When senior architect, urban designer and development planner Ralph Segal was working on densifying a Vancouver neighbourhood, such as the West End or North False Creek, he’d put on his most comfortable shoes and walk every day, searching for pockets that could handle the density.
The former City of Vancouver senior staffer figures he walked the entire city.
“You get into your very comfortable shoes and you spend two weeks walking the precinct, and you then – with a deep understanding of the impact that a greater height and building massing and volume has on a smaller, more gentle, lower existing form of development – you locate particular spots; unique sites where an insertion of a, let’s say, a six-storey building could go.”
The objective was to gain a full understanding of the existing built scale, and determine whether it should be maintained, or if there were pockets that could handle an increase of density, while retaining the character. In the West End, they determined that Thurlow to Burrard could handle towers, as could Coal Harbour. In Kitsilano’s Arbutus area, the decision was made for a mid-rise built form with “robust density” that didn’t destroy the character. He also understood that developers could make it work. He had a hand in shaping a lot of other density, including North False Creek, Northeast False Creek, Granville Slopes, Downtown South, and the future removal of the viaducts.
“It’s hard work. You have to be very observant.”
He covered a lot of ground, and Mr. Segal was a staunch supporter of density used to enhance the built environment, and he still sees many such opportunities in Vancouver. At his retirement party in 2011, he learned from a developer that he’d been nicknamed “the dean of densification” during his 25-year tenure at city hall. He’s proud of that, and of the reputation for good urban design that Vancouver earned, which would send him on conferences around North America to give talks. It helped that he spent the first 15 years of his career as an architect with some of the big firms.
Today he sees signs that urban design is falling by the wayside. As we seek to grow as quickly as we can, he feels that there is no longer a place for good urban design, the principles of city making.
“This idea that you have to forego urban design to achieve density is just plain incorrect. I said it.”
He had no desire to weigh in on city affairs until the Broadway Plan and Vancouver Plan were announced. The plan to densify the Broadway subway corridor passed on June 22, by a 7-4 vote. The plan had many supporters, particularly from the development community and those who believe the solution to the affordability crisis is to expedite the delivery of significant density.
Now, Mr. Segal has been roused. And he’s not the only former senior city staffer who’s spoken out about the Broadway Plan, and other major rezonings. These are people well known for their contributions to the internationally celebrated city these past few decades, people such as Larry Beasley, Cameron Gray and Scot Hein. Mr. Gray, who was the long-time housing director for the city, has publicly spoken about the push for wholesale redevelopment instead of incremental development, and the threat to existing affordable housing. Former assistant directors of planning, Ronda Howard and Trish French, wrote to council about concerns they had with the Broadway Plan, such as loss of affordable housing and lack of park space. They advocated allowing a limited number of projects in areas with existing rental and condo buildings within a possible five-year period, which would be reviewed to ensure it’s addressing affordability. In that way, the plan would be rolled out in phases.
Good urban design – the kind that makes a city walkable, with cherished gathering spots, like a corner coffee shop, vibrant density and character – they argue, is increasingly being sidelined in favour of ill-conceived density without context.
The alternative to a livable city is one that is filled with homogeneous architecture, congested streets, with too many shadowy dark streetscapes and too much concrete, not enough sun or greenery. We all know those streets because we pass through them quickly to get somewhere else.
Prior to its approval, Mr. Segal penned a public letter to city council in which he lamented how the Broadway Plan will destroy much of the existing affordable apartment stock in Mount Pleasant, Fairview and Kitsilano, causing displacement of tenants. Mr. Segal is fine with 40-storey towers along Broadway, especially if they’re architecturally bold. He’s more than fine with towers in general, and applauds the towers at Marine and Cambie and Oakridge Park, particularly the rental. He had a major hand in developing a 22-storey rental tower in the West End when nobody was building them. But for the most part, tenants were not displaced by those rezonings.
“Vancouver has a particular formula for development that cannot withstand rampant densification throughout the entire city and still retain many of the aspects that we used to love about the city, and caused me to move from Montreal to Vancouver quite a few decades ago,” said Mr. Segal, who calls the Broadway Plan a template for the forthcoming, citywide Vancouver Plan.
“You could say, ‘Well, maybe the Broadway Plan won’t be a complete disaster,’ but approval of the Vancouver Plan and its approach to planning and affordable housing, will nail it as a disaster.
“I’m using strong language here, and I never thought I would. But that’s how I see it.”
Cambie Corridor was a successful transit-oriented broad rezoning, and few renters were displaced by it. It also adhered, he says, to an urban design plan.
“There is no doubt that Vancouver in ‘swallow-able’ bites can deal very nicely with rezonings and neighbourhood plans that are properly conceived with urban design playing deeply into it.”
He takes issue with the Broadway Plan going so far into surrounding neighbourhoods, and its two-towers-per-block plan, and the allowance of 99-foot frontages to build a tower.
“I hate ‘random urban design.’ In fact, it doesn’t exist as a bona fide urban design term; there’s no such animal.”
Scot Hein, a retired architect who was the City of Vancouver’s senior urban designer for most of his 20-year career, worked with Mr. Segal and refers to him as “a sage” at the city, when urban design was embedded in the culture. Today, Mr. Hein is a consultant and university instructor, and he still spends countless hours trying to figure out how to add density through urban design. He even wrote a book to help people understand urban design, and how the city got to where it is, called Zoning Must Evolve: You Forgot About Me. Residents were consulted, he writes, whereas now they are seen as an obstruction.
“Any urban designer worth their salt will get out of the office and walk the neighbourhood, and understand how the place works,” Mr. Hein says.
Decades ago, he and architect Sean McEwen figured out how to add density at Arbutus Walk, a former brewery site in Kitsilano.
Jericho Lands has the same potential to be a mid-rise neighbourhood that doesn’t tower over the tree canopy, he says, and achieve the same floor area and density that the current proposal calls for, but with more park space. When he put the idea forward, some people balked, but he said he’s got the calculations to show that it could be done.
He suspects that a large part of the reason towers are desirable is because of the returns, and the taxes, that pricey high-rise-view apartments can demand.
In other words, he doesn’t see urban design principles guiding the process so much any more.
“This isn’t about density or affordability,” he says. “It’s about generating property value for wherever the investors are coming from. The more cumulative assessment values you achieve, that allows for property tax notices based on higher versus lower property values. By building in concrete vertically, you are exploiting the view of our magical gifted setting. You are selling the view.”
There is a way back to a city that emphasized urban design while it grew in density. It requires a shift in the culture, he says. But let’s not discount how Vancouver became the city it is now, the one that everyone wants to live in. It was the consequence of a lot of thoughtful planning and design decisions, and a belief in public engagement. Former director of planning from 1973 to 1989, architect Ray Spaxman, had fought hard for that culture, and also for the current human-scale urban environment. Others built upon that.
“We had a pretty amazing legacy of city making and livability and neighbourliness, going back to Spaxman. How and why would you ever fault that achievement?”
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