Saturday, March 30, 2019

Opinion: Downtown crackdown — camp-outs on major Vancouver streets need to end Vancouver Courier March 28th, 2019

     I would like to begin this week’s column by thanking the many Courier readers who contacted me following my last column on the need for more public toilets in Vancouver.
     Thanks also to CKNW’s Lynda Steele and Jill Bennett who invited me and their listeners to discuss the topic.
      The catalyst for this week’s column was what I saw leaving the CKNW studio at Granville and Georgia streets. Lying in the middle of the sidewalk was a man either asleep or trying to sleep while pedestrians walked around him.
     Outside the nearby Bay store was another man in a sleeping bag. Beside him was a shopping cart full of clothing and plastic bags while other pieces of clothing and bags were scattered around.
      Along the Granville Mall, more men were camping on the sidewalk. Some were in sleeping bags, while others had created small structures with cardboard and wood. I should add that the mall is not just becoming their bedroom — it’s their toilet too, evident to anyone walking past.
     I felt very sorry for these men who are likely suffering from mental and physical challenges and experiencing very difficult lives.
      However, I was also upset by the level of tolerance or lack of concern exhibited by the people walking by and a city administration and police department that allows people to camp on downtown sidewalks day after day.
     Ten years ago this month, I unveiled a proposal based on my 1971 university architectural thesis to set up relocatable modular structures on vacant land to house the homeless and others seeking affordable housing.
     I regularly promoted the concept and was pleased when it eventually resulted in the modular housing program now underway in Metro Vancouver and around the province. 
     Four years ago, as we awaited a B.C. Supreme Court decision on whether it was illegal for homeless people to camp in public places, I wrote that perhaps the homeless should be pitching tents outside the BC Legislature and city halls to bring more attention to their plight.
     Since then, we have witnessed numerous battles as the homeless, often encouraged by housing activists, have set up tent camps in Victoria, Maple Ridge, Surrey and elsewhere.
While we await the results of this year’s homeless count, it might be worth reviewing what is happening in Seattle. Earlier this year, I posted on my blog a provocative articleby documentary filmmaker Christopher Rufo.
     Rufo reported that a record numbers of homeless people are occupying his city’s public spaces despite massive government spending to fight the problem.
     In 2017, King County counted 11,643 people sleeping in tents, cars and emergency shelters. Property crime is significantly higher than in Los Angeles and New York and cleanup crews pick up tens of thousands of dirty needles from city streets and parks every year.
Rufo noted that “at the same time, Metro Seattle spends $1 billion fighting homelessness every year. That’s nearly $100,000 for every homeless man, woman and child in King County, yet the crisis seems only to have deepened.”
     Interestingly, he referenced academic studies in San Francisco and Vancouver that concluded that up to half the homeless in these cities moved from elsewhere, for their permissive culture and generous services. He believes the same holds true for his city.
     Rufo writes that the situation in Seattle is a textbook example of what sociologists call pathological altruism, or “altruism in which attempts to promote the welfare of others instead results in unanticipated harm.” He maintains the city’s “compassion campaign” has devolved into permissiveness, enablement, crime, and disorder.
     While our politicians call for more money to build more temporary modular housing, we also need a much more comprehensive approach to addressing homelessness, including more addiction treatment programs and employment programs like EMBERS Eastside Works.
     We need to offer more family reunification programs and personal grooming and dental care for those seeking it.
     We should also fund initiatives like KIDCARE Canada, which was founded by my sister to prevent another generation of individuals from becoming homeless.
     In future columns, I will review what other cities are doing to address homelessness. In the meanwhile, I think we should stop people from camping at Granville and Georgia and other major downtown intersections.Twitter @michaelgeller

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

From Moscow to South Langley: Speaking to the Brookswood Fernridge Community March 27th, 2019

Earlier this year, I received an invitation from a Langley resident to see if I would be prepared to be a guest speaker at a general meeting of the Brookswood Fernridge community association in March.   It has recently been the recipient of a new community plan and the residents are about to enter the neighbourhood planning process for three new neighbourhoods.

I was told that many in the community are concerned about the type of housing that will be built in future developments and what they can do to ensure older residents who are downsizing will have housing options other than three level townhouses which, while rare in Vancouver, are often built in Richmond and south of the Fraser. The local community also wants to see different housing options available for both present and future  residents in these new communities.

Flattery will get you everywhere. The invitation went on to say my interest in the development of alternative forms of housing, including co-housing, cooperative housing, small houses etc are forward thinking and would be of great interest to the residents of our community. So, of course, I said yes!

I spent yesterday preparing my presentation. While Langley is a long way from Moscow, (which was featured in my last blogpost, and where I was last invited to talk about alternative housing choices), I was equally conscious of the need to be sensitive to the local sentiments as I was when I prepared my Moscow lecture for Strelka.

Ironically, as I was preparing my talk, I received an email from a former building inspector who is a member of the community who had recently written to me about the so-called Speculation Tax following one of my Vancouver Courier rants. 

He wanted to alert me to the sentiments of the local community. 

"You should be aware that there is a lot of community aversion to small compact type housing. The existing built part of Brookswood is mostly 10,000 sf lots and remain on septic tank/fields. The Willoughby area to the north (between Langley City and the freeway) is under fairly rapid development and the Brookswood crowd is aghast at the small lots and resulting parking problems etc. that can be expected. He noted that the compact Clayton Heights Area on the adjacent Surrey side has become an undesirable place to live.(Coincidentally, I previously worked a little bit with Patrick Condon on the early Clayton Heights design charrette and had already included a Clayton Heights slide in my presentation, knowing that it would come up as a concern.)

He raised the issue of whether compact housing should be the preferred form of housing in order to save the existing large conifer trees, or whether new trees can and should be planted  that are more in scale with the new housing.
So, armed with my computer and powerpoint presentation, I will set off for Langley tomorrow. I have some images that I know will appeal to many, thanks to the excellent work of Ross Chapin and his Pocket Neighbourhood approach to planning.
I also intend to talk about laneway and coach houses, duplex and semi-detached, zero-lotline detached housing and fee-simple rowhouses. I will also present examples of small apartment buildings that can be integrated within low density neighbourhoods.
I plan to talk about the need for corner stores, and how best to provide adequate transportation as the community grows.
If you live in the Brookswood Fernridge community, or other nearby communties undergoing redevelopment, I hope you will come out. The meeting will be held in the community room of the South Langley Church, 20098 22nd Avenue, Langley, from 7 till 9. 
 Below is a recent newspaper article by Heather Colpitts regarding the talk from the Langley Advance Times.

What could housing look like in the future in Brookswood and Fernridge?
The Brookswood-Fernridge Community Association wants to talk to residents about the issue and is inviting residents to a public meeting at 7 p.m. on March 27.
“Join us at our public meeting to learn more about cluster housing, cooperative housing, co-housing, seniors housing, small houses, etc. and how these can provide housing diversity and impact affordability and livability within a community,” said association representative Wayne Crossen.
The association wants to solicit resident input ahead of the recently started Brookswood-Fernridge neighbourhood planning process so that housing alternatives are examined and integrated into the neighbourhood planning.
Attending the meeting will be Michael Geller. He is a Vancouver-based architect, planner, real estate consultant and property developer with four decades in the public, private and institutional sectors. He’s been involved in a number of specialized development projects for cooperative, non-profit, public housing, social housing, institutional construction and more. He currently serves as President of Michael Geller & Associates, as adjunct Faculty for the Centre for Sustainable Community Development, Simon Fraser University. The meeting happens at the South Langley Community Church, 20098 22nd Ave.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Is this the most beautiful public toilet in the world? Moscow's Gum department store on Red Square.

     This post is for CKNW's Jill Bennett and her listeners!
     I was talking on her show this morning about my recent Vancouver Courier column the need for more public toilets in Vancouver, and mentioned a particularly beautiful public toilet in Moscow. I offered to share some photos.
As a man of a certain age, I often need to visit the toilet. Last fall, when I was in Moscow's Red Square searching for a public toilet. I wandered into the adjacent Gum department store where I saw a sign for a 'historic toilet'. I went down the stairs only to discover it cost 200 rubles to enter (about $4). I then became curious. How nice can a toilet be to justify a $4 entry fee?  As you can see from these photos, it was very nice. While it isn't necessary for all public toilets to look like this, I do think we need to build more public toilet facilities in Vancouver. Some may be free. Some can charge for the service. They would certainly benefit the homeless and other disadvantaged people, as well as tourists, and men like me of a certain age!

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Opinion: Shame the lack of johns: Vancouver desperately needs more public toilets Vancouver Courier March 14, 2019

Last week I stumbled across a most disgusting public toilet in downtown Vancouver.
It wasn’t designed as a public toilet.
      Rather, it was a urine-soaked stairwell in the City of Vancouver-owned Gastown Parkade.Since it was in desperate need of a good washing down, I tweeted a photo to the city and EasyPark, which manages the property. I also tweeted a photo of the extremely filthy wall and canopy along Water Street. Regrettably, I did not receive any response.
     The Gastown Parkade is one of more than 125 parking facilities managed by EasyPark. The parking business is a tough business prone to complaints. But a review of the comments on Yelp and the Better Business Bureau would suggest EasyPark does not appear to be living up to its mission “to provide safe, clean, friendly parking.”
     Hopefully EasyPark officials will review and address these comments, since many were valid.
But this column is not about EasyPark. Rather, it is about why the Gastown parkade stairwells and too many other downtown stairwells, back lanes and alleys have sadly become public toilets.
Later that day, I listened to an excellent episode of CBC’s Ideas with Paul Kennedy. Titled “Dignity down the toilet: Public bathrooms as a human right,” it addressed public toilets and why they are so often lacking in North America cities, despite our wealth.
     Public bathrooms are an amenity we all need. Yet few of us openly talk about this and, unlike European cities, North American cities provide few facilities. The CBC program explored how governments and businesses can respond to this most basic bodily need, especially for the homeless and other disadvantaged people who simply cannot walk into a hotel or restaurant like I can.
     The episode described a group of Ottawa citizens who raised concerns about the lack of public toilets in their city. They eventually developed the GottaGo! campaign, which amongst other things, managed to get Ottawa transit officials to increase the number of toilets in their stations.
It also featured other “toilet activists,” including those who run the U.K.’s Loo of the Year awards program. It measures 100 different bathroom criteria, including whether urinals are free from debris and odour.
     Rather than ruin your breakfast with their other criteria, you can find details online at
     As I reflect on my travels, a vast array of toilet experiences come to mind. Last fall, arriving at the train station in Baku Azerbaijan after an overnight journey from Tbilisi, I desperately needed to use a toilet but didn’t have any local coins. As is the case in many European and Eurasian cities, there was a bathroom attendant, but I could not explain my predicament since I was unable to use Google Translate on my phone.
     Eventually I found a policeman in the station who spoke a bit of English, and he paid for me to go to the toilet. This is just one of the many reasons why I have such fond memories of Azerbaijan.
     But let’s come back to Vancouver. While the city requires all buildings to have accessible washrooms for tenants and users, there is no similar rule when it comes to public toilets along streets. For homeless people and those on limited incomes, visiting a bathroom in a coffee shop or other business isn’t an option since many businesses restrict their washrooms to customers who have made a purchase.
     However, in recent years, a few modern, self-cleaning, public toilets have been installed on select Vancouver street corners. These free automated toilets, which someone described as “shimmering modern outhouses,” are no doubt a godsend for many residents and tourists.
     The Downtown Vancouver BIA has completed a map of public washrooms. While there are a few in Gastown and the Downtown Eastside, the city desperately needs many more facilities for both those willing to pay and those who cannot afford to do so.
     We also need EasyPark and other maintenance companies to ensure that while we wait for more facilities, their properties do not become the city’s defacto public toilets.
     This week is homeless count week. Perhaps it is also a good time to start a public conversation about public toilets.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Falling house prices, taxes and innovative designs spook West Vancouver sellers and buyers.

Vinson House was featured in this 1918  poster of West Vancouver  most spectacular homes.
     In late 2014, a West Vancouver planner introduced me to Vinson House, a 1913 house that  heritage advocates described as "an unusually intact Craftsman style home that provides a valuable link to the early architecture and history of West Vancouver."
The Vinson family pose on the front steps of their recently finished home. At the time, it was located on a five-acre lot!
     It was originally the home of Reeve Valient Vinson, who was elected to West Vancouver council numerous times between 1918 and 1929, and then owned by an assistant in the West Vancouver Archives. She, along with her husband, had lovingly restored many parts of the house over the years, but the time had come for them to sell. Since the house was sitting on a very large Ambleside lot, both the owner and planner feared that any new buyer would likely knock it down in order to build a large new house.
    Given the success of Hollyburn Mews, my first small, innovative West Vancouver infill development, which replaced three older single-family houses across from West Vancouver United Church, I was offered the opportunity to buy the house before it went on the market.
Hollyburn Mews replaced 3 single-family houses with 6 duplexes and West Vancouver's first 3 legal coach houses.
The duplexes were designed to look like large single-family houses. Access to the coach houses is from both the street and lane.
Hollyburn Mews took 5 years to get approved. But once completed, even the objectors agreed it offered much-needed new housing choices. Recently, West Vancouver approved a new OCP to permit more similar developments.
Some of the Hollyburn Mews residents pose in front of their development. As is the case with the Vinson House project, it combines the neighbourliness of yesterday with the modern conveniences of today!
    In return for protecting and conserving the house, the planning department would support a Heritage Revitalization Agreement  (HRA) that would allow me to build two additional infill homes on the property. As a proponent of 'gentle densification, and someone who appreciated older houses it seemed like a wonderful opportunity.
   However, I was concerned about the construction challenges and costs for such an undertaking. I therefore approached Trasolini Chetner, the company that had built Hollyburn Mews, to see if they were interested in partnering with me on the development since they had previously been involved with numerous heritage restorations in Vancouver.
Trasolini Chetner has been involved with numerous heritage projects including the Two Dorothies, featured on the cover of this special book.
     We created a new company and in November 2015 made an application to the District of West Vancouver to move and restore the old house, in return for approval to subdivide it into two homes, and build two additional detached houses on the lot. The detailed plans were prepared by Formwerks, a highly regarded architectural firm with considerable experience with heritage houses and infill development.
     In May 2015, as noted in the North Shore News, the project was approved.
     Like most heritage conversions, the project took much longer than expected, and cost significantly more than budgeted. But our lender, Canadian Western Bank was understanding, and agreed to increased the loan, and extend the repayment period, in return for additional fees of course!
    During the construction, we pre-sold the single-level garden suite on the lower level of the Heritage House. However, we were not too aggressive about selling the other homes since we thought it would be better to allow the new buyers to see the completed product.
The heritage house was moved 30 feet on the lot, in order to create room for four new garages. The two new detached houses are at the side of the large lot.
     The project was initially scheduled for completion in November 2017. However, it was not finished until July 2018. By then the provincial government had introduced its so-called School and Speculation Taxes, and prices were beginning to drop. The heritage house came to market at $3.3 million, a price which reflected our acquisition and restoration costs, including top-of-the-line appliances and finishes, and what the neighbours thought it should sell for.
Vinson House looks like it would be more at home in Shaughnessey than West Vancouver. Some realtors have suggested I should be advertising it in Vancouver, not West Vancouver, since it represents such good value compared to Vancouver $$$.  
Vinson House was recently staged in order to help a new buyer imagine how it might look with furniture.
     We priced the two detached houses around $2.5 and $2.7 million which equated to approximately $1100 per square foot, well below the price of comparable new houses in Vancouver and West Vancouver.
     In July, we organized a garden party to present the three remaining homes to the neighbours and broader community.  Most people loved the homes and told us they were just what West Vancouver needed. However, this was the first HRA development offered for sale in West Vancouver, and the concept of strata-infill was new to the District.
    To cut a long story short, 9 months later, the three homes are still on the market. Because of falling house prices, new provincial government taxes, and great uncertainty about the future of the housing market, we are waiting for offers.
   Last month, in an effort to sell the houses before the bank calls the loan, we brought in a new sales team. Tom Hassan, Eric Christiansen and Eric Latta were each given one of the listings. At their urging, we have reduced our prices. The Heritage House, which first came to market at $3.3 million is now $2,695,000.
     The Coach House has dropped to $2,298,000 and the Garden Residence, is $2,498,000
The kitchens in both the Coach House and Garden Residence are designed to appeal to someone who wants lots of space and brightness.
     This represents a price reduction of over $1 million on the three homes. Moreover, our realtors tell us that we may have to be willing to accept further reductions if we want to sell in this market. Why? Because the West Vancouver market has been so spooked by falling prices and uncertainties caused by the new provincial taxes, no one knows whether now is a good time to sell or buy.
Like the heritage house, the Garden Residence features a large front porch along with three private outdoor spaces, that can be fenced off if so desired.
    In writing this column I was surprised to discover that Vinson House was recently listed for sale in the New York Times. This is no doubt due to Eric Latta's association with Sotheby's and the fact that it is such a unique property. It's also less expensive in US dollars!
     While no doubt someone will criticize me for this, the fact is we have given Vancouver area buyers every opportunity to buy these homes!
     Yesterday, we accepted an offer on one of the houses. Unfortunately, it is subject to the sale of another house. But our realtors are optimistic that the other sale will go through, and we will just be left with two houses for sale.
     I am sharing this story because as builders, Trasolini Chetner and I have poured our hearts and souls into this project. While we wanted to make some money doing this, it was also a labour of love. While I appreciate these very special homes are not for everyone, I find it hard to believe that there aren't local buyers for a beautifully restored West Vancouver heritage house and two brand new 2500 sq.ft. +/  thoughtfully designed houses, especially at the reduced prices.
     In the media (and Twitter) many delight at the falling house prices, especially at the top end of the market. Of course, these people do not own homes they are thinking of selling.
     I am well aware that for too long, housing prices escalated far too quickly. But now I am concerned that while we often talk about the need for heritage conservation and 'missing middle' housing choices, as long at the market remains so uncertain, we won't see many of these projects get underway, especially in West Vancouver, and other municipalities that desperately need more housing choices.
      To see what I consider the excellent floor plans and finishes at Vinson House Residences, go to Let me know what you think.

Posing with former owner Carol Howie for a North Shore News story about the history and restoration of this significant heritage property.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Presentation to Vancouver City Council on improving fairness and effectiveness of Empty Home Tax February 27, 2019

"Would you like to talk about the empty homes tax review report that’s coming before council next week? I can talk to you this afternoon before 3:00, or any time tomorrow."

     Had I not received this email from Jen St.Denis, a reporter with the Star Vancouver Newspaper, I would not have known a report was going to Council regarding the Empty Home Tax. Nor would I have ended up spending much of Wednesday in Council, watching the new City Council in action. I say much of the day since the meeting was scheduled for 9:30 and I was speaking to the second item. As it happened, I didn't get to speak until 2:45 due to changes to the agenda, etc.
     I prepared some notes, but after having to wait in the council chamber for 5 hours, ended up revising them many times over. But here's the gist of what I said in my presentation and subsequent Q&A with councillors!

·        While I have long had concerns about the proposed Empty Home Tax since it’s inception, in terms of its likely effectiveness and administration challenges, I acknowledge that given Vancouver’s housing affordability crisis, it is legitimate for the city to take measures to convert vacant properties into rental properties….

·        I won’t call them empty homes since if they’re empty, they’re not homes.….as you will hear, my biggest complaint is that too many of the dwellings impacted by this tax aren’t empty, they are people’s homes, albeit second homes.

·        The report before you sets out improvements to close some loopholes, and a strategy to develop longer term improvements to make the tax more equitable and effective.

·        I compliment those of you who fully understand this report. I’m not a lawyer, and frankly I had some difficulty understanding exactly what is being proposed. But the proposed changes appear to do three things:

o   narrow the tenancy exemption to essentially exclude non-arm’s length tenants such as family members;
o   expand the exemption for a place left vacant because of the owner’s death and
o   narrow the exemption because of a sale during the year.

·        There are other changes that are required, as proposed by a local tax lawyer Noah Sarna. I included a link to these suggestions in this week’s Vancouver Courier Column.

  The report suggests that, in the future, the city emulate some of the provisions of the provincial speculation tax, such as imposing higher rates for foreign owners, compared to local owners, etc. and reconsidering rental units in strata corporations.

·        But as you consider what future changes might be made, I want to highlight a most significant distinction between the city’s EHT and the province’s so-called Speculation & Vacancy tax

·        The city’s tax is a PROPERTY TAX, whereas the province’s tax is a PERSONAL TAX. In making changes, you need to decide what you want this to be.

·        We also need to consider how effective this tax has been in terms of increasing the supply of rental housing. 

·        When this tax was first proposed, we were led to believe there were anywhere between 10,000 and 25,000 empty homes that could be brought into the rental market. (you can find many references to this online). However, according to the report, if I am reading it properly, the number of homes declared vacant, without valid reason, was only 1,085 in 2017 and 922 in 2018 — 525 properties were declared vacant for both years.

·        The report further notes that a significant number of formerly vacant units did return to the rental stock between 2017 and 2018. How many? 117. Yes, 117.

·        We are told the city expects to receive $38 million from the vacant properties. While it is not clearly set out in the report, in 2018 there were 922 empty dwellings taxed. This equates to an average of $41,215 per property which translates into an average $4.1 million property. If the money came from 1,085 units, that equates to $35,000 per unit based on a $3.5 million value.

·        Even if these homes are converted to rental, they are not going to be affordable rental.

·        My biggest concerns related to this tax are its effectiveness, and unfair impact on second homeowners.

·        Now, I appreciate that when many cannot afford one home, there is little sympathy for those who own two. But we should think about this because many of these second home owners want to be in Vancouver. They have good reason to be here. They are paying full property taxes, but don’t send their kids to our schools or place significant demands on our services. Their homes are not empty.

·        However, the city’s empty home tax, combined with the provincial tax will force them to sell. Why, because no matter how much money they have, they don’t want to pay $100,00 or more in taxes every year on the average property now paying the tax, in addition to their property tax.

·        Now some will leave the city. But not all. I know this for a fact. What they are doing is selling their properties….and renting. Let me repeat this. They are renting. So instead of creating more rental stock, by taxing second homes, you are encouraging these people to move into existing rental accommodation. Was that the intention? I don’t think so.

·        If the true purpose of this tax is to increase the stock of rental housing, I would urge you to reconsider taxing legitimate second homes. They are not going to be rented out, especially if you ban non-arms’ length transactions.

·        I admit that it will be complicated to come up with a way to exclude second homes, but it can be done. One suggestion is to reduce the timeframe from 6 months to say 3 months. There are other ways too.

·        And if you do stop taxing legitimate second homes, I will not be bck to oppose the mayor’s proposal to increase the tax from 1% to 3%.

·        Again, on the proviso that the tax lives up to its name, a vacancy tax. A tax on vacant properties, not people’s homes.