While exploring New York City last week by foot, subway and the hop-on hop-off buses, I often felt like a kid who had just come in from the farm. While I am preparing some columns for the Vancouver Sun and Courier on housing ideas that are worth trying out in Vancouver, here are a few photos from my album.
Yes, it's a golf driving range on the Manhattan waterfront
While Vancouver's parking rates are high, they are nothing compared to NYC
The Vessel, a public art installation at Hudson Yards is a must see, but is it worth the reported $75 to 150 million it cost to build? I don't think so!
I don't know what the high-line park cost to create, but it's worth it.
When is big, too big?
Most architects will know who designed this luxury apartment building as viewed from the high-line
While many oppose illuminated billboards in Vancouver, I don't and would like to see more of this! (As long as it is not shining directly into MY bedroom window!)
Yes, there is bike-share in NYC and used to varying degrees
Wonderful new pedestrian spaces thanks to Mayor Bloomberg and his team
Whether you are a first time visitor, or have been to NYC many times, I still recommend the hop-on-hop-off buses
I would love to see this type of development in Vancouver
I hope we will never see this in Vancouver
Calatrava's new shopping centre replaces portions of the former World Trade Centre
Hudson Yards from the water. I will give it some time to age, but it does not have the pedestrian scale we are used to in Vancouver
A couple of months ago, I received an invitation to attend an affordable housing symposium in New York, from the New Cities Foundation, https://newcities.org/ an organization I had never heard of. But it had been a while since I was in NYC, and although limited details were provided, I decided to attend in the hope I would learn how American cities are addressing homelessness and other affordable housing challenges. I subsequently received the one-day program. Key topics were right up my alley and included:
Co-living; models for affordable housing; building for new demographics; balancing growth and equity; construction innovations, and the future of cooperatives and Land Trusts.
While a lot of the conversation was not relevant since the US has a very different governmental tax structure to support affordable housing, other topics were most relevant and at times fascinating. For example co-living, something for which I have long advocated, is considerably advanced in American cities where new companies like Ollie https://www.ollie.co/ and Common https://www.common.com/ are providing forms of housing unlike anything currently available in Vancouver. While we have many examples of younger, and older people living together in shared arrangements, I suspect it's just a matter of time before we see companies like this operating here.
Another session which I found particularly interesting was on the topic of ADUs or accessory dwelling units. In Vancouver, we call the laneway houses or coach houses. While not very common in the United States, State of California does allow ADUs as a matter of right, and this is led to some innovative initiatives including the backyard homes project which incentivizes homeowners to create an affordable rental unit in their backyard. While this might sound like the Vancouver program it is in fact very different. https://www.mas.la/affordable-adus
Under this program, a non-profit organization offers homeowners a one-stop shop for financing, designing, permitting, constructing and leasing an ADU to a low-income resident receiving government rental support for a minimum of 5 years. While the program is new, and relatively untested, it remains to be seen if it will work. However, it is an innovative approach to house the homeless, and others seeking affordable housing. I was also intrigued by United Dwelling https://www.uniteddwelling.com/ which encourages people to turn their garages into affordable dwelling units.
I knew I had made the right decision to attend this event when one exercise involved assessing the various ideas presented using Edward deBono's 6 thinking hats. As many know, I am a great fan of deBono and have often promoted is books at my lectures. At the symposium, there were architects, government officials and housing planners from across the US, but also France and Spain. I was particularly delighted to meet Antoni Font, Social Innovation Officer for the City of Barcelona who is overseeing a relocatable modular housing initiative very similar to what I proposed for my university thesis and now currently underway in Vancouver and elsewhere around the province. While most of the attendees familiar with Vancouver recognized that our situation is quite different from most North American cities, there is no doubt that we can learn from the US experience, and they can learn from us. I was impressed with the program arranged by New Cities and look forward to participating in future symposiums and event.
Tired of graffiti along Arbutus Corridor, Courier reader regularly paints colourful designs on the old signal boxes
My recent columns about the disgusting condition of city-owned public parking garages, the need for more public toilets, homeless people camping on sidewalks and diminishing civic pride generated many responses from Courier readers.
While some saw my columns as an unnecessary attack on the homeless, most agreed the city should do a better job of cleaning its parking garages, removing discarded needles from public areas and managing graffiti.
However, I received a surprising email from one reader who wrote to share what he personally has been doing to address what he saw as the deteriorating condition of our public infrastructure.
His story is about the Arbutus Corridor where the lingering conflict between CPR and the city resulted in 15 years of neglect. Graffiti was everywhere, along with garbage and an extremely poor sense of civic pride. However, as we all know, this has changed.Thanks to an agreement between the city and CPR, the rails were removed in 2016, and the Arbutus Greenway came into existence. It took a while, but it has become an important commuter route for cyclists and a pleasurable walkway for joggers and dog walkers.
As both corridor users and passersby may have noticed at every level crossing there are large metal boxes that once controlled the railway’s flashing lights and bells. They had become unsightly and covered with graffiti. However, at his own expense, this individual regularly paints over the graffiti on each of the 17 boxes with colourful designs.
He has also built street furniture at 16th and Arbutus — a place he calls Crossbuck Park — in an attempt to preserve a tiny bit of railway history, something he claims the city has very little interest in.
While city officials might worry about the consequences of other citizens deciding to take the beautification of the city into their own hands, I would like to think that, with some management, this could be a positive thing.
The Greenest City 2020 program encourages neighbourhood residents to volunteer to care for gardens on public property. Photo Michael Geller
After all, we have a precedent in the Greenest City 2020 “street garden” program in which neighbourhood volunteers attractively landscape public boulevards and traffic circles.
City-organized neighbourhood cleanups are another example of residents undertaking what most usually expect government to do.
Another surprising response to my last column was the number of people who urged me to watch a Seattle KOMO 4 television news special titled “Seattle is Dying.”
Seattle is Dying - YouTube
This controversial program has attracted almost four million views and deals with the problems of homelessness, drug addiction and crime in that city. While the situation portrayed is horrific, and much worse than what most of us think is happening in Vancouver, Seattle wasn’t always as bad as it is today.
Moreover, the problems featured in the film are found in many cities throughout America, especially those on the West Coast.
As the producer notes, this third program is about the consequences of homelessness and drug addiction. It interviews citizens who no longer feel safe taking their families into downtown Seattle and parents who won't take their children into neighbourhood parks. It's about the growing degradation in the downtown and related theft and crime.
But it does offer a solution, namely the Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) program in Providence Rhode Island administered by that state’s Department of Corrections.
An online review of the “Seattle is Dying” documentary reveals considerable angry debate about the program and how it proposes addressing the related problems of homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness.
I shared the documentary on Twitter, adding that Vancouver is not Seattle.
However, a False Creek resident responded: “The personal sickness and despair shown is exactly what we see in our 'hood daily. The garbage and filth on the streets, the stench, the crime — all the same. The successful approach in Rhode Island saves lives and preserves quality of life for all. Why can't YVR do better?”
I agree. Vancouver must do better. But it will take combined action by politicians, city officials, police and caring residents like the Courier reader who regularly paints Arbutus Corridor electrical boxes.
Despite social ills, city shouldn’t become complacent
The fentanyl overdose crisis. Money laundering. Unfair evictions. Unaffordable housing. Inadequate public transit. Limited childcare. Loneliness.
These are just some of the issues facing Vancouver. However, this week’s column is not directly about any of them.
Instead, I want to revisit a topic I wrote about in March, namely, the filthy, disgusting condition of an EasyPark managed, city-owned parkade in Gastown.
While the column was critical of EasyPark, it also explored why so many downtown stairwells and back lanes have sadly become public toilets.
It proposed increased public toilets and improved property maintenance while we await more facilities.
Last week, I parked in EasyPark’s Lot 2 parkade at Cambie and Pender. This is the site of Vancouver's first hospital and, in 2018, was designated with a Vancouver Heritage Foundation plaque as part of the “Places That Matter” program.
Although I didn’t see the plaque, I did find a parkade in even worse condition than the Gastown parkade. The stench in the stairwell was not just unpleasant, it was sickening.To get this parkade cleaned up, I tweeted the following:
$5.50 an hour to park at filthy, urine soaked @EasyParkVan parking garage at Beatty & Pender. I will be writing to EasyPark president & Board of Directors to join me on tour of this & Gastown parkades. Maybe I should ask @globalnews@CBCVancouver@CTVVancouver to join us.
While EasyPark did not respond, Global TV emailed and offered to join me on a tour at 11 a.m. last Friday. I proposed that we meet at the stairwell I found so unpleasant, but the cameraman found one that was even more putrid and littered with discarded needles and other drug debris.
On Saturday, Global broadcast its story, which included interviews with parkade users, all of whom complained about the stench. One young woman, who uses the facility every day, said she must hold her jacket over her nose every time she uses the stairs.
Hopefully, EasyPark's general manager will personally visit this parkade and arrange for the stairwells, one of which resembles a cesspool behind a reinforcing bar gate, to be thoroughly cleaned.
I also urge EasyPark directors, Vancouver facilities officials and politicians to visit the parkade, if only to see that I am not exaggerating the disgusting and unhealthy condition of this city-owned facility.
While EasyPark spokesperson Linda Bui apologized to Global TV for the “unsatisfactory experience the customer was subject to during their last visit,” noting a third party maintenance contractor provides onsite janitorial services six days a week, what is really needed is a long-term strategy to address the problems facing this and other parking garages.
The issue is not just the smell and unsightly appearance. It is also the crime that regularly occurs. Next to where the TV cameraman filmed his interviews, broken glass from yet another break-in was clearly visible.
I would like to offer EasyPark a few suggestions. Firstly, why not install portable toilets in these parkades? They would benefit both the homeless and others using the stairwells as toilets and car parkers. Surely it will be easier to clean a portable toilet than the stairwells.
Also, why not install video cameras and notices letting everyone know they’re being monitored?
Why not organize a neighbourhood watch program and invite volunteers to community clean-ups in return for food or parking vouchers and a barbecue?
However, my concern is not just these parkades. I am also troubled by the increasing amount of unwanted graffiti on electrical boxes and other structures around the city and garbage on the streets.
I’m worried about the increasing number of homeless people sleeping on sidewalks and dangerously wandering into traffic at busy intersections, begging for change.
Finally, I fear that, collectively, we are becoming too complacent about what is happening around our city. Too many Vancouverites appear to be losing their sense of civic pride.
I realize cleaning parkades and graffiti is not going to solve the serious problems listed at the top of this column. But that is no reason why we shouldn’t be making more of an effort to beautify our city. I hope some of you will join me in speaking out.
With gas prices exceeding $1.70 a litre and growing concerns about air pollution and impacts of climate change, fuel-efficient and zero emission vehicles are gaining in popularity.
At this year’s Vancouver Auto Show, considerable attention was devoted to PHEVs (plug-in hybrid electric vehicles), BEVs (battery electric vehicles) and FCEVs (fuel cell electric vehicles).
Hyundai was one of a number of manufacturers of fuel cell vehicles on display at the Vancouver Auto Show. Photo Michael Geller
On May 1, a federal program took effect offering rebates to purchasers of nineelectric cars and 13 plug-in hybrids. Fully electric cars with starting prices of less than $45,000 are eligible for the full $5,000 rebate. Plug-in hybrids can get up to $2,500 off.
These are in addition to B.C. program rebates announced last year offering $6,000 for a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle and up to $5,000 for a new battery electric or plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.
I first drove a hybrid vehicle in 2000. It was an early Prius brought over from Japan to accompany Severn Cullis-Suzuki and my niece and some friends on a bicycle ride across Canada, in a campaign for clean air called Powershift 2000.
After the Prius was introduced in Canada, I purchased one as a car-share vehicle for the burgeoning SFU UniverCity community.
This seemed appropriate since the car-share concept was developed by a part-time SFU student named Tracey Axelsson as a school project. She subsequently co-founded the Co-operative Auto Network in 1997. Car-sharing has come a long way since then.
When I left the SFU Community Trust in 2007, I traded in a Lexus SUV requiring 20 litres per 100 km for a Prius requiring sixlitres per 100 km. A neighbour who owned a Porsche, Range Rover and Mercedes convertible called me a snob as I first drove by her house.
In 2013,Tesla arrived in Vancouver. I booked a test-drive appointment and loved the car, but worried the company might go broke, until a year-end trip to California where many Teslas were on the road.
In 2014, Michael Geller ordered a Tesla just before the expiry of a $5,000 government rebate program. He’s driven it ever since without any problems. Photo Michael Geller
Returning to Vancouver, I ordered one for delivery in March 2014, just before expiry of a $5,000 government rebate program.
I have driven it ever since without any problems. My daughter continues to drive the 12-year old Prius. Neither vehicle requires much maintenance.
A key consideration with an electric car is how to charge it. As noted on the BC Hydro website, there are three basic approaches: Levels 1, 2 and DC fast charger.
Level 1 refers to the standard 120-volt outlet found in homes and businesses. Realistically, this is not a practical way to charge a car on a regular basis.
Level 2 power supply is the same as that provided for a stove or clothes dryer. Level 2 chargers can be installed in a garage by an electrician at a cost between $800 and $2,000.
The ongoing energy costs for electric cars vary but are often estimated at about $2 per 100 km.
The third type of charging is DC or direct current fast charging using 480-volt. Increasingly, these chargers are being installed in public facilities and commercial buildings. Charging time for most cars is significantly reduced. While some stations are free, others cost about three times as much as Level 1 and 2 charging.
Given the federal and provincial rebates, gasoline costs and environmental benefits, I highly recommend buying an electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle. However, a key consideration is whether it can be easily charged overnight.
While this is relatively easy for those living in single-family houses, it can be more difficult and complicated for those living in older rental or condominium apartments.
I cannot leave this topic without sharing a recent tweet from former city councillor and current chair of the David Suzuki Foundation Peter Ladner.
“If EVs are worth a $5k subsidy, why wouldn’t e-bikes and regular bikes get a subsidy? They produce far fewer emissions, promote greater health and are far more affordable. Why do we continue to pamper cars?”
If EVs are worth a $5k subsidy, why wouldn’t e-bikes and regular bikes get a subsidy? They produce far fewer emissions, promote greater health and are far more affordable. Why do we continue to pamper cars? #bcpoli
Heritage preservation sometimes at odds with modern realities
Last Monday, people around the world were devastated as they watched Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral on fire. That evening, I was invited by Corus Radio Network’s Charles Adler to offer an architect’s perspective on the building’s heritage and significance. While I urged the show’s producer to invite a more knowledgeable heritage architect, time was short, so I did the interview.
I told Adler every architectural student around the world studied Notre Dame’s design and construction with its awe-inspiring interior spaces and innovative use of “flying buttresses.” While the cathedral had originally taken almost 200 years to build, I was certain it would be rebuilt, and within the next 24 hours we learned that hundreds of millions of euros had been pledged towards its reconstruction.
Since then, many have lamented that the cathedral’s wooden beams, each created from a different 300-year-old oak tree, can never be replicated.My initial thought was there was no need to construct new beams from giant oak trees. Instead, they could be manufactured with innovative engineered wood products such as cross-laminated timber, like those used to construct the internationally acclaimed 12-storey wooden student residence at UBC.
But then, I wondered why should the new roof even be built out of wood? Why not fireproofed steel? After all, many of the world’s greatest landmark buildings have been altered over time using newer designs, materials and building technologies.
The day following the fire, I attended a meeting of West Vancouver’s recently reconstituted Heritage Advisory Committee, of which I am a member. Before us was a proposal to develop a modern house on a portion of a lot occupied by an early 1950s house designed by Ron Thom, one of Canada’s celebrated mid-century architects. In return for approval, the Ron Thom house would be designated a heritage structure in perpetuity.
The committee was asked to comment on to what extent the interior of the heritage house could be altered. While some members thought the living room’s distinctive raw concrete block walls should be protected, others observed that the house had already been substantially modified with new skylights, kitchen and gas fireplace.
In this column, I have often advocated for the preservation of heritage and character houses both to conserve our city’s architectural history and create alternative infill housing choices.
Which brings me back to the Notre Dame Cathedral. While the fire was horrifying, fortunately much of the building remains intact. Only the roof and parts of the vault were completely destroyed.
Now the debate can begin. Should the wood beams be replaced with metal? What about the heavy two-inch thick slate roof shingles? Perhaps the new roof should be glass, as one British architect has suggested.
While I would prefer not to see the Ron Thom concrete block walls covered with drywall, the modern should oftentimes be allowed to replace the authentic.
I look forward to the continuing debate in Paris, and Vancouver.
While my partners and bankers were not happy to see this story appear in the Star Vancouver, which resulted from a tweet, the truth is I am getting desperate when it comes to selling this lovely heritage house and two adjacent infill houses in West Vancouver. While the story did not generate a sale, hopefully there will be increased interest in this property outside of West Vancouver, where the locals do not appear to be as interested in buying a restored 100 year old house as people in Shaughnessy, Kitsilano or New Westminster!
VANCOUVER—The charming cottages and suites in a beautifully restored heritage home in West Vancouver’s Ambleside neighbourhood should not be hard to sell.
But eight months after the restoration and infill project was completed, the homes continue to sit empty, and developer Michael Geller has taken to social media to call for buyers and offer realtors a $25,000 bonus to sell the Vinson House Cottages.
Developer Michael Geller says he hasn't been able to sell this restored heritage house and infill cottages because of a dramatic price correction that has hit West Vancouver particularly hard. (SUBMITTED)
Geller and his partners have accepted an offer on one of the units, which is subject to the buyers selling their West Vancouver house. But it’s far below the $2.2 million to $2.7 million price range the developers had originally set, with an expectation they’d make a 15 per cent profit.
Now, Geller said, he’d be happy with a 5 per cent profit.
“I had someone say to me, ‘Michael, you’re sounding desperate,’” said Geller. “I said, ‘I am desperate!’”
Geller, who has worked in the real estate industry for 45 years, said this market is the worst he’s ever seen — and that includes downturns in the early 1980s and the 2008 financial crisis. Jason Soprovich, a realtor who has worked in the West Vancouver market for 26 years, echoed that assessment: “It has truly been the worst downturn I’ve seen in my career.”
From stratospheric highs that peaked in early 2016, Metro Vancouver’s real estate market has slowed, and prices have dropped, in all areas and housing types.
But no neighbourhood has had as hard a fall as West Vancouver, followed closely by Vancouver’s west side. The two tony areas saw many single family homes soar past the $5-million mark, and higher, during the peak of the real estate bubble. Between June 2015 and June 2016, home prices in West Vancouver and Vancouver’s westside rose by 37.8 and 36.4 per cent, respectively, according to statistics released by the Greater Vancouver Real Estate Board.
Now, it’s a different story: March numbers show that single-family house prices fell by 17 per cent in West Vancouver, the steepest drop in the region. The drop is even steeper for specific segments of the market: Homes priced in the “high end” (above $5 million) have dropped by between 22 and 30 per cent, Soprovich said, while homes in the “low end” ($1.5 million to $5 million) have dropped by 15 to 22 per cent.
Soprovich and Geller said a series of government taxes aimed at foreign buyers and speculative activity, and tougher bank lending rules brought in by the federal government, are behind the dramatic drop.
Those taxes include B.C.’s foreign buyer tax; a speculation tax aimed at vacant properties and homeowners who don’t pay taxes in B.C.; an increased property tax that applies to homes worth over $3 million; and Vancouver’s empty homes tax.
Soprovich said buyers from Mainland China were a big presence in the West Vancouver market in 2015 and 2016, but tighter capital flow restrictions brought in by the Chinese government, and the decision to introduce the foreign buyer tax and then increase it from 15 to 20 per cent, have basically “put the brakes on foreign investors.”
He said most of the buyers he’s seeing now intend to live in the home as their principal residence, and many of the potential sales involve older owners who want to sell their large home and move into a smaller house or condo in West Vancouver.
But unless sellers are willing to drop their prices — something that’s taken some time for many homeowners to accept — the houses will sit on the market for months, Soprovich said. On the upside, while buyers have been sitting on the sidelines for months, there now seems to be more interest from buyers as prices have dropped.
For realtors, the change in market conditions has been painful. Geller said he’s heard stories of former realtors who have had to take other jobs, while Soprovich said the downturn has meant cutting back on his firm’s marketing budget and working even harder to find business.
“I’ve personally felt it’s been a dramatic change. It’s devastating, to a certain degree,” he said.
“When you’re used to selling 100 homes a year and you’re dropping down to less than 30 or 40, that’s a significant impact.”
Jen St. Denis is a Vancouver-based reporter covering affordability and city hall. Follow her on Twitter: @jenstden