Reflecting Vancouver

Urbanism and Life on the West Coast


A New Vancouverism

This video segment from CBC has been making rounds:

Planners around the world once looked to Vancouver for advice on transforming their cities. Today we face a looming urban design crisis, and are rapidly losing vanguard status to cities willing to take greater risks. Our legacy still informs dense residential developments and luxurious condo schemes, particularly in North American cities where urban revitalization is incomplete. But we have precious little to teach the world about the challenges we now face, and that our imitators will soon be forced to confront as well: a rapidly rising population, diminishing brownfield, and intense resistance from inner suburbs to the platform-and-tower model.

I previously discussed the impact of this crisis on housing affordability, the gravest symptom of our need for new ideas. As the addition of new housing stock slows due to fewer available development sites, along with financial incentives to build smaller and smaller units on increasingly expensive land, housing for young families will soon vanish from Vancouver. Even if we mandate a minimum percentage of new apartments with two or more bedrooms — a recent Vision promise — less and less construction will occur as available land for traditional Vancouverism runs out. In parallel, these units will become more and more expensive, until they rocket past the financial means of young couples to afford them. Purchasing a two-bedroom apartment in Vancouver now requires a household income of about $70,000 per year, given a brutal 60% to housing expenses, plus a hefty down payment. There is dangerously little room for the cost of housing to rise further if we want a demographically balanced city.

It is often said that high housing costs are a geographic inevitability in Vancouver. That we are doomed to be a city of expensive condos and strapped renters because there just isn’t enough space to go around. But we are not Hong Kong, and this crisis is not for lack of land — greater than 50% of our city is zoned for single family homes. It is unthinkable to allow our city to slip into stasis after the final CD-1 tower, while pretending that our vast single-family vernacular should remain untouched. Vancouver must accept that single-family neighbourhoods will densify, or otherwise become vacant portfolio assets beside packed and pricey towers. Our city deserves better.

If we don’t start planning for the densification of our residential neighbourhoods, many thousands of new Metro Vancouver arrivals will instead flow to suburban development outside Vancouver’s borders. This almost certainly means being trapped in a vicious cycle of new automobile infrastructure to facilitate one-car commutes. Motordom will win. It’s time for Vancouver to step up again and show a better way forward for urban living, one in which everyone can participate. Diverse transportation options are crucial for healthy urban design, and the transit plebiscite must be won. But land use planning is the foundation on which transportation policy is framed, and changes to zoning start with the City.

The concern isn’t whether Vancouver has an optimal number of residents, but how we will design our city to remain livable as our population increases. Constraints of comfort, space, and price will determine our quality of life in tomorrow’s Vancouver, and these are all factors amenable to policy. In the coming months, I’ll share ideas from my own neighbourhood of Kitsilano, where a history of creative densification provides many instructive examples.


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Perils of CD-1: Arterial Shadowing on West Broadway

West Broadway shadowing
Several months ago, Frances Bula did some scouting about a recently completed five-story rental building on West Broadway. The investigation was prompted by a reader question, since the existing zoning (C-2C) only permits four stories yet this development clearly exceeds that. I may be reading the C-2C zoning bylaw incorrectly, but I think the maximum permissible height is even less. Sure enough, the building is a special CD-1 rezoning under the Rental 100 program. And it highlights a problem that we’re wandering into regarding CD-1 development along east-west arterials.

For those who don’t know the neighbourhood, West Broadway is the quintessential Kitsilano high street, and a popular leisure stroll for residents. This is partly because of broad sidewalks and a quirky mix of Greek markets, restaurants, boutiques, and services. But the other major draw, particularly on the north side, is the sun.
Vancouver Solar Altitude
If Vancouverism emphasizes the view first, it emphasizes the sun second. As a city at high latitude — 49°14′ to be precise — the sun never approaches zenith (90°, or directly overhead). The maximum she climbs is 64.2° on the summer solstice, part of a leisurely loop around the sky that never crosses directly above. In the winter, depressingly, the sun struggles near the southern horizon, failing to reach 30° at solar noon for over three months. (That’s roughly the angle of a fascist salute.) Partly for this reason, the City of Vancouver requires detailed shadow studies of all proposed point towers, usually for different hours of the day on the equinox. In my nonprofessional opinion, it’s worked pretty well. I lived downtown for three years, and never felt uncomfortably shaded. Perhaps it’s all the glass.
West Broadway shadowing
Bringing this back to West Broadway, and the sudden winter chill I felt while walking one sunny November afternoon to my favourite Greek bakery at Trutch. The inviting patios at Calhoun’s and Banana Leaf, once sunny spots in winter, now seem consigned to the shadow of the facing building for much of the day. The Banana Leaf patio will probably be in near-perpetual shadow for at least four months of the year — you can’t even see the trademark tropical green façade in my photo. Calhoun’s has lost about half of its outdoor seating over the same period of the year, not to mention a reduction of natural light in the spacious and popular interior. The massing of the building, which could perhaps have been split into two corner towers or incorporated more setbacks like the recent Pinnacle Living on Broadway, is instead a monolithic east-west slab rising directly from retail front to its highest floor. There’s even a cornice, possibly sacrificing a few minutes of spring and autumn sun yet too small to shelter the sidewalk from rain. Above all, the building has cast a shadow on what used to be an pleasantly uninterrupted stroll in the sun, so rare on city streets in colder months. I hate to cast a villan, but CD-1 seems to blame (the bylaw amendment arbitrarily allows a height of 18.5 metres on the site, whereas the previous limit was both lower and required an angled taper of the upper floors).

I predict that north-west arterials will not suffer the same problem, since a midday sun will beam down Cambie or Main even on the shortest days. But the idea of rezoning our east-west arterials with CD-1 low-rise should proceed with caution. I cannot help but note that if the West Broadway building were placed just one block off the arterial, not only would the residents have to suffer less noise, but the problem of shadowing on the commercial sidewalks would nearly vanish. We should make our high streets as inviting as possible, not transform them into canyons where no one wants to linger. Spot rezoning likely does not demand this level of consideration, whereas thoughtful zoning bylaws often do.

As Frances notes, there are now over 600 CD-1 sites around Vancouver. I think it’s time for us to talk about the bigger picture of upzoning in Vancouver, with an understanding that arterial low-rise isn’t necessarily better than scattered tower-and-podium.

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Aestheticizing Vancouver

10th Avenue and Maple

Many commentators note that the critical politics that accompanied the reform movement and the planning programs of the early 1970s were supplanted by a much more individualized, consumerist orientation toward lifestyle, leisure, culture, and conviviality… Affordable housing sites remained undeveloped, and the new neighbourhoods were socially exclusive, lacking the land-use diversity, varied activities, services, and incubating businesses that create a truly urbane environment. More positively, there was a heavy investment in new parks, waterfronts, cycling and walking paths, greenways, and public art, which was matched by private investment in fitness clubs, cafés and bars, clubs, restaurants, art galleries, and boutique or festival shopping to create more convivial cities. For the critics, the contemporary urban preoccupations are consumption rather than community. Urbanity has taken on a particular aesthetic dimension through popular architecture, urban design, arts festivals, sports or cultural events, and local tourism.

— John Punter, The Vancouver Achievement

Written over ten years ago, in the immediate wake of Yaletown, Punter’s commentary rings true in other Vancouver neighbourhoods today. Boutique West Side condos and the forest of cranes near Main Street all promise an urban ideal of livability, rather detached from the street activities and community institutions that have historically defined great cities. Social vibrancy may perhaps develop in the absence of explicit policy to encourage it, but Yaletown does not inspire clear success in this regard.

A tension between aesthetic and substantive urban policy has dogged Vancouverism over the past two decades, without clear resolution. In demolishing such neighbourhood pivots as The Ridge, The Waldorf, and soon The Rumpus Room, housing development has been seen as an adversary of community, rather than a natural component of it. Driving this sentiment is not the mere physical dissolution of such locations, but the idea that new residents represent a commodified lifestyle found in billboards and advertisements, radically detached from the present social fabric. There is no reason it must be this way. Adequate policy to ensure mixed income levels among new residents would mitigate the rapid gentrification perceived to wipe away existing communities, and perhaps allow those communities to thrive from a larger local population. The aesthetic of the glassy yoga studio, the seawall jog, and fashionable patio can coexist with a real obligation to facilitate a mix of abilities and means. In the earliest days of Yaletown, this was indeed the case.

The aesthetic component of Vancouverism has brought it far. But to achieve a compelling urban experience beyond beautiful living, more imaginative policies directed toward mixed housing and land use are likely necessary. Between the ensconced resistance of East Side communities and the dispassion of West Side wealth, I fear the window for such ideas may be limited.


Whither Vancouverism?

Vancouver False Creek
The natural setting of Vancouver is world-class, but fortune of geography is not what brought the city to global recognition. Cities become bywords for ideas and identities. They are clusters of the material and intangible, and acquire status on the basis of what those represent — or are thought to represent.

The core ideas of Vancouver, to which it owes its spot on the map, are conveniently bundled under the banner of Vancouverism. Its popular image is blue-green Yaletown, tucked between springtime mountains and False Creek, a kind of faceless urban mirage both delicate and impressive. The glassy view of downtown on a clear day is indeed breathtaking, but Vancouverism encompasses a broader set of design and governance concepts, of which Yaletown is but one manifestation. These include active densification, cooperative planning, inclusionary zoning, amenity contributions, view corridors, design reviews, and a general fettering of the automobile within city limits, among other policies. Each has its own origin, story, philosophy, reality, and collection of graduate theses (usually from SCARP).

Vancouverism is the city’s true international merit, and its most significant export after all that oil and lumber. In the end, people esteem Vancouver because of Vancouverism. But ask why, and one soon realizes that there are many answers. Vancouverism is a successful model of postindustrial redevelopment. Vancouverism is green. Vancouverism builds complete urban neighbourhoods. Vancouverism is an alternative to suburbia. Vancouverism is amenable to mass transit. Vancouverism respects the human scale. Above all, Vancouverism seems to work.
Vancouver David Lam Park
Except that in some crucial respects, Vancouverism does not seem to be working. The symptoms largely result from the unintended consequences of its own success. Indexed to local incomes, Vancouver ranks as one of the most unaffordable cities in the world. According to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver, the benchmark price of an apartment in the metro area is $371,500, rising to $482,300 in Vancouver West where Vancouverism is the norm. Assuming a maximum amortization of 25 years and a minimum down payment of 5%, purchasing at the Vancouver West benchmark price requires over $30,000 of cash on hand and over $35,000 dollars a year for mortgage and related homeowner expenses alone. Assuming you have no preexisting debt, have saved dilligently, and that you are willing to spend an extreme 60% of your net income on housing, it is theoretically possible to purchase the average west side condo with an annual salary of $60,000. Scraping the bottom of the barrel, a $350,000 studio can be had with $45,000 per year of income. This latter figure hovers around the mean individual income in Vancouver proper, although the median income is $24,100 according to Statistics Canada. Two parent households earn a median income of $68,970, and single parent households earn a worrying $39,210. In other words, young single professionals can barely afford a studio in Vancouver, and well-off dual-income couples can probably swing a two-bedroom condo with some financial grit. Families are flatly unable to afford their own home unless both incomes are very high. Anyone below a professional salary can’t achieve the lowest point of entry. Vancouverism does not work for the majority of people who want the security of owning their home.

And what of the little people? At full-time minimum wage, nearly 50% of income is spent on the cheapest market rents in shared accommodation, to say nothing of living alone. Any way you cut it, there is trouble in Vancouverist paradise.
Vancouver Downtown Sunset
Vancouver has long been an expensive place to live, additionally marked by property value spikes throughout its history. The earliest experiments of Vancouverism sought to address the need for stable, affordable housing, such as False Creek South, conceived in the early 1970s as a mixed-use urban village. False Creek South originated the “one-third” policy in master-planned Vancouver developments: one-third market housing to own, one-third affordable housing (or in the case of False Creek South, cooperatives), and one-third subsidized social housing. Arrayed around Charleson Park in a maze of pathways and deliberately ensconced from automobiles, False Creek South presaged the idea of pedestrian-first, transit-friendly livability in Vancouver, codified in the 1975 Livable Region plan.

In the wave of construction that followed Expo ’86, a distinctly downtown version of Vancouverism emerged over North False Creek. Perhaps inspired by Hong Kong, where the bulk of investments originated, the top-down one-third policy was modified to a cooperative model of high-rise development, in which additional floors were permitted in exchange for either implementation of on-site affordable housing or contribution to community amenities. The City maintained a flexible, project-by-project approach, requesting contributions for adjacent amenities in some instances, for social housing in others, or amenity land outright. Particularly in later sections of Yaletown toward the Granville Bridge, the empty lots for long-anticipated social housing developments can still be seen, waiting for provincial or federal funding to break ground. The one-third policy was relaxed to 20% affordable units in the planning of North False Creek, until on-site mixed housing requirements were fully abandoned in the early 2000s.
Vancouver City Hall
Due to the express desire of the current Vision Vancouver government to tackle street homelessness, recent cooperative planning has aimed instead to fund social housing for tenants at high risk. This is a laudable goal that has succeeded to slow homelessness, if not reverse it. But with this emphasis on at-risk social housing, eschewing mixed-income development, Yaletown and its progeny have come to resemble economically segregated neighbourhoods of struggling near-homeless beside luxurious peacoats and designer dogs. Free from any requirement to provide mixed housing within the same parcel of land, and treating social and amenity contributions as a mere fee-to-play, developers have pursued high-end, internationally marketable condominiums at the expense of community diversity. In many cases, funded social housing does not even lie adjacent to the levied development. One may legitimately ask whether the cooperative model of development serves its imagined purpose, and whether Vancouverism still stands for a livable city in any economic sense. The Vancouver model has proven itself to be an effective vehicle for property investment — not entirely undesirable for municipal tax revenues — but an increasingly blunt policy for addressing social diversity in Vancouver.

The challenge for Vancouverism today is to successfully rival the suburban model for all kinds of households. It has succeeded to pull the young and some of the wealthy away from their automobiles, particularly in conjunction with transit-oriented development throughout the region. This is to be commended, and represents the great exception of Vancouver among most North American cities. But the steady departure of families and mid-career professionals is a red flag for a neglected problem: Vancouver has become too expensive for complete communities to stably exist. Vancouverism needs new ideas in this regard. Purpose-built rental housing offers nothing on this particular issue. Soft densification of single-family neighbourhoods, although unpopular, would be one politically courageous possibility. Fee-simple row housing is virtually nonexistent in Vancouver, and has been proposed as one way forward. Can the City take such difficult but necessary steps?

Read David Ley and Nicholas Lynch’s analysis of Vancouver’s missing middle here:
Reported by way of Richard Florida at the Atlantic Cities:

The loss of the middle class has also been discussed by Jillian Glover in her terrific blog This City Life:

Finally, you can read the final report of the Mayor’s 2012 Affordability Task Force here:
And the expected hyperbolic response from The Mainlander:


Point Grey Road and Stephens Bike Connector

Point Grey Road and Stephens

As I mentioned regarding the closure of Point Grey Road, Vancouver engineers typically waste no time implementing changes passed by Council. Here the reapportionment of roadway for green space and bike traffic at the corner of Stephens and York, connecting to Point Grey Road, has already started. The reformed intersection is intended to bridge the Stephens bikeway, the forthcoming York commuter route, and a grand stretch of separated bike lane along the north side of Point Grey Road. Presumably the crossing will allow quick access to Burrard Bridge for eastbound bike commuters, as well as offer easy access to the seaside greenway for cyclists heading north from central Kitsilano. Reaching Jericho by bicycle should prove more popular than ever this summer thanks to this single intersection. It is not clear why some consider this project a means to limit accessibility of Point Grey Road for leisure. If anything, the parks will be much easier to reach for leisure, their intended purpose.

Point Grey Road bike lane

The bike lane along this pictured stretch of Point Grey Road is more exception than rule, running only two short blocks from Trafalgar west to MacDonald, where it merges with the recent traffic closure and empties into now-local roadway. To the east, continuation along the odd northerly detour of Point Grey Road at Trafalgar is straightforward enough, but the need for a clear connection through Kitsilano Beach becomes all the more apparent. Sadly, a political misstep by the City, which sought to hurry a plan through the Park Board without major public consultation, appears to have stymied improvements within the Park borders for the time being. This leaves a muddle of mixed-use paths, lacking an intuitive route from the Point Grey Road greenway to Ogden Avenue at the far eastern edge of the park space.

Kitsilano Beach Park bike routes

Yesterday I took precisely this path, weaving along the southern fence bordering Cornwall, down the colonnade of trees toward the beach, and behind the Boathouse until reaching Arbutus Street. I faced unnecessary conflicts with pedestrians and automobiles, even in the dour rain of February, where a few ingenious infrastructure fixes would yield none. The situation within Kitsilano Beach Park needs amendment, and will become increasingly chaotic as summer approaches. I am surprised that a routing along Arbutus has not garnered more attention, as it would seem to avoid the brunt of the disagreements about running more pavement through the eastern half of the park.


Point Grey – Cornwall Bike Route

2013-05-28 Pt Grey - Cornwall Open HouseA shrill voice rang out in front. “I think we should have an open-format discussion!”

The moderator skipped a beat, looked at the interrupting audience member, and then continued in monotone from slide three. “Why are we doing this? To provide a safe, convenient experience for cyclists of all ages and abilities…”

This, in brief, describes yesterday’s Point Grey Road – Cornwall Avenue open house, the last of three hosted by the City regarding proposed infrastructure changes along the corridor. Neighbourhood squeaky wheels crested against briefed staffers, while a silent majority seemed taken aback by the disorder. The Kitsilano Public Library basement was filled beyond capacity, leading the City to present in two shifts for overflow. Plan advocate Peter Ladner was there, as was former Point Grey MLA candidate Mel Lehan.

Given the high attendance and outward purpose — to solicit public opinion on proposed design options — I was surprised how little the City seemed to want feedback. This was first-hand evidence of a common Vancouver complaint: City Hall has already decided what it wants to do. They presented but did little in the way of distributing and collecting forms. Contrast with Translink, where community consultation is highly structured and at least feels sincere even if clear preferences lie behind the curtain.
2013-05-28 Pt Grey - Cornwall PlanI did learn a few things at the open house. For one, the greatest safety issue in our transportation system is pedestrian fatalities. Collisions involving pedestrians make up only 1% of all traffic accidents, but make up nearly half of all fatalities. My morning walk to the bus stop turns at Drake and Howe, just prior to the Granville Bridge onramp, where I worry about joining this statistic.

Second, counterflow bike lanes proposed on York, a first for Vancouver if implemented, make more sense than I initially appreciated. “They do this in New York,” informed one staffer, with no obvious reference to the street name. However, these lanes should be extended past Vine to Stephens if the City is to successfully attract cyclists off Cornwall. As it stands, the combination of grade and status quo along these four blocks of York will likely fail to prevent mixing with Cornwall traffic. Cyclists are roundly unsatisfied with the rejection of Cornwall itself in this draft plan — HUB has come out against the York route — and I doubt widespread use in the proposed form. It would be a great miscalculation for the City to spend money and claim the issue solved while cyclists continue to use the flattest, most direct, and most scenic route to Burrard Bridge.

To the west, opinion seems divided about the two options for Point Grey Road. I initially favoured a separated lane, maintaining westbound vehicle traffic, but now see that a preferred alignment to the north side is impractical. The alternative of closing the street to arterial traffic by extending Tatlow and Point Grey Road Parks, permitting cyclists to use a low-volume local roadway, may be preferable. Consider the lovely Central Valley Greenway ride just east of Victoria, a very similar arrangement.

To read the city documents and posters for the Point Grey – Cornwall Corridor, go here:

For more on City opacity in planning decisions, Frances Bula has just revisited the issue: