Trouble in paradise
Americans, folk wisdom tells us, have a "benevolent ignorance" of all things Canadian. In other words, you don't know a whole lot about...
Special to The Times
VANCOUVER, B.C. — Americans, folk wisdom tells us, have a "benevolent ignorance" of all things Canadian. In other words, you don't know a whole lot about us, but what you do know is pretty positive.
We micelike Canadians dwelling beside your elephantine United States are obliged to know a lot about your country: Canadians tend to have a "malevolent knowledge" of things American.
Yes, we are surely guilty of stockpiling a list of every ill in your country, then smugly congratulating ourselves about our superiority. At the drop of a hat, we cheeseheads can rattle off average wait times on the Highway 520 bridge to and from the Eastside, announce that Experience Music Project is the worst Frank Gehry building ever, and always, always, mention the sticky-sweet tackiness of your version of Chinese food.
I would like to reverse this pattern by cautioning Seattleites that all the answers to the future of your downtown are not to be found here in Vancouver.
The solutions to healthy and balanced downtown growth are certainly not to be found in the ideas of our current director of central area planning, Larry Beasley, who recently hit your town in his extended roadshow of American colleges and city halls, selling his latest branding of "Vancouver-ism" to the land of his birth.
Beasley — Las Vegas-born and educated, and the best showman in the annals of urban planning — and former planning director Ray Spaxman arrived in Seattle in August at the invitation of City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck. Steinbrueck is a typical Seattleite, in that he, with his late architect-father, has been coming to Vancouver ever since he was a kid, and has a great love for our town. Peter, we love you and your Pike Place Market-saving dad, too, but we love you enough to now tell you that you do not really understand us.
For visitors using us as a resort, or a pit stop on the way to that other resort on the slopes of Whistler, Vancouver is a brilliant place. Because of higher levels of recent immigration from a more-diverse range of countries, we are a notch more cosmopolitan, our neighborhoods are a little spicier than yours, and without doubt, Vancouver is the cheap sushi capital of the known universe.
But before Seattle follows Beasley's Vancouver recipe for remaking the shores of Elliott Bay, listen up, because there is trouble in paradise.
To understand what is really happening in downtown Vancouver, you have to look past our gorgeous screen of ever-positive visuals: Marilyn Monroe was no less beautiful when she was depressed.
Our restaurants are full, tourists pack the sidewalks, and the climax forest of condominium apartment towers is now nearing a complete buildout on our land-limited downtown peninsula, with False Creek on one side, Burrard Inlet on the other.
Downtown Vancouver appears to pros-per, but in the complex world of city building, appearances can be deceiving. I am not for a moment questioning the prospering part — the whole world is scrambling to live and play on our downtown peninsula, with its paradisiacal combination of mountain and ocean vistas, parks and urbanity.
I am, however, most certainly questioning the "downtown" part, because the city we are shaping in the current boom is something quite different from any notion of what a "downtown" is, was, or will be.
Paradise, yes, but because of shortsighted urban planning, downtown Vancouver may be becoming a fool's paradise. This is because people are coming to live and play here, but not to work.
Beasley and his senior staff recently confirmed to me that in the nearly five years of the new century, development applications have been made for only 700,000 square feet of new office towers in downtown Vancouver.
In this same period since Jan. 1, 2001, they have approved 7 million square feet of new condos. Many of us wonder if a 10-to-1 ratio in favor of condos is in our city's best long-term interest. While all three of our municipal political parties are maintained by donations from downtown condo developers, even our politicians are getting worried about this extreme skew.
After the conversion of the award-winning West Coast Transmission office tower on West Georgia Street plus two dozen other commercial buildings (both office and warehouse) into condominium apartments, Vancouver's City Council recently changed policy to require an impact study and further approvals before any more conversions to condos — lest our beleaguered last stand of office towers also turn places to work into places to live.
Why this is happening is revealed in a couple of disturbing facts about the state of Vancouver's downtown core. According to developer Ian Gillespie, there is now a 5-to-1 ratio between the economic return per square foot of new condominium apartments built in downtown Vancouver and a square foot of new office space. This is unambiguous marketplace feedback telling us that our core is a brilliant place to live, visit and party in, but a lousy place to do business — especially corporate business, which requires multiple floors of dedicated office space.
I mentioned this 5-to-1 ratio at a May 26 symposium at New York's Institute of Urban Design, and the assembled developers, Realtors, planners and architects there could not name another major city — anywhere — where the economic return from building condos so eclipses offices.
This ratio, in combination with a ham-handed rezoning of most of our downtown peninsula in 1991 that permits housing nearly everywhere, means that developers like Westbank Corp.'s Gillespie would be out of their minds to build places to work here, rather than places to sleep, such as hotels and condos.
This downtown-reshaping policy was labeled by Beasley's team and approved by the council as "Living First," but in application it has evolved into "Condos Only."
There are some startling new facts to indicate what is happening downtown, and it is not the class- and income-balanced urban growth Beasley declaims in his lectures for "the Vancouver miracle."
The percentage of condos to all housing downtown (that is, condos + social housing + market and nonprofit rental housing) has been on a continuous rise ever since 2001. That year, our downtown housing was 45 percent condos; in 2002, it was 55 percent condos; in 2003, 75 percent; in 2004, it was 87 percent; and so far this year, an astonishing 100 percent of all downtown housing approved was for condos and condos alone!
The office-development market in downtown Vancouver — for all intents and purposes — is dead, even while it is reviving strongly in Toronto, Calgary, Ottawa and, yes, Seattle. Your city has hung on to a large number of its banks and corporate head offices, while Vancouver never had them in the first place, or they have headed to the suburbs and Alberta in the face of a severe and mounting anti-business ethos from our governing, extreme-left "Coalition of Progressive Electors" municipal party.
Downtown Vancouver faces the dismal prospect of fewer and fewer sites having the proper size and location for office towers. This will fix our destiny as a shortsighted residential resort, not the diverse and lively mixture of living and work that is a real downtown.
Whistler residents used to worry about their resort becoming "Vancouver-ized." As a new home to global hot money, as apartment hub for a generation of boomers wanting to retire in cities after lives in the suburbs, and with condos-as-commodities emerging as investments of choice, Vancouver ironically now has ample reason to worry that its downtown is becoming "Whistler-ized."
In a major speech to developers last year, Beasley urged new investment to "Go east." In other words, exploit some of the underused land between Granville and the Downtown Eastside. To paraphrase my Saskatchewan progenitors, Beasley's advice was closing the barn door after the office horses long since had fled.
Why has our land-use policy, which by definition plans for future needs as well as current demand, not left more dedicated office-tower sites in reserve where business actually wants them — west of Granville Street? There is only one phrase to describe the extent of the 1991 rezonings, and the way they have been managed since — bad urban planning.
There is a second disturbing ratio that, together with the first one, seals the fate of our core as more of a resort than a conventional downtown. This second figure has to do with our vastly skewed property-tax assessments, which soak businesses such as offices and stores in order to artificially lighten the financial load for residential property owners.
Vancouver businesses pay 6.2 times the municipal taxes per square foot that houses and condos do — by far the highest such ratio among major Canadian cities, much higher than Vancouver's suburbs (which are, no surprise, getting all the office action), and unthinkable in the United States. Well-intended but badly mismanaged downtown land-use policies ensure any future corporate successes, like a Vancouver-grown Starbucks or Amazon.com, will be obliged to leave our burg, because 90-plus percent of our best downtown sites went for condos, not offices.
In Vancouver's strange world of municipal politics under COPE, a mild proposal to even out this skewing of property taxes onto the backs of business — to be phased in over a barely perceptible 20-year-long track of tiny incremental adjustments — went down to spectacular defeat by politicos who value short-term happiness for homeowners over their city's long-term health.
I am tempted to blame you Americans for the loony left that has controlled our municipal government since 2002, because fully one-third of all of our COPE municipal officials elected then were born and educated in the United States, most coming to Canada during the Vietnam War era. The anti-business ethos of Vancouver's civic politicians is more reminiscent of Berkeley in 1972, or Santa Monica under Tom Hayden, than any urban political culture in Canada.
The Nov. 19 election campaign by Alabama-born mayoral candidate Jim Green is largely financed by downtown condo developers — it is our lefties, ironically, who are turning downtown into a retirement zone for the wealthy, decorated with a few "Potemkin Villages" of low-cost housing, such as the redevelopment of our former Woodward's department store on our troubled Downtown Eastside.
When it opens as all condos next year, the former West Coast Transmission Tower will generate somewhere between one-half and one-fifth the property-tax revenue that it did as an office tower. And while the condo-boom-inducing downtown lifestyle depends on huge investments of our taxes in parks, transit, theaters, galleries and schools, our de facto "condos only" downtown development strategy means high-growth businesses, faced with diminishing options, will be obliged to move to other municipalities, taking their taxes with them.
The myopia of this tradeoff is having stark consequences all over B.C.'s Lower Mainland. Let's start with the implications for transportation of the "de-downtownization" of our core.
With the first two SkyTrain lines, and now with the Richmond-Airport line currently under construction, we have a radial public-transportation network, centered on jobs and shopping downtown.
But ridership projections for this latest line predict more people leaving downtown to work in Richmond than coming into the center. Downtown as new dormitory suburb? This fate may come sooner than later, accompanied by calls by parties on the political right for radial and ring freeways near Vancouver for the first time — like your Highway 520 and Interstate 405 — doomed to be packed-out the day they open.
We may once have dreamed of taking our place on the list of the world's great cities, but unless something is changed soon to preserve and promote our downtown as a place to work, we will instead join Waikiki and Miami Beach on the list of resorts filling up with aging baby boomers lounging around their overpriced condos.
Beasley counters that many of Yaletown's and Downtown South's new condo owners will work from their apartments. Yes, being a home worker, I can relate to that. But what happens when these consultants and startup companies need to hire their third employee? What happens when we information workers and "Cultural Creatives" have to flee Vancouver because resort-based housing prices make it impossible for us to live and work here, even when we conduct both halves of our lives in 500-square-foot condo apartments with close vistas of other condo apartments?
It all comes down to planning.
While they spin these facts differently, Beasley and staff are cognizant of the urban forces described above, and some are as worried as I am. They have commissioned a grandly named "Metropolitan Core Jobs and Economy Land Use Plan" that will not be returned, conveniently, until long after Vancouver's Nov. 19 municipal election.
Listen, Seattle: Vancouver's densification and urge toward some housing is a great idea, and your core could surely use quite a few new residents of all types and income levels. But please be careful not to undertake overscaled rezonings like ours, as under the pressure of the current housing bubble they have undermined the best intentions of two generations of Vancouver planners.
For this wonderful city's sake, I hope Vancouver's upcoming election campaign offers a real debate about alternative futures for our core — as this may well be downtown's last resort.Currently the architecture critic for The Vancouver Sun and a columnist for Seattle's Arcade magazine, Trevor Boddy has taught architectural and urban design, history and theory at the universities of British Columbia, Oregon, Manitoba and Toronto. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org