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English Bay Boathouse Area: Congestion Caused by the Cactus Club and too much Roadway

5 Jan
The area around the Cactus Club at English Bay is an accident waiting to happen, the result of placing the front door of a popular restaurant right onto the busiest bike way in the cityAnyone who bikes, walks, or rollerblades through this narrow section knows it is a shambles of a limited sidewalk, a narrow bike lane, bus shelters, and pylons; however, with a bit of creativity the problem can be easily rectified.
The solution – move the bike lane onto Beach Road and redirect Stanley Park in/out traffic onto Morton Ave to the north side of the “Laughing Men” statues – this will connect these statues to the beachfront, as the short section of Beach Road and Davie Street that lies between it and the seawall would become a bike path and pedestrian space.
The drop-off parking in front of Cactus Club is also part of the problem, but can be fixed by also relocating it to the north of the “laughing men” statues.
The impact of these changes to traffic will be minimal, as the area is a 30km/hr zone access road to and from the park, which means drivers should not be travelling in a hurry.
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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

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.

Room for Improvement – Better Pedestrian Public Space in Vancouver

13 Oct

Trees, wide side walks, a varied composition of shopfronts and residential spaces, low levels of traffic noise, good lighting, pedestrian walkways, shelter from rain in the form of tree cover, canopies, and awnings; walking distance to amenities. These are the elements that create an appealing walker’s public space.

2014-10-02 15.30.51

Piazza in Konstanz, Germany

Most of Vancouver’s inner city neighbourhoods such as Kitsilano have high walkablility scores because their streets contain many of these elements, however, apart from the Westend, Vancouver’s downtown streets are a striking contrast. In the majority of cases, they are automobile thoroughfares offering limited shelter from rain or noise for pedestrians.

howe

Typical downtown Vancouver streetscape

After spending a month travelling in central and southern Europe, I was once again reminded how walkable European cities are. They are of course this way because they were developed prior to the automobile and stitched together during the golden age of rail travel.

Europeans are accustomed to efficient train travel, connecting seamlessly from foot traffic to a metro to an intercity express. I did this several times on my travels, catching a train from Barcelona to Lyon, another from Lyon to Milan, and from there to Lake Como and the gateway to the Helvetic Confederation. Travel was easy, inexpensive, and at each destination I was greeted by yet another inviting walkable inner city playground, a sort of pedestrian and cyclist’s Disneyland, populated with water fountains, trees, and restaurant patios of all shapes and sizes.

Europe2014282

Lyon Bike Share

Europe is not the only part of the world with this sort of infrastructure, even the centres of cities such as Melbourne, Cape Town, Tel Aviv, and Buenos Aires, where rail is almost non-existent, are a cyclist and walker’s paradise, urban oases providing respite from the noise of cars, motorbikes, and abrasive sirens.

gardens

Cape Town Gardens

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Greenmarket Square, Cape Town

fed-square

Confederation Square, Melbourne

And what about downtown Vancouver? Where are our piazzas, our alcohol friendly sidewalk patios, our pedestrian malls, and our central squares? Why do we fight and squabble for 20 years over a bike lane, when in most other cities this sort of infrastructure is considered normal, an essential part of urban infrastructure in much the same way as the construction of sewers, roads, and powerlines?

Tango, Palermo Soho

Buenos Aires

There is no clear answer to this question. This is the very reason why some societies are highly successful and others fail miserably, and why even with free access to near unlimited information, this divide persists. Why is Detroit not like San Francisco, or why does Norway have a sovereign wealth fund and Greece an economic crisis, or why is Ukraine a failed state, while Poland is an economic miracle?

I remain optimistic that Vancouver is connected enough to the rest of the world that eventually we will see the need for more walkable public space in our downtown core. We may live in the “Best Place on Earth”, but there is always room for improvement.

Vancouver Developing a Duplex in an RT7 Zone

19 Sep

As I’ve alluded to on multiple occasions, Vancouver suffers from a housing crisis of sorts, not uncommon to many desirable cities around the world. I am not as instructed on the complexities of cities such as Paris, Rome, or Barcelona, which are part of Europe’s “museum” cities – city centres devoid of permanent residents and almost entirely inhabited by tourists, or San Francisco, New York, or Hong Kong – city centres occupied by the creative and entrepreneurial classes, where everyone else lives on the periphery, or for that matter London (arguably the most exclusive of them all). Vancouver’s housing crisis is different to these cities because it is neither a museum city, nor is it a global alpha city with a large creative and entrepreneurial class.

In Vancouver the problem is the juxtaposition of zoning and the BANANA (1), as is evident in my employer’s most recent property development project. In the past our company has always built and renovated in North and West Vancouver, nearby upper middle class suburbs with a mixture of density and suburban development, with pockets of early 20th century Queen Anne and Edwardian period homes. Zoning in these suburbs, as well as community amiability to development has enabled the North Shore to develop some very successful mixed neighbourhoods. Despite this, I decided to make a strategic shift towards the City of Vancouver because of a better values fit – cycling, bike lanes, public transit, pre-automobile city grids – all sadly lacking in the suburbs of North and West Vancouver.

I digress, back to zoning and the BANANA. The City of Vancouver’s zoning is approximately 80% single family or commercial and condominium development, with the remainder open to duplex and other smaller medium density projects. For those not familiar with the City of Vancouver, I like to call these zones places where one can build the kinds of medium density flats and town houses typically seen in the inner cities of Chicago, Boston, London, Montreal, and Toronto – not more than 5 stories high, and everyone has street access without an elevator.

Since these zones cover such a tiny area of the city, the prices are exorbitantly high, which means developers have to charge top dollar on completed product in order to cover costs and turn a profit for the next project. In my blog I have repeatedly called from the end to single family zoning, so I’ll avoid dwelling on it here. More importantly, this is where the BANANA part of the problem comes into the equation. Residents in these zones often fight back on proposed new density, as they do not want to see their neighbourhoods undergo any significant change. They argue schools will become too crowded, street parking more scarce, libraries overused, and privacy diminished. Yet what the BANANAs fail to understand, is that the very density they fight is the density that allowed them to get into the neighbourhood in the first place. Put simply, if houses could not be converted into duplexes, triplexes, and small apartments, no one other than high income earners and those with rich parents would be able to live in these zones. One only need look at the pricing in the single family zones to see the evidence. Density brings the price per square foot down, which allows more people access to housing.

So the developer has to bend to the demands of BANANAs, who through lobbying impose all sorts of restrictions on the sorts of development that can be done in these limited medium density zones. These restrictions are reflected in the City of Vancouver’s building legislation, where blanket restrictions on demolitions force builders to restore homes of questionable heritage value, often sacrificing both housing density and neighbourhood restoration.

I am currently going through this very situation at the moment. The architect we’ve engaged has been told by city hall that the house we are planning to convert is stamped as heritage, so to demolish it would mean we would sacrifice 850 square feet of living space. Agreed, the house was built in the 1920’s; however, it has suffered from so many “renovations” inflicted on it prior to the zoning restrictions, that today it nothing more than a neglected cement block with aluminium widows, a car port addition, and a concrete front stairway.

Yet the legislation is clear, the city, directed by voters and lobbying, placed blanket measures to encourage housing retention and discourage the development of the horrid MacMansions that were built during the 1980’s and 1990’s, when waves of Chinese immigrants fled Hong Kong and Macau to park their money offshore in giant pink stucco homes devoid of any garden space. The pushback from local residents was reasonable at the time; however, the city now faces a housing challenge that can only be resolved by relaxing zoning and standing up to the BANANA.

A more practical solution to fit today’s needs would be to offer the developer the option to demolish the unit and retain the allowable building space, if they integrated a minimum amount of salvaged heritage material. This salvaged material can come from other homes or from secondary resale markets. Square feet could be rewarded to the developer for installing restored timber beams, salvaged lighting, hardwood flooring, gables, stained windows, etc. Naturally even more square feet would be given to developers who retain the house; however, at least this more versatile option would ensure heritage is retained in the neighbourhood, but not by just “saving” a building that has lost all the “heritage” value it had, apart from the year it was originally built in.

For us the next step is negotiations with city. There is a four month backlog at City Hall, so this project has a long way to go before breaking ground.

 (1) BANANA – An acronym for Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything, also known as the NIMBY – Not In My Back Yard. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NIMBY

Understanding Zoning and Heritage Classifications

4 Sep

The City of Vancouver planning department and Vision administration are both remarkably efficient and transparent. Online searches yield a wealth of information, which in most other cities around the world one would require making phone calls and visits to obscure city departments to gain access to information.

This level of transparency means the City of Vancouver is a relatively easy city to do real estate transactions in. Apart from the zoning issues, which afflict most North American cities, Vancouver benefits from established institutions with high levels of trust, a clean environment and stable climate, and a relatively effective transit network. Many Vancouverites who have not spent time abroad are quick to criticize the city administration; however, they do not realize how fortunate we are here. 

Below is a little of the information I have dug up in my research:

1. http://vancouver.ca/files/cov/Zoning-Map-Vancouver.pdf

2. http://former.vancouver.ca/commsvcs/BYLAWS/zoning/rt-7.pdf

3. http://vancouver.ca/your-government/zoning-development-bylaw.aspx

4. http://vancouver.ca/home-property-development/find-a-registered-heritage-building-site-or-tree.aspx

Frances Bula and Gordon Price are also a wealth of information for anyone wanting to understand Vancouver from a broader urbanist’s perspective.