Saturday, March 31, 2012


"What the hell is going on in this city?"

This is the question asked of me earlier this week by someone looking at the developer's illustration in the Vancouver Courier of the proposed Rize Development at Broadway and Kingsway "It just looks too big!" she said.

Two weeks earlier I had a call from someone concerned about a proposed new development in the 900 Block East Hastings Street across from the Ray-Cam Community Centre. He had just seen a rezoning sign proposing a 6 FSR development along a portion of a street presently populated by one and two level industrial buildings. "I like the idea of housing in this area", he said," but why would a developer or the City even consider 6 FSR in an area like this?" (As an aside, I'm told the density is necessary to support the city demands for additional light industrial space and social housing to be donated by the developer to the City.)I must say I understood my friends' concerns. Especially since I too have recently been disturbed about the significant increases in height and density for a number of approved and proposed developments scattered around the city. It was not that long ago that 6 FSR was the highest residential density permitted in the city, generally restricted to the Georgia Street Corridor. Recently the City has approved projects at almost three times this density. And now there is a proposal for 6 FSR on East Hastings! If it's acceptable in the 900 Block, is it acceptable for the adjacent ten blocks?The recently sold-out Marine Gateway development will be more than twice as tall as the Langara Gardens towers at 57th and Cambie, which have always been considered out of scale with that part of the city. (In the interest of full disclosure, I managed the successful rezoning for the fourth rental tower at Langara Gardens in the 80's, arguing at the time that yes, the buildings were out of scale, but does it really matter whether there are three or four towers, noting the need for more rental housing in the area and a resulting FSR of only 1.15.)

The STIR project at 1401 Comox proposed a 7.5 FSR on a site zoned for 1.5. While I support the idea of density bonuses to achieve new rental housing, even new market rental housing, I could not endorse a project at 5 times the permitted FSR, regardless of the merits of the design, talent of the architect, or community spirit and capability of the developer.On Main Street, the proposed redevelopment of the Little Mountain property is at an overall 'gross' density that in my opinion is too high for the area. It's higher than what the City approved for the Bayshore development in 1993. The late Jim Green, who worked as a community advocate for the project felt the same way, but argued the higher density was necessary to support the new social housing and other community benefits being expected by the City and community. He also pointed out that the Province was expecting a substantial payment for the land although he always stressed that neither I nor the public knew just how much the developer had offered to pay for the property. This was correct.

In each of these cases, the justification for heights and densities significantly higher than what would have been considered acceptable by architects, planners, and the general public a decade ago include:
  • the City is demanding community amenities (rental housing, social housing, commercial space, artists' live work space, daycare, etc.) or financial contributions in cash, which is pushing the higher densities;
  • higher densities are more 'sustainable'...and sustainability is an important goal for the city;
  • the higher densities are necessary to achieve more affordable housing;
  • all but Little Mountain had the unanimous, or almost unanimous approval of the Urban Design Panel.

Now, I happen to agree that increased amenities are essential if we are to accommodate increased growth. I also agree that 'sustainable development' especially close to transit is a good thing. And as a longstanding advocate for achieving more affordable housing choices through higher densities, I cannot disagree with the third bullet. So what's my problem?

Ironically, what prompted me to write this post was not just those people questioning the Rize, Hasting Street, Comox Street or Little Mountain developments. It was a conversation I had this past week at City Hall with City planners who asked what I thought of allowing higher densities and larger highrise floorplates than have historically been approved in Vancouver.

The floorplate of a building is the area of each floor. For decades the maximum for a highrise building has been around 570 square meters, which has resulted in Vancouver's 'skinny point-block towers' so often admired by visiting architects and planners. This was the size established for Downtown South, most of Coal Harbour and the North Shore of False Creek.

In a typical Vancouver building, approximately 70 square meters of the floorplate is taken up by elevators, stairs, corridors and mechanical shafts. The remaining area can then be divided up into suites. The ratio of the saleable or leasable area to the total building area is referred to as the building efficiency. In Vancouver, the efficiency of most buildings when factoring in the area of enclosed balconies and in-suite storage space is around 85%. This is less than larger buildings found in most other locales. Also, the point-block building form with extensive exterior wall relative to the building area is more expensive to build.

In recent years we have seen some notable exceptions to the smaller floorplate guideline. For example, the Woodwards Tower is much larger. (Fortunately the decorative metal designs that were to be a framework for greenery climbing up the building offset some of the bulk of this building.) The Shangri-la Tower is bigger, but its triangulated shape and overall height help minimize its bulk. Other recently approved buildings such as Telus Garden are also larger.

If you travel outside of Vancouver you can find many much larger, or may I say fatter buildings. eg: the towers in New Westminster above the SkyTrain station just north of Westminster Quay. While providing more affordable housing next to transit and an array of commercial facilities, these buildings are big...very big.

What prompted the question from the City planners is that they are now being asked to approve increasingly larger floor plates in order to improve building efficiency and affordability. The Planning Department is not just looking at fattening the towers; it is also being asked to consider alternative building forms such as larger double loaded slab buildings that are so common around Toronto and other cities. Unlike Vancouver's slender pointblocks, these buildings can easily be twice or three times the floorplate size and much more efficient and cost effective.

In principle, I support double loader corridor slab buildings up to say ten storeys. However, I don't really want to see the huge slab buildings that one sees driving into downtown Toronto from the airport.

One of the planners responded how ironic it was that I, once considered the developer terrible around City Hall for decades for proposing highrises and various rezonings for higher density four storey apartments along Vancouver arterials, now shared their concerns!

I think the time has come for a full public discussion on just how far Vancouver should deviate from its past practices when it comes to building form and density. Should we forego the slender point blocks? Should we permit Toronto sized slab buildings around the city in the name of affordability ? At what point do we trade off the form, massing and appearance of buildings in order to achieve greater 'sustainability? When is too much density too much?

This is a discussion that needs to take place not just on the pages of the Vancouver Sun and other community newspapers, or at politically charged Public Hearings. These discussions need to occur in the corridors of UDI, the Architectural and Planning Institutes, and our universities.

I hope that people like Gordon Price, Brent Toderian, Larry Beasley, Bob Ransford, Sam Sullivan and others will join into conversations about how much our city should change in the decades to come and what building forms and densities are appropriate in the name of affordability and sustainability. I would also like to see more on-line discussions at Fabula, City Caucus, the Vancouver Observer, The Tyee, and other similar venues.

Looking at plans for some of the new developments in the pipeline, I personally think my friends are right in asking what is going on in our city. I hope this post may help keep the conversation going.

Friday, March 23, 2012

That was the week that was...

I once went to a camp in the Catskills with a fellow who lived on New York's Park Avenue who ended each day by giving it a grade. "Today was an 8 he would say".

As I reflect over the past week, I'd have to give it a very high mark too. I took a sustainability trip around the world at Globe 2012; I visited Avant, which has to be one of Vancouver's most innovative new housing developments; I had a guided visit around Mount Pleasant with a very pleasant architect who has been actively involved with smaller infill developments in the area; I saw a very unusual use of parking spaces just off Main Street; I participated in a 'debate' with Gordon Gibson and Peter Ladner on whether it is time to put the brakes on growth in Vancouver; I checked out some older Kerrisdale Coops and a once controversial infill development and later that day spoke to some members of the Arbutus Ridge, Kerrisdale and Shaughnessy ratepayers (ARKS) about the need for new development in their neigbhourhoods.

Oh yes, and I also received an invitation from the government of the Netherlands to attend the forthcoming 5th International Architecture Biennale in Rotterdam and spend a week touring the latest Dutch developments and innovations in housing and sustainability. That all happens next month.At Globe I came across a few things of special interest to me...Dow is starting to manufacture solar panel roof shingles that can be applied like regular roof shingles. An attractive idea especially for heritage buildings.I was also fascinated by some of the new electric bikes on display. I'm sure these will become very popular, especially with old guys like me who have trouble getting up the hills. My one concern~how do you stop people from stealing them?One of Vancouver's most innovative new projects
Avant is at the corner of Wall Street and Renfrew with dramatic views of the industrial waterfront. Developed by Aragon Properties, one of the region's most innovative development companies, it comprises stacked townhouses on a multi-family zoned site previously occupied by an industrial building. I think a book could be written about this project which started as conventional apartments that were opposed by the community, and subsequently by City staff.The developer, working with Ramsay Warden Architects, then proposed a number of smaller buildings comprising stacked townhouses that allowed views through the site over an underground garage. The developer incorporated geothermal energy and other sustainability features, in part in the hope this would facilitate the approval process. But it didn't. Moreover, the heating system added to the project's complexity, and meeting Buiding and Fire Department fire and safety requirments. (You really shouldn't be trying to run all those pipes through an unheated underground garage, and snaking heating ducts through side by side and stacked townhouses!)

Not surprisingly, both the developer and City staff offer different accounts for the complex designs and approval process. I think they're both right....and wrong...but other than that, am not really in a position to take sides.

What is undeniable, however, is the most impressive and very expensive array of mechanical equipment in the basement which will ensure that none of the purchasers will ever burn to death at Avant!Speaking of purchasers, the units go on sale this weekend at prices which reflect the costly design and construction, and surprisingly high standard of interior and exterior finishes. I hope it sells well. Check it out at

My guide in Mount Pleasant was Robert Chester, an architect who I met at an AIBC meeting arranged to provide input into the Building Form and Design Roundtable. He showed me an infill project that involved renovating an old house, converting it into three suites, and adding a coach house over the parking along the lane. The result is an increasingly desirable form of development, although Robert cautioned me that you really have to know your way around the RT zoning bylaws to succeed with this type of undertaking.Nearby I saw a very interesting townhouse project with a couple of stacked units, which placed 9 units on a small corner lot. This is the type of project I'd like to see proliferate around the city, although the underground parking does add to the building costs and prices.This parking meter isn't generating much revenue!
Just off Main Street I came across a 'pocket seating area' which occupies two parking spaces outside of a cafe. Hmmmmm, as Frances Bula would say. The City is looking for community input on this very interesting use of a portion of a city road.My trip around Kerrisdale took me to 45th and Macdonald where Brian Bell undertook a controversial infill project many years ago. It involved adding a number of new units on a large property and preservation of a large older house. Today everybody loves it! Finally, I was fascinated by some of the older buildings along West Boulevard with their rear lane parking solutions. Some had parking under the buildings; others had individual garages along the lane. Yes, apartments with individual garages. Now, why not add laneway units above them!Many people wonder why we don't build smaller, more modest apartment buildings with laneway parking today. This is something my Report to the Mayor's Task Force on Affordable Housing attempts to address. And speaking of the report, thanks to Mitra Mansour, a young architectual graduate turned graphic designer for pulling it together over the past week.

A very good week!

Friday, March 16, 2012

So what do you think about the closing of the Playhouse Theatre?

It's about a week since the very sudden announcement that Vancouver's Playhouse Theatre is closing down. It was a topic of conversation during our most recent Civic Affairs Panel discussion on the Bill Good Show, and also at the Roundable, a discussion group I belong to that meets every Tuesday at the Vancouver Club. We had a particularly able person to chair the discussion....Christopher Gaze, who was filling in for current Chair Geoff Plant.

While I don't profess to have any special knowledge or insight, I have been asked by so many people what I thought about the situation that I've decided to reprint a slightly modified version of some comments I posted on Frances Bula's Blog earlier this week:

I agree with those who question why the City put $$$ into the Playhouse about a year ago without a proper well conceived business plan in place .

(ED Note: Now, to be fair, I don't really know if they presented a well conceived plan or not...but so many people have told me that there have been systemic problems with the Playhouse financial structure and operations, and these did not appear to be addressed at all over the past year.)

There is no doubt that the Playhouse productions lost their appeal for a lot of people which is one reason why season subscribers dropped from approx 10,000 to 4,000. As economist Roz Kunin told a luncheon discussion group I belong to, this doesn’t happen over night…why was it allowed to happen without much more noise?

I haven’t been to a production for a few years and suspect that most Fabula readers haven’t been for a while either, or maybe never at all….

As I noted on CKNW, regardless of the production values, the marketing program has certainly not been as strong as for other theatrical organizations. (Bard…Arts Club, etc.) I never received direct mail telling me about new Playhouse productions and urging me to attend. And I get invitations to dozens of events each week….

There is no doubt that the business arrangement with the City was a poor one and it has caused problems for decades…The fact that the revenues from the bar go to the City, not the production company is one small problem; the fact that the sets had to be taken down and reassembled by union crews on a regular basis to accommodate a musical production is another…And of course the rental payment and lack of adequate grant arrangements didn’t help….

Some people believe part of the problem was the character of the neighbourhood…few nearby bars and restaurants to patronize before and after theatre…reduced and less accessible and overly expensive parking, a pretty dead zone….

But regardless of whether the Playhouse should continue or not, one thing that seems to have shocked everyone is the suddeness of the announcement and the fact that all the people who have supported the Playhouse in the past….Board Chairs, Directors, regular theatre goers….had absolutely no idea the situation was so dire…and many who have contacted me since this morning’s Bill Good Show have said they would have liked to have had the opportunity to discuss the situation and try and help.

So I predict that we may see some people come forward, as they did after the announcement that the Bloedel Conservatory was closing. Whether they can (or should) resurrect the Playhouse, or begin the process to create another company more relevant for the city and the times remains to be seen.

But I do hope that something is done since the sudden death of the Playhouse does not seem quite right…and I agree that it does not reflect well on the City.

I’m also curious to hear whether people think this might also be just the beginning…how’s the symphony doing? how’s the Opera doing? I think I know part of the answers and it doesn’t bode well for Vancouver….

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Mayor's Task Force on Housing Affordability: Progress Report

Yesterday the Mayor's office released its first progress report on the activities of the Task Force. It can be found here.

A few quick observations. While many of the quick-start actions are not new, such as fast-tracking affordable housing applications...the creation of an interdepartmental City staff team to ensure these applications jump the queue and hopefully get careful attention through an affordability lens should be beneficial.

The focus on the Cambie Corridor will be interesting to watch. The intention is to use it as a model for the application of inclusionary zoning to promote rental housing. I certainly endorse the idea that a standardized approach related to Community Amenity Contributions be put in place. The idea of a 'let's make a deal' on dozens of independent rezonings up and down Cambie didn't make any sense at all....for anyone!

As for levering City assets, I'm pleased to see that the goal is to explore the viability of using city lands to create affordable rental housing. As Olga Ilich has rightly pointed out in a recent Frances Bula G&M storey, the City did this years ago by leasing lands to VLC Properties with only limited success. I would hope that a comprehensive review of the VLC experience will be carried out to see just how much bang we got for our bucks...and the sites were worth a lot of bucks. Gordon Price has lthoughtfully commented on this on his Price Tags Blog.

Finally, the City wants the Task Force members to wield their influence with other levels of government. I'll certainly be promoting the need for changes to the Land Title Act (if that's what it takes) to allow Fee-Simple rowhouses, another of the quick-start initiatives.

Now, as for my initiative, I note that my Working Group has now been re-labeled as a Roundtable which is quite appropriate since I have been doing the rounds talking to architects, developers and City officials. I have shared drafts of my report with the Task Force and City staff and hope to have a final draft completed shortly.

It will probably be no surprise that the ideas I am exploring include creating more affordable housing choices within single family zones, such as semi-detached houses and coach houses; creating new 'transitional zones' to accommodate townhouses and stacked townhouses; revising and updating some of the existing zoning categories such as the RT (two dwelling) and C-2 mixed use zones to facilitate better, more affordable housing; and addressing some of the difficulties that often arise due to competing values and design requirements from various City departments.

Two key questions that need to be addressed are whether reduced costs will necessarily translate into reduced prices; and whether it is indeed possible to build truly affordable housing given the other factors such as land costs and foreign investment...... especially when we want new housing to meet very high environmental and accessibility standards, and look really, really good!

More on these and other questions over the coming months...

Friday, March 2, 2012

Should the VAG move into Sears?

I awoke this morning to the news on the CBC Early Edition that Sears has decided to vacate its space in Pacific Centre. My immediate thought was of the Vancouver Art Gallery! Why?

Because around 2003, as a Trustee of the VAG, I served on its expansion committee chaired by Michael Audain. One of the four planning options put forward by Michael Maltzan, the LA architect who had been retained by the gallery to explore expansion options, was to expand on-site, and into the adjacent Sears store with a bridge connection over Howe Street.

It was my favourite 'on-site' expansion option; however it was not pursued after preliminary discussions with Cadillac Fairview, owners of Pacific Centre, revealed that Sears had a 30+ year lease with a very expensive buy out provision and no plans to move.

However, upon hearing the news that Sears was now leaving, I tweeted this information out to CBC's Early Edition, and this led to an exchange of tweets with a number of people including Ian Bailey of the Globe and Mail and News 1130's Erin Loxam.

While I knew the gallery would prefer to continue to explore the feasibility of a new facility on the Larwill Park site at Cambie and Georgia, (see my earlier blog posting I thought that the pending departure of Sears did offer a new opportunity that should at least be explored, especially if Nordstrom's, who I am told is considering the possibility of a Vancouver location, is not interested in the space.

I discussed this with both Ian and Erin, as well as another Twitter follower Robert Zimmerman of CBC News. My views were aired on CBC and News1130 and included in a Globe and Mail story by Ian Bailey that will appear in tomorrow's newspaper.

All from one little little tweet!

While the gallery is now intent on pursuing the Larwill Park option, I think the Sears site opens up a number of possibilities. For one thing, it would allow the VAG to remain on what is undoubtedly the best site in the city, and still achieve the required expansion space.

The reuse of Sears would fit nicely with Vancouver's goal of becoming the most sustainable city in the world by 2020, since the re-use of a vacant department store and former Court House is certainly more 'sustainable' than building a brand new building.

Finally, moving the VAG into the Sears building would result in the repair of what many consider to be the ugliest wall in the city. While most would like to see the building demolished, I don't think this is necessary. But it would be desirable to significantly alter the big white wall, with the addition of many large windows and other architectural treatments.

I should add that permission for a major new residential tower on the Pacific Centre property might help make the whole proposition more financially feasible.

Here's Ian's story:

VAG should consider moving into Sears site, advocates say

The Vancouver Art Gallery should adjust its planning for a new home to consider moving into the downtown Sears site, which is to be vacated this year, says the city councillor who has been handling theVAG-expansion file.

Sears Canada Inc. has just announced it will close the Vancouver store, located across Howe Street from the VAG, by the end of October.

“This is a new option. We should take a look at it,” said Heather Deal, who is encouraging the VAG to open a file on the possibility of using the complex. Ms. Deal said she had not had an opportunity Friday to discuss the surprise development with the VAG.

Ms. Deal said, however, it may turn out that it’s cheaper to build a new gallery than moving into an existing building, but added that both alternatives need to be studied.

The gallery has been intent on building a new gallery on city-owned land at the Larwill Park site, located at Georgia and Cambie. City council has agreed to reserve two acres of the property for two years so the VAG can explore its options. Among other things, it has to come up with a business plan and raise the $250-million to $300-million required for the project.

Gallery director Kathleen Bartels, travelling Friday, was unavailable for comment. In a statement, the gallery said it was focused on planning for the Georgia and Cambie site. Dana Sullivant, marketing and communications director for the gallery, did not respond to voicemail and e-mail queries about whether the Sears building could affect those plans.

Michael Geller, a former member of the board of trustees at the VAG, said Sears was an opportunity the VAG should now consider, starting with a conversation with Cadillac Fairview, which owns the Sears property.

Mr. Geller, who said his preference was to keep the VAG in the heart of the city, said one option might be maintaining retail space in the lower levels of the Sears building and the VAG moving into the rest.

He noted there were discussions about VAG’s use of the Sears building in about 2003 - with some design work done that proposed a walkway between the two buildings. However, the option was taken off the table because the Sears building was not going to be available for the foreseeable future.

“Given today’s announcement, it would be appropriate to have some preliminary conversation with Cadillac Fairview,” he said.

Architect Bing Thom said the Sears building could host the VAG or expanded downtown campuses for the University of British Columbia or Simon Fraser University.

In an interview, he declined to pointedly encourage the VAG to look to Sears, noting it was a choice for the organization to make.

However, he said he welcomed the prospect of seeing the Sears building renovated.

“It’s an introverted box, but you don’t have to throw it away,” Mr. Thom said.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Rich Have to Live Somewhere Too!

Thanks to Pacwest International Management for the following that arrived in my inbox today.

Living Very Large-Building Big is Back

March 1,2012

Big is Back with the Rich and Famous

Anthony Pritzker New Home
Shooting ranges, an indoor tennis court, a bedroom bigger than many houses: For a small cadre of very wealthy owners, building big is back. The latest project of Hyatt hotel heir Anthony Pritzker is a 49,300-square-foot building designed by an architecture firm in Paris. It involves a small army of specialized consultants and boasts amenities like a bowling alley, hairdressing area and gym.The project, in the hills above Los Angeles, isn't a luxury hotel—it's a private home for Mr. Pritzker and his family.

Four years into the housing downturn, what little new-home construction remains is focused on downsized living. According to the Census Bureau, the average size of a newly completed single-family home peaked in 2007 at 2,521 square feet, capping nearly three decades of growth, falling to 2,392 square feet in 2010. Then there are the exceptions, a small cadre of homeowners who are currently building mansions that are 10 times that size. Interviews with the small pool of luxury builders who handle such projects, and a perusal of permits in wealthy areas including parts of Connecticut and California, suggests that for some of the mega-wealthy, big is back.

Home Brings $100 Million

A Russian billionaire investor paid $100 million for a French chateau-style mansion in Silicon Valley, marking the highest known price paid for a single-family home in the U.S. The purchase of the 25,500-square-foot home in Los Altos Hills, Calif., underscores the strength of some luxury properties in an otherwise depressed housing market. The buyer, Yuri Milner, 49, who heads Digital Sky Technologies and whose investments include Facebook Inc., Groupon Inc. and Zynga Inc., had no immediate plans to move into the home Milner is the stocky founder of DST, a Moscow-based fund that's made a splash in Silicon Valley via its investments. Its first in the U.S. was a $200 million check for Facebook in 2009. His primary residence is in Moscow, where he lives with his wife and two children.

PacWest International Management Inc.
Government and Corporate Consultants
Vancouver-Geneva-New York
25 Years in China