Reflecting Vancouver

Urbanism and Life on the West Coast


Earnest Questions at Earnest Ice Cream

Earnest Ice Cream Vancouver

Looking for a cool treat to endure the heat wave? My guess is that Earnest Ice Cream’s newish location at 2nd and Quebec will have an especially long line throughout the weekend. Yesterday I tried Honey Chamomile and Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip, but I think my favourite so far has been Cedar Tips.

Some bourgeois speculations that arose during our visit: is organic gardening decadent in the same way as artisanal ice cream? At what point is money spent on garden supplies better spent on absurdly cheap produce at Persia Foods? Can urban farming truly be done for free, given the prerequisite of land? Can “urban crop failures”, such as our withering beets, be mitigated given the typically limited soil space?


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Seawall Bike Path Improvements

False Creek bike path improvements

The city has finally separated bike and pedestrian traffic in front of Edgewater Casino and Plaza of Nations. In summer especially, this undulating section led to conflicts along the shared pathway. I assume the original plan was to redesign this stretch of the seawall at the same time as redevelopment at Plaza of Nations. But since the 750 Pacific project seems dead for the time being, the City probably decided to go ahead with spot improvements anyway. Now the pathways more closely resemble the section further west, where pedestrians and bicycles are fully separated by a median.

Good to see that the city continues to make improvements across our bike network. More trips by cycling and fewer by driving are largely to thank for Vancouver meeting 50% non-automobile mode share in 2014, ahead of 2020 targets. Trips on Burrard Bridge were up about a third in Sep-Nov 2014 over the previous year, probably thanks to the Seaside Greenway improvements in Kitsilano. Total vehicle kilometers have fallen an estimated 16.5% since 2007. We probably would have been even further ahead of the Transportation 2040 goals had senior government enabled needed investments in transit along our major corridors and across the region.


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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Muddied Desires in Kitsilano Beach Park

Kitsilano Park dirt bike path
While we’re worked up about the pressing issues of our city, I predicted back in May that the desire line connecting Point Grey Road with the paved pathway in Kitsilano Beach Park would become a soggy, rutted mess. I guess it can just stay that way forever?
Kitsilano Park dirt bike path
I’ll ask again, since it also features in the photo: why do we need the chain-link fence along Cornwall?

(If you prefer actual civic issues, this timely Frances Bula post about housing deserves a read. The comments will probably be lively.)

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Canada’s SoCal

San Diego Little Italy

You can walk on the weekend, at least

Apart from obvious differences in climate, the place that reminds me most of Vancouver is Southern California. A good friend of mine, native to Manhattan Beach but happily expatriated to Berkeley, once remarked on the similarity during a summertime stroll through Kits. “Mostly image with no substance”, he quipped. The trendy shops and body-beautiful volleyball teams drew equivocal looks. “Just like Southern California.”

This is a familiar charge leveled at Lotusland. That our city is shallow, and affords to be boring by mere providence of scenery. That we are a buxom beach blonde in comparison to sophisticated brunettes like New York or even Montreal. That we are blissfully unaware of how tawdry we really are. All common complaints about Southern California.

I propose a more nuanced interpretation: that Vancouver is a mirror of SoCal, rendered in Canadian form. Surface resemblances give way to telling differences.

Image in Vancouver tends toward a public, conformist expression. Southern Californians are American individualists, most content in the fortress of a gated home or the privacy of a luxury vehicle. Walking the street in Los Angeles is meant to be a solitary experience. Reality shows stationed in SoCal revolve around opulent private homes and society parlors, even as these scenes are interspersed with images of public beaches and hillsides. Vancouverites, on the other hand, prefer the mass consumption of image, or the projection of image into open view. The walk along the seawall is a shared experience of geographic, urban, and personal aesthetics all at once. The see-through voyeurism of Yaletown has come to define a common downtown lifestyle. We prefer crowd yoga to boutique pilates studios, preferably outdoors. Or better the Grouse Grind, our Sunday sacrament of athleticism. A similar mass performance is rare in SoCal, yet these experiences are a defining feature of Vancouver life. There is a cohesion to appearance and action in Vancouver, whereas SoCal famously allows you to be what you want, or at least aspire to it. In this distinction, some visitors see Vancouver as boring or even suffocating. Others see it as kinder than its Southern Californian counterpart, because it is easy for a new arrival to act the part. It is open and tends toward the mean, like Canadian society in general.

In urban respects, both cities tend toward modernism, and are distinctively West Coast. But Vancouver is both more vernacular and more futuristic than Southern California, defined by Edwardian interpretations, Post and Beam, and the omnipresent green glass condominium. Vancouver architecture shies away from the ostentatious, and indeed our design guidelines enforce unified themes between structures and their surroundings. SoCal trends toward expressive modernism, eclectic residential design, and opaque midcentury stucco. The individual piece is often emphasized over the surrounding neighborhood, or forgotten, and privacy is paramount. Whereas SoCal has accommodated private automobiles without reservation, indeed making it nearly impossible to live without one, Vancouver consciously rejected freeways and has repeatedly emphasized the priority of pedestrians and transit throughout the region. While one can criticize the incompleteness of this vision in reality, especially across the Lower Mainland, Vancouver has always made urbanism explicit in a way SoCal never really has. It is easy to live here without driving, possibly the most salient distinction from our Southern cousins.

While we both play volleyball on attractive beaches, in Vancouver we can easily walk, bike, or take the bus to get there. We can stroll for shopping on the way home. Only the densest neighborhoods of Los Angeles and San Diego offer these simple conveniences, and only rarely with the opportunity to avoid driving completely.

San Diego Mission Beach

He drove to get here

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A Seaside Greenway in Summer

Heard much complaining about Point Grey Road and the Seaside Greenway lately? Yeah, neither have I. Wasn’t a crush of summer traffic supposed to paralyze the corridor? I’ve yet to see a backup on the turn to 4th Avenue, even around major events like the fireworks.

Point Grey Road Summer 2

Point Grey Road Summer 1

And these were taken on a weeknight. Someday, when attitudes have sufficiently aligned with the magnitude of the change, active transport along Cornwall will become obvious. Let’s call this year one.