Vancouver City Planners need guts to chart a dynamic new direction

Tuesday, February 28th, 2006


VANCOUVER SUN FILES The seawall along False Creek is just one of the attractions drawing people to choose a downtown lifestyle.

Eric Carlson

Trevor Boddy raises some fine issues. Unfortunately, he misses the main reason there have been few offices added to the downtown core over the last five years: Taxes!
   Commercial taxes imposed by the City of Vancouver are astronomically high, and seriously skew location decisions for businesses. My own office occupies 2,000 square metres of space on Homer Street, for 60 employees. Our annual municipal taxes have risen Peter Busby threefold over the last four years, to $108,000 a year. Imagine the outcry if residential taxes had tripled in the same period.
   We are growing, and need to move, so we are seriously considering a non-urban location. But wait: Most of our employees live downtown in condos, walk and bike to work. A number rent from condo owners who are investors, and have created a large, reasonably affordable rental housing pool. They love downtown, and don’t want to live anywhere else.
   It seems the condo boom that Boddy laments is part of a bigger picture of a vibrant urban core with housing, jobs, recreation and entertainment in a great balance. The condo boom over the last 10 years can be seen as a historic correction, people returning to live near their places of work, much as they were in Vancouver until the Second World War. Politicians and planners at City Hall have been a large part of this phenomenal success story.
   Everyone has benefited from the reduced traffic congestion, better amenities, recreation and schools.
   Now what about commercial growth — and where should it be? The downtown area is largely built out. To keep the current vibrant growth and economic wave intact, we should actively be planning a new downtown core now, in the False Creek Flats. That’s the largely empty area of land east of the Science Centre bisected by Terminal Avenue and the ugly buildings that line it.
   Boddy should address his energies, not at what has changed, but instead to spur a sweeping new vision for this area, as a high-density futuristic core for the next 100 years of Vancouver’s growth.
   Perhaps he can lobby for lower commercial taxes at the same time.
   We will soon have a new director of planning. The last ones have given us a fabulous city that captures the urban spirit of the present. Let’s hope the new director(s), have a vision.
   One of the most important events in our city this year will be the appointment of new chief planners to take the place of Larry Beasley and Ann McAfee who have announced their retirements. New and vigorous redirection needs to be taken, and Trevor Boddy has hit the mark.
   Beasley and McAfee have been endlessly praised in the media and by the corporate elite for their “vision.” The result of their tenure has been an array of disconcertingly similar condo towers and townhouses, which will be cursed in the future for being boring and repetitive. They’re set in the midst of our city, which seems to have forgotten that a strong economic centre of commerce and industry is vital to its welfare.
   I suspect the ardour with which this “vision” has been embraced has, in large part, rested on the irrationally exuberant increase in property/condo values instead of any thoughtful analysis of what makes cities flourish as dynamic centres of diverse activity.
   My concern is that the appointment of new chief planners will not receive the scrutiny it demands. If the appointments are made through the usual channels at city hall, few of us will know anything about it until they’re done.
   Can we rely on Mayor Sam Sullivan and Councillors Suzanne Anton, Peter Ladner et al. to grasp this incredible opportunity and find new planning leaders who will have the depth, knowledge and plain guts to set us in a new and revitalized direction? I hope so.
   But I’m very concerned that they won’t because they show little sign of either reflection or innovation — they seem stuck in the rut of convention where the rules of the past, rather than the realities of the future, apply. Witness, for example, their cavalierly spiteful direction on the Southeast False Creek lands.
   A special process for these appointments should be established and it should be open to public scrutiny and debate. As the selection is made, let’s recognize that the 2010 Olympics are not an end-goal, but rather a stepping-off opportunity. Take a look at Barcelona.
   In the 1970s, Vancouver turned its back on a Los Angeles-like maelstrom of traffic and smog, and embraced livability. We stand now on the brink of a similar moment where the beauty and setting with which we are endowed, and the livability that we have created can be carried much much further. But that will only happen if we heed the message of Boddy and others like him. I challenge Sullivan and his colleagues to let us do that.
   For the second time in six months, I have read Trevor Boddy lambasting the residential development in downtown Vancouver over the last half decade or so.
   True, Boddy successfully demonstrates that much of the construction has been residential. Yet he erroneously asserts that the relatively low level of office development is killing downtown’s vitality.
   I have been working in downtown Vancouver since 1982. Lots of people worked downtown then. More people work downtown now.
   In 1982, downtown was dead after 6 p.m. and on Sundays. The best restaurant was the William Tell. The hip restaurant was Hy’s. The best night life was in a cinderblock discothèque called Misty’s. Robson Street was a Strauss, Coal Harbour was a rotting shipyard and the north shore of False Creek and Yaletown were rat-infested warehouse districts sitting on polluted land. And so on.
   Today the city buzzes all day, all week. It vibrates with lots of people, many who work downtown and many who live downtown. Any one of 20 restaurants could be claimed as the city’s best and there are dozens and dozens of eclectic diverse hip ones, too. There is night life everywhere, some cool, some rough — something for everyone.
   Robson Street has more buzz than 20 years ago, as does the reemerging Granville corridor. The north shore of False Creek and Yaletown are among the most vibrant downtown neighborhoods in the world, let alone North America. Coal Harbour is green, modern (not post-modern), and well-used. Just go running on the extended seawall on any lunch hour. Great city, Vancouver.
   The old world model of people living in suburbs and commuting downtown is environmentally unsustainable, inefficient and inhuman. Downtown Vancouver has never been more cosmopolitan or more vital. It is an international success story. Its planning policies are now being copied and implemented in many large North American cities including Seattle, Los Angeles, San Diego, Dallas and Phoenix.
   Residential housing construction is booming downtown because people want to live there. Office buildings aren’t booming because large corporations don’t want to be there.
   And that has little to do with zoning or planners. Rather, it’s because of commercial property taxes that are five times higher for office than for residential space, the shrinking of the average work unit afforded by the microchip, corporate consolidation that has seen Telus, Finning, West Coast Energy and MacMillan Bloedell absorbed into other companies with head offices in more business-friendly cultures and cities, and so on.
   This is all okay because city planners, thankfully, had the foresight to see that if Vancouver wasn’t going to be a world corporate headquarters city, it was at least a beautiful city with a diverse population that could be very cosmopolitan. They facilitated that by allowing residential uses on poorly utilized, transitioning downtown sites.
   As long as people want to keep moving downtown, developers will be happy to keep providing them with urban homes. As soon as businesses want to come to downtown and pay the rent to justify new construction, developers will be happy to build them an office. There will be plenty of sites in and around downtown when and if that time comes.
   I just don’t get Boddy’s assertion that reverting to the old model will somehow make Vancouver a better, more vital city. I think he is wrong. I hope city councillors and planners put his column where it belongs — the recycling bin.
   Anthem Properties Group

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