Vancouver's density debate pits Sullivanism versus the ideas of Jane Jacobs
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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.