Sunday, November 25, 2018

Reflections on Vancouver's architectural design, planning and development by Ray Spaxman (Director of Planning 1973-1989)

As Vancouver embarks on a City Plan, it will be important in my opinion to not only look at the single family neighbourhoods, but also at the future of the downtown. I am concerned that a number of recent spot-rezonings are ultimately going to result in the loss of what made Vancouver special over the past few decades. If you don't believe me, just watch the corner of Seymour and Hastings where a previous designated open space (albeit not the most beautiful design) that was the result of a density transfer with which I was involved in 1982 is being destroyed and replaced by a 20+ FSR office building
As you will read below, Spaxman has changed is views on this new development proposal on Melville Street.
Spaxman quite rightly points out that this illustration is good evidence of the architect and developer's complete lack of concern for context when it comes to the design of this new proposal for the north end of the Granville Street bridge
     I believe the person who is most responsible for Vancouver's acclaim as a centre for good planning is former Director of Planning Ray Spaxman. Following his appointment in the early 1970s, he introduced the concept of citizen participation in the planning process and the importance of neighbourliness.
    Here is one of many interviews with him on this topic;
    Recently, Ray has been quite outspoken about many of the new, very high-density commercial and residential developments in the city's downtown and West End. He is concerned that they do not respect their context and neighbours, and I generally agree.
    Below is an email message many of his followers received concerning two new developments in the city. I am reprinting it with his permission. As the city is about to embark on a City Plan, I hope his concerns will be given careful consideration. While there is much need for new planning in the city's 'mature ring', including Dunbar, Kerrisdale, etc. I think it is time to rethink what we are doing to our downtown and West End.
     Here is Ray's message.

At the end of my previous missive on the 1133 Melville project I noted that several respondents had told me that while they usually had a gut response to a design, either liking or not liking it, they were at a loss about how to express to others why that was.  One respondent asked how they could assess the design issues. Coupled with my earlier promise to explain how I came to alter my first impression of the building, this note (the result of numerous drafts), is my attempt to communicate on those issues. 

Then, just as I thought I had arrived at a good draft, someone sent me the proposed “Granville Gateway" project which I shared with you on November 21st. In my comments I said I was “nonplussed” by what I saw. While my further comments hinted at some reasons for that, I decided to take some time to consider the scheme more carefully, including reading the rezoning application itself. 
I have now done that and have moved into the broader issue of what constitutes good urban design. 

Many Urbanarium readers are very experienced on such matters and will hopefully bear with me as I try to connect particularly with those readers who asked me to explain further.  I regret the shortage of local architectural criticism in our media and especially the lack of visionary discussion about the many multi-dimensional design opportunities we have in our region. 

Because I need to keep it as short as I can, I decided to set out a number of what I have titled THOUGHTS. They aim to provide references to what to look for when assessing development proposals   

THOUGHT ONE. Architecture and “Commodity, Firmness and Delight”.
We are all endowed with different abilities. Some people have exceptional design abilities. It is often suggested that good architecture has to satisfy the elements of what Vitruvius described as Commodity, (Does it work?), Firmness, (Is it soundly built?)  and Delight (Does it express pleasure to those who experience it?).  Good architectural teams will have those components appropriately represented. Architectural firms become known for their strengths and weaknesses. Some firms may be recognized for their skills in getting  buildings built on time and on budget, others for their special skills with particular building types, like hospitals, community centres, airports, high rise apartments, single family homes, big office towers and so on. They also earn reputations for their design abilities and, of course, in that instance the goals and design sensitivities of their clients become paramount. Designing a building for very rich people is a different exercise than designing for very poor people. Designing for the desires of the world community is different from designing for our local community.  Commodity, Firmness and Delight still apply to all building creativity. 

As an architect, I was always aware that there were some architects who had a magic touch with design. While many of us can seek to understand and improve our skills, there will always be people who have a magic touch. Even so, their successes will still score most highly if they design to achieve high levels of Commodity and Firmness as well as Delight.  

You can see when you read the design rationale for the 1133 Melville proposal where the architect has given serious consideration to these elements and explain them in understandable language. 

THOUGHT TWO. Is a City like a Garden? 
The city is like a garden. When we create and maintain a garden we have regard for the types of soil we will encounter, where and when the sun shines, how the plants thrive in relation to other plants, how it relates to neighbours' gardens, and so on. We know we can only achieve a successful, healthy and attractive garden if we consider how all the plants contribute to its overall health and beauty, When we plant a new tree we have to ensure that we don’t kill the plants that might be overcome by its shadowing or extending root system. It has to be neighbourly. When we visit a well created and maintained garden we can sense the way everything is working to provide a healthy and beautiful environment. 

A city is like that, or can be. Consider our developing downtown and wonder if the same compatibilities or neighbourly concerns are being creatively crafted as the city grows. Think of the other places you know and wonder which ones you feel most comfortable in and why.  Wonder about how new buildings get inserted into the whole fabric of the city. Some new building proposals, while attending to their own needs for sun and shade, privacy, views, microclimate, access and so on, do not always give care to those same assets already existing for their neighbours. Proposals that ignore their neighbours end up harming the livability of the whole city. They harm it physically, functionally and especially socially. I believe a city that ignores the need for good neighbourliness in its development processes will end up an unhappy city. 

Do you see how the "Granville Gateway" project is so enamoured with its own spectacular design that it has to fade out and simplify the whole of its context in Downtown Vancouver, right through to the existing Mountains? 

THOUGHT THREE.  Neighbourliness. 
Good neighbourliness can apply to all three components  of Commodity, Firmness and Delight.  For example, under Commodity: Does the building add to or subtract from the workability and/or amenities of the neighbourhood where it is located? Firmness: Does it add to or subtract from the value of its neighbourhood? Delight: Does it enhance the delight of the neighbourhood where it is to be located? In our city these issues were once given extremely important consideration and dozens of guidelines were created to assist designers in those elements that contributed to good neighbourliness. Those guidelines were the basis for the design process that created, and what became respected as "Vancouverism”. 

The Melville proposal goes to considerable lengths to explain how it has been designed to fit supportively into its neighbourhood  - acknowledging its extraordinary density.

My foremost example of how this can go wrong is the now-approved Jenga Tower on Georgia Street, where the first “magnificent idea” drove the proponents, the architects and, apparently, including the City bureaucracy, to ignore the main elements of good neighbourliness.

THOUGHT FOUR.  An Architect's Dilemma. 
Imagine you are a local architect. A big and important developer approaches you and wishes to commission you to design a high quality office building on a site the firm has acquired in Downtown. While it is in an area zoned at 7 FSR, discussions with contacts around town and at City Hall suggest that a much higher density is possible there. It would provide much needed modern office space and a much better return on investment which could be shared with the city.  The developer understands that the City would consider a spot rezoning on that site for perhaps three times the zoned density, perhaps as hIgh as 21 FSR and be taller than the current height limit therefore requiring special consideration.  

You return to your office to discuss this with your partners. They see it as a great architectural and business opportunity but some of them worry about the impact of such a huge density on that area of town, especially on the existing neighbours. You argue that, while a city that develops at over 20 FSR is going go feel very dense and certainly much different from what “Vancouverism” used to mean, this seems to be what the city leadership believes is good for the city. We are not in a position to second guess what might be the community’s will. And, as well, someone is going to design it, so, as we know we are some of the most competent architects in the city, let us give it our best shot.   

We define density in Vancouver with a Floor Space Ratio, known as FSR. Some communities call it FAR, Floor Area Ratio.  Various areas of the city are zoned for a specific FSR. The FSR shows how much floor space can be built on a site in that area.  For example 2 FSR means that any development on the site can accommodate as much floor space as the equivalent of twice the area of the site itself. If the building covered the whole site area, it could be two storeys high. Very few buildings cover the whole site. This is because  other requirements such as for day-lighting, street and lane setbacks, and access to parking and other services on site also have to be accommodated.

Experienced people can quickly identify the approximate built densities of various forms of development. Here are few typical examples. 

Single family houses   = 0.45 FSR and two storeys. 
Two family homes   = 0.75 FSR  ditto.
Townhouses = 1.5 FSR up to three storeys. 
Three storey apartments = 1.5 FSR.
Six storey “mid rise” apartments = 3.0 FSR.  
Older High rise apartments  = 3.0 FSR. 
High rise apartments = 4.5 FSR Downtown South, Yaletown.
Older High rise  office buildings   = 9 FSR  and 450 ft. Downtown.
Higher mixed use buildings today = 24 FSR and 700 ft. Downtown. 

Some are more mysterious. For example the proposed Granville Gateway at 550 ft. tall is said to be 7.0 FSR. 

THOUGHT SIX. Who Looks After the Neighbours’ Interests?
While I think it is in all of our interests to care about neighbourliness, it is especially important for proponents of development to care.  However, their primary goal may be for a building that would compromise neighbours' existing amenities. That is where the City comes in. Through its planning processes the City has discovered through discussions with the public, and through it’s policy decisions, what the community believes constitutes good neighbourly development  What is key here is that the City, in negotiations with the  developer’s team and the affected neighbours, has a special role in ensuring good neighbourly development. 

Urbanarmers will be aware of many of my communications over recent years where I believe the City has frequently failed to identify and ensure consideration of these neighbourly polices. When that happens the individual neighbour has a difficult, if not impossible task when faced with the huge, combined resources of the developer and the City. 

Again, the Jenga tower is an example of how the neighbours' concerns were secondary to the desire for an iconic building and substantial community amenity contributions from the developer.  

THOUGHT SEVEN. Then, What about 1133 Melville?
If you would like more explanation about its design merits, find the application on Google. They do a much better job than I can do here. They also use language that is clear and objective. 

THOUGHT EIGHT. Then, What about Granville Gateway?
Find their design rationale on Google too, and compare their language with the Melville application.

THOUGHT NINE. Regarding More Applications to Come. 
Use these THOUGHTS for future proposals.  
I do hope this helps! Please let me know. 

Best Regards, Ray


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