Reflecting Vancouver

Urbanism and Life on the West Coast

Leave a comment

Wisteria in Bloom

Kitsilano Wisteria

Wisteria is blooming across Kitsilano. Somehow I never noticed how much there was until this year. Perhaps there are more blossoms than usual because of the pleasantly warm spring? The climate of the Lower Mainland seems to become more like vintage California with each passing year, whereas the real San Francisco Bay Area is increasingly struggling to provide drinking water to its residents.

1 Comment

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.

Leave a comment

Winter Solstice

A white postcard for this winter solstice, from a rarely snowy city. The coldest day of the year in Vancouver is December 28th, on average. Temperatures rise gradually through the new year, although occasional cold spells do happen. I remember one very unfunny snowfall on April 1st.

High latitude and mild climate make the winter solstice Vancouver’s psychological turning point, with Accolade cherry blossoms running a close second. While the eastern half of the country huddles under snowbanks through the spring equinox, our dreary darkness of autumn will have long passed, the depression of workday sunsets but a memory under drifts of pink petals. Today was the shortest day of the year, clocking in at 8 hours, 10 minutes, and 59 seconds. Once the holiday rush recedes, Vancouverites can look forward to clearer, longer, and more peaceful days ahead. Happy Solstice.

Leave a comment

Dividing Line

Vancouver Fall 2013 019
It seemed certain after yesterday’s starry evening that the bizarrely persistent fog over Vancouver had finally lifted. For six days, the city has seemed more like San Francisco. Fog is not rare in Vancouver, but I’ve never witnessed a week of it. Unlike our alluded sister city to the south, we are accustomed to our city being beneath the clouds, not within them. I’m certain there’s a metaphor there somewhere.

The palm of Burrard Peninsula seemed broadly free at the end of the workday, when I took to my bike near Oak Street. The final descent down Cypress toward Burrard Bridge, however, yielded no sight of the city. A thick veil of white hung over False Creek, seemingly across the bridge deck, the usual grandeur of urban and natural landscape fully erased. Even in the rain, one can still admire a misty palette of grey and tan over the water. Even at night, beacons of light behind downtown glass shimmer and play off raindrops. The starkness of Burrard Bridge and its peak hour traffic, ending in abrupt and unflattering haze, was a striking sight and a reminder of all that Vancouver owes to its setting.

Vancouver Fall 2013 024

Above the shroud, the fading light of the sun painted a dreamlike portrait of Martello Tower and the Alvar. The psychological and near-physical dividing line between the West End and Yaletown, the towers represent two eras and architectures, two philosophies and modes of living in Vancouver history. It’s a spot in the city that fascinates me, two sides of the downtown coin, separate but equal Vancouver visions of living in the clouds.

Leave a comment

Elysian Fields


The Elysian Fields, Ἠλύσιον πεδίον, were often framed in terms of climate. Moderate seasons, gentle rains, and sea breezes are recurrent descriptions in classical texts. When my mind wanders to imagine such a place, I think of Kitsilano in summer.

Life is easy in Elysium, enriched by leisure, sport, and fecundity of the land. In various tellings, the righteous are delivered there. Or perhaps just those who are lucky by birth.

Once the rains begin to fall, paradise turns meditative. You can smell decaying leaves. Wear a sturdy rain coat, find a good book, and nurture the memory of cherry blossoms.