Tag Archives: Vancouver

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.

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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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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The Athlete’s Village is Going to Smell Like Stinky Hockey Bags

Think City, a well-funded think tank dedicated to urban issues, thinks we should sell the 250 very expensive social housing units in the Athlete’s Village and use the money to buy more and cheaper social units in another part of town.

In my humble, inexpert and under-funded opinion there is a simpler, more responsible, and more cost-effective solution to this whole issue:

We should make the Athlete’s Village 100% social housing, and convert part of it to a satellite care hospital.

1.2 billion dollars – feds, province, city each in for $400 million – and voila! the epidemic homelessness, addiction, and mental health issues in Vancouver will be solved as soon as the torch gets snuffed.

Announced while the eyes of the world are upon us.

THINK about it.

Federal and provincial infrastructure funding budgets are in the Tens of Billions; an obscene amount of taxpayers’ money. But there is no plan that exists at any level that would accomplish anything close to this for a mere 1.2 billion dollars.

The current housing/health course set by the Province, and seconded by Think City, will surely take at least a decade, tens of billions of dollars, and exact a long, drawn-out toll of suffering while only accomplishing half as much.

But this way, the bang for our tax bucks would be both instantaneous and accrue over time (for starters, think: inflation + Chudnovsky’s estimate on the homeless health care savings over ten years + 15 additional development sites within City limits to recoup on + not having to pay Bob Rennie’s commission). The fact that it is luxury housing is irrelevant in the context of these kinds of numbers.

And if we are going to have any serious shot at becoming the Greenest City and solving homelessness anytime soon, it will take bold strokes like this, will it not? Going green means taking social responsibility, NOW.

The legacy left would be Olympian, the PR potential limitless. Knighthoods could even be in the offing.

Best of all, warm fuzzies would be felt around the world.

And did I mention that billions and billions of taxpayers dollars could be saved over the next ten years? Money that could be better spent on other things.

And that years of certain misery for thousands of people will be avoided?

That’s all the legs of the stool, folks. That’s walking the talk.

So, seriously, can anyone out there present a more sensible, ethical, efficient, health conscience and cost-effective plan?

What on earth could make Vancouver look better than this when the eyes of the world are upon us AND in ten years?

Across the Economic Divide: Gated Communities in the Inner City

cordova-so

In the 1990s, you could walk the BC Electric line that cuts diagonally across the Gastown grid from the Alexander Café (now a pumping station) to the Duck Ponds (International Village/Tinseltown) uninterrupted. I used to think these expansive unused spaces would be a perfect place for Vancouver to have farmer’s markets, festivals, etc. with shops and stoops and cafes opening along the angular sides of the old buildings. No cars, but maybe a street tram running through…

vanhrn

Now virtually every block and alley is gated off. The iron bars stretch across the expansive right-of-way between buildings, with combo locks and intercoms on every gate. There is rarely anyone sitting in these open spaces enjoying the sun, let alone barbequing, or chatting with their neighbours over a gin and tonic while the kids play.

(Top pic is the Koret courtyard, with the old rails still there. Next pic is the Van Horne courtyard, with a lone soul checking his PDA. Below is the alley on the other side of the Van Horne’s courtyard — perpetually busy.)

vhornealley

These courtyards are designed to keep people out, not bring them together. On one side, they say “Keep Out!” to the addicts in the always-busy alleys. On the other side they say, “I’m exclusive!” don’t talk to me.

Segregation is alive and well and living in Gastown’s gated communities.

Spaceman Invades Nat Bailey Stadium! Fans’ Brains Transported

spaceman

Bill “Spaceman” Lee always had a problem with authority. In the 70s, he formed a group of counterculture Red Sox pitchers called the “Buffalo Heads”, which included Fergie Jenkins, who became the first Canadian inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Sensing a career in politics, in 1988 Lee ran for the President of the United States as leader of the Canadian Rhinoceros Party. His campaign slogan was, “No guns! No butter! They both kill.” (If you know your economic theories, it ain’t as silly as it sounds — especially these days.) The Spaceman often got in trouble for his outspokenness, and once got suspended from baseball for telling a reporter he sprinkled pot on his pancakes. Warren Zevon even wrote a song about him called, simply, “Bill Lee”.

It’s not surprising he was a junk ball pitcher.

Mostly off-speed stuff, like his looping spaceball that floated in at half speed with little spin… so tempting to take a big fat swat at if you’re a batter, but you never know which way it’s going to break at the end. And with every big swing-and-a-miss, you look like a bigger fool in front of 50,000 people. Nothing worse than a pitch that messes with your head. It can make hitters crazy with frustration. Cause them to feel angry and mean. Drive them to do something truly monstrous. Just ask Tony Perez.

Although he was a legend in Boston in the 1970s, and 100% business when he was on the field, the Spaceman’s off-field antics eventually got him traded in 1978. Ironically, he was banished up to Canada, where his career abruptly ended a few years later on the Montreal Expos. He still had plenty of good years left in him, but he finally got blackballed from baseball after staging a protest against the trading of one of his friends from the team. Even in Canada, he was undermining the powers-that-be.

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Although Lee only appeared occasionally in relief, he was still an integral part of the bullpen during the Expos’ historic playoff run in 1981. In the first and only international National League Championship ever played, the Expos were deadlocked 2-2 with the powerhouse Los Angeles Dodgers. If Montreal won Game 5, it would make history as the first World Series ever played outside of the United States. The opportunity for Canada’s team to stick it to the Yanks and win at their most cherished game was relished by our whole nation. For the first time in ages, French and English in Canada were on the same side. It was a unifying moment.

It was to be the Dodger’s super rookie Fernando Valenzuela against Expos’ legend Steve Rogers, in a classic pitching duel. But rain caused the highly anticipated sudden-death game to be postponed from Sunday to Monday afternoon. For us out on the West Coast, the game in Montreal began early in the day. Not many people showed up for work and, at our school, the teachers even brought out TVs and we all watched the big game. It was that HUGE. The country was enthralled.

It was a tense, tight game: 2-1 Dodgers in the bottom of the ninth with two out and the game-tieing and game-winning runs on base for the Expos. It all came down to one of our sluggers, Jerry White, who promptly grounded out to second. The dream was dead.

Back to earth.

That day was tagged “Blue Monday” in reference to the “Dodger Blue” that had beaten us. America, as usual, had came out on top, even with a joke president like Ronald Reagan now in charge… sigh. The Expos never made it back to the post season.

As a fourth-decade Canuck fan, I have become used to sporting disappointments, but this was a particularly tough defeat early in my lifetime of sports memories. It still hurts, after all these years. When the Blue Jays won the World Series in 1993, I hardly cared. I was still an Expos fan. And born a West Coaster, I naturally hate all Toronto franchises anyway. I will never accept the Blue Jays as Canada’s team, even now that the Expos no longer exist. C’est la vie.

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Above is Bill Lee’s Topps rookie card from 1970, which he signed for my son last Monday at Nat Bailey Stadium: “Bill Lee Earth 2009”. Notice the “H” that is heading “down to earth.”

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Bill Lee

You’re supposed to sit on your ass and nod at stupid things
Man, that’s hard to do
And if you don’t, they’ll screw you
And if you do, they’ll screw you, too

When I’m standing in the middle of the diamond all alone
I always play to win
When it comes to skin and bone

And sometimes I say things I shouldn’t
Like…

And sometimes I say things I shouldn’t
Like…

by Warren Zevon

Shortcut to a Hallelujah Moment

pantsshower