From where former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan sits on this blustery April day, the past and the future are equally visible. Across the mouth of False Creek from Kits Point rise the towers of the West End. They are the legacy of Sullivan’s Non-Partisan Association (NPA) and its 1960s developer-cum-mayor, Tom “Terrific” Campbell, who called hippies “scum” back then and those who opposed his plans to densify the West End, Kitsilano, and Kerrisdale “pinkos, commies, and hamburgers”.
His nickname was used sarcastically by people who couldn’t abide his fierce high-rise plans. But Sullivan tells me he has just come to a shocking discovery. Considering the fact that suburban sprawl is—with its spacious, energy-consuming homes and requisite commuting—a disaster for the planet, then, to Sullivan’s mind, Campbell was right. Stacking people was right. Towers are good. And all the New Urbanist, low-rise, Jane Jacobs–loving, fuzzy-wuzzy antidevelopment forces were wrong when they brought a halt to the city’s concrete and steel densification in the early 1970s.
Jane Jacobs wrong? She was the author of the 20th-century urbanist bible, 1961’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She is why international experts come to Vancouver to study its renowned livability. She’s the mother of Vancouverism. To Sullivan, she was once god. So the revelation that Jacobs had gotten it wrong was, to the man who invented EcoDensity, apostasy. It was like saying: “Let’s log Stanley Park.”
And yet, Sullivan says: haven’t Vancouver’s critical housing issues—almost nonexistent rental opportunities, the near impossibility of middle-class home ownership, and ongoing suburban sprawl—all been produced by the Jacobs-inspired shortage of affordable places to live within the city? Short supply plus high demand equals sky-high real-estate prices. With the average cost of a home on Vancouver’s West Side now $2.4 million (and on the East Side $943,000), isn’t this why Vancouver is the second-most-expensive city in the world?
Sullivan and I leave Vanier Park and weave through the leafy Kits Point enclave where, Sullivan knows, I once owned a home. “Can you see the whole thing as big, shiny high-rises?” he asks of Kits Point. He sees the expression of horror on my face and adds, “Okay, some mid-rise buildings too.”
He tells me the densification of Kits Point will fit right in with the 35- and 28-storey towers the Squamish First Nation will begin building next year on their four-hectare site at the southwest end of the Burrard Street Bridge. He gestures up to the towers that mark the aborted ’60s effort by Tom Campbell to turn Kitsilano’s hillside into a second West End. “Big, shiny towers,” he repeats, laughing as I cringe. Along the Fairview Slope and Mount Pleasant, all along Broadway and Cambie at major transit stops: “Big, shiny towers. Or mid-rise. Whatever the market wants.”
With thousands of newcomers moving into Vancouver annually, the city’s population is predicted to almost double in the next 50 years. That’s 500,000 new people. But with virtually no undeveloped land in the city, where will they go? There is no money—and few government incentives—for developers to invest in rental or social housing. And the scores of laneway houses and secondary suites now under construction will absorb only a fraction of pent-up demand. Says Sullivan: “The market is screaming! It’s the result of a planning regime that’s deaf to the city’s needs. And left-wing rage against development and towers means they’re on the side of the one percent. When I understood Tom Campbell was right and Jane Jacobs wrong, I couldn’t sleep for days. I realized I wanted to bury Jane Jacobs under concrete.”
This thought comes as a surprise to the articulate man giving me a tour of Marine Gardens, a 70-unit rental complex located on the corner of Cambie Street and Southwest Marine Drive. The 1970s three-storey minivillage—an icon of Jane Jacobs New Urbanist thinking—sits directly across from a billboard that promotes the first two Marine Gateway skyscrapers that will, in time, cluster with others around the new Canada Line station there.
“Sam Sullivan told me my mother was his hero,” says Ned Jacobs, the bearded 62-year-old son of Jane and one of the myriad Vancouver left-wingers who oppose the high-rise densification that, under the guise of what Jacobs calls “greenwashing”, Vancouver’s politicians are selling. Ned finds it amusing that Vision Vancouver, in what he calls its recent alliance with the NPA, has approved the kinds of towers Campbell once advocated for and Sullivan advocates for today—and which most Vancouver communities, like most people of South Cambie, abhor.
Jane Jacobs died in 2006, but her vision of what makes urban life livable cannot, says her son, be attained by the neighbourhood-killing 25- and 31-storey towers that are about to rise directly above Marine Gardens. Their appearance, Jacobs argues, will convince banks to “red-line” the adjacent neighbourhood: circle on maps with red felt pens those aging properties, like Marine Gardens, that should not receive financing for upgrades.
So the landlords, held hostage by banks and seeing their land values inflated by new high-rises, sell to developers, which then further shrinks the already deplorable amount of low-rise rental and low-income housing in Vancouver. And this, of course, only further propels sprawl, as working-class families, elderly renters, students, and new immigrants seek affordable accommodation in the suburbs.
It was precisely this destruction of North America’s metropolitan low-rise districts in the 1950s, and the subsequent construction of dreary high-rise towers, that Jane Jacobs originally railed against. In their stead, she advocated the virtues of low-density row houses and three- to six-storey, eyes-on-the-street, kids-on-the-sidewalks apartments. There, people were really neighbours—like in New York’s Greenwich Village, where Ned grew up and where his mother found inspiration for her famous book.
And yet… In South Cambie, Marpole, Mount Pleasant, Oakridge, and Kitsilano, and out along Kingsway, a dozen big, shiny towers are slated to appear in the next few years. All sanctioned by Vision Vancouver’s bicycle-riding, Greenest City–promoting, Jane Jacobs–touting mayor, Gregor Robertson. “Vision rationalizes towers by calling them green,” Jacobs says. “But the development industry’s really running the show. They’re not interested in affordability or neighbourhoods. The higher the tower, the more the profit. When you look at what Vision is doing, you see they’re dancing with the devil.”
As I reflect on the contradictions I’m hearing, I glimpse evidence of a seismic shift in what being green means. When activists formed Greenpeace in Vancouver more than 40 years ago, the priorities of the environmental movement were about stopping nuclear testing, saving whales, and protecting the wilderness. It was primarily about nature. It suited the ethos of those simpler times. No one then had heard the words global warming, ocean acidification, urban densification, or peak oil. Few knew it wasn’t just whales that were in trouble but the planet itself. Or that the main culprit was carbon dioxide.
The new environmentalism, though, is primarily about cities, where today more than half of all the world’s people live and where almost two billion more people will live by 2030. The environmental crisis facing Vancouver and the planet is mostly about urban densification, consumption, and affordability. How do cities affordably house all their incoming people? And how do you mitigate the calamitous effects of suburbia, where people produce five to 10 times more greenhouse gases than transit-using downtown residents?
When traditional green values like nature, peace, and community bump against new green values like the pragmatic need for massive, legislated urban densification—especially via high-rise towers—people balk. Green is no longer out there. Green is no longer just sorting the trash. It’s right next door in the threat of a 35-storey residential skyscraper looming over Kits Point, or a 16-storey tower in Marpole, or a 19-storey condo building in Mount Pleasant. It affects—for better and worse—local real-estate prices, neighbourliness, traffic, and long-established class structures. And by mandating this green agenda, municipal politicians enter a minefield of compromises and conflicts. In Vancouver, green is becoming grey, the colour of concrete.
The best place to view this collision of contending values is from the windows of Our Town, a popular Mount Pleasant coffee shop that sits directly across from the site of the newly approved Rize commercial-residential tower. It will fill the trapezoidal lot where Kingsway and Main Street intersect with Broadway, and where, in time, a major transit station will be built to service the almost inevitable east-west subway line along Broadway.
My guide to this conflict is Joseph Jones, a 65-year-old retired librarian. He first got politically involved five years ago, when the NPA approved both a 23-storey tower for the corner of Nanaimo Street and Kingsway and a simultaneous effort by then-mayor Sam Sullivan to rezone Jones’s adjacent single-family Cedar Cottage district for row houses. Jones saw the mayor’s attempt at instituting his EcoDensity plan as “neighbourhood- busting”. He got mad. He also got 2,340 of his neighbours mad. The tower was built, but the rezoning was stopped.
Seated today with his latte on Broadway and gesturing toward the billboards that announce the imminent rise of the Rize, Jones explains why the tower is a calamity for the century-old Mount Pleasant neighbourhood where it will—to his mind—issue a concrete index finger to the working-class people nearby.
He echoes the view of Jane Jacobs that densification, for all its urgency, must be organic. It must be done sensitively. New buildings should assume some of the character of the neighbourhood upon which they are imposed. In height, in mass, and in function, new housing needs to fit in. Jones argues that the Rize—with 85,000 square feet of commercial space and 241 market-priced condos—is disproportional to the low-rise shops along Main and the low-density rental district to the north. Hemmed in on three sides by major roads, it is, Jones says (using a popular metaphor for the project), “a hippopotamus in a bathtub”. It. Just. Doesn’t. Fit.
Another critic of the kind of densification that Sullivan advocates and that Vision Vancouver is tending to support is Seattle architect Jason McLennan, CEO of the Cascadia Region Green Building Council and author of Density and Sustainability—A Radical Perspective: Challenging the Wisdom of Exaggerated Height and Density in Urban Structures. McLennan understands that under the admirable banner of greening Vancouver, residential towers can be seen by municipal politicians as an excellent way to add significant urban density, reduce the region’s greenhouse-gas emissions, encourage transit use, and—in time—increase affordability by swamping the city’s real-estate market with new housing units.
As a politician, Sam Sullivan linked higher densities to greener living.
But—and to McLennan, it’s an enormous “but”—the price of such development is often the loss of neighbourhood. That’s why 90 percent of the 180 or so Mount Pleasant speakers at city-council hearings on the Rize this spring opposed the plan. They could do the math. A $400,000 condo in the Rize is no more appropriate in their neighbourhood than a similarly priced Marine Gateway unit at the south foot of Cambie. Ritzy towers? Not when the annual household income in Mount Pleasant is one-tenth the price of a one-bedroom Rize suite.
People at the hearings repeatedly said they want low-rise, affordable housing. They don’t want to be driven from their neighbourhood as victims of well-intentioned but misguided Greenest City policies. McLennan says much better and more community-friendly density can be achieved—as occurs in cities like Barcelona, Copenhagen, Paris, and Stockholm—with clusters of neighbourly, five-storey buildings in Mount Pleasant. Which is what Jane Jacobs argued 50 years ago. This, McLennan believes, is densification’s “sweet spot”: five-storey apartment buildings, neither too low nor too high.
On April 17, Mayor Robertson and his centre-left Vision councillors joined Sullivan’s old party, the NPA, by voting in favour of the Rize. Only one councillor didn’t buy the “towers are green” argument, and that was, ironically, Coun. Adriane Carr, cofounder of the Green Party of B.C. She opposed the motion. She told me she prefers New Urbanist, low-rise densification.
Sam Sullivan would say that Carr, McLennan, and Jones could be accused of embracing an idea whose time is past. They look for inspiration to European cities whose downtowns were built more than 150 years ago, when elevators had yet to be invented and people were unwilling to climb more than five storeys.
And the Jacobses could be accused of idealizing low-rise Greenwich Village, built when Edgar Allan Poe was wandering its cobbled lanes in the first half of the 19th century. What if the future, with the crises of global warming and peak oil fully upon the planet, were to look more like the movie Blade Runner than Copenhagen? Then, maybe, the urgency that propels Sullivan’s scary vision of big, shiny towers everywhere needs reconsideration.
On another day, seated by the window of his 16th-floor Yaletown condo, Sullivan explains how he came to the heretical opinion that Jane Jacobs was wrong and that the much-vilified Tom Campbell was, in fact, one of this city’s most influential mayors.
It is a strange journey. Years ago, while sitting on the porch of Jacobs’s mid-Toronto home, Sullivan felt he was in the presence of his intellectual hero, the world-famous voice of New Urbanism. He was a new civic politician in Vancouver. Yet there was something that day that bothered him, he tells me. All around Jacobs’s house were single-family homes, but in the near distance were the towers of Bloor Street. Had there been, he thought, high-density residential towers where he and Jacobs were chatting, there would be less suburban sprawl around Toronto and less traffic on Highway 401.
With this thought in mind, he came back to Vancouver and realized that the city’s high-rise densification of the 1950s and ’60s had occurred under a free-market NPA mandate that culminated in 1972 with the end of Campbell’s mayoralty. By then, 250 residential towers had been built, most in the formerly single-family West End. The city’s population was growing then. More towers were rising in Kitsilano and Kerrisdale. Housing costs were low. Richmond and Surrey were mostly farmland. Then, abruptly, the construction of high-rises stopped.
The centrist Electors’ Action Movement (TEAM) came to power, Sullivan says. They marched beneath the banner of Jane Jacobs’s anti-tower New Urbanism. City planners took over where market imperatives had previously ruled. Places like Kits Point, Fairview, and South False Creek were down-zoned. During the course of the next 30 years—with Campbell’s densification halted—the city’s growth slowed. However, with little increase in the housing supply during those decades, Sullivan explains, the costs of home ownership in Vancouver soared 300 percent. (And despite this spring’s real-estate downturn, they soared another 300 percent between 2002 and 2012.) Primarily as a result of TEAM, Sullivan says, many people in the middle class fled Vancouver. Suburbia sprawled. Traffic increased. And air quality plummeted. Vancouver became the second-most-expensive—or, put another way, the second-least-affordable—city in the world.
Sullivan waves toward the window overlooking False Creek. “I suspect,” he says of low-rise Fairview and South False Creek, “those areas will go high-rise. And Kits? Kits Point? Mount Pleasant? We need to max out those areas too. Towers and mid-rise. The Downtown Eastside and Chinatown: much higher density in exchange for heritage protection—like they did at Woodward’s.”
The ex-mayor is having fun, planting towers, rectifying—to his mind—decades of political misjudgment. To be green and affordable, he insists, Vancouver will have to grow up. That, he believes, will burst the city’s current housing bubble and stanch the flow of suburban greenhouse gases that are destroying the Earth. As I watch, it’s as if the ghost of Tom Campbell, who died this past February, has come to inhabit Sullivan. He laughingly tells me that—as an antidote to New Urbanism—he’s thinking of calling his densification strategy “Sullivanism”. Or maybe “Campbellism”. He can’t decide which.
When I describe Sullivan’s indictment of TEAM to Mike Harcourt, former TEAM city councillor, former B.C. premier, and current associate director of UBC’s Centre for Sustainability, Harcourt says: “I think Sam’s out to lunch. He’s wrong! High-rises aren’t the answer.” And he lists places like Fairview and Mount Pleasant, where TEAM introduced what Harcourt calls “gentle densification”.
I tell him these are exactly the places where Sullivan favours big towers, and where—it seems—Vision does as well. He tells me there are sites at major transit stops—Main and Broadway or Cambie and Southwest Marine—where 20-, 30-, and 40-storey residential towers make sense. I tell him those are precisely the places where people like Jane Jacobs’s son, Ned, oppose towers. Harcourt laughs. “Yeah,” he says. “A lot of greens oppose high-rise densification. Putting towers where there aren’t any towers gets people upset. I’m agnostic. Sam is partially right: towers at major transit stops. It’s Field of Dreams: ‘If you build it, they will come.’ ”
The real issue, Harcourt tells me, is affordability. Canadian cities get only eight cents of every federal tax dollar. Their housing powers are limited. And since 1994, when then–prime minister Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives eliminated federal subsidies for social housing, there’s been little money for working families, housing co-ops, or renters. “The market,” Harcourt says, “can take care of 80 percent of all housing needs. But you need government intervention for clerks, technicians, renters, the elderly, people like that. If you’re serious about housing, if you’re going to have your economy succeed, you have to deal with affordability. A lot of Vancouver’s ’50s and ’60s rental apartments are reaching the end of their life. Towers won’t fix these things.”
To which UBC’s Erick Villagomez, academic adviser to the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability, adds this observation: “The overall trend is that families are being forced out of cities by lack of affordable housing. Same with the working class. The implications are very negative! How do you densify cities when people resist affordable housing in their neighbourhoods? Or when people see towers as a threat? You’ve got community resistance and, on top of that, regulatory resistance—in governments not arguing strongly enough there’s a real affordable-housing crisis.”
As I pursue the issue, I find myself, metaphorically, on the trail of Winnie-the-Pooh’s elusive Heffalump: clues abound; resolutions don’t. Are towers the answer or aren’t they?
Sullivan decided Jacobs was wrong after reading David Owen’s 2004 New Yorker article “Green Metropolis”, which claimed that Manhattan’s “stacking people up in towers was the ultimate triumph of urban ecology”. Residential skyscrapers were good for the environment.
Owen’s formula: more towers, less commuting, less greenhouse gas.
Similarly, Doug McArthur, a professor in SFU’s school of public policy and, curiously, a cofounder of Vision Vancouver, also believes that the city needs massive towerization.
He has, however, a different formula: more towers, more housing units, reduction of untenable real-estate prices. For McArthur, towers will eventually create housing affordability.
And Sullivan, sitting in his Yaletown condo, makes this cogent observation. He asks me to calculate the number of people living on his dense Homer Street block (about 1,000). We then guesstimate the population of a single-family Dunbar block (30). “So one residential block downtown equals 30 West Side blocks,” Sullivan says. “All those boomers in expensive Dunbar homes that young families can’t afford. Doesn’t make sense. Schools there are closing. The whole West Side needs density!” And he and I imagine both where the clusters of 30-storey towers would go in Dunbar and the decibel level of the ensuing protests.
Sullivan’s formula: more towers, more density, younger, more viable communities.
Critics might say that despite Owen’s “ultimate triumph” assertion about Manhattan, there is nothing green about residential high-rises. In the manufacture of steel and glass and concrete, in the leakage of heat through windows, and in expensive electrical appliances, towers gobble energy. Green towers is an oxymoron. Secondly, urban developers are primarily interested in height. They are selling expensive views. Low-rise may be best for affordability and neighbourliness, but low-rise cannot produce the profits of high-rises. So most developers’ credo is “Build up.” And, if necessary, barter with city hall for additional, tower-based community facilities—to garner even greater building height. And thirdly, without government support, rental and social housing of any height contains scant payback for developers. (That’s why the Little Mountain social-housing site on Main remains vacant almost three years after demolition.)
So, the downside of towers is that they’re no remedy for the crisis of affordability that Harcourt mentioned. In fact, with a persistent developer and an acquiescent city council, they often signal the gentrification of low-income, working-class neighbourhoods. This is as true of the failed Mount Pleasant battle against the Rize as of the impending battle over the Sequel 138 project on East Hastings Street or future densification squabbles prompted by the 16-storey tower slated to go into the Safeway site in Marpole.
It’s clear that Gregor Robertson and his Vision councillors understand the dilemma they’re in. A few weeks ago, the mayor solicited ideas from the public on how to address Vancouver’s critical rental shortages and lack of affordable, middle-class homes. As well, the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability report is due in late June.
Most people understand that urban densification is necessary. Globally, suburbs are an environmental catastrophe. But, as the fight over the Rize demonstrated, big, shiny urban towers are lightning rods for local opposition. And the mayor’s effort to make Vancouver into the world’s greenest city by 2020 could be seen as myopic neighbourhood-busting if attention is not paid to Vancouver’s parallel crisis of housing affordability.
A satirical campaign poster appeared in 2011, before the last civic election, that showed photos of Robertson and real-estate marketer Bob Rennie side by side—the Siamese twins of high-rise densification. As Susan Anton, the NPA’s former mayoral candidate, told me a few months ago, a resurgent civic COPE party, feeding in part off visceral public anger about Vision-approved residential towers, is her dream.
A split on the civic left could well produce, after all, an NPA comeback. In any dance with the devil, to use Ned Jacobs’s phrase, there are often unintended consequences.