Monday, 28 May 2012



 Don't worry.  If prices get too high we can always add more density

Five years ago I was invited to speak to Planners in  Copenhagen.   I had been one of the five Trustees who oversaw the redevelopment of Granville Island in the late 70s.   Copenhagen  had chosen Granville Island as a model for  Denmark's efforts in heritage renewal. They wanted to know how it was done.

Every couple of years some of the Danish planners are sent to  Vancouver  as part of this study.  After a visit two years ago, I took several of them for a tour of the City. They seemed overwhelmed by  the Southlands!  There are not many places where you can find a rural  area so close to the City Centre.

Maybe not for long. We are engaged in a fight over affordable housing and density. We are told  by  the drum majors for density that housing can only  be made affordable by jamming more people  into smaller spaces. 

The question is not whether  density in metropolitan Vancouver  will increase.  Of course it will.  Where and how it is to be added is the question.   We are told we face a choice between the Scilla of  Manhattan and the Charybdis of sprawling Los Angeles.

 Vancouver and the Region have until now rejected both  extremes.  For  half a  century the Greater Vancouver Regional District's  (now METRO)  Livable Region Plan  has called for the creation of not one dense core, but multiple high density nodes throughout the region. The Plan sought to balance office/ commercial uses with a full range of residential uses in order to minimize  commuting and to maintain amenities. 

Under this policy we encouraged massive growth in the downtown. Our population has more than doubled in the last twenty years. We allowed a huge increase in the West End, Coal Harbour, Yaletown and the South Side of False Creek. These are all well planned new communities. Density also increased in  Kerrisdale and Kitsilano. Vancouver  continues to allow high density development on already zoned corridors throughout the City that are well below capacity.

Unlike most American Cities however, Vancouver's dense central area is surrounded by contiguous, heavily treed single family areas. These are the lungs of the City and are already  dense compared to many  U.S. counterparts. The standard lot size is  a modest 33 feet frontage.  (I use the term "single family" in its nostalgic sense.  A few years ago Vancouver amended its zoning so that virtually all houses can have at least two separate dwelling units and sometimes two detached buildings per parcel.)

Instead of forcing Vancouver to spread out like  LA  or to become another Manhattan, the Livable Region Plan opted for a  series of cities and towns such as Delta, Surrey, New Westminster, Burnaby Coquitlam and others. Each has its own high density centre and adjacent low density neighborhoods. 

Politics makes strange developers.

Michael Geller is not the first developer to have his eyes on neighborhoods of detached homes.

Like a proctologist, he points a  finger at single family neighborhoods. Bend over! Assume the position! In dulcet tones he  assures us that our neighborhoods can be  "gently densified."  He suggests smaller lots, smaller houses, more units in houses, strata subdivision for laneway houses, strata titling of older homes. We won't feel a thing. In short they would become transitional zones on the way to dense development.  This reminds me of the old joke about a developer. The punch line is: " I think he is screwing us. I can feel it as plain as day."

We keep hearing from the politicians that this is being done in the name of winning some kind of a  Green Grand Prix. If anything. it is the opposite. Trees are being cut down by new development. Expensive houses in back yards produce their own green casualties on the landscaping they replaced. Lower priced rental suites are being lost. The amenity of neighborhoods is lost.

A person's choice of housing depends on  his or her stage in life.   Families with children, all things being equal, prefer detached homes with yards.  Having  detached homes near the core allows those residents who want to live in a house  to have a short commute to work.

Mr. Geller in his report noted that years ago one City Councilor  referred to tiny suites (which at the time violated code standards for livability) as "coffins."  That was me. I said it. I am opposed to substandard housing. 

Substandard housing is the market's response to substandard incomes. The City's job as regulator is to set standards that reflect our civilization,  culture and humanity. When the market can not meet acceptable standards then the government should  not leave it to the market. That is when government supported public housing is required.   

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