Reflecting Vancouver

Urbanism and Life on the West Coast


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Post-Referendum Blues

Vancouver Trolley Bus

The weather in Vancouver has been glorious this summer, but something if not rain had to dampen the mood. Last Thursday we learned that the transit referendum had failed. Decades of regional transportation directives have, to pardon the impolitic wildfire pun, gone up in smoke.

Siege Mentality

In the immediate aftermath, Michal Rozworski criticized the Yes campaign for sticking to “severely-limited, feel-good, paternalistic liberalism”, and failing to stand on the social politics of transit. This is nowhere more apparent than downtown Vancouver, the heartland of the city’s centre-left elite, where the campaign had little to do with connecting people to their workplaces and everything to do with a continued legacy of progressive urbanism. The loss was interpreted as a repudiation of decades of technocratic planning, anchored in False Creek, by encroaching hordes of clueless suburbanites. Pete McMartin’s polemic against the No vote, soaked with despair over the implied rejection of Vancouverism, drew many puzzled comments in the Vancouver Sun. “What the hell is Vancouverism?” wrote one No voter. “I have never heard that word used to describe Vancouver”. Gordon Price went so far as to characterize the referendum as a public expression of our civic identity. Under this interpretation, the resounding message is that Metro Vancouver wants to drive, regardless of what Vancouverism has come to signify or what its proponents believe.

Don’t panic. While the Broadway subway was a key plank of the transit package, the tangible effects of the referendum loss in Lotusland — most of Vancouver proper — will be comparatively small. We retain a dense fabric of frequent trolleys, express buses that function despite limited capacity, and a growing network of bikeways to serve a rapidly shifting mode share. “What’s really going to change for us if the referendum fails?” my partner mused once the gloomy outcome grew clearer. “We already bike everywhere.” If anything, the greatest impacts fall on the suburban drivers who voted against the tax, where transit will be unable to keep up with rapid changes in land-use. Barring the end of the ALR, Metro Vancouver suburbs are all going to grow more dense. A drive around Richmond or Surrey reveals a surprising abundance of multifamily housing, and more are on the way. Residents of these sprouting south-of-Fraser townhouse developments will now have little choice about getting around: they will have to drive. To rudely paraphrase George Orwell, imagine traffic running over a human face, forever. That’s the foreseeable future of transit in Metro Vancouver where it does not currently exist.

“A Demoralizing Political Game”

Like many engaged local commentators, Paul Hillsdon views the referendum loss though the prism of political failure, a perpetual funding hot-potato that no one in office wants to own. The roots of this conflict run to the foundation of Translink as Gordon Campbell’s vehicle for sidestepping the Metro Vancouver mayors, many years before Canada Line and the 2010 Winter Olympics. Antipathy of Metro Vancouver governments to an imposed Translink management, who they were then cruelly forced to back in the referendum by a hostile Province, doomed the Yes coalition from the start. No united message could possibly emerge from this uneasy partnership, and no leadership of the Yes vote was forthcoming, least of all from the Province. Christy Clark claimed to support a Yes vote under duress of a microphone, but she could not plausibly give a different answer given her role in starting the referendum circus. (She was unavailable for comment once it failed.) The best the pro-tax coalition could do to rally the Lower Mainland vote was Mayor Robertson, the mythical personification of a self-absorbed Vancouver that surrounding municipalities make sport to ridicule.

In a sense, this clinical view of the referendum’s political pathology is still more disturbing than the purported ignorance of suburban rabble. It means not merely that a large portion of the population opposes crucial improvements to the transit network, but that the political elites themselves are unable to form a consensus and indeed are too cynically mired in cycles of retribution to make tangible progress. Blame is ultimately directed at the BC Liberals, or the provincial government in abstract, with vague hope of redemption in the 2017 election. But that’s a long way off to make Christy pay, a lifetime in politics, and offers cold comfort to those whose day jobs are to press for a unified transportation strategy to meet inevitably rising demand.

Doubting Vancouver Exceptionalism

Despite its design to fail, the referendum has forced a sober look in the mirror by those of us who think of Vancouver as someplace different. If not already clear from the content of Reflecting Vancouver, I moved here because Vancouver offered a different vision of development and city life than the sprawling suburbs of my youth. In the geographically dispersed cul-de-sacs, a bicycle was an amusing way to reach the kid’s house down the street and buses were things you might have to navigate on a tour of Europe. I saw much more of the interior of a city bus from documentary photos of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott than I ever did in reality. So the following sentiment of a Metro Vancouver voter struck me rather sharply:

The few times I have used transit I found it inconvenient, dirty and unpleasant. Even diehard greenies in this town ride their bikes to avoid it. People want cars. They want good roads. They do not want to be told to take a bus by some holier than thou types who condemn drivers’ legitimate choices. WE are Vancouver. We drive. We also vote.

There is perhaps a dose of magical thinking in the Dream City echo chamber. We have spent decades reinforcing the idea that people are willing to live in small apartments provided an urban environment that obviates the need for a car. We’ve pointed to Europe and Asia, invoking a kind of universal model that we can achieve in North America with enough foresight and will. The most strongly felt disappointment of the referendum loss is to dampen this hope, to seed worry that Vancouver is really just a North American city like any other, perhaps with a few lucky perks of landscape, climate, and history. That people here really want to drive on big, fast roads for everything, like innumerable other sprawling North American municipalities, excepting a few token walkable districts with abundant parking. Buses, sure, but not too many and only for the poor. All that theory about livable, walkable neighbourhoods? A load of elitist tripe for those who can afford it.

I strongly reject this fatalism, and I hope you do too. The population of the downtown peninsula has nearly tripled since the start of the modern Vancouver experiment, and jobs have roughly doubled, while traffic volumes into and out of the city centre have continuously declined to the lowest levels since 1965. Mode share has dramatically shifted, with over half of Vancouver’s trips made by means other than an automobile, six years ahead of the Greenest City 2020 goal. Land has spiked in value, but the inflation-adjusted cost of an apartment in Vancouver proper has barely risen in a decade. As I have voiced before, I strongly support increased density in our residential districts to ensure more, varied, and affordable housing stock for future residents of our city — see (1), (2), and (3). That surrounding municipalities do not want to emulate the successes of Vancouver does not negate the radical progress our city has made in shifting the way people inhabit the urban fabric. Communities in Metro Vancouver that most need density for rising populations are precisely those who voted against the sales tax by the widest margins. These cities didn’t negate Vancouverism — they are merely ignoring its lessons and making some mistakes that Vancouver has sought to remedy or avoid.

The Question of Translink

The last and possibly most pernicious issue is the fate of Translink. The referendum laid bare the public disdain for the agency, a result of smear campaigns, poor public relations, and provincial neglect. Vancouver has many tools at its disposal for implementing a progressive urban vision within its borders, but the governance of Translink dictates that public transportation is not currently among them. Bike lanes have gone further than many of us imagined to change the way people get around Vancouver, but it can only go so far, both physically and in abstract. Bicycles cannot connect cities in a sea of green. In the wake to the failed referendum, it is really the Livable Region Strategic Plan, and successor Regional Growth Strategy, that remain threatened.

Rebuked by the suburbs, will Translink focus resources on Vancouver, where routes are more profitable? Will the mayors simply boycott Translink until voters turn their ire on Victoria, or is this too dangerous a game against the provincial hand that feeds? Will changes in the federal government, a likely possibility in the autumn, open paths to direct investment in Vancouver and Surrey? If so, how will Translink fit into the picture? Sadly, we have not seen the end of brinksmanship over transit in Vancouver, and we have not yet witnessed a sea change in Translink. Regardless the outcome of specific battles to come, it seems like the era of a unified Metro Vancouver transportation plan may be drawing to a close.

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Changing Chinatowns

Propaganda Coffee Vancouver 2

The hipster invasion of Chinatown continues with Propaganda, a sleek new establishment on Pender brewing Elysian coffee. Next door, a gaping hole in the ground will soon sprout condos akin to Keefer Block.

I suppose I’m part of the problem. In addition to seeking out coffee and steamed buns, I frequent a whitewashed record store around the corner, Pacific Rhythm, which opened earlier this year. Chinatowns across North America are under strain from attractively cheap rents and central locations. In San Francisco, long a holdout against gentrification, Chinatown is being eyed by tech workers and developers alike as the real estate frenzy of the Bay Area escalates. In Toronto, boutiques and cafés have opened up along Spadina north of Queen amid new developments with faux-eastern motifs.

Toronto Chinatown condos

Will Chinatowns gently fade away with current trends in demographics and zoning? Taking the bus from Pearson Airport along along Lawrence Avenue last week, I caught sight of the now-legendary ethnic strip malls that blanket Toronto’s periphery. Still larger ethnic communities are found in Markham and Mississauga, central Canadian analogues to our Richmond and Surrey. Immigrants to Canada are no longer landing in the old inner-city enclaves, and pressures of land use weigh ever heavier. Should we actively protect our historic Chinatowns, or will this inevitably lead to a kind of totem multiculturalism designed for tourists? Should we instead embrace the rapid turnover of storefronts as a welcome urban renewal? Or can a balance be achieved that is somewhere in between?

Vancouver Chinatown


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The Case Against RS Zoning in Vancouver

The latest leader in The Economist discusses the cost of restrictive land use in cities. Barriers to development have hampered growth, pushed rents through the roof, and limited labor supply in prospering urban centres. San Francisco, New York, and London are particularly singled out for forcing new workers to bid up the cost of limited housing, resulting in oppressive mortgages, exorbitant rents, or numbing commutes. The main culprit? Restrictive and costly local development codes, particularly in the form of conservative zoning for wealthy residential property owners. Is this starting to sound familiar?

Vancouver needs to loosen its residential zoning to remain livable. Housing affordability has been the number one issue for several municipal election cycles, yet the vast majority of our city remains zoned for single-family homes (RS-1). Why? Changes to RS-1 are presumably the third rail of Vancouver politics, and would immediately prompt voter revolt against any politician with the chutzpah — I would call it leadership — to propose higher density. This despite the fact that Kitsilano, Strathcona, Grandview, and other desirable neighbourhoods have enjoyed decades of multifamily zoning policies that serve to enhance their residential diversity and character.

Across Greater Vancouver, the benchmark price of an apartment is $390,200 and a dizzying $1,052,800 for a detached home. In Vancouver West, this rises to $514,400 for an apartment and a stratospheric $2,447,700 for a detached house. Given these figures, can anyone seriously believe that sales of detached homes west of Main Street represent anything more than investment vehicles for the already-wealthy? In what world does $2,447,700 function as housing for a family on Vancouver incomes, even among the highest earners?

Kitsilano Townhouses

The cornflour blue home pictured above is a recently renovated two-family dwelling at the corner of Larch and 6th Avenue in Kitsilano. It was built in the late 1980s, around the same time as the duplex where I live a few blocks away. The building is stratified, meaning that owners on each side of the wall need to talk to each other about maintenance and effectively split the costs of any major repairs. I’d guess that each unit has around 2000 square feet and three bedrooms. While doubtless expensive, the arrangement slashes the cost of a house in Kitsilano for the inconvenience of sharing a wall with someone else. It’s certainly more than a townhouse, and likely more spacious than row housing on equivalent lots. Practicalities aside, the design is cheerful, inviting, and respectful of the surrounding character homes.

Yet this charming home is illegal in most of the city, only possible though special Kitsilano RT-8 zoning. In the words of the City of Vancouver RS-1 District Schedule, the cornflour blue duplex would presumably hinder “neighbourly development” by obstructing the “outdoor space and views” that RS-1 afford. Would such a building really pose an existential danger in the 60% of our city currently restricted to one principal dwelling per lot (and often much larger lots)? How can the vernacular eaves and bay windows possibly be construed as an affront to neighbourly development and livability? Indeed, our single-family districts are already littered with illegal secondary suites, so density of people cannot be the issue. Why is a duplex, where two families are able to own the lot instead of one, so vastly different so as to be prohibited across most of the city?

Juxtaposed with ever-increasing Vancouver home prices and the near-constant grind of news on affordability, the preservation of single-family housing (that is, RS-1 zoning) merely for the sake of “outdoor space and views” makes less and less sense. I would challenge anyone to visit RT-7 and RT-8 in Kitsilano and explain how the scale of these neighbourhoods would materially impact their use of space and enjoyment of views, and further challenge them to explain why the City should actively protect such low residential density when a house costs over $1,000,000 anywhere within city limits. Could it be that our politicians are too frightened of telling west side owners that a small reduction in lawn space must be made to ensure that relatively well-off families seeking to own more than two bedrooms still have a chance of living in Vancouver? We’ll set aside the pernicious issue of whether any grass needs to be set aside for the sake of middle-income residents or — God forbid — the poor.

In a sense, the restricted supply of Vancouver housing has already resulted in a desirability trap. Even if swaths of single-family lots are rezoned to permit duplexes by fiat, those duplexes will then signal an investment opportunity, and many units may simply be left vacant to accrue value for absentee owners, as single-family homes are today. It will also take time to satisfy pent-up demand for such housing, of which Vancouver has long had precious little stock. Prices would not magically fall, and our elementary schools would not suddenly fill their classrooms.

But it would be a necessary step to keeping our city open to more residents than those who are already here. Many young families would be happy to live in the cornflour blue duplex, if only there were more of them.


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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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Zoning: it’s killing Vancouver

Here is a topical criticism of zoning in Vancouver, especially in relation to our glut of single-family housing. For a region on the cusp of absorbing a million more people, placing picturesque Dunbar streetscapes beside immense CD-1 towers makes less and less sense. When will we see more multiple-family zoning in Vancouver? Indeed, does our system of zoning hinder the long-term livability (and affordability) of our city more than it helps?

GitanoAfricano

Vancouver has a complex set of zoning measures, a legacy of zoning rules that shaped the cities of North America during the time of the industrial revolution, a period of rapid growth and social instability.

Zoning was originally implemented to keep crowds, noise, and industry separate from single family homes; to ensure the continuity of urban spaces by obliging developers to follow the guidelines of an established community plan. These plans were a crucial step forward during the industrial 19th and 20th centuries, a period of rapid growth, disease, and conflict (1).

Nowadays we live in a world of declining employment and stagnant wages, land is expensive, automobiles are pricey, and public transit is costly. The risk of pandemics and global conflict is reduced – no one of sound mind wants to send the civilized world back to 1917. So why then is the largest chunk of land in Vancouver reserved for the automobile and large…

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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.