Up, Up and Away

In this Globe and Mail article yesterday, writer Frances Bula identifies the four downtown sites that Director of Planning Brent Toderian has proposed for Vancouver’s tallest towers.  One of the sites (the old bus depot site on West Georgia between Cambie and Beatty) is owned by the City and was much-discussed as a preferred location for a new Vancouver Art Gallery.  The article is here.

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With media focus shifting to Vancouver in anticipation of the 2010 Winter Olympics, I expect we’ll see a lot more articles like this one which describes the social experiment that is Woodward’s.  The article is here.

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Vancouver council endorses high-density plan to develop former Expo lands


The view north over False Creek from the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games Athletes Village.

Photograph by: Ian Lindsay, Vancouver Sun

City council unanimously endorsed a plan Tuesday night to create a high-density, mixed-use neighbourhood of about 7,000 people around BC Place Stadium and GM Place on the final undeveloped section of the former Expo lands.

The controversial concept includes a new civic plaza plus four million square feet of residential space and 1.8 million square feet of office space.

What it doesn’t include is the 2.75 acres of park space per 1,000 people that city council holds as a goal.

Coun. Suzanne Anton, who unsuccessfully pushed for changes to the plan to include more park space, said she thinks residents will be shortchanged if the developers don’t provide the expected amenities.

“I am an advocate of density,” Anton told The Vancouver Sun. “I think it makes a city more interesting, I think it makes it more livable, and most important, I think it’s better for the environment.

“However at the same time, if you’re going to ask people to live in high density, you must, as a city, provide the right amenities.”

If the park ratio of 2.75 acres per 1,000 residents was to be met, it would require an additional 19.8 acres of park land for the 7,200 new residents, according to the staff report.

As proposed, densities in northeast False Creek will be among the highest in the downtown peninsula, the report said, noting the high-density push is being driven by the city’s goal of becoming the greenest city in the world by 2020.

Coun. Geoff Meggs stressed that the plan will take years to be implemented.

“This just the first stage of what is going to be a long discussion,” Meggs said. “The onus is now on the developers to bring forward proposals that meet the community test for amenities.”

PavCo, the provincial arm that manages BC Place, wants to cover much of the cost of the stadium’s new retractable roof through the development around the stadium.

“What the community is getting for that new density is the roof,” Meggs said.

The new neighbourhood, according to the staff report, would include rental and market housing — and would “appeal to those who want to live in a busy, vibrant area and who have a tolerance for noise, crowds and activities.”

Patsy McMillan, who lives in Citygate near Science World, said she isn’t happy with city council’s decision.

“Everybody’s very disappointed. There was nothing in [the motion] for the larger park or the community,” McMillan said.

“You’re going to get more of a transient, single population, which is okay, except 7,000 of them is not exactly movement towards a stable community.”

“We’re not in favour of that much density without the appropriate amenities and park space,” McMillan said.

The city’s plan for the new northeast False Creek isn’t exclusively for young singles or childless couples — it calls for housing suitable for families with children, including units sheltered from event traffic and noise.

The report also calls for child care centres. A new elementary school in International Village was also discussed by council, but there are no plans now for a new secondary school in the downtown core.

There is no other comparable development in any North American city.

Some cities have baseball parks or hockey rinks with one or two residential towers located nearby or integrated into the sports venue. No other city has multiple stadiums surrounded by a cluster of towers.

The strategy calls for building design requirements to reduce the impact of noise from the two stadiums.

The city will be reviewing height restrictions and view corridors in January. Buildings in Citygate near the proposed development are between 22 and 28 storeys high.

The five owners of property in the area are Concord Pacific, BC PavCo, Canadian Metropolitan Properties, Aquilini Developments and Central Heat Distribution.

The report, Northeast False Creek Directions for the Future, is authored by planners Michael Gordon and Paula Huber.



© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

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Frances Bula has posted the text of two letters to council, one from a resident of CityGate that has been particularly vocal on the topic, and the other from Larry Beasley in which he heaps praise on the Henriquez scheme and urges Council to adopt it.  The text of the letters and the subsequent debate among Frances Bula’s readers is here.

The City of Vancouver’s High Level Review of Northeast False Creek document is available as a PDF here and the October 22 staff report here.

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One of the projects I was toiling away on earlier this year was a residential master plan in the US Southwest where our smallest single family home plan was to run 4,000 square feet.  The inclination of most of the people involved was that bigger is always better, so there were a preponderance of plans in the 5,000 to 11,000 square foot range.  We toured entire subdivisions of homes averaging 7,500 square feet, where six car garages with granite countertops and wet bars, family rooms with three big screen TV’s, four or five piece en suites bathrooms with every bedroom, and kitchens to rival all but the largest restaurant kitchens in size were the ‘norm’.

There are subdivisions just like this all over Southern California, Arizona, Texas and Florida.

This article in last week’s Wall Street Journal suggests there’s been a bit of a reality check, but time will tell. The article is here.

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Revitalization – Gastown Revs Up

Globe and Mail writer Adele Weder is the latest reporter to “discover” the renaissance of Gastown in this article that appeared last Wednesday.  I how many more years it’ll be before we stop hearing that Gastown’s time has finally come?

The article is here.

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In this post to his blog on the Planetizen website for architects and urban planners, Brent Toderian, the City of Vancouver’s Director of Planning, reflects on his meeting last Saturday with Prince Charles, Hank Dittmar who heads The Prince’s Foundation for the Urban Environment, and a number of noted urbanists and sustainability experts.

The blog post is here.

“Living Above the Store”

Francis Bula writes about the trend toward mixed use development in the 10/11/09 edition of The Globe and Mail:

All-in-one projects with retail, residential and office components are attracting attention. But not everyone is onboard
FRANCES BULA VANCOUVER— Special to The Globe and Mail
Last updated on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009 12:23PM EST

The Rise in Vancouver is attracting attention from across North America for its combination of big-box stores on the bottom, with condos and townhouses clustered around an enclosed garden on top.

Paul Buck has spectacular views of downtown Vancouver from the two glass walls of his condo, which wow everyone who walks in. But what really impressed one of Mr. Buck’s friends, in from a town near the Yukon border, is that he lives over a giant Home Depot. “He was visiting from Dease Lake and he was beside himself that I was living right next to a hardware store,” says Mr. Buck, the CFO at a biotechnology company that is a convenient two blocks from his condo. Mr. Buck also lives over a major grocery store, a Winners, a sushi restaurant, a cellphone shop, and a Starbucks, in a complex that has broken new barriers when it comes to an increasingly popular development trend: the mixed-used project.

The Rise is attracting attention and even awards from across North America for its combination of big-box stores on the bottom, with condos and townhouses clustered around an enclosed garden on the top.

But while the combination of uses is unusual, the underlying concept is not.

Cities are aiming to maximize their land use and build greener and denser. At the same time, certain developers have discovered the joy of multiple revenue streams as a niche market of tenants and buyers are drawn to hybrid life. Mixed-use projects have become not only more prevalent but are incorporating wider ranges of uses with each passing year.

In Vancouver, the Shaw Tower has divided a tower on the waterfront edge of the central business district with Triple A office space on the bottom and high-end condos on top. The city’s Woodward’s project near the Downtown Eastside combines condos, social housing, space for non-profits and city offices, a grocery store, a drugstore and Simon Fraser University’s School for the Contemporary Arts, with its multitude of performance spaces.

On Georgia Street, the Shangri-La incorporates a hotel, restaurant, spa, sculpture gallery and condos. Near GM Place, Concord Pacific has four residential towers over a Costco outlet.

In Toronto, the Distillery District east of downtown has mixed 1,500 units of condos with art galleries, offices, restaurants, a theatre and space for non-profit operations. For the World on Yonge, currently being planned in Markham to the north, the drawing board at Liberty Development includes four residential towers, a large shopping complex with an interior plaza, and an office building. In Yorkville, Quadrangle Architects created a complex at 155 Cumberland that combines high-end retail, offices and expensive apartments.

Fans of mixed-use developments say this is a case of cities returning to the way they used to be. “Zoning was very much a post-war phenomenon when there was a move to separate different uses,” says architect Les Klein, whose firm, Quadrangle, is also working on mixed-use projects in Ontario’s Kitchener and Niagara-on-the-Lake. “What we’re really trying to do is return to a mixed-use society, which also makes cities more green. It’s planning catching up with reality.”

But even enthusiasts such as Mr. Klein say that challenges come with building mixed-use projects. Often developers dive into them when they know how to do only one part well – the offices, the condos or the retail – but they add on the others, thinking they’ll be easy gravy. It turns out they aren’t.

Some uses just don’t work together, with restaurants being especially problematic because of their smells, waste and noise issues. Or developers don’t think about timing problems and they end up with different groups of users clashing as one tries to leave while the other is arriving.

What does work best is when developers create multiple uses that appeal to a similar demographic.

Both Matthew Rosenblatt at Cityscape Developments, which is part owner of the Distillery District, and Marco Filice at Liberty say they aim to create complexes where each part – shopping, office or residential – draws people from the same general niche. “We market to the same demographic generally,” Mr. Rosenblatt said. So the offices, condos and shops at the Distillery District work together to attract people who like an urban, arty environment. “We wouldn’t entertain the idea of having a nightclub there with 18-year-olds lining up,” says his partner, David Jackson.

Mr. Filice said his company aims to create a critical mass of residents who are interested in the kind of retail or office services integrated in the complex. For that reason, he structures his projects so that two-thirds of the space goes to residential, one-third to retail and office. “It’s basically a life-cycle approach – we have a captive audience for them.” It’s not that different, he thinks, from the area he grew up in near St. Clair and Bathurst, where people lived over shops on the ground floor and doctors’ offices on the second floor.

In spite of that, many Torontonians, such as Mr. Klein and Mr. Jackson, are skeptical about Vancouver’s radical experiments in putting people on top of giant stores. “The jury is very much out on the idea of residential on top of big box, like we’re seeing in Vancouver,” Mr. Klein says.

But Vancouver’s planning director, Brent Toderian, said he believes the Rise is a wonderful new example of mixed use. It’s one that the city went out of its way to encourage.

The developers of the Rise say it’s proven to be a good experiment for their company. “We had to take a bit of a leap of faith,” says James Patillo, senior vice-president of Grosvenor Americas.

It wasn’t the easiest project. The banks don’t always understand mixed-use projects, he acknowledged. And the designers had to come up with an internal loading system for the building underground, so that residents wouldn’t be annoyed by constant deliveries or garbage pickup. Now, he says, they’re achieving good rents – about $2.25 a square foot, comparable with anything in the area – and they have very low turnover. “Some might say they don’t like the retail below, but I think the acceptance grows and grows,” Mr. Patillo said. “We’ve made a strategic shift to retail and residential. We think it’s here to stay.”

Mr. Buck agrees. He doesn’t care about the retail below except that it’s handy for him. He shops at all of the stores in his building. What matters most is that he lives across the street from his work, he’s a block from the subway line to the airport, and it’s a cool space.

Living over the store isn’t so bad.


Some projects work better with separation

“There is a sense among condo owners that there are strangers in their territory if they aren’t separated from the offices users,” says Les Klein, Quadrangle Architects.

Some projects work better without much separation

“When you separate your users too much, you lose the opportunity for the synergies. Residents want to be in the mix they bought into,” says David Jackson, Cityscape Developments.

Some combinations just don’t work no matter what

“Most pure office-type tenants would not want to be in a building with cooking smells, a lot of traffic or after-hours groups,” says Rob Armstrong, managing director, Avison Young Toronto.

They’re not for every developer

“You don’t see a lot of mixed-use projects because most companies are capitalized to do their single-purpose specialty,” says Matthew Rosenblatt, Cityscape Developments.

You might need a partner

“Most developers specialize in one area and then they add the other component. But you can end up with something – retail or office or condos – that feels like it’s left over if you don’t work with a partner who knows that area,” says Mr. Klein.

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Came across this great article about Robert Fung in BC Business from a few months back.  Having worked with him quite closely over the summer, I can certainly affirm that he is not lacking in passion, vision and commitment.  It shows in each and every project!

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True or false: townhomes are better than high-rises at promoting community?

They look so inviting, our little versions of New York brownstones or Baltimore rowhouses: Vancouver’s trademark downtown townhomes, with their front doors opening to the street, their little patios carefully personalized with planters and decorative objets d’art, and their small flights of steps. They transform downtown streets from a dreary Towerville to a spot where Carrie Bradshaw and her friends might hang out.

Lawyer Grace Chen loves her place on Richards Street. As she and her boyfriend have often noticed, they talk to their neighbours much more often than when they lived in apartments. Somehow, says Chen, it’s easier to connect on the street or on their stoops than in a high-rise hallway or elevator. And the whole street feels more connected. On a sunny weekday afternoon recently, rivulets of walkers streamed down her street, one of the prime breeding grounds of the Vancouverist townhouse, some with strollers, some with briefcases, some with grocery bags as they strolled past. It looked like a scene of utopian livability—downtown urbanity as friendly village.

But oh dear, maybe not. These homes, which seem to induce such neighbourliness, are also oddly empty. There are patio chairs but no people, flowers but no children’s toys. Windows facing the sidewalk usually have their curtains drawn. And one urban researcher who’s explored the anthropology of the area suggests that although our townhouses look as though they have the power to generate a noticeable wave of bonding and sociability, they really don’t.

“The townhouses have a positive design impact. And they make the streets feel safe and lived in. But it’s a simulacrum of a neighbourhood,” says Peter Greenwell, a graduate of SFU’s Urban Studies program, who explored residents’ interactions with their Downtown South area and each other. He surveyed them about who they are, what they like about their neighbourhoods, and how much contact they have with the people who live around them. What he found from 22 in-depth interviews (representing about one-sixth of the 133 townhouses in his study) was that they have high incomes, travel, and are well educated. They love the convenience of living close to their work and some of them walk—the move to the inner city really did prompt many of them to give up second cars, and several told him that once the Canada Line opened, they’d give up their remaining vehicle.

But do they know their neighbours? Only half of respondents said they have any social interaction at all. And half of that contact happens only on the street. There’s a little more on their terraces, but very little in-home visiting. For Greenwell, who was then the director of the nearby Gathering Place, that was a disappointing surprise. “I found what I didn’t really want to know,” he says. He’d hoped that the new areas would foster a sense of community and connectedness that would help agencies like his work with residents on local social issues, like homelessness. “These townhouses, which are really Georgian knockoffs, where people can promenade—people really like them because they feel they’re in this safe, secure, neutral space. But in terms of living in the community, the townhouse as a place maker did not work.”

One of the city’s best-known townhouse residents begs to disagree. Larry Beasley, who as head of planning steered the city’s central-area development through the two decades after Expo 86, almost single-handedly created the downtown townhome. Beasley, who spent his toddler years in Savannah, Georgia, was imprinted early with the power of that form to create a sense of intimacy on the street. When he went to Europe in his 20s, he fell in love with rowhouses again. In Vancouver, as the condo boom got under way, he badgered developers to build townhouses at the base of their towers. A few developers tried them and saw that they sold, and they became part of the template for downtown housing developments.

Beasley agrees that they don’t necessarily foster a magical explosion of neighbourliness. But then, no housing form does by itself. Suburban developments can be just as anonymous, with their garage doors facing the street and their families isolated inside their McMansions and fenced yards.

“I think it’s an unrealistic expectation anywhere that you will know your neighbour just because you live next door,” says Beasley, who bought one of the first townhouses developed downtown, a 2,100-square-foot, three-storey spot on Hornby Street, which he has turned into something resembling a tiny, perfect Italian art museum. “We live in a community of interest and a community of geography. In these times, we’re more compelled by the community of interest.”

It’s important, he believes, that you have a sense of who your neighbours are—it helps reduce the sense of anonymity—but will those neighbours necessarily become part of your social circle?

As it happens, Beasley knows one of his neighbours well enough to have him over for dinner from time to time. As for the woman who’s lived two doors down the other way for the past 15 years, they wave and make nice, but he still doesn’t even know her name.

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