Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Missing Middle, Gentle Density, 15-minute city Vancouver Sun March 14, 2023

I first wrote about the 15-minute City last year for Senior Line, the Jewish Seniors' Alliance's quarterly magazine. http://gellersworldtravel.blogspot.com/2023/01/the-15-minute-city.html  At the time, it never occurred to me that one day citizens would be organizing protests to oppose this widely accepted planning concept. But that's what has been happening in cities around the world. When someone sent me this poster from Edmonton, I just had to write about it again. And while I was at it, I thought I would offer the true meaning of 'missing middle' and 'gentle density' before these terms generated citizens' revolts. Here's my column from today's Vancouver Sun, with thanks to you Mary Beth Roberts for helping to find space for it. I just hope it will encourage a more thoughtful discussion about planning concepts, and encourage colleagues in the development community to consider advertising in West Coast Homes now that the housing market is improving!

 When my daughter and her cousin get together to discuss their work at the dinner table, I often have no idea what they are talking about. Both are doctors, and their conversations are invariably peppered with technical terms, acronyms and abbreviations that are meaningless to me.

The same is no doubt true when community planners discuss whether to ‘relax the site coverage’ or request ‘improved CPTED measures.’ CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) refers to building and landscape design features intended to reduce the fear of crime and opportunities to commit crimes.

Several new terms have been added to the planner’s lexicon in recent years. Each is attracting considerable public attention, and one even sparked a widely publicized community protest in Edmonton. Before they cause more confusion and unrest, it might be useful to examine what they mean.

‘Missing middle housing’ is one glossary addition that is often misunderstood, even by planners and politicians. For some, it is housing targeted to a socio-economic group that is too wealthy to qualify for government-subsidized ‘social housing’ but too poor to afford conventional market developments.

However, for most planners, this term refers to housing forms between conventional single-family detached housing and apartments. Examples can include duplexes, triplexes, townhouses and ‘stacked townhouses.’

These housing forms are also referred to as ‘gentle density,’ especially when proposed within established single-family neighbourhoods. The recent proposals in Vancouver and other cities in British Columbia to allow up to six homes on a single-family lot are examples of gentle density.

Allowing laneway or coach houses or the subdivision of larger houses into multiple suites are other ways to achieve this gentle density.

Another expression attracting considerable attention is ‘the 15-minute city.’

First proposed in 2016 by Carlos Moreno, an associate professor at Sorbonne University Business School in Paris, France, it refers to an urban planning concept in which most daily activities can be accomplished by either walking or cycling from one’s home within 15 minutes. For some, it may include accessing these services and activities by public transit within a similar timeframe.

The 15-minute city concept gained prominence when it was used during Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s successful re-election in Paris in 2020. Since then, politicians and planners worldwide have been using it to describe the types of neighbourhoods they want to promote in their cities or municipalities.
The key consideration is that the 15-minute city or neighbourhood is quite different than the auto-oriented car-dependent neighbourhoods that planners have been creating since the 1950s, where there are no corner stores, and you often must drive children to school. It may even be necessary to drive to a neighbourhood park or playground.

If you live in downtown Vancouver, Kitsilano or Kerrisdale; along Number 3 Road in Richmond or Lonsdale Avenue in North Vancouver; or in West Vancouver’s Dundarave Village, you already enjoy the attributes of a 15-minute neighbourhood. Indeed, most urban areas built before the overwhelming proliferation of cars have the qualities of a 15-minute city.

For most of us, this is a very desirable type of neighbourhood. This is why planners were astonished to learn of a protest in Edmonton organized by a group opposed to 15-minute cities.

Posters headlined “PROTEST AGAINST 15 MINUTE CITIES IN EDMONTON” warned residents that “Edmonton wants to start something called 15 minute cities where you can’t go to any area that is more than 15 minutes from you, limiting your movement between DISTRICTS as they called it. You will spend 90% of your life in this 15 minute area as they are monitoring your ‘carbon footprint’ aka your actual footprint. When are we protesting: Friday February 10th at 3 pm. Bring your signs and flags.”

While conspiracy theorists asserting clandestine government plans are becoming increasingly common, this had to be the most remarkable or foolish claim to arrive on my Twitter feed.

To be clear, Edmonton and other cities are not proposing that residents be confined to a certain geographic area like Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner, the 1967 British television series about an unnamed British intelligence agent imprisoned in a mysterious coastal village.

While many of us enjoy living in 15-minute cities or neighbourhoods, the challenge for planners and politicians is how best to transform sprawling car-oriented suburbs into more walkable and accessible ’15-minute cities’ or neighbourhoods.

Redesigned neighbourhoods will allow residents to access amenities without having to always get in their cars with the attendant negative impacts on their health and environment, not to mention pocketbooks.

One way is to revise zoning bylaws to allow more widespread mixing of shops and housing. This might include building corner stores within established single-family neighbourhoods as part of new townhouses or apartment developments.

It could also include transforming arterial streets by replacing single-family houses with mixed-use buildings offering grocery stores, pharmacies and offices with housing above.

Another approach is to add housing, libraries and even schools on the expansive parking lots surrounding older suburban shopping centres since, for many of us, the shopping centre is also our community centre.

Finally, we need to rethink our public transit system. Instead of having to walk 20 minutes to a bus stop, why not bring the bus stop to outside our homes? This is already happening with HandiDart and community shuttle routes operated by minibuses. This will no doubt become more feasible when autonomous vehicles become more commonplace.

As the expression goes, “everything old is new again.” This is particularly true when you compare how cities were designed in the past and how we want them to be designed in the future. With missing middle housing, gentle density and 15-minute cities, we may all be able to enjoy healthier lives and healthier cities. Now, this is something worthy of a community protest.

Michael Geller is a Vancouver-based planner, real estate consultant and retired architect. He serves on the Adjunct Faculty of SFU’s Centre for Sustainable Development and School of Resource and Environmental Management. He writes a regular blog at gellersworldtravel.blogspot.ca and can be found on Twitter@michaelgeller

Friday, March 3, 2023

A ChatGPT stereotypical NIMBY letter & why I won't use it at a Public Hearing in West Van this Monday

An artist's illustration of a proposed rental development comprising small studio suites

Brandon Donnelly is a Toronto-based architectural graduate now active in the development industry. Every morning, yes, every morning around 6 am, he writes a blogpost about various matters, but usually related to real estate or design. He's an excellent writer and based on his posts, he strikes me as a very charming and intelligent guy. https://brandondonnelly.com/

Today he posted something truly fascinating. It's a ChatGPT AI computer generated generic letter opposing a new housing development in a neighbourhood. 

It particularly struck home (if you'll pardon the pun) since this Monday evening March 6, provided I don't have to attend to an important family matter, I intend to speak at a Public Hearing in West Vancouver in support of a new rental housing project near Taylor Way and Marine Drive...yes, one of the most congested intersections in the Lower Mainland. You can read about the development proposal in this North Shore News article. https://www.nsnews.com/local-news/all-rental-apartment-proposal-in-west-vancouver-going-to-public-hearing-6442793.

A slide from a presentation to architects and others on the appropriateness of well-designed smaller suites. The illustration is from a UK publication on housing.

At the Public Hearing, I will be sharing with the mayor and councillors my opinion about smaller suites, and the history of 600 Drake Street inVancouver. https://www.concertproperties.com/rentals/600-drake. I vividly recall the Council discussion about this VLC proposal thirty years ago. Many of the units were so small the project necessitated a reconsideration of minimum unit sizes for market housing in Vancouver, and other municipalities. 

Slides from a presentation given to Metro politicians on the need to be open-minded
when it comes to minimum housing sizes.

Following the Public Hearing, Alderman Jonathan Baker eloquently told the audience and fellow aldermen that he would be opposing the project since "Living in these units will be like living in a coffin".

Well, he was wrong, as this post-occupancy UBC thesis evaluation revealed: https://open.library.ubc.ca/soa/cIRcle/collections/ubctheses/831/items/1.0086752

But back to Mr. Donnelly's post. Having demonstrated another example of ChatGPT to his readers in an earlier blogpost, he wrote: 

Okay, I really don’t want to make this — using ChatGPT to write my blog posts for me — a habit. But I was genuinely curious what would happen if I asked it to: “write a stereotypical NIMBY letter opposing a new housing development.” Here’s what it generated.

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am writing to express my strong opposition to the proposed housing development in our neighborhood. While I understand the need for affordable housing in our city, I believe that this project would have a detrimental impact on our community.

First and foremost, the proposed development is simply too large for our area. The increase in population density would put a strain on our already overburdened infrastructure, leading to increased traffic congestion, noise pollution, and strain on our public services. Additionally, the construction of this project would result in significant environmental damage, destroying natural habitats and putting wildlife at risk.

Furthermore, the type of housing being proposed is simply not in keeping with the character of our neighborhood. This development would bring in a large number of low-income residents, which could lead to increased crime rates and other negative social effects. It would also drastically alter the aesthetic of our area, replacing the existing greenery and open spaces with a monolithic, high-density housing complex.

Finally, I am deeply concerned about the impact this development would have on property values in the surrounding area. The influx of low-income residents could result in a decline in property values, making it difficult for current residents to sell their homes and move elsewhere.

In conclusion, I strongly urge you to reconsider this proposed housing development. While I recognize the need for affordable housing, I believe that this project is simply not the right fit for our neighborhood. Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Sincerely, [Your Name]

I must say that I’m impressed. It is a solid 5-paragraph letter that follows a tried and true formula. First, the entire letter is sandwiched between thinly veiled statements around the importance of housing. Both the introduction and conclusion speak to “the need for affordable housing.”

And then in the middle of the letter, it hits on the holy trinity of opposition arguments: (1) overburdened/inadequate infrastructure, (2) neighborhood character, and (3) property values. I’m not sure there’s much to improve on here. These computers are good.

So, if you happen to need one of these, you may want to try ChatGPT.

My hope is that at Monday's Public Hearing, someone will recite this letter, or something similar, and councillors will gently smile. And Council will approve the project. 

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Thursday, March 2, 2023

March 2, 1981- 42 years ago today.

Forty-two years ago today, on Monday March 2, 1981, after spending 10 years with CMHC, I walked into Narod's office on the 22nd floor of 650 West Georgia and started working in the private real estate sector. I remember the day quite vividly since by 5 o'clock, Roger Moors had sold me a MURB unit in Mariner Point, even though Sally and I couldn't afford to buy a place to live.

I enjoyed two wonderful adventurous years at Narod. !981 was a good year for the real estate industry. We had lunch most days in the Garden Lounge or Pavillon in the Four Seasons. David Mooney usually ordered a bottle of Corton Charlemagne when we were having lobster and it was not unusual to finish a meal with a bottle of Chateau Yquem. It had been a condition of employment that I take up golf and I got to stay at some fine resorts where our 'management sessions' were held and play some of the better courses in the Pacific Northwest and California. But it didn't last long.

Two years later, on March 9th, 1983, the Queen arrived in Vancouver, and the receivers arrived at Narod's office. I was the only officer there to greet them since David Mooney, Craig Waddell and the others were in Hawaii playing golf. However, whatever happens is often for the best. 

Two of the receivers retained me to help finish Mariner Point and continue with the rezoning of 92 acres of BC Packers' Lands on the Steveston Waterfront. 

Thanks to these receivers, and BC Packers who also asked me to continue with the rezoning of its property, Michael Geller & Associates Limited (MGAL) was incorporated and has been active for the past forty years.

It has been a most enjoyable time. There were a couple of disappointments. I was unable to rezone the Spetifore Lands in Delta, after 26 nights of public hearings. Yes, 26 nights. I also failed in a bid to rezone Langara Gardens for three more highrises, after obtaining approval for a fourth tower on West 57th, over George Puil's vigorous objection. But some of the company's successes included rezoning of three blocks in Point Grey next to the Jericho Lands; Furry Creek,, Bayshore, Deering Island, and more recently Park West and the Travelodge site in North Vancouver.

Over the four decades, the company undertook eight development projects in Vancouver and West Vancouver, on its own, or in partnership with others.

Later this year, some events are planned to mark the 40th anniversary of the company. I look forward to getting together with the many clients, architects, contractors, and others with whom I have worked over the four decades. But for now, I'll simply reflect on all the changes that have taken place in the city since I started with Narod, 42 years ago today. Thanks to all who have made it such an enjoyable ride!