The Middle Ground

September 1, 2014

Triangle West, the patch of West Georgia from Bute to Coal Harbour, has the distinction of being the region’s densest neighbourhood. About 13 people live in the space a single-family house might take up, which is one thing for a few blocks of downtown, but what if such concentration weren’t the exception? What if you took that shimmering cluster of Qubes and Venuses and Palais Georgias, and reproduced it endlessly until you covered the entire city, eradicating every house, every low-rise block, every empty plot of land? By that math, Vancouver could become majestic, hyper-modern, truly global — a glittering centre of unending high-rises serving as home to more than four million.

 

We would, in theory, become the Shangri-La for the smaller-footprint crowd, having saved swaths of the region from development. The Agricultural Land Reserve could rest easy as pantry to the megalopolis. There would be a few problems, admittedly. Little room for jobs, which would mean finding a way to ship all the residents elsewhere to work. This building-covered land would create wind tunnels, storm-drainage problems, a heat-island effect. And it might not even be that environmentally friendly, what with the huge energy demands of towers, loaded with concrete, pumping water high into the air.

Of course, no one is proposing a Vancouver like this. But then again, no one seems to have a firm plan for something else. “We’ve been looking at a strategic approach for the next 30 years,” says Brian Jackson, Vancouver’s beleaguered general manager of planning. He’s got a list of where the 150,000 newcomers anticipated in the next three decades could squeeze in, as he tries his best to plan for a livable mix of houses, low-rise apartment blocks, and tower clusters: some thousands in laneway houses, duplexes, and three-storey apartments that are now allowed to double in height. “But 100,000 need to be accommodated in the rest of the city, and it won’t be in mid-rises, because we don’t want to impact our single-family areas.” That means high-rises, dense mini cities like the one planned for Oakridge Centre, which will smoosh about 2,900 units into 11 hectares. (That’s about the density of Triangle West.) But then, what about the next 150,000? And the 150,000 after that? “There will be changes by then, shifts in wealth, in technology,” Jackson says. In other words, there is no plan. Vancouver is not alone in that. The future of the region past 2040 is a black hole.

For most of its history, Vancouver grew by trickling outward. Then the West End began modestly to go up, and over the last quarter-century, the region has gone way, way up, higher every year, with downtown Vancouver leading the way. Many of the new residents discovered they love tower life, their aeries surrounded (in the best-planned areas) by a wealth of parks, restaurants, theatres, quirky stores. And those who lived elsewhere in Vancouver, who never saw development in their neighbourhood higher than four storeys, tolerated — even, perhaps, appreciated — the buzzy big-city energy of those distant towers.

But building towers on safely segregated industrial land, the strategy of the last 20 years in Vancouver, is no longer enough. Developers and city planners are turning to low-density neighbourhoods, from Marpole to Port Moody, for sizable developments, igniting hostility as insurgents oppose this tower or that revamped community plan. The fights degenerate into unresolved brawls — “You’re just a NIMBY and we’re saving the planet” versus “You’re evil developers who are just saving your own profits” — but they’re really about what Vancouver and the region will become. Denser, for sure. Dense like high-rise Singapore? Dense like Madrid or Stockholm or any number of European cities blanketed with six-to-eight-storey apartment blocks? Or dense in some other way that combines the North American archetype of traditional homes set in fields of green with the new vertical model?

Oliver Lang and Cindy Wilson, partners in life and in their architecture firm, are living in what they hope is a third way: the well-designed mid-rise. They argue that in its current form, Vancouver doesn’t adequately support this middle ground. “We have condominiums, mostly one-bedroom, and an industry geared to the first-time buyer or investor,” says Lang, one of the city’s more creative architects. “And then a sea of single-family houses that have also become an investment commodity.” Their own white-walled, light-filled apartment tops a four-storey condo project they built on a stretch of West Fourth. The narrow building, in a strip of more conventional low-rise new condos and older apartments, is on a standard single-family lot. But it feels different, its units stacked around an interior garden, a vine climbing up along a two-storey-high web, a rooftop deck. It’s the kind of building that Lang and Wilson think we could build hundreds of, working with, instead of against, the city’s many small lots along commercial streets — the kind of irregularly shaped lots that conventional developers say make it impossible to build mid-rise buildings efficiently. UBC professor Patrick Condon has made the case that all of the city’s new residents could be accommodated by mid-rises along the main streets — an idea that many planners say is impractical, since only about a quarter of land zoned for development gets rebuilt in any 25-year period. But Lang and Wilson have used the design solutions they came up with for their own building as a template for mid-rise infill on many sizes of lots, hoping they can promote a new way to develop. Their new eight-storey development on Broadway near Cambie will test it out on a larger scale.

The two are part of a group of builders — some mass producers, some boutique — trying to change the city’s pro-tower culture. “Why is the industry so hung up on towers? Because they learned how to build them cheaply and sell them quickly. They’re reluctant to change their model of development,” says Lang. Vancouver used to be good at low-rise apartments. Exhibits 1 through 5: Kitsilano, South Granville, Marpole, Mount Pleasant, Commercial Drive. But in the last two decades, the people at City Hall also got very efficient at processing towers, especially because the investment capital that poured into Vancouver during the 1990s and 2000s created a residential-tower industry that was larger than those in almost any other North American city. And we learned how to benefit. Vancouver has a system for negotiating with developers to get community-benefit contributions in exchange for additional density. It’s helped bring in millions of dollars for cultural spaces, subsidized housing, parks.

The city’s little-known builders of mid-rise and smaller — about 30 of them, led by Jake Fry of laneway-house fame — organized a meeting with Brian Jackson’s department in June to argue that city hall needs to develop expertise and efficiency at processing good mid-rise buildings and stop treating their projects like frills or hippie craftwork.

The city’s complex rules and long waits produce an unintended effect. “It encourages people to go big, if they’re going to spend that kind of time and money to get through,” says Bryan Reid at Kindred Construction, a mid-rise builder who was at the June meeting. He was asked by the owner of the Main Street properties near Broadway, destroyed by fire several years ago, about rebuilding with condos on top. The owner decided to stick with two storeys of commercial after hearing how long it would take to do more. That’s a handful of units lost, units that would have been popular and likely more affordable than anything in the soon-to-be-built Rize tower a block away. (Mid-rise, done with wood construction, is typically built for about $200 a square foot and sold for $500 to $600. Concrete high-rises cost $600 a square foot to build, and sell for anywhere from $800 to $1,200 a square foot — with the price going up as the view improves.) Multiply that all along the city’s main streets and it’s hundreds, thousands, of units lost. And those units are essential, say a cluster of planners, professors, and builders. Mid-rise buildings, with six or 12 or 36 units, make it easier for people to get to know each other and develop a sense of community than a tower with 300. Nearby residents are more prepared to accept them. They can be built at almost the same densities as towers. And, they argue, they’re lighter on the planet.

High-rise residential buildings have inspired violent reactions since they appeared in the early 20th century. It’s not as though humans hate tall things in general: we like pyramids and cathedrals, Eiffel Towers and Space Needles. The race to build skyscrapers in New York between the wars was a sign to many of what a modern city it was. But the residential high-rise — that was a different story. It’s not just that they became associated, in Europe and here, with the creation of vertical slums. UVic professor Robert Gifford spent a while looking at all the studies of human fears about high-rises. There are many. The buildings will fall down. They’ll become fire traps. They’re bad for children. They alienate their inhabitants. They’re crime and disease incubators. Gifford said the studies, from the 1950s on, prove almost nothing definitively, except that children who live on higher floors may be more prone to behaviour problems and slow motor-skills development, just because it is so time-consuming and onerous for parents to take them to play areas. Ultimately, he says, the characteristics of high-rise living depend on all kinds of factors: whether it’s wealthy people who live in them, how well they’re built, whether they’re enclaves set beside freeways or hubs embedded in a lively neighbourhood with street-level activity.

Towers have come to have other negative associations. In Toronto, developers gave them a bad name in the 1970s when they block-busted tracts of older homes to put up giant slabs. In Vancouver, the high-rise condo tower has become inextricably mixed up with many other anxieties percolating in the city: the breakneck speed of change; offshore investment and apartments left to sit empty while housing prices for real residents skyrocket; a lingering post-Occupy, anti-one-percent resentment. For some critics, they’re not even urban. Instead, towers are gated-community spires with downtown addresses.

But it’s the claim that they’re the best environmental solution that’s prompting the most questions these days — perhaps because the tower-builders have so insistently adopted an environmental rhetoric. “It is distressing to observe this uncritical acceptance of so many tall buildings, since from almost any perspective they are expensive, ecologically as well as economically — the two sorts of costs are intertwined,” writes Edmund P. Fowler, an energetic anti-high-rise campaigner in Toronto. Michael Mehaffy, a Portland architect and author of A Theory of Architecture, has also raised persistent questions about the benefits of high-rises. He cites a 2002 report from the United Kingdom House of Commons that concluded: “The proposition that tall buildings are necessary to prevent suburban sprawl is impossible to sustain. They do not necessarily achieve higher densities than mid- or low-rise development and in some cases are a less efficient use of space.” Mehaffy says people often look at places like New York and Vancouver, and assume that it’s their tall buildings that produce measurable green benefits. That’s a mistake. “It’s often overlooked that tall buildings are only a fraction of all structures in these places, with the bulk of neighbourhoods consisting of rowhouses, low-rise apartment buildings, and other lower structures. They get their low-carbon advantages not from density per se, but from an optimum distribution of daily amenities, walkability and access to transit, and other efficiencies of urban form.”

The key, then, is not towers. It’s organizing a city’s work, shopping, transit, housing, and schools so that people walk more, drive less, and use less energy. But, to achieve that, people in single-family neighbourhoods have to be willing to accept a combination of houses, low- and mid-rise apartment buildings, and towers. In the current combative climate, that laissez-build attitude seems unlikely. In Marpole, residents were prepared to go to war over the idea of having so much as duplexes or stacked townhouses. That kind of hair-trigger reaction makes developers and planners turn their attention to districts of less resistance, which only encourages subsequent resident groups to strike ever more anti-density poses.

There is always the possibility, though, that eventually this friction will fade away — not because Vancouver will find a balance, but because its residents will reimagine “home.” “How you were raised influences your perceptions,” says UVic’s Gifford. He grew up in a house; anything else feels uncomfortable. But many of his Asian students grew up in towers and feel the opposite. There are now 70,000 Vancouver households in buildings over four storeys and only 47,000 in single-family homes. Every year the gap grows a little more.

 

Scenes From a Mall

Shopping centres are losing their cachet as places for teenagers and offline merchandise to gather, but their greatest value may be in their outdoor lots, anyway. Here, just a few of the many projects under consideration or construction, densifying what was previously a parkade outside a Cinnabon

Oakridge Centre

 

A $1.5-billion civic centre with 10 towers and three low-rise will add 2,880 housing units and double the retail space of the existing mall built in 1956 in south Vancouver. Ivanhoe Cambridge/Henriquez Partners. Completion: 2024

Central City (Surrey)

 

Surrey Place Mall has been reimagined. Bing Thom’s master plan of Central City includes ZGF Cotter-designed 3 Civic Plaza (50 floors), which will have 349 condos by 2017; 10 more towers are being considered for the next decade

Brentwood One (Burnaby)

 

Massive redevelopment of Brentwood Town Centre (opened 1961) will see 291 homes in first tower, 63 storeys, completed 2017. Eleven more towers to follow. Shape Living/James K.M.
Cheng Architecture

The Residences at Park Royal (West Vancouver)

 

The White Spot at Park Royal South (completed 1962) would make way for two towers (24 and 17 storeys, 289 units) above a two-storey commercial podium. Larco Investments/Dialog Architects. Slated: mid 2017

Metrotown (Burnaby)

 

Station Square: five towers with a new high street and outdoor plaza. Adjacent: Sears has joined with Concord Pacific to build five more mixed-use, high-density residential towers. Across the street, Rize Alliance completes Goldhouse (41 and 26 storeys) this fall

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