Ian Robertson: Planning that does not include people in its context, but instead sees only buildings, lays clear its biases

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      These are the speaking notes for Vancouver designer Ian Robertson's presentation to council regarding the proposed rezoning of the former Denny's Restaurant site at the corner of West Broadway and Birch Street. He lives just north of where Jameson Development hopes to build a 28-storey tower that includes 258 below-market rental units. Council will resume the public hearing on Tuesday (July 14).

      By Ian Robertson

      Moderate-income housing is vital for the future vitality of the city. Though we live near the site, in the last few years we have lived here, rents have increased so much that we would no longer be able to afford to rent our own apartment anymore, especially with the birth of our first child.

      Opponents of this plan suggest the tower can just be shorter, or that "we can build two shorter ones," present strawman options, which do not actually exist. How exactly could anyone 'build two' when they own one piece of land? Is someone to gift them another site nearby on which to place the second, in the vain hope that those who say they would support shorter versions would keep to their word? 

      A great deal of noise has been made about the tower forever blotting out the sun to anyone living to its north. I live to its north, and have modelled it in 3-D myself, and my view of the tower is blocked by a 14-story tower, which sits in between my home and the proposed tower.

      I then looked as if I was walking from Willow all the way to Hemlock for each place I could see the tower, and due either to trees of existing buildings, the tower is either total, or nearly invisible from all points at grade. On higher levels, it is somewhat visible, or at least would be if not for the very many street trees which get in the way of the view. A good rule of shadows is that if you can't see a building, neither its shadow nor its "gloom" see you either.

      There has been a well publicized image again with the big orange version of the building sticking up above the skyline. This photo is taken from a penthouse apartment near 14th and Granville, almost 1.5 kilometres from the Broadway and Birch site, a building which completely blocks the view of the older building to its south to a far greater degree than its own view is potentially affected by the 28-storey tower.

      This highlights what happens in a city, your view changes in ways you can’t control, and it is not council’s job, or anyone else’s to protect the private view of anyone’s penthouse, no matter how orange and obnoxious anyone makes their render.

      There are a number of esteemed planners who have come out against this tower. I know and respect them all, but they are, without exception, of the generation for whom planning served well, they were able to make the rules or break the rules when they needed to, and have even written at length about their doing so (most recently, here).

      For these planners, the rules seemed to serve them just fine, however planners who are younger, planners of my generation, are to my knowledge without exception of the opposite viewpoint, and support this tower. The planners who oppose the tower talk about its context, and how it will set a new precedent, whereas I think that limiting context to buildings, and not the dire need for affordable housing, does everyone a disservice.

      From my friend Jens's tweets, similar thoughts to my own: "I respect a lot of Scot’s work. But I am a bit bewildered that the argument fails to even mention people. Only buildings. This is not a lego design fetish exercise, it’s making choices about people, their opportunities, their access to amenities, their commute times."  

      Worst-case scenario: approve this tower and we get needed  housing in a tower which is oddly tall. Hopefully, a well-written city plan emerges which creates a framework for fixing both the process by which housing is created, and the lack of affordable housing in the city.

      If the 28-storey tower becomes a cautionary tale of why we can't let our planning get so screwed up that huge areas of the city are losing people at the same time as people are getting priced out of everywhere dense, then that's great, but I doubt it, and we need housing now.

      Jameson Development Corporation's project on the former Denny's site will set aside 22 percent of the area for secured rental units for people on moderate incomes.

      We could have planned the city properly...we didn't, we did everything we could to do everything ad hoc, having random plans everywhere, many being contradictory. But now we have to wait for a "Plan" before anything can be done to dig us out of this housing hole? 

      If planning only ever worked for some, then it never actually worked. If there is an incentive for incumbent owners/residents to stop anything that might change, and planning allows them to do so, that planning isn't "working", that is failing. 

      Planning brought the destruction of Hogan's Alley. It is not infallable, and must also be seen as an incomplete lens with which to see the world, especially if it can not see its own limitations and biases. And so long as the authoritative voices on planning are of one age, gender, and race, then those limitations and biases will be many, while its ability to recognize them will be low.

      Any planning which does not include people in its context, but instead sees only buildings, lays clear both its limitations and its biases, but is unfortunately unlikely to transcend either. 

      As my planning prof said, you don't plan to fail, you failed to plan. And the current plan has failed, and the city has failed to plan, and here we are, in a city full of failed plans, without a Plan, and without confidence that any plan that does emerge won't also fail.

      This tower might not be the priority of those who have lived comforably in the city for many years, but it, and the affordable housing it represents, certainly are the priority of those who will do so, those who want to do so, those who can no longer do so, and those who left because they couldn't do so.

      Trying to parse context as only being the street nearby, or by the shadowing of a few comfortably housed neighbours, or by the pronouncements only of those loud enough to have been given a platform is offensive, when the true context is a city which is too expensive, with too little affordable or accessible housing, and which serves some well but many poorly. Some are comfortable with this inequity, I hope council is not.