Sunday, August 30, 2015

Opinion: Rezonings~Learning from the past Vancouver Courier August 26, 2015

The Crescent on McRae is now an attractive development which appears to have been accepted by many of the neighbours who fought against it for three years.

Art Cowie's Fee-simple row houses on Cambie Street
The |Larchwood as viewed from the lane
Last Saturday I wrote a column in another publication about the need to undertake regular ‘post-mortems’ of controversial rezoning projects that get built, in order to see whether neighbourhood concerns actually materialized. The article featured three Westside projects: McRae Crescent, overlooking the intersection of Granville Street and West 16th Avenue; “fee-simple” townhouses developed by the late Art Cowie on Cambie Street at West 33rd Avenue; and Larchwood, a townhouse and stacked townhouse development on Larch Street, just south of West 37th Avenue. 

Each of these projects was very controversial and took years before being approved. However, today they are well accepted and provide much needed housing choices.
Two of the three developments fit nicely into the surrounding neighbourhood. Ironically the third, Cowie’s Cambie Street townhouses, is dwarfed by a new six-storey development immediately to the north.

In writing about these developments I was not suggesting that community concerns are never valid. On the contrary, they often are. But it is important to recognize that oftentimes community fears are not validated and neighbourhoods realize benefits from new housing choices.

Following publication of this story, I received messages from many Vancouver residents and planning professionals proposing other projects that should have been included.
Planner Lance Berelowitz reminded me of architect Bruce Haden’s Koo Corner project in Strathcona. It received opposition from neighbours and the city’s planning department which almost turned it down. Today the city features the development in their EcoDensity and Greenest City promotional material.

The most frequently mentioned project was Sasamat Gardens along West 8th at Sasamat.
For more than thirty years, this half city block, owned by the O’Hagan family, sat vacant.
In 1996, rather than subdivide the land into 22 single family lots, Fred O’Hagan hired architect Roger Hughes to plan a comprehensive development including townhouses and small apartments catering to empty nesters and seniors seeking alternative accommodation in their community.

A 1998 survey revealed that 86% of West Point Grey residents were opposed to anything other than single family lots.  The plans were modified, including elimination of the low-rise apartments, and the development was ultimately approved. Today, nearby residents like Fred Veuger wish there were more ground oriented housing choices like Sasamat Gardens available for West Point Grey residents seeking an alternative to their single family homes, but not yet ready for an apartment. He is not alone.

It is hard to see Oak Gardens at West 42 and Oak Street.

I was also reminded of two of my own developments; one on Oak Street and the other on West 41st Avenue.  Anyone driving today along the west side of Oak Street between West 42nd and 43rd will find it hard to believe that the three storey apartment building hidden behind the trees was once the scene of a major community battle. Designed by NSDA, the 1992 proposal was to rezone four single family lots to allow a four storey seniors’ apartment building catering to those wanting to downsize in a location close to the Jewish Community Centre, Louis Brier Home and Hospital, and Kaplan’s Delicatessen.

Neighbours objected to the height claiming it was out of scale with the nearby bungalows. They also feared significant traffic and parking problems. Eventually the project was approved but at a reduced height and with much more parking. Today the bungalows are gone, replaced by larger homes. Many of the building’s parking spaces sit empty, and you can barely see the building. 
Elsewhere along Oak Street new four storey developments provide popular housing choices for those who cannot afford, or do not want a single family house.

The Lanesborough: once described by Councillor George Puil as intrusive and obscene and comparable to the then ugly blank wall of Eatons

A similar story can be told about my 1997 proposal for low-rise seniors’ apartments on West 41st Avenue between Carnarvon and Balaclava. In a Courier article by Alison Appelbe, Councillor George Puil called the NSDA designed building “intrusive and obscene” and compared it to Eaton’s ugly blank white wall. Nearby residents predicted traffic and parking problems and a loss of character. Some even claimed the predominance of families with children in the area made the location unsuitable for seniors’ housing. Fortunately it was approved and subsequently developed by Polygon Homes.

Now highly regarded in the community, it bears absolutely no resemblance to the Eaton’s wall, which ironically is now gone-replaced by architect James Cheng’s elegant Nordstrom store.

Controversial Projects Can Prove Doubters Wrong: Vancouver Sun August 23, 2015

Now that the landscaping is growing in, this development at West 16th and Granville is much more accepted by the Shaughnessy neighbourhood

Every time I drive by Granville Street and West 16th Avenue in Shaughnessy, I think about the three-year battle that preceded approval of the attractive townhouse development overlooking the intersection.
 I have similar thoughts driving by Cambie Street and West 33rd, Larch Street just south of West 39 Avenue, and the 2000 block Esquimalt in West Vancouver.
 In each location, neighbourhood residents vigorously opposed projects that are now completed and occupied. They could offer important lessons on how best to deal with neighbourhood concerns related to future developments.
 The Shaughnessy townhouses were designed by James Bussey of Formwerks Architecture and developed by Arthur Bell Holdings.  

 At the time, some residents feared city approval would encourage future townhouses and highrise buildings threatening the character of historic Shaughnessy. They also worried the project would increase noise, traffic and stress levels. 
Not everyone opposed the development. Since it included restoration of the historic Nichol Mansion, the Vancouver Heritage Commission congratulated the developer for trying to save an important heritage building. 
When the property’s trees were first cut down and construction began, I, too, worried about the project. I suggested to the developer that he put up an illustration to show what the completed development would look like, so neighbouring residents would not lose any more sleep.
Fast forward to today. The landscaping has grown in. Along with many Shaughnessy residents, I no longer have the same concerns. The development is an attractive and appropriate design for the site, offering new housing choices for nearby residents.
Moreover, concerns about future highrises and a loss of neighbourhood character are unlikely to materialize since city council is now expected to approve a heritage strategy for Shaughnessy that will save all pre-1940s housing in the neighbourhood.
Developer Brian Bell is also happy with how the project turned out and pleased that, as he predicted, many homes sold to local residents impressed with the project’s quality and attention to detail. 

Art Cowie's fee-simple row houses as viewed along Cambie Street

Sadly, planner and developer Art Cowie never lived to see his dream project at West 33rd and Cambie completed. He died during construction. However, his name will always be associated with the three fee-simple rowhouses council eventually approved on what was once a single-family-zoned property.
Ironically, his once-controversial development, which also included rental coach houses above the garages, is now dwarfed by a six-storey building to the north and other mid-rise buildings up and down Cambie.
Cowie’s fee-simple townhouses are significant in that they are not condominiums. Each is individually owned, like a single-family home, with no strata fees. 
One of his challenges in getting approval was the city’s Law Department, which worried about the legality of the proposed agreement for the shared party wall between units.
To address this legal concern, Cowie eventually had to build two separate walls. However, Suzanne Anton, then a city councillor, recognized the importance of this type of housing and convinced the province to change legislation to facilitate more individually owned townhouses in the future. 

Larchwood, as viewed from the lane

On Larch Street, just south of St Mary's Church on West 39th Avenue is a development that seems to fit seamlessly with the surrounding Kerrisdale ‘Craftsman-style’ homes. 
Completed in 2000, it replaced seven single family lots with forty-five new townhomes ranging in size from one to three bedrooms. Some were planned to appeal to young families; others incorporated features that would be attractive to seniors.
  Designed by Ramsay Warden Architects and developed by Intracorp, the development also included a full restoration of an existing heritage home.
   Planning consultant Charles Brook recalls that the initial proposal was furiously opposed by many neighbouring single family homeowners, but supported by nearby high-rise residents seeking alternative housing choices, and empty nesters ready to downsize in their Kerrisdale neighbourhood.
  Since the City of Vancouver had no policy to allow rezonings in Kerrisdale, planning staff recommended the project be approved as a neighbourhood demonstration project, an effective way to test out a new planning concept.
   Eventually all but one member of city council agreed and today the development serves an attractive model of how low density townhouses and stacked townhouses can be integrated into single family neighbourhoods, away from busy arterial roads. 

Today Hollyburn Mews in the 2000 Block of Esquimalt has been well-accepted by the surrounding West Vancouver neighbourhood

 In West Vancouver, a five-year battle preceded approval of six duplex homes and three coach houses on three single-family lots across from West Vancouver United Church. 
Over 150 people wrote letters in opposition or spoke at the multiple-night public hearing. However, some local residents were in favour and eventually the project — one of my own — was approved by a narrow four-to-three council vote.
  To improve the neighbourhood fit, each pair of duplexes was designed to look like a large house. Unlike Vancouver’s laneway houses, the coach houses were sold; one to a household with young children and the others to seniors wanting to downsize.
Today, many planners and residents have said they consider the Formwerks-designed Hollyburn Mews to be a good model of in-fill housing and gentle densification, and one that has application around the province.
The City of Kelowna recently included it in a planning document illustrating how new low-rise housing can be successfully integrated into single family neighbourhoods.
These case studies are not intended to say that neighbourhood concerns over rezoning applications are never valid. On the contrary, they often are. 
However, in order to better assess the validity of these concerns, it could be very valuable if planners, neighbourhood organizations, and perhaps journalists carried out post-mortems on controversial projects that did get built, in order to determine whether the concerns materialized. 
Is the building out of scale and character? Did nearby property values drop as feared? Were there neighbourhood traffic and parking problems? 
Ongoing reviews of controversial projects might help us all gain a better understanding of what to watch out for in neighbourhood plans and rezoning applications.  This in turn will help us accommodate future changing housing needs in our communities.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Opinion: Generation Squeeze needs to have more say Vancouver Courier August 20, 2015

Last week I met Dr. Paul Kershaw, a most interesting young man wearing red shoes.
He claims to be a farmer by morning and night, but by day he is a UBC professor in the Faculty of Medicine’s School of Population and Public Health, and one of Canada’s top thinkers about generational equity.

What is generational equity, you ask?
For the best answer, I recommend the website of Generation Squeeze the campaign he started in 2011 to encourage Canadians 25 to 45 to become more politically engaged and increase their influence on future government policies.
He wants them to become a lobby group, like the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP) which promotes and protects the interests, rights and quality of life for those of us over 50.
Why does he call it Generation Squeeze? Because this younger generation is increasingly squeezed by excessive student debt, a shortage of good work opportunities, expensive childcare costs, anxiety about mounting public debts, and of course, the exorbitant cost of housing.

Kershaw likes to point out that governments spend less than $12,000 on benefits and services per Canadian under 45, compared to more than $33,000 for every retiree. He notes that to compete for better employment opportunities, Generation Squeeze has to spend significantly more time and money than their parents’ generation to get an education. 
To buy a home, they accept jobs or contracts that require years to save a down payment. For many, this means waiting longer to move out of parents’ homes, or to establish financial independence.
I suspect that many of you know exactly what he’s talking about.

I met with Kershaw to discuss the Generation Squeeze Housing Policy.
He wants to see more municipalities build affordability targets into municipal bylaws through what’s often termed inclusionary zoning. While this is happening in Vancouver and other jurisdictions, it is by no means widespread. He would also like to see a return of federal tax incentives for builders and owners of long-term, purpose-built rental housing.  On this he is not alone.

He is rightly concerned about the future of affordable housing on leased public land. This includes aging developments along the south shore of False Creek, in Champlain Heights and the Fraser Lands, and thousands of other sites scattered across the country.

Kershaw would also like to see provincial governments adjust the property transfer tax so that first time Canadian buyers can be exempted from the tax for properties priced below the metropolitan median value. He would also like municipal governments to reduce municipal fees and taxes on residential properties priced below the municipal median value. More expensive properties would pay a progressively higher percentage of tax.
He would like to see a doubling of the federal government’s first-time home buyers’ tax credit, an idea he presented to Stephen Harper in Ottawa, with little success. However, he and Harper do agree on one thing, namely the need to monitor the flow of foreign investment, perhaps by attaching a residency declaration in land transfer documents.

In addition, he would like governments to subsidize childcare so households with young children would have more money to spend on housing.

While these may all seem like good ideas, especially to younger Canadians, a key question is how to pay for these programs. Kershaw told me he does not want to pit generations against one another. He maintains we need to narrow the generational spending gap only slightly, adding his ideas would raise government spending per Canadian under age 45 from $12,000 to $13,000, while maintaining spending around $33,000 per retiree.
While this may seem like voodoo economics, he argues one way to free up money for the younger generation is by addressing healthcare costs. Today 50 cents of every medical care dollar goes to the 15 per cent of the population over 65. He proposes we reduce spending by creating a more cost-effective health care system; one that focusses more on prevention than on cure. 
Remember, he works in the Faculty of Medicine.

Kershaw is urging those 25 to 45 to sign up and be part of GenSqueeze. But you don’t have to be under 50 to join. If you agree with his sentiments, you might want to sign up too. I already have.
Twitter @michaelgeller

Opinion: Watching the trains go by Vancouver Courier August 13, 2015

Some Westside Vancouver residents were recently shocked to see large red and black signs posted around their neighbourhoods announcing the recommencing of CPR railway operations. They were warned not to stop on tracks, obey flag persons and call 3-1-1 for information.

The signs were installed by the City of Vancouver at the request of Transport Canada.
For those not quite sure why active railway traffic will soon be running along the Arbutus Corridor, allow me to offer some background, and a potential solution to end the longstanding impasse between CP and the city.

The 11 km long Arbutus Corridor was given to CP Rail in 1886 and the first rail line was built in 1902 to move cargo and passenger trains. By 1999, train operations were limited to serving the Molson brewery and the company began plans to redevelop the land into a mix of residential and commercial uses.

To prevent this from happening, in July 2000 the city enacted the Arbutus Corridor Official Development Plan that designated the land for transportation, parks, and greenways only.

CP subsequently took the city to court arguing that the city had effectively taken its property without compensation. However, the city won since it generally has the right to zone land in the public interest.

Five years later, CP initiated a planning exercise that included participation from four neighbourhoods- Kitsilano, Arbutus Ridge/Shaughnessy, Kerrisdale and Marpole-through which the rail line runs. Stanley King, a local planner who has a magical ability to illustrate what people are saying was brought in, along with an advisory panel that included Nola-Kate Seymoar, president of the International Centre for Sustainable Cities. Mark Holland, a respected sustainability planner, UBC’s Patrick Condon, and former NDP premier Mike Harcourt I attended some of the deliberations as a past director of the International Centre for Sustainable Cities.

Eventually a report was prepared that argued against using the lands solely for a greenway with bike paths and walkways because, despite meeting certain sustainability principles, this was not financially sustainable. Moreover, it did not include green buildings and infrastructure, or diverse housing choices, all of which are key tenets of sustainable planning. 

The preferred plan envisioned maintaining a continuous transit corridor, with mixed-use development at key nodes including Kerrisdale Village, where the corridor is flanked by city streets on two sides, and around 33rd, 16th and other major arterials.

In response to those who question whether it is possible to retain a transit corridor through development, you might be interested to know there are two transit corridors reserved through Coal Harbour’s Bayshore development; one above ground and one below ground.

By combining CP’s land with the city’s land, the planners concluded it was possible to create significant value for CP, which in turn would allow the city to acquire the balance of the corridor for next to nothing. 

However, shortly thereafter, the city successfully fought against any development along the corridor after the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the previous municipal bylaw that restricted the right-of-way’s use to a greenway and car-free transportation corridor.
Fast forward to summer 2014. 

After the city and CP failed to agree on a fair market price for the property, CP threatened to start running trains along the line and insisted that community gardens and other public use cease immediately.  This time the city took the railway to court, but lost.
In a subsequent letter to neighbourhood residents, the president of CP wrote:
“For many years now, CP has been involved in conversations to convert the Arbutus Corridor for a number of combined public uses, such as a greenway, public transportation, community gardens and Eco Density development. Despite our efforts, the company and other parties have been unable to achieve a plan for the disposition of this valuable asset.”
If you would like to speak to those “other parties” just dial 3-1-1. 

Tell the city it’s time to agree on a plan preserving a transit corridor, along with a mix of public amenities and sustainable development. This will make much more sense than watching trains going forward and backward while lawyers argue in court.
Twitter @michaelgeller