Posts Tagged ‘urban planning’

Stadiums do not bring economic benefits to cities – study

Saturday, February 2nd, 2013

Montreal stadium from Grimes' Oblivion

The following CBC article confirms what we’ve always known: sports stadiums simply do not deliver on their extravagant economic promises. Just as with casinos, the millionaire proponents of stadiums always claim that these big arenas will make a city rich. But just as with casinos:
1. stadiums do not in fact bring any appreciable economic benefits to a region, and yet
2. the general public (led by the media) persists in believing the wildly overoptimistic forecasts of said millionaire proponents.

So now that we finally have data suggesting that sports stadiums bring no significant economic benefit, we need to demand that they no longer be funded with taxpayers’ money. If millionaire/billionaire team owners want a stadium so badly, they can build it on their own dime.

In Vancouver, we just spent $600 million on the renovation (involving mainly a retractable roof with multiple problems) of a publicly-owned stadium that was already losing money and has in fact hemmorhaged money annually since it was built at taxpayer expense for Expo 86. Fortunately it has just been announced this latest public spending boondoggle is being audited by BC’s Auditor General, but my guess is we’ll never get to the bottom of the project’s Hollywood accounting and construction contracts for friends of the current government. Meanwhile, who are the beneficiaries? One group only: the millionaire owners of the BC Lions and Vancouver Whitecaps who freely use the stadium but don’t even come close to making up for its shortfall. And who suffers? The citizens of British Columbia do, and in more than one way. If you’re interested in where much of the money came from when the massive BC Place Stadium roof reno went overbudget, look at these abrupt cuts to BC charities, including the arts.

For more useful evidence see some striking studies done in Toronto: cultural tourism brings in NINE TIMES the money to cities as sports tourism (and gambling is even lower down the scale). We need to break the illusion and quit these debt-ridden, dystopian megaprojects. That pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? It’s a mirage. A few construction jobs in the short term, and some union food service jobs in the long term, don’t even begin to make these these giant expenditures worthwhile.

Article is below, and I’ve reprinted some of the article’s many excellent reader comments as well.

All images of Montreal’s stadium  are screenshots taken from the video for Oblivion by Vancouver’s Grimes. Oblivion was named #1 single of 2012 by Pitchfork.

Montreal stadium from Grimes video "Oblivion"

Why funding new sports stadiums can be a losing bet

Building stadiums and arenas have little economic benefits for cities, research shows

When people hear of plans to bring a new stadium or arena to their city, they typically envision the stands packed with loyal sports fans, restaurants filled with eager diners from out of town and local hotels bustling with travellers there to see the big game.

That’s what the cities of Edmonton and Markham, Ont., are counting on — both have just green-lighted public funding towards multimillion-dollar arena projects, in the hopes of creating new jobs and drawing in extra visitors.

Edmonton has approved a deal with the owner of the Oilers for the proposed $480-million downtown arena, while many in Markham, Ont., located just north of Toronto, are hoping their planned 20,000-seat rink will be bait for a new NHL franchise.

Both cities will likely be disappointed with the economic outcome, if past research is any indication.

The vast majority of studies done on the financial benefits of new sporting facilities by researchers not connected to any sport, league, or team have not found any economic boost for cities, experts say.

“Most of the independent research can’t find any economic impact associated with either new arenas, new stadiums, or new franchises or large events,” said Victor Matheson, a professor of economics at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Ma., who has been researching the economics of sport for more than a decade.

“So, building a new arena doesn’t seem to have any effect on a city’s employment, per capita income, hotel occupancy rates, [or] taxable sales.”

Economic benefits greatly exaggerated

And for those cities that do see a business bump from hosting sporting events, it’s a fraction of what is touted, he added.

Matheson cited a study he conducted in the U.S. that examined cities that hosted the Super Bowl between 1970 and the mid-2000s. His analysis found that the mega-sporting event was associated with an increase in income in each city of roughly $30 million to $90 million US.

“That’s positive, but that’s also between one-quarter and one-tenth of what the [National Football] League says,” Matheson said.

Very little Canadian sports economic research has been conducted, Matheson said, in part because many researchers in this field are south of the border, and because of the ease of access to data there.

But one 2005 study, conducted by University of Ottawa researchers, looked at the economic impact of professional sports teams on hotel occupancy rates between 1990 and 1999 in eight Canadian cities, including Toronto, Edmonton and Montreal.

The research, published in the Journal of Sports Economics, found that in 11 out of 17 cases, when a city with a major league franchise goes through a period without a team — due to a league lockout, for example, or when a team such as the Winnipeg Jets leaves — it “had no statistically significant impact” on the hotel occupancy rates in that city.

80% of ticket sales come from within the community

One of the issues is that consumers have a relatively fixed budget for their leisure activities. So, money spent on a hockey game could be cash that would have been used to, say, pay for a round of golf or to watch a basketball game.

“While local businesses may see an increase in sales around the stadium, it’s sales and money that would have been spent in other parts of the community, for the most part,” said Richard Powers, a lecturer at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. “So they’re just redirecting it into a certain area.”

As for attracting outside interest, studies show that just 20 per cent of the sporting event tickets are bought by people who live elsewhere, added Powers.

With little economic benefit, the hefty amount of money coming out of city coffers to fund these shiny new facilities is “hard to justify if other infrastructure projects are being put on hold,” he added.

Most stadium and arena projects have been financed with public money, which often leave taxpayers in the city or municipality on the hook for several years.

One example is the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal. It took three decades for Quebec taxpayers to pay off the $1.5 billion Cdn debt from that venture. The astronomical cost — funded with 30-year bonds — included building Olympic Stadium, the Olympic village, a post-modern apartment building complex, the Velodrome and other facilities.

The 58,500-seat Olympic Stadium eventually became the home of the Montreal Expos, until the Major League Baseball team was sold to Washington, D.C., in 2004. The facility’s lingering debt earned it the nickname the “Big Owe.”

“We had Montreal citizens paying off the last of those bonds, paying off the ‘Big Owe’ after the Montreal Expos had already left town,” said Matheson.

Projects often go over initial budget estimate

In Markham, a city of about 300,000 people, the proposed arena is estimated to cost $325 million. Half of the money will come from private sources, namely the Remington Group, and the other half will be generated through a levy on newly built homes, townhouses and condominiums.

In Edmonton, the proposed arena will cost roughly $480 million — $143 million put up by Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz, $219 million coming from the city and $114 million coming from other levels of government. A ticket surcharge is expected to raise another $125 million.

An artist’s rendition of the proposed arena for Edmonton. (City of Edmonton/Canadian Press)
The initial budgets for both of these arenas are likely conservative estimates, said Powers.

“They have a price tag right now, but again, if you were going to sell something, you’re going to put it as low as you can… And we know what happens in these projects. They are notorious for cost overruns.”

In some cases, going over budget is legitimate, he said. The projects take several years to build, and over that time, economic conditions, the cost of labour and the value can change. But, either way, it is often the municipality left with the bill when the project goes over budget, Powers said.

Hidden costs

Beyond the outlay of funds to build the stadium, there are costs related to subsidies and concessions given to the team owner, says Matheson.

For example, it is common for franchise owners to negotiate a deal with a city to not pay property tax on the land or facility, he said.

“Had that land instead been given to a shopping mall developer, that would have obviously generated property taxes and other types of sales and use taxes. That is now forgone.”

There is also the loss in taking public money away from other projects that would also benefit the community.

“Where are you diverting cash from? What other infrastructure projects that would be benefiting the community are being cancelled or put on hold?” Powers said.

There are indirect benefits, however, of a new sports facility to the surrounding community that can’t be quantified.

Having a local team to cheer on, and new amenities, can help boost the well-being and sense of civic pride among local residents.

“There are positives to it,” said Powers. “You know there’s community pride, there’s certainly a rallying point around a team. But are the costs worth it?… Ask people what they would rather do: have a stadium or a rapid transit system? I think you’ll find that most people would go for the rapid transit system.”

Cautionary tales

That being said, there are examples of sporting projects that did continue generating revenue, such as the facilities built as part of the Calgary 1988 Olympics, he added.

But the bulk have produced little economic benefit, or are major losses. One recent cautionary tale is the new Marlins Park baseball stadium in Miami.

Miami-Dade County taxpayers paid for most of the $634 million US required to build it. However, to start construction, the city took out a loan, and the city will end up repaying roughly $2.4 billion US over 40 years, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Even so, cities are still clamouring to build their own mega-sporting projects.

One reason is that sporting leagues have been “pretty smart about playing cities off of each other,” said Matheson.

Teams can threaten to move their franchises unless they get a new facility, for example.

“All of these leagues are pretty good at keeping up a monopoly, and limiting the number of franchises, which makes franchise relocation a real, credible threat,” he said.

Also, team owners or promoters have vested interests, he added.

“Just because an arena or stadium isn’t good for a city as a whole doesn’t mean it’s not great for a franchise owner,” he said. “And the franchise owner has a real incentive to try to lobby hard for that.”

Another reason could be that the perceived economic boost — a flurry of ticket sales and a bump in spending near the arena — comes long before the debt problems are apparent, said Mike Moffat, an assistant professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario.

“It is a little bit puzzling,” he said. “I think part of the problem is that the big problems tend to come 15, 20, 25 years down the line, at which point the mayor has retired. But the benefits come up front.”



Selected comments: 

Tridus: “It’s a great bet, if you’re the billionaire team owner or millionaire players that benefit from it. It’s a pretty lousy bet if you’re a taxpayer struggling to make ends meet, since you get the privilege of subsidizing the billionaire and millionaires.”

PlainTalk: “Wow ………I am amazed at this study. I always thought the opposite and that sports stadiums were a gigantic boost to the local economy. Assuming this article is valid and I have no reason not to, building sports arenas should not be done at the taxpayers expense. We have far more important things to deal with than arenas.”

HolyMacinaw: “Nah, the infrastructure doesn’t need attention, lets build an arena for the few privileged and blame the province or feds when our pipes burst. Enough of the pet projects.”

Neil Gregory: “A few of us have been saying this for years, but until recently have always been shouted down. It really is a great feeling to discover that we were right all along. There is NO WAY IN HELL that ordinary citizens should be saddled with the expense of building and maintaining these playpens for a few rich yuppy puppies or so that some city politician can place a siil bet with some other city politician on the outcome of a game. Let the owners, the players and the foolish fans pay for their stadiums and arenas.”

kannuc: “the most sucessful sports franchises own their facilities, teams like Manchester United, Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees. So when a team like the Oilers demand a new arena from the host city or they leave town, Edmonton should tell them “don’t let the door hit you on the way out”. A good hockey town shouldn’t worry about not having a franchise and question the economical viability of the current owner.”

Arctic Dude: “Please see the stories about collusion and graft and corruption between contractors, organized crime and local and provincial governments that is occurring everywhere in this country.”

Montreal stadium from Grimes video "Oblivion"

Oh, and by the way? A new Vancouver Art Gallery would have far more economic justification than any casino or stadium. Such institutions are proven to attract more visitors—and those visitors are from a particular class of educated, wealthy tourist who spends far more per visit than any other tourist type.

Radiant City – entertaining critique of the suburbs of Calgary and beyond

Saturday, August 18th, 2012

Radiant City is an entertaining 2006 Canadian film written and directed by Calgary filmmaker Gary Burns  (Kitchen Party, Suburbanator, Way Downtown) and Jim Brown. The  film focus on the Moss family, who introduce us to the brand new suburb they have recently settled in. You can watch the whole NFB film here.

Toronto urban designer Ken Greenberg appears, as well as Mark Kingwell, Beverly Sandalack, James Howard Kunstler (The Geography of Nowhere, Long Emergency), Andrés Duany and other urban experts.


“80% of everything ever built in North America has been built in the last 50 years. And most of it is brutal, depressing, ugly, unhealthy and spiritually degrading. The plastic commuter tract home wastelands, the Potemkin village shopping plazas with their vast parking lagoons, the gourmet mansardic junk food joints, the Orwellian office parks featuring buildings sheathed in the same reflective glass as the sunglasses worn by chain gang guards. The whole agoraphobia-inducing toxic brutal spectacle that politicians like to call “growth” …

“Suburbia disaggregates the elements of everyday life so that you have to drive from one to the other.”


On Rize (Or Forcing A Luxury Highrise On A Neighbourhood That Really Doesn’t Want It)

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

UPDATE: This disastrous, precedent-setting development was passed by our City Council, dominated by supposedly “green” Vision Vancouver, in a 9-1 vote.  It was not sent back to design; only vague requests to the developer to make it smaller and less ugly were uttered. They mean nothing and have no weight; they were only meant to appease community rage. The only vote against was from Councillor Adriane Carr, the sole Green councillor on Council. Which is ironic, don’t you think?

Please not that the developer, Rize Alliance, made campaign donations to Vision Vancouver and it seems likely there were favours above and beyond recorded donations, as this is the way it works. We need electoral reform in this province IMMEDIATELY. City Councillors should not be considering development applications from the developers who donate to their campaigns. I supported candidate Sandy Garossino in the November 2011 civic election not just because she’s at least as good a candidate as all the others (that’s putting it mildly), but because she refused all campaign donations from developers. And I know for a fact that she was offered money by many developers. Vancouverites should be prepared to fight for electoral reform. In the meantime it should also prepare to fight the next tower/podium to be forced on its neighbourhoods. The development industry can’t win the next one.


This post is about a proposed luxury highrise development known as “Rize” (no comment on the name) in the heart of Vancouver’s historic Mt. Pleasant district. Like many other Vancouverites I see this development as setting a very worrying precedent for the city if it goes ahead. The desire to maximize profits off every plot of land in the city in an unchecked manner has contributed to a massive level of unaffordability and a climate of hot property speculation. This intrusive, tall luxury condo sitting on blocky big-box stores will bring this development behaviour out of Vancouver’s downtown core and into a vulnerable residential district.

[If you live in Vancouver and care about the way this city is increasingly un-piloted now that developers run the place, NOW is the time to write your letter. It’s easy—even one sentence is enough. Click here to send an email to Vancouver’s mayor and council. Just say no.]

Before I start, please see the following arguments against this development, far more authoritative than my own:

• Visit the RAMP (Residents Association of Mount Pleasant) website for many excellent resources on this topic.

Letter by Glenn Alteen, Exec. Dir. of the Grunt Gallery in Mt. Pleasant

Letter by Brian McBay and Allison Collins of 221A Artist-run Centre

Letter from Lorna Brown, Vancouver curator and Director of Other Sights

Letter by Federal MP Libby Davies & BC MLA Jenny Kwan

• Comments by Journalist Frances Bula and also read the comments by Vancouverites experienced in planning issues

• “What the hell is going on in this city?” by developer Michael Geller

• “Unaffordable, that’s what you are” by Sandy Garossino (on general unaffordability issues)


Many Vancouverites have made excellent and detailed arguments regarding technical planning and zoning matters. I don’t need to reiterate those here, even if I could. They are all available on the RAMP Residents Association of Mount Pleasant website and in the arguments above. Instead I would like to address the way broader problems afflicting our City bear upon the Rize application:


I’ve only opposed Vancouver developments twice. I’m not sure it’s a coincidence that both were in the last year. Vancouver is a turning point. Not only is it famously, drastically unaffordable, but developers have run out of empty industrial land in the downtown core and are greedily eyeing old neighbourhoods. Furthermore developers have an unprecedented stranglehold over City Hall.

I should also note that this is the second time I’ve opposed a rezoning that Vancouverites overwhelmingly don’t want, an unpopular development that looks like a done deal before it’s even been properly presented to the public. The first was a mega-casino proposed for downtown. The second is “Rize.”

My objection is exactly the same for Rize as it was for the Edgewater mega-casino that I helped defeat last year. The supposed community consultation process is a manifest failure. Had it successfully encapsulated community values there would not have been historic and widespread opposition to this proposal. Dramatic shifts in zoning allowances should only come with a mandate from the community. That is missing here.

It’s the lack of sincere, effective consulation that has led to this pitched battle with the developer. The behaviour of the developer is not surprising; branding oneself a “community developer” and then calling the community NIMBYs when they oppose your plan is what you would expect a profit-maximizing developer to do. Despite the developer’s cynical chess game, the problem is fundamentally a failure at the City level. We need a better process for the sake of everyone involved. Does City Council—and do developers—really want to run the gauntlet of an irate community with every spot zoning? Should the community have to spend thousands of hours fighting wrong-headed developments that don’t serve their needs? This is fantastically expensive, undemocratic, and politically incendiary. Mt. Pleasant is Ground Zero of Vision Vancouver voters. Do they really want to risk their Van East base?

And as many have argued, there are better ways of building the city. If developers were made to work with the community from Day 1, made to find out what it is the community actually needs, both sides would benefit. Ward 20 in Toronto works this way; if a developer’s project wins early community approval, it is fast-tracked through City Hall’s permits process. Did the community consultation process impede development in Ward 20? No. That single Toronto ward enjoys the most development East of Winnipeg. And it won both development and community happiness in one go. Ours is not an anti-development, NIMBY position. It’s the position of people who would like to have a say in what building forms and housing supplies are plonked in their neighbourhood. Quite frankly, “NIMBY” ought to refer to the behaviour of those who don’t actually have to live around the consequences of their actions. Or around the impoverished architecture they’re forcing on others.

The only healthy end to this proposal is to listen to the community, send the project back to the design stage, and lower its height to a level the community can tolerate. 8-10 storeys. Remove some parking, remove the big box stores and the loading bay threatening historic Watson Street’s pedestrian and cycling life.

And then fix your consultation process, City Hall!


Is this the right development for this neighbourhood, let alone this city? Do we need more luxury (ie. view) housing in this town, let alone highrises? No. As a friend of mine pointed out, all this talk of “supply” solving the unaffordability problem ignores basic economics. Remember market segmentation in Economics 101? Making more Lexuses simply does not bring down the price of a Prius or a family minivan. The supply we have been producing is expensive view properties in tall towers. However I notice the supply talk is becoming more muted, and maybe this is because the community is cottoning on. I certainly hope so, because we have to quickly face the fact that 20 intensive years of condo tower production has only been concurrent with skyrocketing property prices, not more affordability. How do the proponents of more towers explain this? It’s no coincidence.

In Vancouver, condos are widely considered to be great places to park money. They’re too small to park families, but they’re a great place to put your cash. And the more we build of them, the more appetite grows for them as investment units, for both locals and foreigners. Add to this the complete and unusual lack of regulations on property buying in Vancouver, and you have a perfect speculation climate.

Furthermore, towers do not add the density percentage their proponents claim. Local experts say towers don’t actually house very many people for all their impact on a community, including skyrocketing property prices. Vancouver’s West End, when it was lower rise, had 21,000 people. Then it went to towers, and now it’s only 32,000. Not even double, yet the effect on property values has been deleterious.

Glass towers are not green, Vision Vancouver. They’re cheap for developers to build, but they are not sustainable. The claim that they are is a canard, and in the last year alone visiting architects from Harvard and across Europe have shaken their head at what’s going on in Vancouver. See this post on why these towers are not green: The End of the Age of Tall Buildings.

Condo towers were fine downtown perhaps (though as it turns out their production has undoubtedly fuelled speculation, and I’m not going to get into the problems experienced by our downtown tower neighbourhoods). At least we tolerated them there, green or not, livable or not. They were built on relatively empty industrial land. But now that these downtown lands have filled up, the megadevelopers who built that forest of glass towers wants to push them into existing neighbourhoods. Problem is, every time a tall tower is built, there is an immediate rise in surrounding property values, taxes and rents. This could quickly make every old neighbourhood in the city that much more unaffordable.

In the midst of what is either a bubble, or not a bubble but perpetually skyrocketing prices (and it’s hard to say which scenario is worse), introducing more luxury condo development into neighbourhoods already facing real dislocations due to rising prices is unwise.

Mount Pleasant is forward-looking. Unlike all neighbourhoods in Vancouver’s tonier West Side, Mount Pleasant made the bold step of agreeing in its community plan to accept more density. But when it gave an inch, developers attempted to take a mile. We are asking City Council to check the kind of profit-maximizing opportunism that got us into this affordability mess in the first place. There is a way of doing development that works for both developers and communities—but it’s City Hall that must lead the way. Developers will follow.


What’s the City’s objective? It’s to increase density & increase supply of affordable housing. But given the reality that the community overwhelmingly hates towers in its historic neighbourhoods for a number of good reasons, can density & supply be increased in some other way? Yes. It can.

The other night we heard urban design expert Lewis Villegas show how we can do plenty of density without towers and that city hall’s own provision to put mid-height development along arterials has never been acted upon. Why not?

I have assembled a list of developments worldwide, including in expensive cities, that fit into the category of density but at a lower human scale and that ensure a degree of affordable housing. It will feature in an upcoming post (will link to it here).

Thanks to Vancouver’s famous speculative climate, Mount Pleasant already contains a huge stock of houses over $1 million. The more units it adds at the higher end—such as luxury view properties with high ceilings and fancypants amenities and parking—the more you drive prices up.

As Jane Jacobs advised, let’s do density properly. Let’s see lower building height (as is seen all over Europe), less parking, fewer luxury amenities, and a wise, attractive manner of fitting buildings into existing local history and texture. We can still get an astonishing amount of density while avoiding distorted real estate economics and aesthetic ruination.


Councillor Tim Stevenson and others have been talking about the West End: its successes, its heights and its density. They are comparing Rize to the West End as a means of promoting Rize’s proposed design. However, this comparison is based on a lack of understanding of Vancouver’s history. The West End was carefully developed over many decades. The development was carefully stewarded by the city with distinct policies ensuring affordable rental, and it was done in an orderly manner—carefully stepped back from the water and generally well-planned. The West End’s livability today is a result of that careful vision enforced out of City Hall. That is not even close to what we are seeing here.


I am very worried about the unprecedented, rapid defection of cultural workers from Vancouver. At least 45 friends and colleagues have left in the last couple of years, taking with them experience, training and education. BC invested in those assets which now benefit Berlin, New York, Toronto, LA, Calgary. We now even have a wave of people going to Saskatchewan—and they’re not even originally from Saskatchewan. And I should point out that my comments on brain drain aren’t relevant only to the arts or to our narrow sectoral interests. It’s just that the arts are the canary in the coalmine. The flood of talent out of Vancouver, which is worryingly twinned with our failure to attract new talent here, is tied to Vancouver’s status as one of the most unaffordable cities in the world relative to median income. When things get unlivable, artists tend to leave first, because they already tend to live very close to the financial wire. Stressed too far, they leave. And then others follow.

What’s distinct about creative brain drain, however, is that it has a serious impact on the whole city. It’s well documented that you can’t diversify an urban economy in a city without cultural vibrancy. In Vancouver we have a double problem: not only do new businesses not set up cities without housing affordability, they don’t set up in cities without busy cultural life. Some may say we’re plenty culturally vibrant, but quite frankly, they don’t see the cracks in the facade. We may still have arts organizations here, but they are almost all carrying massive deficits that grow every year, and unaffordability is a contributing factor. Not only are their own spaces expensive to maintain, but Vancouverites spend so much on rent or mortgage that they simply don’t have enough disposable income left to support arts in any significant way. Revenues and employment have fallen as a result. Individual artists, musicians, curators, arts workers and academics are leaving in droves. They’re the people who actually produce a region’s culture—and remember that they produce much of our shared culture mostly on their own dime. The brain drain has become so noticeable even the mainstream press is covering it now. Ask any cultural worker why he or she is leaving; they’ll all tell you the main reason is lack of appropriate, affordable housing and studio space. That’s another thing: most of the great old buildings that art’s generally made in—new ideas need old buildings, as Jane Jacobs said—have been demolished or converted into condos thanks to the investment market.

What does this have to do with Mt. Pleasant? Well, unlike Vancouver’s West Side, Mt. Pleasant is one of Vancouver’s cultural incubators. This has been true for many, many decades. The Western Front, the Grunt Gallery and many other venues, organizations and artists live and work in this neighbourhood. Much of Vancouver’s huge international fame in visual arts (a fame that sadly goes unnoticed in Vancouver) was gestated in Mt. Pleasant. Many of its non-art residents live there for that reason (look at the West Side: utterly sterile, culturally, if you exclude UBC). Mount Pleasant is a neighbourhood that deserves some protection from opportunistic production of luxury housing in the middle of an affordability crisis. Other cities do this; why is this carelessness rampant in Vancouver? Do we have no cultural pride?


I want City Council to be true, intelligent city builders, not rubber stampers for the very development industry that is choking every other sector out of our city. Its collusion with property speculation has produced an unaffordability that has made every other sector non-viable. The West End isn’t a successful neighbourhood today because City Hall just allowed a rampant free market to do as it would. It’s livable because City Hall interceded in the market to create livable, affordable housing. City Council, please work with your new Director of Planning—and I sure hope you find someone visionary, not just someone obedient—to find a workable consultation and development process, and to find a way to have smaller developers build a myriad of smaller developments affordable for families and couples and workers and seniors. Start with Rize. Send it back for a new design, and ask for a reasonable scale and housing that makes sense for the community. The developer can and will do this if you tell it to. It will find a way to make money. Developers always do.

Lastly, the idea of removing parking from the building altogether has been bandied about. Our City Council claims to be green. Take out the glass tower, take out the parking. I dare it to be that green.

Above, the pedestrian-unfriendly, big box store-containing monolith. It will also destroy historic Watson St, currently a cycle street, with truck loading bays for the big box stores at street level.

Postscript: Urban expert Lewis Villegas gave a good talk a couple of weeks ago outlining a better plan for densification in Vancouver, using many illustrations of successful low level density from other cities in North America and beyond. He proposes the following model:


1. Measure density at the scale of the Walkable Neighbourhood or Quartier

2. Devise a new “Vancouver Special”: fee-simple, high-density, human scale (not currently allowed in Vancouver. Often seen in Quebec City).

3. Design streets and squares to support social functioning.

4. Transportation: add trips, remove cars, revitalize streets

5. Regional Transportation: deliver affordable housing


Geoffrey West: The surprising math of cities and corporations

Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

Geoffrey West: The surprising math of cities and corporations. How come it’s so hard to kill a city?

There is an interesting discussion of West’s idea in the NYT. I find them interesting, but unclear on the implications for the increasing appetite for new resources. As West points out himself, the resource/depletion/new resource revolutions are accelerating. What next?


Plea for low-rise density & lament for Chinatown

Friday, April 29th, 2011

Photo of Athens condo tower, via the highrise-loving blog skyscrapercity. Athens has now put a stop to highrises and is sticking with low-rise density. Is the above what we want for our Chinatown?

Vancouver City Council recently decided to allow towers in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown. Not only will this push traditional residents out of the area, but it will destroy one of the oldest heritage areas of this very young city. Contrary to what the developers would have us believe, towers are neither more dense nor more green, and yet our supposedly green City Council with its “Greenest City Initiative” is letting developers build these things willy nilly.  I expect the fight is not over. We will see people lying in front of bulldozers.

Vancouver’s Chinatown features some stunning buildings—among the oldest buildings in the city, some with 1886 engraved on their faces—and it has a unique residential character and population. Other than naked profit, there’s no reason why its densification and renewal couldn’t happen at a lowrise level consistent with its current face. Many have tried to get heritage designation for the area from the federal government, to pave the way for UNESCO World Heritage Site designation (which would immediately attract tourists from China and which in general radically increases tourism), but clearly development forces have been blocking this plan behind the scenes. Now the real estate gold rush that Council seems unwilling to rein in is set to ruin one of the last low-rise dense areas of the downtown, despite the fact that the green architecture community is increasingly warning that towers don’t make a city either green or livable. This is hereby a plea for Council to move back to a plan for low-rise density in Vancouver. Developers promulgate the idea that high towers are greener and denser only in order to maximize profits on each building footprint. The architectural and social record of these mega-developers in Vancouver is atrocious. No trading for amenities will make up for these height relaxations. What we actually need are more, smaller developers and developments. How many times are people going to have to point out that many older, lower European cities have greater density at lower heights (max 6-8 storeys)?  I’m reprinting (with permission) a blog comment by Adam Hyslop in Vancouver on this topic:

The environmental and social benefits of higher density development can be achieved through a variety of building forms (townhouses, mid-rise apartments, laneway housing, etc) that don’t drastically change the character of a neighbourhood. Equating density directly with height is a common misconception. Many European cities have densities much higher than downtown Vancouver without having any high-rises at all. Height limits exist for a reason; high-rises done poorly can have very dramatic livability impacts. There are also diminishing returns (in terms of environmental and social benefits) as you go higher. For example, wood-framed construction can now go as high as 6 storeys, avoiding GHG-intensive concrete.

The City’s current zoning bylaw allows them to get community amenities (parks, schools, community centres, etc) partially funded by development through the rezoning process and through density bonusing. This is an important funding source that would be lost if all restrictions were lifted. The City’s EcoDensity program and land use policies do advocate for increased densities and a lot has been done already. All single family zoned areas, for example, can now legally include basement suites or separate laneway housing for rent.

Being strategic about where we target higher densities is also important (around rapid transit stations, near high concentrations of jobs, etc.). Putting a bunch of highrises out in the middle of nowhere won’t have any environmental benefits since their residents will still end up driving everywhere.

Ensuring a mix of housing types and tenures in all neighbourhoods, with a focus on higher-density affordable housing and rental suites should be the focus, not just opening the flood gates on high-rise construction.

Chinatown Vancouver 2

Chinatown Vancouver 2

Lastly, WE NEED PROPERTY SPECULATION TAX IN THIS PROVINCE! Hong Kong, Singapore, and Australia all have such a tax. These Vancouver developers are all just real estate gold rush speculators. The problem is, Vancouver isn’t a remote gold claim. We have to live here.

For another example of a building that towers over all its neighbours, also a product of wild fortunes but in a different way, click here.

We won! No mega-casino in Vancouver

Monday, April 25th, 2011

Aerial photo of Vancouver, BC Place Stadium site

We won!  The monstrous, 1500-slot-machine gambling palace planned for downtown Vancouver is dead. Now the city must decide what it wants to see there instead, on that large question mark of land. The BC government owns that land, and ideally the City of Vancouver will now pressure it to come up with something more forward-looking and less iniquitous for that site. A majority of Vancouverites have now made it clear that expanded state-sanctioned gambling isn’t part of their vision for this town. People are starting to realize that as an industry, gambling doesn’t create value or wealth, it just moves money around via a predatory, regressive tax on the poor and afflicted. They get that it’s the opposite of good government, let alone good urban planning, and they think a giant square black box in the downtown core—some of our supporters called the design a “mega deathstar”—is a joke.

Vancouver tends to have amnesia, so it’s worth pointing out that Vancouverites have defeated bad mega-projects before. In 1994, a well-organized group of citizens killed an equally cheesy Vegas mega-casino on the waterfront.* Earlier, in 1967, another major citizen offensive defeated a disastrous freeway plan, making us one of the few cities in North America without freeways in the city core. Both of these plans were said to be “done deals,” yet citizens went ahead and undid them. If Vancouver deserves any part of its “most livable city in the world” title, it’s in part thanks to informed citizen action. It was exhilarating to us that members of both those earlier fights came forward to help us with ours.

At the ‘Vancouver Not Vegas’ casino victory party on Saturday, held at this studio, internationally renowned Vancouver architect Bing Thom spoke about the need for decisions to come from below in this city, not from above, and he hoped that neighbourhoods and citizens would take some power back from those who control City Hall. Expecting politicians and developers to dream up an imaginative future city on their own is a long wait for a train that won’t come.

The site in question is one of the last pieces of empty real estate in the city, and no doubt the powers above will try to do something dark and tasteless with it. The City did give it permission to move the existing, smaller casino there, as a concession, but that will be an uphill battle because they’ll have to consult with the public on that again, according to BC Gaming Policy law (something all the City Hall-watching bloggers don’t seem to have grasped). Still, the relocation is worrying, because governments and their casino friends (always big political donors) never cease trying to expand gambling. Anyway, whatever these guys propose, we will be watching. We will not certainly not support any re-emergence of the same mega-deathstar design with its massive blocky podium. That design is an architectural abomination and a permanent invitation to future gaming expansion. Vancouver is supposed to be a walkable, street-level-friendly, cycling city, not a city of block-long, faceless gambling prisons. See renowned Vancouver architect Peter Busby and ex-City Planning head Penny Gurstein‘s arguments on that topic.

We hope Vancouver keeps up its loyal support of the Vancouver Not Vegas coalition. More than 150 of you showed up to speak to City Council on this topic, in a record-breaking consultation process, and more than 500 of you wrote letters. Thank you! Without you, we’d have achieved exactly nothing, and we may still need your vigilance.

We also hope that more people join civic fights. It’s worth it. If you are in design or architecture, it indicates to people that your outlook is courageous rather than just mercenary, and everyone knows on a gut level that courage is key to aesthetics.

We are pretty disappointed with certain powerful individuals who said no to lending us their names. You will see them by their absence. To see the scores who did join, view our right-hand masthead at If Arthur Erickson were alive, he’d have joined us in an instant.

BC Place Casino Site

Lastly, many are saying that City of Vancouver Planning Director Brent Toderian should leave after supporting this ill-conceived casino plan so enthusiastically. Its business rationale has now been completely discredited as Hollywood accounting (that’s putting it politely), its design is widely mocked, its social blight completely excoriated by top medical health officials, and Toderian’s own report on the casino was poorly researched and executed. People feel the same way about the City Manager. Vancouver deserves better performance than this.

Thanks to my teammates and friends Sandy Garossino, Andy Yan, Bing Thom, Peter Ladner, Ian Pitfield, Judy Rudin, James Johnstone, Tom Durrie, Amir Ali Alibhai, Sean Bickerton, Susan Marsden, Diana Lam, Colleen (Hardwick) Nystedt, Ann Gibbon, Katherine Wellburn, Alix Brown, and every other name on our masthead, and all the friends who supported us and made us dinner.

Readers, I’m surprised you are still visiting this site despite its obsession with this local campaign and despite its patchy publication history over the past 8 months. Thanks for reading.

Proposed Vancouver mega-casino

* It’s interesting that the 1994 mega-casino was promoted by David Podmore too. He’s currently the chair of PavCo.