Michael Geller's foreign lessons

For more than three decades, Michael Geller has been one of the best-known figures in the Lower Mainland real-estate sector. Once the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation project manager on the development of South False Creek, Geller later headed his own real-estate consulting and development firm. He also spent some time as president of the Urban Development Institute, and he probably still has a few scars from when he was the frontman for developments going before city councils.

In 1999, Geller was appointed president and CEO of SFU Community Trust, which oversaw the planning and development of UniverCity, a community built on Burnaby Mountain. There, he distinguished himself by bringing environmentalists into the planning process.

UniverCity was a hothouse of new planning ideas. There were secondary suites built into condominium units in multifamily projects. It featured the first community transit-pass system in North America. Members of the university community were allowed to purchase units at discounted prices. Green-building guidelines resulted in greater energy and water conservation.

But Geller didn’t stop there. He left SFU Community Trust at the end of 2006 and spent the next eight months travelling the globe looking for more good planning ideas. He travelled to 31 countries on four continents.

In a recent phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Geller discussed lessons he learned that could be applied in Vancouver. In Australia and some other places, for instance, he said there is no limit on the size of balconies. In Vancouver, on the other hand, balconies can only comprise eight percent of floor space. “I think having larger, usable balconies will make apartment living more attractive, especially to someone moving out of a house,” Geller said.

He noted that in Hanoi, Vietnam, the buildings tend to be tall and very narrow. Someone explained to him that this is because property taxes are based on the size of the frontage and not on the value of the land and the dwelling. He said the Vietnamese operate on the assumption that a narrower building requires fewer municipal services because it uses
less of the sidewalk, roadspace, and sewers than a wider building.

Geller said that in the Albanian capital of
Tirana, an artist was elected as mayor. The neophyte politician knew that it would be expensive to fix up all the buildings, so he chose a cheaper option: he recommended that everyone put on a fresh coat of paint, and the idea took off. That led to people cleaning up rubble, planting grass, and creating parks. “A lot of it [the conditions in Tirana] is deplorable, but there is a new spirit,” Geller said. “I’m arguing that we need to do the same thing on the Downtown Eastside.”

He went to Warsaw, where he was impressed by the colourful buildings, and to Budapest, where there were magnificent flower displays. In Singapore, there is a contest to see who lives in the cleanest public-housing project. “I’m suggesting we do the same in our region,” Geller said. “We could give each resident of the cleanest project a really nice price. You could give them $1,000 a unit and still be much further ahead in terms of maintenance savings.”

Geller said that he also visited the city of Chandigarh, which was designed by the French architect Le Corbusier at the behest of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. “One of his key ideas was that the city should be designed so that the poorest of the poor could enjoy all of its amenities with dignity,” he said.

Geller said he has recently been in discussions with financier and philanthropist Milton Wong and Michael Clague, former director of the Carnegie Centre, to try to devise ways of improving the Downtown Eastside. He said they’ve talked about the possibility of Downtown Eastside groups forming a new community-development corporation that could bring together different players to implement ideas that have worked in other jurisdictions.

Geller is also casting his eye on Vancouver City Hall. He said he is being “strongly encouraged” by members of the NPA to run for city council in the 2008 civic election. But he hopes that if he is elected, he won’t have to endure people constantly bickering about political issues. “There isn’t the animosity in our day-to-day life that you see in these council chambers or in these houses of parliament,” he noted.