The traditional "Vancouverist" model of a tower and podium may well be headed for a civic sea change. In the midst of controversy over proposed new towers – like the Rize Alliance development in Mount Pleasant that continues to draw significant community opposition despite being approved by council – several new "low-rise" projects are quietly making their mark on the urban landscape.
Call it the "slow-rise" revolution if you will, but the model that is gaining ground is one that evokes an earlier era and a more human scale, with uniquely contemporary design. Centred around Vancouver's historic neighbourhoods, projects like Gastown's Paris Annex, Chinatown's Flats on Georgia and Mount Pleasant's Collection 45 offer modernist architectural values that respect the surrounding built-and-social environments in a way that the city's growing number of cookie-cutter towers do not.
Developer Robert Fung, whose six-storey Paris Annex building will be completed this summer, and has already sold out, contends that "our region needs density – it's crucially important. But that doesn't mean that it has to be exclusively through high-rises."
He notes that Paris, one of the densest cities in the world, achieved that density largely through the six-storey walk-up typology.
While he believes that high-rises can be designed with sensitivity to their environment, low-rises offer certain advantages, says Mr. Fung, "They increase light in an area," he notes. "They offer a strong sense of identity and individuality, but at the same time make it easier for neighbours to get to know each other."
Because of the low-rise's need to be "strongly contextual to where they are," he says, "that can often mean a higher level of design, and greater attention to detail," noting that "our historic neighbourhoods tend to offer greater opportunities for this, as the buildings have to have a greater sense of engagement with their environment."
He notes that some towers in the area, like the Woodwards one, tend to be "inward looking" with a lack of "street-front engagement." Low-rises by nature have a greater engagement with the street and tend to go against the grain of the "commodity ubiquity towers" that proliferate around, say, the False Creek South area.
The Paris Annex is a conjoined fraternal twin of sorts to the next-door heritage conversion (and former HQ of Paris boot-makers) Paris Block. Both buildings, designed by architect Gair Williamson, share service core infrastructure.
"You have to walk through the old 1907 building to enter the new one," notes Mr. Williamson. "Every day, residents are literally moving through history."
The elegant 35-foot building of glass and steel will contain 2,500 square feet of retail on the ground floor and mezzanine, with 17 market residential units on the upper floors.
The constraints of these "character sites," as Mr. Williamson calls them, "make them unique. When you work on a 25-foot site, you have to respond with integrity and be hyper-aware of the surrounding environment."
Project architect Jenny Chow notes that large pivot windows and balconies in both buildings augment the relationship between residents and the street. Ms. Chow, who actually resides in the Paris Block, says "friends in the neighbourhood can literally call up to my window and I can lean out to say hello." This "living above the shop" feel lends an old-world Asian or European feel, while the sleek interiors offer modern design and creature comforts. Such a combination of high design and community building features would be hard to replicate in a taller building.
While Mr. Williamson notes that many of the new downtown towers are "hot in summer, crowded and expensive," he says, "low-rises are great for the community and the residents. But in terms of feasibility, that's another issue. There are so few character sites left that the low-rise in its historic context will soon become extinct."
But the city is recognizing this dwindling stock and is re-examining issues around parking requirements and height.
For the new Flats on Georgia development in Chinatown, the key to making an economically feasible low-rise, says project architect Sandra Moore of Birmingham and Wood, was permission to "build to the front and rear of property lines" on a traditional 25-foot lot. The extra space mitigated costs and also lent a historical authenticity to the project.
Clad in a steel and aluminum curtain wall, the nine-storey building features steel railings and shutters, evocative of historical Chinatown buildings, with at-grade street frontage also referencing neighbourhood shop houses.
This is the first project for Panther Construction Company, developers who have a long history in the neighbourhood and work with the inner-city revitalization non-profit group Embers. They were convinced by co-designer Inge Roecker of the site's potential and feasibility. Ms. Moore contends that "if the city can allow setbacks and more mass on small lots, this would be a huge contribution to housing supply and affordability. They need to focus more on small developments like this rather than big projects."
The building is flanked by a laneway to the east, which allows light in from three sides, and which Ms. Moore hopes will be revived as a traditional transitway.
The laneway is also celebrated in Collection 45, a new development in Mount Pleasant, just a few minutes away from the Rize Alliance tower site.
The 45-unit mixed-use development that broke ground last month is flanked by an east- and north-facing lane. New arts studios and an office café will overlook the laneways to facilitate greater engagement with the streetscape.
As Amela Brudar of GBL Architects explains, "We pulled the building in from the interior property line and created an internal street – a breezeway – that all the commercial units will face."
The 16-feet-high commercial base of the building is a glazed podium upon which two banks of stacked units "float." Irregular ground-floor setbacks allow for animation of street frontage by offering landscaping along the south facing edge.
The six-storey building with local industrial references of glass and steel and heritage brick is further connected to the streetscape by extensive glazing.
All interior corridors have windows and exit stairs are completely glazed.
With north-south orientation, most of the units ha ve cross-ventilation and views. Some feature a unique "scissor" interior design, with bedrooms elevated and approached via a stairwell from the living area.
"People want to live in these suites," says Ms. Brudar.
Cristy Edmonds, vice-president of sales and marketing for developer Michael Ching, says, "The building is full of end-users. Towers tend to attract more speculators, while low-rises appeal to people who live and work in the community.
"It's nice to sell homes," she adds, "to real people."
Special to The Globe and Mail