; however, it attracted a considerable number of creative submissions from around the world.
     While competitors had to respect existing property lines, they were encouraged to explore innovative ideas.
     Could streets be narrower to provide a front yard for homes built near the front property line? Did every home have to have its own parking space or could parking be centralized?
     While existing single-family densities are in the order of 0.6 FSR (this means the area of a building should not exceed 60 per cent of the site area), and typical apartments are anywhere from 1.2 to three FSR, the density range for the competition was in between.
     Since the submissions were to be judged on their affordability innovation, participants were required to submit detailed financial pro formas and analyses.
Proposals were also judged on social innovation. Did the design help create opportunities to reduce social isolation or offer intergenerational living?
     Design innovation was also judged. While this was not a beauty contest, it was recognized that ultimately good design will contribute to greater community acceptance.
     The jury included technical advisors and senior planning officials from Vancouver, Port Coquitlam and Surrey.
    Thanks to the co-sponsorship of BC Housing, CMHC and Wesgroup’s Peter Wesik, and a variety of other sponsors, cash prizes were awarded to the top entries, as well as an entry selected by local directors of planning.
     The Missing Middle competition received 34 entries and 12 prizes were awarded. While most of the winning submissions came from local teams, there was one winning team from Toronto, Workshop Architecture, and one from Los Angeles, Goodale Architecture Planning, both representing cities also experiencing an affordability crisis.
     In announcing the winners at Surrey city hall in early March, Richard Henriquez, board chair of the Urbanarium and founding principal of Henriquez Partners Architects, noted that Urbanarium ran this competition to have a meaningful discussion on how middle-density inter-generational housing could contribute to affordable housing in the future.
     Haeccity Studio Architecture, a Vancouver-based practice that focuses on medium-scale housing, was awarded both the first prize selected by the jury and a prize selected independently by the senior planners.
    In their submission, the proponents stated that it is no longer viable to rely on density alone to address the current affordability crisis. We need to explore ways to side step the speculation and sudden increases to land cost that come with rezoning.
     Their winning ‘Micro-Op’ concept hinged on zoning relaxations and incentives for resident-driven single-lot developments based on a shared-ownership model. The goal was widespread opportunities for incremental density increases that preserve the character and social composition of existing neighbourhoods.
     Since winning the competition, Haeccity Studio has been spearheading continued discussions among the winning teams in an effort to explore how their innovative plans can be put into action to deliver affordable housing.
   Some of the other ideas put forward during the competition probed the upper-density limits of walk-ups around courtyards; encouraging live-work along walkways; forgoing personal vehicle requirements in favour of a modest shared fleet of co-op cars; and transferring some of the accrued land gains from higher-density development into a neighbourhood park.
     A full list of the winners and their entries can be found at
     While it is often said that we are running out of land in Vancouver, I believe it is more important to make better use of the land we already have. In future columns, I will explore in more detail other ideas that came forward during the competition and how they might be implemented throughout the region.
Michael Geller is a Vancouver-based architect, planner, developer and educator. He is an adjunct professor at SFU’s Centre for Sustainable Development and can be reached at

Opinion: School tax is concerning, but speculation tax remains bigger problem Vancouver Courier May 7, 2018

     Last week, an extraordinary amount of attention was given to a protest by West Side residents concerned about the B.C. government’s so-called “school tax.”
     Vancouver millennials were aghast that these people, the majority of whom owned multi-million-dollar homes, would dare to protest a tax that would cost many only a few thousand dollars.
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     However, others, including many who did not own expensive homes, fully understood the protest. After all, in Canada, we have historically used income tax and consumption taxes, such as the GST and provincial sales taxes, to transfer wealth from rich to poor.
     They saw the school tax as an attempt by the NDP government to start taxing wealth.
In a CBC Early Edition debate, former Attorney General Suzanne Anton raised this concern with former NDP cabinet minister Moe Sihota. As expected, Sihota dismissed Anton’s concern out of hand.
     However, she was right to raise this concern. After all, this tax doesn’t apply when someone sells their property. It applies while they own their property.
     Around the world, governments tax assets of the well-to-do to fund programs for those who do not have assets. An example is Switzerland.
     There, a proportional property tax of around 0.3 to 0.5 per cent is levied on the total net worth of individuals. The tax applies to all assets, not just real estate, including investments, shares and savings accounts, less any debts.
     While Finance Minister Carole James has never suggested her government might one day extend the school tax into an even broader wealth tax, many B.C residents fear this could happen. After all, by telling elderly homeowners to defer their taxes, this effectively becomes an inheritance tax.
     While I too have concerns about the school tax, my bigger concern is the so-called “speculation tax.”
     In the budget speech, James said her government is targeting property speculators to help make housing in overheated markets more affordable and available. She went on to say, “With this new tax, we’re targeting speculation in the housing market and freeing up vacant housing to be homes for British Columbians.”
     While this sounds admirable, this is not at all what the tax will do.
     Firstly, while the university academics who first proposed this tax tell me 80 per cent of the $200 million will come from foreign speculators, I see no evidence of this.
Instead, I see this tax impacting a former NDP cabinet minister who lives up north and a B.C. interior mayor, both of whom keep second homes in Vancouver. Neither is a speculator; neither will be freeing up a vacant home.
     Ironically, they will struggle to pay the tax because they are too honest to cleverly avoid it. I cannot say the same for many others.
     This tax will also burden other B.C. residents and out-of-province Canadians owning second homes in B.C.
     This brings me to enforcement. The government’s current proposal is to administer the tax outside of the normal property tax system and property tax cycle.
     The administration cost of Vancouver’s Empty Homes Tax more than doubled from the initial estimate, while the number of empty units converted to occupied homes remains uncertain. How much will it cost the province to set up a separate administration system?
     If, as SFU academic Josh Gordon says, 80 per cent of the so-called speculation tax will be paid by foreign speculators, then the government should exclude all Canadians from having to pay the tax.
Currently properties awaiting development approvals are also subject to the tax. The government should exclude these properties as well. After all, how can the government claim this tax will produce more affordable housing when it adds to the cost of housing?
     In 1991, the federal government introduced the GST. At the time I was president of the Urban Development Institute of Canada and warned former Conservative MP Michael Wilson and his officials about unintended negative consequences of the tax.
     On Thursday May 10, at an SFU lecture at Harbour Centre titled “Looking back, Looking forward: Reflections on Housing Metro Vancouver,” I will be discussing how the GST has inadvertently reduced the supply of rental housing across Canada in the subsequent 27 years.
     You can attend by reserving a seat on the SFU Continuing Studies website
     Since the lecture is free, no tax is applicable.