Tag Archives: City Council

Vancouver Election’s Biggest Winner: The Condo King

Well, this mock political ad pretty much says it all. As I’ve been ranting for years now, Vision Vancouver, for all their “progressive” branding, have turned out to be exactly the same as any right-of-centre free market party in the one policy area that matters most to urban sustainability: development.

Vision may differ from the right-leaning NPA party in some benign environmental policies such as allowing backyard chickens or building separated bike lanes, but when it comes to land use policy — the one area which most directly relates to the United Nation’s overarching goal of SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT — they are just as beholden to developers as the NPA, and in fact have been actively pushing unsustainable development policies such as the Historic Area Height Review (HAHR) and Short Term Incentives for Rental Housing (STIR).

Both of these Vision-endorsed development policies amount to little more than paving the airspace above the city. They are not “green”, “progressive” or “sustainable development” policies. They do not provide provide affordable housing or rental stock, or in fact achieve any of the policy aims that are used to justify them. All they do is pave the way for developers to build new condo towers.

Furthermore, in an effort to stimulate the development industry and market housing growth in Vancouver, these Vision policies specifically reduce the Community Amenity Contributions (CAC) developers normally make to the City when building condo towers. CACs help pay for daycares, community centres, heritage preservation, new green spaces, public art, social housing. All things that make cities “livable”.

I don’t know how much money was spent developing and consulting on Vision’s Greenest City Action Plan. But what I do know is that none of its 10 core recommendations is focused specifically on the issue of land-use planning.

That’s not just an oversight, it’s an environmental travesty.

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Death of the Pantages Theatre?

“They’re in the old tailor shop at 134 E Hastings tearing up the hardwood flooring, and salvaging timber. They’ve built pass-throughs from there into the old Blue Eagle at 130 E Hastings and into the building to the east, doing the same work – so basically all 3 of the low rise buildings in the land assembly. The worker I spoke to said they’re going to move east to the 2 storey building directly beside the theatre, then on to the theatre itself. Looks like only a matter of time now. I wondered since the For Sale signs dissappeared.”

From a citizen named Ron, on January 28th, 2011.

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I swear to God, if our current City Council lets this happen, they will live in shame for the rest of their lives…

– GJG

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The Mainstream Blah-gosphere Circa 2012

A Sun Yat-Sen Moment, After Things Get Weird

Well, I have to say, Sunday was a long, strange day, for many reasons. And one of the odder moments occured about 10 minutes before I took the picture of the fish….

Since posting some opinions about the Historic Area Height Review earlier in the week both here and on the Bulablog, I wanted to get some more pictures of the tower sites that had been approved. But I had a busy week and didn’t have time to do it during daylight hours until Sunday morning, during a little down-time between hockey games in Burnaby and Richmond.

On the right of the picture below (taken on Carrall) is the sign on the NW corner of the Sun Yat-Sen Garden’s white wall. The two-story grey building in the middle is 8 Pender, the site of the new tower that Council approved. The red building is one of the Heritage buildings on the north side of Pender, with the 8-storey hotel behind, and, on the far left, the Pennsylvania at Hastings and Carrall. Fifteen storeys is planned for this site, nearly double the height of the West Hotel.

So there I was, taking lots of pictures, wondering if this wasn’t just a dead issue and a waste of time, when suddenly a couple of large SUVs come squealing around the corner and pull up beside the grey building. As I’m walking up the block taking pictures, I notice that these two SUVs have illegally parked right on the bike path of the new Carrall Street Greenway.

“Assholes,” I say under my breath, as one typically does when you see jerks in SUVs doing, well, jerk-type things.

A group of 5 or 6 well-dressed, well-coiffed guys hop out and convene a little meeting on the sidewalk. These guys are players. They look like money. They act important.

And not only are they driving two big, black, emission-spewing SUVs, they don’t even bother to turn off the engines as they chat over on the sidewalk. Wow! The arrogance! These are the kind of guys that people love to rant about on blogs and call-in shows, you know? Too rich to care about gas prices or bike lanes or parking fines or pollution. Oh look! They parked by a fire hydrant, too…

Anyway, I’m getting a little agitated as I’m walking up to the group. I’m trying to formulate a cutting satirical remark that is nevertheless subtle enough that it might not lead to me getting shit-kicked into the pavement by the five of them.

Then one of the guys walks over to the side of the building and, pointing to the wall, says, “It’ll be right here.” He draws an imaginary line that extends up (way up) into the sky.

Wait a second. These guys are here on a Sunday morning having an animated discussion about the tower that’s going up at Carrall and Pender?

That’s weird since, here I am, camera in hand, taking pictures of the tower site and I’m trying to wrap my head around what a fifteen storey tower will look like on this spot, too.

One of the guys looks me up and down, glances at my camera, and shoots me a real nasty look as if to say, “Why the hell are you taking so many pictures of this thing for?” He clearly didn’t like me poking around them, snapping photos, and I thought he was going to tell me to bugger off.

I smiled.

And then I kinda recognized this guy. And then I definitely recognized the guy who was pointing where the tower was going to be. And, oh yeah, I recognized one of the other guys, too.

Now, that’s really ironic. I mean, what the heck are these guys doing in Chinatown having a mini-charette about this tower on at 10 am on a Sunday morning?

Looks to me like the clock is ticking on the Vancouver’s Historic Area much faster than we thought…

Heightened Senses: A Late Night Walk in the Rain

What’s that you say? Public support for any tower proposal was virtually non-existent?

At the risk of being tossed in the klink for a sideways glance on Day Six of the DES popo pre-Olympic sweep, last night I took a late stroll around Chinatown to check out the only TWO tower sites approved, right? Huh? Right? Um, well, unless we consider… the financial considerations… cause someone, I’m not sure who, might have maybe inquired, so we thought maybe we’d look into it, on the City’s dime…

Nothing like a walk in the rain to heighten your senses! It’s money well spent, so to speak. Unlike other things….

I reconfirmed in my own mind that the Budget Rental site one could sorta swallow a high rise on, given Fung owns it and it’s still under the height of the Sun – pretty much anything will improve this intersection, And hey, now someone will be there to complain to Alex Tsakumis about the pissing drunks, loud groups of girls, too many furries coming and going, or the constant reek of McDonald’s deep fryers from across the street in Tinseltown.

But 8 East Pender on the SE corner at Carrall (bordering the new Greenway no less) is right across the alley to the north of Sun Yat Sen. So how the heck is this site any different than the site Council nixed at Keefer Square or the Cultural Centre site that didn’t even make it to Council? It’s still 150 feet over and above Sun Yat Sen, and much closer to it than Keefer Square. Remember, the business plan here says: go for UNESCO World Heritage Site. But, but… the Scholar’s Room won’t see this one unless you stand on your tippy toes, so, yeah, its totally OK, and there’ll be no shadows coz it’s to the north? A fine logic, indeed.

Yes, a tower and podium proposal to set it back …yawn… and lessen the spatial impact, but then, on the other side, across the street on Pender, a string of heritage pearls lie low, awaiting polishing. Either way, aspect ratio be damned, the sun will hardly illuminate the pearls, you know. And we’re gunning for FIFTEEN storeys here! Blah! It won’t matter what size plate you serve this thing up on…

And speaking of nimbys, I bet all these new high risers on Carrall will band together and force Rennie to take down Everything Will be Alright, or at least turn it off by nine pm so they don’t have to stare at it every bloody night from their roosts.

And, in an ode to how fast council quorums can make real estate decisions, the For Sale sign is already up on the old (unprotected heritage) service station in Keefer Square – the one tower site that got nixed by Council. I guess there’s really no point in updating the Heritage Register at this point, eh? It certainly wasn’t on the agenda presented to council by Planning, because hey, this review is all about high ideals, right? Groans (from speculative heights). More groans.

Twelve storey Paris-style apartments traversing the Hastings parade route! Think of it, even higher than the ugly Luxling! Quick, wall that whole sucker in before an Area Plan process is approved! The 20% is already institutionalized; so there’s really no limit to what we can do here now, old boy! Ever been to Greenwich, mate?

For Wendy P, and all the starving or successful artists who used to live around here, a final thought to ponder about the INTENSIFICATION! policy that’s behind all this, as quoted from a Skyscraper:

“These changes should allow the populate to increase from 8000 today to just under 17000 upon build-out in about 20-40yrs.” (Sic)

Most of you will be dead by then anyway, eh? It doesn’t really matter if it’s livable.

And either way, I’ll still be a ghost.

So I’ll give it a rest, already…

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Towering Stupidity: More Historic Area High Rises Approved

Over the past week, Vancouver City Council approved most of the recommendations of the Planning Department’s Historic Area Height Review. I’ve been debating this issue with City planners, architects, developers, and local residents for some time on Frances Bula’s blog. While influential people like Jim Green and Councilor Raymond Louie think building high rise towers and increasing maximum building heights in a Heritage District is a good thing and will help revitalize the area, other influential people like the Condo King, Bob Rennie, and former council nominee Michael Geller do not.

Last week, the City’s Director of Planning, Brent Toderian, one of the most powerful bureaucrats in City Hall, even came on the Bula Blog to defend the View Corridor and Historic Area Height Review, and even took the time to address old Gassy directly regarding some of my questions and criticisms. I guess even layman like me, if they care enough and make well-researched criticisms, can stand toe to toe with the big boys. As fond as I am of bashing Toderian for the HAHR, I give him credit for taking the time to discuss these issues openly in an online forum, where he opens himself up to a lot of abuse (although I notice that, the times he does this, people suddenly start playing nice and getting all deferential to him… interesting…). I certainly toned down my usual hyperbole when addressing him directly, but I have, nevertheless, done my best to counterpoint his past justifications for towers in the Heritage District, which, I believe, is just plain shortsighted stupidity.

So anyway, here’s my Bulablog comment in reference to Brent Toderian’s:

Mr. Toderian, thank you for your willingness to provide your comments here, and to address my questions in the earlier post. I especially look forward to hearing your thoughts on the approval of the towers in the Heritage District. Here’s my take – what I would have liked to say to council if I could have been there. I offer these points with the caveat that I’m no expert, just a hometown boy and long-time Gastown resident who cares deeply about this city’s history and heritage. So, to all experts out there, please feel free to counterpoint or correct some of my assumptions.

As far as I can ascertain, there is little or no research to support the argument that building towers will help “revitalize” a depressed historic neighbourood. In contrast, there is a fair amount of research to suggest that the opposite is true. I point to a UNESCO report, “Balanced Urban Revitalization for Social Cohesion and Heritage Conservation” (UNESCO International Urban Seminar, Jan 2007), with papers from multiple urban planning experts from around the world focusing on redevelopment in historic city centres.

As far as I can tell, every single one of these experts disagrees with the key assumptions the HAHR tower proposals make. Not a single one of them recommends (and several outright condemn) building towers as a means to revitalization.

Simply put, conservation of heritage and preservation of historic context revitalizes and provides assets that all strata of society enjoy the fruits of. Destroying history or denuding heritage with large-scale developments exacerbates existing social problems. To quote one the papers: “dominant physical structures lead to a fragmentation of the city’s neighbourhoods and landscape.”

In eastern Europe, after the fall of the iron curtain, the rapid destruction of heritage and occasional appearance of towers around historic cores created “interventions, dominated by private real estate developers, (that) changed the original urban landscape and architectural environment, and cultural heritage has constantly been at risk.” It is described as negative/loss, not positive/gain.

In contrast, “The valorization of cultural heritage and environmental resources is a strategic priority for the political action of the municipality of Naples. …These are investments for the future, which will not only produce significant results for cultural and urban development, but will also raise the economic activities and the employment rate of the communities involved, and at the same time, reduce the social inequality.” My distaste of the HAHR stems from the fact that a 3rd option – the valorization and stewardship of cultural heritage, and tightening (not relaxing) the restrictions – was never put forward for public consideration. That seems to me to be a glaring mistake.

The lessons of all these UNESCO papers are clear:

Adding density is a moot point, for like the well-planned historic centres around the world, our Heritage district is already one the densest areas of the city, despite the height restrictions the HAHR proposes changing.

Economic “rebalancing”, if that is our goal, can easily be achieved without towers given the density inherent in the district. In fact rebalancing is already rapidly occurring west of Main through development within the current height limits. The changes to this western side of the DTES in the last few years have been remarkable, to say the least.

The trade-off for amenities argument is, I think, an extremely weak justification for destroying or denuding historical assets, and recent history suggests that the amenities gained would fall far short of what is really needed, even if 20 towers were built.

The argument that developers can’t make money on renos and low-rises is also suspect, given that many of the UNESCO papers are concerned with cities in Eastern Europe, Southern Italy, South America, etc. that do not have the wealth or resources Vancouver does. If they can find ways to do it, and do it right, why can’t we? Nixing the heritage density bonus program, for example, was a shortsighted decision. Fixing its very clear structural problems is what needed to happen. Shutting it down just opened the door to adding this justification for towers and raised heights.

No land in the core left to develop? Every day I stare at the railyards that stretch from Main to Waterfront Station and the huge tract of land that represents, and shake my head when I hear the claim that “Northeast False Creek is the last undeveloped waterfront in downtown Vancouver.”

But what is the reasoning behind towers and added height from an architectural/historical integrity perspective? Anecdotally, I don’t know any locals who live or work in my neighbourhood, rich or poor, who think the Woodwards towers are anything other than horribly out of place. And how many people cringe at the thought of Shanghai Alley reduced to placards in a tower courtyard? Then again, how many even have a clue what once was there? Now that it is gone, it is close to being forgotten.

So I ask, what legacy do you believe you are leaving to future generations by this plan, Mr. Toderian? What do you think the decision to build towers in the heritage district – perhaps the most important heritage district in Western Canada – will look like in 40 years?

Well, looking back 40 years after nixing the “Project 200” proposal, most Vancouverites thank our lucky stars that the north side of Gastown didn’t get overrun by towers. Most view it as a prescient, city-shaping decision (however it came about) on par with the decision to protect view corridors. People look at the “200” proposal with utter disdain, do they not? Whatever one thinks of the neighbourhood now, there is no denying that the potential for it to be great is still there. But that is only true because no towers were allowed to destroy it.

You are now the steward of Vancouver’s architectural history and its heritage district, but this proposal does not seem to me to respect that heritage, nor does it appear to be based on any factual evidence to support its justification as a key to revitalization and future prosperity and pride for the whole city. I know a tight rope of compromise was walked when developing this plan, but I think all that resulted was a plan that comprises our historical legacy.

The socio-economic status quo needs to change, for sure, but the scale and character of the area does not need to change to achieve this. If it’s already well-planned and high density, why mess with it? Revitalization can occur without desecrating the district with more towers. As some of the UNESCO papers suggest, you may actually end up creating more problems and more social fragmentation, destroying our heritage and the public assets they represent, and not solving any existing problems.

So I can’t understand for the life of me why towers were ever even considered?

For the whole story, other comments etc. here’s the link to Toderian’s letter and the reply above.

And here’s the link to the earlier tower/view corridor discussion, which prompted Toderian’s initial reply, probably a more interesting discussion, so far…

And finally, a link to the micro condo debate, which is also kind of interesting.

Caveat: although I love these debates and am very interested in the outcomes for the City’s legacy, most people probably find them boring as hell!

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Moratorium on DTES Heritage Revitalization

I have been following several Vancouver Planning Department (VPD) reviews in relation to Heritage and DTES housing issues: including the Historic Area Height Review and the Capacity and View Corridor Review.

On July 28th, VPD recommended a moratorium on the Heritage Density Transfer Program, which was passed unanimously by Council. This is a horrible decision in my opinion, which I express on Frances Bula’s blog. The debate about amenities/DTES issues starts in around the 15-20th comment and I jump in at 31. The debate is here:

http://www.francesbula.com/?p=186