Archive | November, 2014

November leaves fall in pools of cold wet, and so comes ol’ man winter

25 Nov

Winter is a reminder of our mortality; darkness, rain, damp bone chilling cold, painted in shades of grey. We flee its presence, hiding in coffee shops, drinking bowls of soup, and counting the days to a distant spring, the arrival of the first cherry blossom on Beach Road.

Every year around this time I am reminded of a short piece I wrote many winters ago.

A state of emergency has been called. Panic is in the air: people running everywhere, car horns, yelping dogs – crying, screaming, and pandemonium. Never have I seen a city like this, never would I have imagined my home, my neighbourhood, my people torn apart in such a way.

The disc arrived in the sky a little after 14h00 today, Pacific Time. There had been no warning, no sirens; nobody was prepared for its presence. Yet today our world has changed, changed in the blink of an eye.

Vancouver will never be the same.

It appeared, glowing, orange, and warm. We were confused, shielding our eyes from its brightness.

“What is it?” asked a Lululemon clad woman clutching her miniature doberman.

“I don’t know man,” mumbled a beefy gym dude from under his brim hat.

“Is it dangerous to look at?” cried an elderly lady.

Panic began sweeping through the watching crowds, as people massed on the banks of English Bay, Kitsilano, and Ambleside, dazzled by the spectacle of the bright orange disc hovering over the waters of the Salish Sea. Hysteria was but a breath away, and not even the police could contain it. And then, just as the crowds were about to take on a life of their own, came the announcement, broadcast on the airwaves and across the Internet.

“Attention, attention Vancouver. No, this is not the end of the world, no the object is not a UFO from a distant civilization, rather it is something called the sun.”

“The sun?” We all asked, turning to our rain soaked neighbours.

“What is that?”

…and then it was gone behind another swath of cloud.

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Congestion Charging Based on Automobile Efficiency – A Means to Reshape the Greater Vancouver Regional District

24 Nov

This post on Pricetags reminded me of a post I penned back when I was blogging on LiveJournal through the 2000’s. In my opinion, it has become more relevant than in 2009, as none of these issues have been addressed, but will need to be tackled in the upcoming GVRD Transit Referendum.

Congestion charging, tolls, user pay, bike lanes, subways, trolleys, improving the downtown core, pedestrian malls, these are the infrastructure issues our urban region will need to address and make final decisions on in the referendum. The current model, where cars take up nearly half of our urban landscape and can drive almost anywhere, is not sustainable. The question is, “what do we as a region want, do we wish to remain conventionally North American and stay with status quo, even though much of North America is moving on, or do we want to be the leaders?”

Vancouver into and beyond the Olympics: An Initiative for a Global Hub City

Vancouver, 3 May 2006 (Original date of composition)

Congestion Charging: A Supply and Demand Instrument

A number of cities around the world have been implementing congestion charging zones in high-density areas for some time. The results of these initiatives speak for themselves; once over-crowded streets have been replaced with more liveable and workable spaces, allowing people to take back street space. Yet congestion charging has allowed for a host of other benefits, such as:

  1. Achieving Kyoto objectives;
  2. Reducing noise pollution;
  3. Improving air quality to the benefit of local human health;
  4. Increasing city revenue due to congestion charges, consequently allowing for subsidies for intensive mass public transit initiatives;
  5. Reducing city traffic;
  6. Creating opportunities for revitalizing zones once considered unworkable due to excessive automobile volume;
  7. Reducing the number of required road networks (due to less traffic), consequently creating opportunities for redevelopment of streets in the form of urban gathering points (public squares), parks, living spaces, and tax rich commercial ventures;
  8. Reducing the cost for maintaining and up-keeping overused road networks.

Congestion Charging in Vancouver

This document proposes Vancouver initiate a pilot congestion charging initiative in its CBD. This congestion charging zone would run along Main Street in the east, starting at Science World and continuing north along Main to Portside Park; in the west access would be controlled via Lion’s Gate Bridge, while to the south traffic control would be established on Cambie, Granville, and Burrard Street Bridges. [i]

As in cities that have already established congestion charging, all movement would be tracked using databases and CCTV’s at access points. Downtown Vancouver does have an advantageous topography for such an initiative, which due to limited access to its downtown area, does not need as many control points as say London, Helsinki, or Stockholm (all cities that have implemented congestion charging).

The Pillars of Congestion Charging

In establishing a congestion-charging zone, charging must be based on easily understandable criteria:

  1. The duration of the commute based on origin and destination;
  2. The fuel efficiency of the vehicle;
  3. The time of day of the commute.

In North America the first item is relatively well understood. It is for the most part already applied on many freeway tolls in the United States and parts of Canada. Many Vancouver motorists have at some point utilized a toll highway, and understand charges are based on how long they are on a road, and how far they travel on it. Applied to a congestion-charging zone, those with digital vehicle plates registered from farther away (up to a set limit) will pay more than those with plates from inside or near the congestion zone.

Charging based on automobile fuel efficiency is still a relatively novel idea in North America. The concept implies charging rates according to the fuel efficiency of a vehicle, as well as whether the vehicle is registered as part of a car pool or cooperative network programme. Based on this system, commuters driving large inefficient cars pay more, whilst those carpooling or using coop cars, driving electric cars (this is up for debate, as electric cars are not as efficient as one is led to believe), or riding public transit pay the least. An effective database can tie these variables into a calculation.

The last item, charging based on time of day, means that congestion-charging simply applies to the private automobile what mass transit companies around the world are already using to mitigate overcrowding on transit at certain times of the day. Essentially drivers using road networks during rush hour pay more than those using roads at off peak times. The idea is based on the premise that the user pays, but also works to encourage commuters to find innovative ways to avoid utilising the road network during these times, unless absolutely necessary.

These three pillars of congestion-charging, backed by digital licence plates (already in implementation), CCTV, and a flexible database, will provide for reduced urban congestion, greater security, and improved human health in Metro Vancouver.

The benefits of implementing congestion charging in Vancouver will not only make the city more liveable, thus ensuring its lead as the most desirable place to live in, according to The Economist and the UN, it will also provide much needed revenue to help finance future public transit initiatives that will in turn get more people out of their cars and encourage further private sector investment in the city.

A prospective long-term benefit, yet to be explored, is the potential to reduce the number of automobile access streets in the city – something only possible with reduced traffic due to congestion charging coupled with viable public transit alternatives. With a reduction in the number of streets the city could redevelop urban thoroughfares into mixed commercial and green spaces, thus providing additional revenue for the city through new property taxes and new land to sell for development.

Out of Congestion, Landmarks and Legacies

Vancouver has, since Expo in 1986, experienced a spectacular real estate boom bringing thousands of people into live-work environments in the city core. This has helped revitalize the city core; however, the city centre, when compared to other major centres, lacks diversity in the form and function of its work and living spaces.

With the upcoming Olympics, and the economic conjunction of booming real estate, low interest rates, high energy prices, and a high dollar (affording discounts on quality imports), the city has the opportunity to encourage the development of world class statement buildings that will stamp its image as the cultural and economic intersection of European, American, and Asian cultures.

Using congestion charging to increase city revenues, improve urban liveability, and ultimate reduce the amount of space dedicated to automobiles will not only provide immediate revenue to the city, but it will also provide new space to initiate legacy and landmark developments. These developments, once completed, will further add to city revenues in the form of property taxes, tourism revenues, and unforeseen spin-offs.

The types of development the city could consider to replace urban thoroughfares:

  • The development of an integrated entertainment and theatre district to consolidate Vancouver theatre in a central area, as is the case in cities such as Buenos Aires, London, New York, and Montreal;
  • The development of a museum and design corridor dedicated to experimental design in architecture, as was successfully achieved in Bilbao, Spain;
  • The development of a north-south pedestrian, trolley, and non-motorized corridor incorporating commercial space and city piazzas;
  • The development of a statement boulevard space incorporating natural space with new urban developments;
  • The construction of urban spaces dedicated to knowledge industries in design, media, IT, and biotechnology.

Regardless of what themes are assembled, all efforts must ensure that this long term initiative give priority to experimental design that breaks away from the form of architecture that has dominated Vancouver’s skyline since the end of Expo in 1986.

Conclusion

Apart from increasing city revenues as well as reducing automobile traffic, congestion charging also provides the financial and logistical means for reshaping any urban space, thus affording cities the manoeuvrability to turn once unusable spaces into opportunities for the development of landmark legacy developments.

Vancouver, due to the factors outlined in this document, has the unique opportunity to be the first city in North America to use congestion charging to achieve greater liveability and sustainability, whilst also establishing itself as the epicentre for urban legacies.

[i] http://maps.google.ca/?hl=fr&q=vancouver&f=q&ll=49.285332,-123.109961&spn=0.027881,0.107803&om=1

Protective Barriers for Dogs, but not for Cyclists

17 Nov

I am one of hundreds of cyclists who ride the Stanley Park causeway on a nearly daily basis, and each time I never know if it will be the last time.

The causeway, as I have blogged about before, has no official space for cyclists, rather bikes and electric scooters share the same sidewalk as pedestrians. Adding to the problem is there is no barrier separating the narrow sidewalk from vehicle traffic.This situation has led to a number of serious accidents, including fatalities, where pedestrians (of all ages) and cyclists (of all ages) have collided and ended up on the causeway, crushed by a vehicle. Pedestrians and bikers have no alternate route to get to Stanley Park and the downtown, as the Seabus is at Lonsdale Quay, and buses are only designed to take two bikes at a time. Operated by the province, the roadway is the only link from the North Shore to the city centre.

This past week another dog sailed over the side of BC place, the result of a negligent owner ignoring signs and letting his large dog wander the public space without a leash. BC place has promised it will immediately construct a barrier to ensure this does not happen again. BC place is run by the provincial government.

Does this mean dogs who are off leash in on leash areas have more rights than cyclists, motorists, and pedestrians? How come the province won’t build a protective barrier on the causeway, but will do so at BC Place?

It starts with us, not with “mais vous”…

12 Nov

Just a few months ago I met close friends of mine whilst travelling from Ibiza to Zurich. We spent the day meandering the streets of one of Europe’s most historical cities, walking plazas, cathedrals, and cobbled streets covered by the first leaves of an early autumn.

As with close friends, conversation comes easily, and inevitably we delved deeper into the goings on of our lives, and the world we are a part of. By lunch time we were already on to politics, and the inevitable discussions that shape French politics, and in particular the almost inevitable return of Sarkozy to the Elysyée come next election. This of course raised all kinds of questions of what it means to be Français; the transformation of French culture by waves of Maghrebian immigration from former French colonies, the persistence of le Front National, the inability for many immigrants to be French, simply because of their family name. Is France becoming more radicalized, or is this simply a trend being observed across the globe since the end of the stary eyed interlued following the fall of the Berlin Wall? My friends argued France certainly has an immigration problem, and the Arab muslims of France are a challenge to integrate, but it was more than that, it was…and then it came…”mais vous, vous…”

I was surprised, since I would have never imagined hearing it from such close friends, and I am certain they did not mean it. Their point was that Israel was responsible for the radical Arab Islam problem in France and in the world in general. I certainly took offense to their point, but elected not to debate it, since we only had a day and I wanted us to remain focused on making the most of our short time together. Friends have a right to disagree, and I am the first to jump at civil debate.

In the weeks since that day in France I have found myself thinking a lot about what they had to say. Is Israel really responsible for the ailments of the modern world, a clash between Western Civilization and current Arab Islam, a war of the worlds? Or is Israel simply a scapegoat for failed states, and mismanaged democracies? How could Israel be responsible for the failure of France to integrate its Arab Muslim population, many of these people who had arrived in France by the simple fact that their homelands had once been colonies of France?

One of the greatest arguments against the State of Israel is it is a continuation of European colonialism into a region that is Arab, an off shoring of the Jewish problem from the cities of Europe to the medinas of Arabia. Yet paradoxically, the first thing any tourist will notice when they arrive in Israel is that almost everyone looks like an Arab. This can be particularly disconcerting for a naive European anticipating a white society filled with white European Jews. One may ask, “why is Israel so brown, where are the white Jews  who stole the land from the Arabs?”

Well most of Europe’s Jews were gassed in Germany and Poland between 1939 and 1945, which radically diminished the number of “white” Jews. Also between 1955 and 1975 over a million Arab Jews fled an Arab Muslim world in the throws of revolt against European colonialism, becoming refugees in Israel, and overnight transforming the country into an “Arabesque” one. Walking the streets of Haifa, Tel Aviv, or any Israeli city, it is impossible to discern who is a Jew, a Muslim, a Bahia, or a Christian, just as it is impossible to tell who is a real “Israeli”. Yet walking the streets of Paris, or any French or European city, one knows who is Arab, and who is French, even if the “Arab” has been living there for generations, and the “Frenchman” is a white tourist from Louisiana with a french last name.

The revolts of Arab Muslims against Jews, who are considered an extension of Israel, is a serious problem in France, just as is the persistence of the Front National, and the arrogance of the Gauche, who believe France can somehow magically stay its path even though it has failed miserably in integrating its immigrants into a free, equal, and just society. France’s problems are not unusual, as eluded to in this post, this is a problem throughout the West, as rather than work hard at integrating immigrants into our societies, we prefer to focus on nationalism, tax cuts, and reducing essential government services.

My life partner recently became a Canadian, at the ceremony I was struck by how remarkable an exception Canada is to the laissez-faire of most Western democracies. Much was made of the beauty of Canada, its security, its high level of trust, and the peace we enjoy in our communities. The citizenship judge also said something more, and I quote, “none of this is free, indeed nothing is free. Canada is what it is because of the work of those who came before, who worked to build upon a land that had begun with the aboriginal peoples.”

She continued, “as Canadians you now have the responsibility to do your part, to contribute, to communicate with others who may not look like you, who may not worship the same way as you, who may not have the same mother tongue as you. It is important to vote, to take part in the civic process, to volunteer, and to meet people from all communities.”

Remarkable in its contrast with France, and much of the West, Canada realizes that in the immigration market place, Western Civilization is a tremendous draw for the talent of the world, yet Canada knows that bringing talent is but one part of the immigration pie, the other piece is integrating everyone into a free, just, and open society; so that rather than spawn suspicion, hatred, and violence, it builds trust, friendship, and peace.

In this day following Remembrance Day, I take this lesson, that it really is possible to make a just society, but it requires constant work as engaged citizens in our neighbourhoods and communities. Too many soldiers, civilians, and animals at war have been sent to their deaths for us to be lazy, to blame others for our problems, rather than us getting off our sofas to vote, volunteer, and reach out to others.

 

Music listened to while I wrote this: https://soundcloud.com/solomun/lana-del-rey-west-coast

Protectionism

5 Nov

Zoning is a protectionist measure, which much like trade tariffs, constrain supply and restrict the ability of the market to respond to real demand. In the case of restrictive zoning, the housing market experiences a rise in the price of houses due to limited supply, a situation that leads to a market becoming detached from the real economy, to the detriment of the city and the region as a whole.

In a normal balanced market, the supply of housing stock either rises with the corresponding demand so as to keep prices stable, or rises only slightly more than inflation. In the condo market in Vancouver, comprehensive zoning allows developers to build sufficient product to meet consumer demand so prices neither rise nor fall dramatically. This is a healthy situation, as it allows future and current homeowners to better plan their housing needs, while at the same time permitting developers to better project budgets and sales revenues. Another benefit of this zoning environment is the neighbourhood can grow and evolve, meeting the needs and representing the ethnic diversity of a dynamic city.

Sadly in the case of a market distorted by a protectionist measure such as zoning, the prices of the available product rise quickly and unpredictably, faster than real wage increases. This reduces the number of potential buyers, as they fail to save fast enough to access the single family home market. Families, professionals with large amounts of student debt, seniors with rising property tax bills are among those forced to move elsewhere for their housing needs. Over time the profile of residents in a neighbourhood begins to narrow and become ethnically uniform, where more established ethnic groups who arrived in Vancouver early and benefited from the modern real estate booms, start to dominate the single family zones of the city. This explains why the City of Vancouver is a mostly Caucasian and Chinese city, while Surrey, much newer, is more ethnically diverse and representative of the population dynamics of Greater Vancouver.

I do not advocate turning Vancouver into a giant comprehensive development zone similar to the downtown, since this would lead to utter chaos in the market and destroy the livability of the city. What I propose is that each area in the city be up zoned, meaning single family zones become duplexes, duplex zones become more comprehensive low rise, and so on. This will permit more people to live in and enjoy the City of Vancouver’s amenities and give home buyers more choices than either moving to the suburbs or living in a condo in the downtown. It must be noted that the stock of single family homes will not dry up under such a measure, rather the market will adjust their price and quantity to match the buying power of potential home owners – those who want a single family home will demolish a duplex or retain a single family home. Up zoning will also preserve the aesthetics of the city without overly crowding neighbourhoods – one can just look at the success of the duplex zones in Kitsilano, which have preserved character and tree cover while providing a lot more housing than Dunbar or Point Grey.

The time to act is now. Restrictive zoning is strangling Vancouver, it creating a socioeconomic divide that is not healthy for our economy, our city and the region as a whole.

Ralph Segal: How to save character homes

1 Nov

As a property developer myself, I am witnessing first hand the policy changes at city hall.

The house we originally considered demolishing is now under a retention restriction. We are faced with two options: build new and much smaller, or retain and get a lot of extra square feet. Simply math makes the latter the route of choice, which has the added benefit of retaining neighbourhood character while still adding housing density.

I think homeowners need to realize that we can’t have our cake and eat it too. If we want retention of the neighbourhood then we have to restrict demolitions, but if we restrict demolitions, then the value of the homes will fall, unless they can be densified through stratification.

Price Tags

This comment is in response to a post on Barbara Yaffe’s column about a drop in property values as a result of City initiatives to retain character homes.  Ralgh Segal was one of the City’s most experienced development-permit architects (now retired), so it’s worth bringing this to the foreground for a discussion on the policy implications:

.

While I understand that it makes good copy to trash the bureaucracy, and true enough it’s often justified, your opinion piece does not give any credit to the City’s attempt to stem a flood of destruction by lazy, quick-buck builders who seem to take joy in bulldozing charming, but undersized older housing and carting the debris to the land fill. This does not even speak to the environmental affront of this trend, much less the loss of neighbourhood character, to be replaced by stock off-the-shelf house plans usually unworthy of a site valued…

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