Michael Geller: Some personal musings on the Broadway Plan

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      By Michael Geller

      For various reasons, I will not be speaking to council about the Broadway Plan. Those who follow me on Twitter are aware of some of my views and I in turn have considered their critiques of my position. However, for what it's worth, I would like to recap some of my tweets and thoughts about the plan in the hope that revisions will be made before council finally adopts it.

      Firstly, to those who cannot understand why I, a developer, planning and real estate consultant and retired architect, would oppose the significant densification of properties along the Broadway Corridor, especially around transit stations, I do not oppose a significant densification along the corridor to create more affordable housing. 

      My concerns relate primarily to the form of housing being proposed along the arterials, and the related height and floor-space ratio (FSR). I am also concerned about the absence of substantive information about proposed parks and community amenities. I also think better, more realistic illustrations need to be prepared to help all of us appreciate what the various areas along the corridor will look like in 10 years and 20 years, not just at build out. (That said, the drawings provided are not very good or accurate.)

      I should add that I have not studied the entire corridor. Rather, I have focused on the area around Arbutus Street with which I am most familiar.

      While the consultation period for this plan has been happening for some time, I did not participate. I had previously participated in the discussion about the Broadway and Birch proposal (on the former Denny's site) and looking back on this experience, I regretted speaking out. Moreover, if planning staff and council could approve this project, which should not have been approved at the proposed height and FSR (10.52) especially in advance of the Broadway Plan itself, I questioned why I should get involved in further consultations. I don't need the aggravation!

      Trust me, I received a lot of criticism from many in the development industry. I was also attacked by an industry commentator who was a friend of the developer, and many others who questioned why someone as affluent and old as me, with such old-fashioned ideas about planning, should be listened to.

      Indeed, many younger people suggested it's time for them to make the planning decisions for the Broadway Corridor, not me. After all, I'll be dead while this plan is being implemented! :-)

      Arbutus Walk

      However, in early April I was approached by a planning colleague who owns a property in Arbutus Walk and was asked if I was aware the Broadway Plan had included Arbutus Walk as a location for future higher density highrise buildings. This caused me to download the plan and he appeared to be right.

      As evidenced by these extracts from the appendices, Arbutus Walk was designated KBAD with a density of 6.0 to 6.5 FSR and heights of 15 to 18 storeys. This community was designed and approved after significant community involvement. It was converted from highrise to midrise and lowrise form after much debate. It's only 20 to 25 years old and should not be designated for highrise. Instead, it should have been excluded from the planning area.

      When I suggested this on Twitter, others told me this was a 30-year plan, and it might well be appropriate to redevelop this area during this time frame. I strongly disagreed. (Brent Toderian subsequently told me something quite different. He said he spoke to staff, and it wasn't intended that this site be redeveloped within the 30-year timeframe. However, this is contradicted by the map.)

      I also note that the Fraser Academy site near Arbutus Walk is designated for 8 FSR. This is an extremely high FSR. I am sure there's a story behind this proposal, but don't have time to investigate. Maybe Frances Bula or others will.

      Properties along Arbutus Street between 13th and 14th near Arbutus Walk are being proposed for 18-storey high rises at 5.5 FSR. Now I appreciate that many readers may not understand what 5.5 FSR means. This is almost twice 3 FSR which is the density I was taught was the maximum to be allowed for a comfortable livable environment. (I would note this is approximately the density of most of Coal Harbour and North Shore False Creek.)

      If you look closely at the illustrations, you'll note that the 'Vancouverism' model of a tower on a two or three level podium is not being proposed. Instead, most of the podiums appear to be much higher. Ugh!

      It's all about affordability

      While some people have criticized me as an affluent person who can't relate to ordinary people, I am well aware of the need for a lot more affordable housing. After all, I did spend 10 years at Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. and was for a time responsible for the social housing programs. I get it. There's a need for more affordable housing.

      Many people on Twitter, and Theresa O'Donnell, the chief planner for the city have repeatedly noted that while these densities may be high, they are necessary if the city is to achieve a lot of purpose-built rental housing along the corridor with at least a 20  pecent below market component. In other words, FORM MUST FOLLOW FINANCE, not context or fit. I disagree.

      I also worry that massive increases in density will not translate into massive increases in affordability. Yes, the initial property owners will benefit, and may be able to provide the desired housing. But over time, higher densities will translate into higher land values, and affordable housing will require senior government subsidies. Indeed, as interest rates and construction costs rise, it's questionable whether any new rental housing will be feasible in the immediate future. 

      As for the mayor's proposal to allow existing tenants to return to the new buildings near their location at the same or lower rents, this is at best..... aspirational. The developers and lenders with whom I have spoken do not consider this a realistic proposal.

      Ironically, while most of the focus has been on the provision of affordable rental housing, I would like to hear more discussion about affordable ownership housing. In some of my other projects, I have explored rent-to-own programs, workforce housing, co-housing, and other ways to help people buy....not rent. But little is said about ownership housing, other than the developers will have to pay significant CACs to fund community amenities. Good luck creating any affordable ownership on this basis.

      It's also about accommodating growth

      Others repeatedly remind me that the city must also accommodate a lot of people over the next 30 years, and unless we can rezone all of Vancouver's single-family properties for six-storey apartments, there won't be sufficient capacity without the proposed densities along the Broadway Corridor. Frankly, this is nonsense. But, if the density along this corridor is impacted by the planning decisions for the rest of the city, then I question why we should approve the Broadway Plan divorced from the City Wide Plan. A more sensible thing would be to approve each with full knowledge and consideration of the other.

      Alternative building forms?

      Over the years, I have lived in several highrise buildings. In Ottawa I lived in Pestalozzi College. I lived on the 17th and 29th floors of Martello Tower at 1011 Beach Avenue. And I lived in a highrise at Bayshore. I have also designed and developed many highrises, both with CMHC and as a private developer and planning consultant. I like highrises, especially those at Bayshore with which I was involved for 10 years.

      Amsterdam apartment buildings.
      Michael Geller
      Amsterdam rowhouses
      Michael Geller
      Midrise buildings on the waterfront.
      Michael Geller

      However, I question their suitability as affordable housing for families with children, and also question whether they should be juxtaposed with lowrise development. Instead, I prefer more European-style midrise housing forms, such as those found in Amsterdam, Barcelona, and most European countries which achieve density without towers. As noted in this CBC article, they can offer attributes not found in highrises, and I see a place for this form of housing along the Broadway Corridor arterials.

      So where are the parks?

      In the late 1980s, developers had to contribute park space to comply with the city's standards, including at the Bayshore Hotel property.
      Michael Geller

      When I rezoned the Bayshore Hotel property next to Devonian/Stanley Park, a major issue was whether the development would contribute adequate park space to comply with the city's standard of 2.75 acres of park for every 1,000 residents. This standard was based on the provision of park space as per the late 1980s. However, this standard appears to have been discarded. (Indeed, if you calculate how much additional park space would be required based on the proposed population increase, there wouldn't be much room for any new housing.

      However, for me a bigger question is whether there will be any new parks and community centres. There is reference to a park near Burrard Slopes and some nice words about providing adequate new community amenities. However, I could not find a plan that identified where new parks and community facilities might go. 

      Over the years I've been involved in the preparation of several large-scale plans. They always indicate potential locations for new parks, community centres, schools, etc. But not in this plan unless I missed the drawings.


      In summary, I agree with the general direction and like many of the words in this planning document. However, I don't like the proposed highrise buildings on high podiums at excessive densities as illustrated in many of the plans that I reviewed, especially for the arterial and 'shoulder' areas. I also worry about the resulting character. 

      This worry is founded in part because the illustrations provided in the planning documents are not very good. Some are little more than cartoons, others do not provide accurate street level views. (I should add that the comprehensive but simplistic massing diagram prepared by some of the plan opponents is also misleading.) 

      So I suggest that council ask the planning department to prepare better and more accurate illustrations to help all of us appreciate the scale of new development over time, say after 10 years, 20 years and at final build out. What will the main communities look like? Such phasing illustrations are standard procedure for most of the larger scale projects with which I have been involved, but none have been prepared at all for the Broadway Corridor.

      As Theresa O'Donnell told Stephen Quinn on CBC radio, there have been an astonishing number of meetings and opportunities for community input. But we haven't been told what the community said, nor what changes were made in response to community input. 

      Moreover, to the best of my knowledge, at no time was the planning or architectural community invited to participate in AIBC or PIBC/City-sponsored discussions about the plan with senior city staff in attendance. 

      I therefore hope council will now receive the plan and the various appendices, but direct staff to now consult with the development and banking communities to discuss the concerns that have been raised by existing tenants and their organizations about being accommodated in new buildings at the same or lower rents as the mayor has recently proposed. 

      Staff should also be directed to meet with the architectural, planning and development communities to review the most appropriate forms of zoning to allow higher density development over time, since what may be acceptable in five years may be different than what's acceptable in twenty-five years. This is called Dynamic Zoning and could address many of my concerns about context and fit over time.

      I hope this is helpful in furthering the discussion.

      This article originally appeared on Michael Geller's blog. He is a Vancouver-based retired architect, planner, real estate consultant, property developer, educator, and journalist with four decades' experience in the public, private, and institutional sectors.