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:
CONSULTATION & LACK THEREOF
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!
LUXURY CONDOS AND SPECULATION
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.
THERE IS MORE THAN ONE WAY OF DOING DENSITY
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.
FALSE COMPARISONS TO VANCOUVER’S WEST END
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.
ARTS: WHICH WILL IT BE—DIVERSIFICATION OF VANCOUVER’S ECONOMY, OR BRAIN DRAIN?
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?
CITY HALL SHOULD BE CITY BUILDERS, NOT RUBBER STAMPERS
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:
NEW PLANNING PARADIGM:
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