Urban Design Panel response to the proposal, Dec 16, 2015
Report and Commentary by Ned Jacobs
Neighbours and civic colleagues tell me that the sale of Little Mountain and the breakup of its thriving low-income community is one of the saddest episodes in Vancouver’s history because it was readily preventable. They say that from its start in early 2007 the process and decision making was so flawed that changes made at this stage are far too little too late.
I wholeheartedly agree. And yet, any improvements are better than no improvements. That is the subject of this report and commentary.
Rezoning application overview and description
Complete application, LMPS, etc.: http://vancouver.ca/home-property-development/little-mountain.aspx
Abbreviations used in this article
CAC: Community Amenity Contribution; CAG: Community Advisory Group; CoV: City of Vancouver; DCL: Development Cost Levy; FSR: Floor Space Ratio (a measure of building density); LM: Little Mountain site; LMPS: Little Mountain Policy Statement; QEP: Queen Elizabeth Park; UDP: Urban Design Panel.
The presentation I attended the session as an observer. Participants are identified by role, and their comments are paraphrased except where in quotes.
The presentation by CoV planners and architects (IBI Group) for the developer (Holborn Group) consisted of a brief overview of the LMPS followed by a summary of the rezoning proposal, focusing on refinements to the LMPS relating to sustainability (e.g. bicycle infrastructure, community garden space) and modifications to building placement and massing to improve solar performance (shadowing) and reduce the perception of building height from several aspects. The UDP was asked to provide feedback in particular on how well the proposal responds to the LMPS in terms of sustainability, site permeability (pedestrian, cycling and vehicle access to and from adjacent streets, blocks and QEP); tree retention, and quality of the public realm.
UDP response summary
As a whole, the panel responded favourably to site permeability, especially for pedestrians and cyclists, and praised efforts to retain mature trees. But panelists raised concerns about sustainability in regard to energy performance and the design and functionality of the community plaza at Main Street and 36th Avenue. Panelists liked the approach of grouping buildings around courtyards but thought that solar performance of these semi-private spaces should be improved by reducing some of the building heights.
Panelists asked for details about the district energy system that would be used to heat the buildings. The CoV planner responded that plans included a gas-fired thermal (warm water) plant under the Community Plaza, and explained that this was not the ‘district energy’ referenced in the presentation, but an interim system to be used until warm water could be piped underground from a central district energy plant that would be constructed at some undetermined time and site to serve new development in the Cambie Corridor. The interim system at LM would be designed to receive this imported energy, when it becomes available, and distribute it to the buildings on the site.
Panelists responded to this approach with skepticism, commenting that district energy implementation was too vague and indefinite, and that they would prefer to see a ‘”more robust expression of sustainability in the building facades” and “more commitment to building envelopes”, i.e. fewer and/or smaller windows with greater emphasis on energy conservation through insulation and design. The CoV planner explained that if energy performance was maximized through building design, importing district energy from the Cambie Corridor might prove to be uneconomic. Panelists were not impressed by this argument.
Condoning ‘sin’ while awaiting a ‘messiah’
UDP skepticism regarding proposed energy performance seems well-founded. No site or business plan for a district energy plant to serve the Cambie Corridor has yet been proposed, let alone funded or implemented. If such a project is eventually completed it may not be cost-effective to extend it all the way to LM in any case. The notion that this hypothetical system should be made cost effective by default is whacky, and frankly smacks of greenwash. Surely, the proposed 1.664 million feet of floor space plus hundreds of new units in the rezoned ‘Adjacent Area’ could provide sufficient economy of scale for a top-notch district energy system, and makes better sense than supporting sub-optimal energy performance in anticipation of the coming of a mega district energy messiah. The bigger they are the harder they fall is a cliché only because it is so true.
Large or numerous windows with fine views of gorgeous Queen Elizabeth Park and the North Shore Mountains obviously appeal to purchasers of luxury homes and property investors. Requiring optimal energy performance through building design, including smaller windows, is likely to increase construction costs and is unlikely to fetch better offers from high-end buyers. The developer will sell units for no less than what the market will bear (currently ca $900 per ft on Cambie), so requiring optimal energy performance up front will not make the homes more costly, and if built to optimize energy efficiency they would be somewhat more affordable starting with the first utility bill.
While it is understandable that the developer might prefer this strategy to maximize profitability, I was a little surprised that CoV planners have not yet rejected it. Fortunately, the UDP flagged it as less than credible.
A topic that was not discussed is preventing birds from colliding with windows. This is related to energy performance because reduced glazing serves both objectives. Of the various strategies for preventing bird fatalities, use of fewer and/or smaller windows is the most effective. This problem should be a major concern at LM because of the large numbers of resident and migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway that are drawn to Vancouver’s second largest park, which includes Canada’s oldest civic arboretum. Window reflections of greenery on the park’s east slope—which rises to greater height than the tallest proposed buildings—are apt to fool birds into assuming they are flying into a forested area. Because of the park’s elevation, upper-storey windows, which command the best views, may also prove the most deadly.
Cambie Corridor developments along the western perimeter of QEP and at Oakridge are compounding factors. This issue is vital because many bird species are in steep decline. I am not yet confident that the LM rezoning and development approval process will satisfactorily address this serious environmental concern.
Public and semi-private realm concerns
Panelists appreciated the general concept, placement and contouring of the Community Plaza, but had numerous concerns. Some of these fall under the category of a modest-sized plaza trying to serve too many functions. One of the three motor vehicle access points to the site bisects the plaza, which raised the concern that it would be too cramped and/or fractured to function well as a pedestrian-oriented public place, or be suitable for hosting a proposed farmers market. Presenters explained that the vehicle zone would be traffic-calmed and they are hoping that the CoV engineering department will support continuous paving material with “soft curbs” to delineate the vehicle zone (road) from dedicated pedestrian zones, which would help enable closure to motor vehicle traffic for special events. One panelist remarked that it seemed “more like a forecourt to the neighbourhood house than a plaza.” Another worried that it wouldn’t be feasible to establish “a sense of place”, and that it was too “monotonous.”
The other major issue in regard to both the Community Plaza (and some of the semi-private courtyards) was encapsulated by the panel chair as “daylight activation.” It was pointed out that the 10-storey building designated AA would shadow much of the plaza from mid-afternoon on. A CoV planner explained that solar performance had only been considered between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm. The point was then made that late afternoon is when the plaza would often get the heaviest use.
Panelists proposed that the height of AA should be reduced and/or the building realigned to reduce afternoon shadowing of the plaza and make it seem more spacious [presumably by opening a view corridor to the west side of the project and QEP]. One panelist suggested that some of the density lost by reducing the height/massing of AA might be regained by increasing the height of one or more buildings somewhere else on the site. He suggested the two buildings (4-storey EA and 6-storey BE) in the Northeast Quadrant on the east side of the ‘New Central Street’ as possibilities. [Note: EA would not be suitable for additional market housing density because it is for replacement social housing; BE is the maximum height permitted under the LMPS due to close proximity to the lane that separates LM from the Adjacent Area’s 2-6 storey mix of housing types.] Another panelist wondered if attempting to achieve the “high-end” of the FSR range supported by the LMPS (2.3 -2.5) “pushes the envelope too much.” Earlier, a panelist had objected to how the Gross FSR was measured; saying that the usual practice is to exclude public spaces other than streets and sidewalks, and that for UDP purposes it would be more meaningful to think of the project density as approximately 3.35 Gross FSR.
The Panel then turned their attention to interior courtyards. They thought that, generally speaking, these were well interpreted in the proposal. However, the courtyard areas in the Northwest Quadrant were flagged as deficient in ”daylight activation” due to shadowing by the southernmost building, 9-12-storey DD. A panelist suggested that this might be mitigated by transferring some of this height to 6-storey DB. [This would necessarily reduce morning light on the courtyard, but improve penetration during midday and early afternoon.]
One panelist decried the fact that the vast majority of building massing calls for upper-storey stepbacks. He complained that this increases building costs and severely limits architectural style. The consulting architect responded that while he appreciated this, stepbacks do help to reduce the perception of building height, which in this context [adjacency to QEP and low-rise built forms] was deemed a priority, and they also reduce shadowing. The panelist agreed the point was well taken and modified his comment to say that stepbacks should only be required where such considerations were paramount.
‘It takes a village’
The reality is that attempting to milk maximum FSR from the LMPS makes solar performance considerations paramount in nearly every instance. The architects responded to the LMPS guidelines with ingenuity. Still, I was not surprised that the UDP flagged ‘daylight activation’ and expressed concern that the space allotted for the Community Plaza would be inadequate.
During the policy planning process I proposed a design exercise for the CAG (of which I am a participant). In order to explore how much density was feasible, and how it could be distributed to accommodate the ‘guiding principles’, which had previously been established, I suggested that we model building forms on a map of the street and public realm, which had been developed through a collaborative design process. To facilitate this, the consulting architects (James K. M Cheng) provided sets of identical foam blocks, scaled to represent a standard measure of FSR.
Seven teams were organized at tables. Each was given a set of blocks that when fully utilized would produce a site plan of a given density, ranging from 1.4 FSR to 3.25 FSR. We were assisted by architects and planners, but decisions on how to distribute and mass the blocks were made by the community advisors. It was fascinating to observe the different solutions that were arrived at, and the discussion (sometimes even arguments) that arose as the members of each team attempted to produce a plan that would accommodate the required density in ways that would least compromise function and livability on and adjacent to the site.
The most satisfactory results (by the teams’ own evaluations) were achieved below 2 FSR. With greater density, tradeoffs arose. At densities greater than 2.25 no-one seemed satisfied, and attempts to accommodate 3.25 FSR (which is about what the developer claimed was needed to make the project economically viable) were so preposterous they provoked laughter—even from some of the facilitators. (View these models at https://vimeo.com/26677244.)
This is why, when the CoV planners told us they would recommend density of 2.3-2.5, and heights to 120 feet, the CAC demurred. It was then explained—to CAG consternation—that the decision had been made higher up in the administration—without specifics about how high. (See video clip at http://vancouver.ca/home-property-development/little-mountain.aspx.)
The CAG was reluctant to endorse even the low end of the range, but because we were advised that real estate consultants had determined this was necessary to provide sufficient DCL and CAC to fund the public amenities, the CAG recommended maximums of 2.3 FSR and 100 ft, conditional on at least 20% social housing (the current proposal would yield about 18%). As expected, City Council approved the staff ‘recommendations.’ The recent UDP findings in regard to built form and density are, in fact, consistent with those of the CAG.
The Community Plaza is intended to be the ‘hub’ of community life, and UD panelists were quick to flag building AA as a problem. Eliminating it would more than double the useable pedestrian zone, making large gatherings and many other uses feasible.
A second option would be to truncate building AA by half, freeing up space at the south end of the parcel. This would also improve the size, function, and ‘daylight activation’ of the plaza, with better outcomes for the trees. Instead of a 10-storey slab, AA would be a mini point tower, contributing structural diversity to help address the ‘monotony’ one panelist cited. It shouldn’t be any taller because that would largely defeat the solar benefits gained by reducing the floorplate and shifting AA to the north.
A third option would be to reduce AA to a maximum of six storeys with moderate truncation at the south end (e.g. about 40 feet) reducing FSR by about 45%. Like options 1 and 2 this would also open up views to and from the Southwest Quadrant with glimpses of the green slopes of QEP. The additional public space where 36th Avenue meets the ‘New Central Road’ would also be more useful and tree-friendly. Also, at 6 storeys (or less), wood frame construction would be feasible, which is considerably less costly than reinforced concrete.
There is another good reason for considering Option 3. This has to do with the positioning, functioning and integration of the replacement social housing. The policy process determined that the social housing buildings should be well mixed (‘integrated’) with the strata buildings. But numerous developer-induced delays, starting in 2008, have long prevented replacement of any of the family social housing. As a consequence, the CoV and province agreed that the social housing should be delivered in the first of several phases. The resulting policy conflict became acute when the developer proposed five phases instead of the anticipated three, the smallest being the first phase in the Southeast Sector, consisting of only two mixed-use buildings on Main Street and the neighbourhood house/day care (the seniors’ building was completed and occupied in 2015).
In this proposal, all of the family housing to be replaced in phase 1 (and more than three quarters of the total) is slated for apartments above shops in two 8-storey buildings on Main Street. In my view, this is unacceptable. The past success of the Little Mountain Housing complex—and many others worldwide—is attributed in large part to the ground-oriented rowhouses, situated to permit children to play adjacent to the front and rear doors of their homes. Housing all the families in 8-storey apartment buildings on a busy arterial with less than suitable play areas in front, and truck loading bays at the rear, is a retrograde step—to say the least. While it may not be as problematic for families with children old enough to wander unaccompanied and unsupervised to the ‘Wedge Park’ on Ontario Street, to Riley Park, QEP or the Hillcrest Centre, better solutions must be achieved to serve families with young children.
Since early 2007, when BC Housing started displacing the LM community, I have repeatedly heard this bitter remark from numerous lips: ‘This land is too precious for poor people’. Placing all of the family social housing on parcels that front or abut noisy, polluted arterial streets adds insult to injury—and injury to insult. That this would be contemplated when many other opportunities for much better arrangements exist on a site that is virtually a ‘blank slate’, is shocking and disgraceful. It must be remedied.
Option 3 also presents at least a partial remedy for the unacceptable placement of the phase 1 family housing. Although six storeys is far from ideal, I calculate that the proposed Option 3 modifications to AA would accommodate the same FSR as the apartments above shops in building AC on Main Street, which could instead accommodate market housing at probably $100-$200 less per foot than the site average, improving market ‘affordability’.
Ground level homes in the reconfigured AA could have townhouse-style private entrances. On the east side these would open onto sizeable play areas and the plaza’s north side (which a panelist characterized as “a forecourt to the neighbourhood house”). Space gained on the south side would receive excellent light exposure, with warm-season shade from the mature deciduous trees, making it ideal for a public playground, benches and tables. The play areas would be highly visible from AA windows, from other buildings, and the entire community hub.
This would place at least some of the family social housing in the geographic and social heart of a development that will otherwise be far too expensive for most families to afford. It is a major concern to me and to others that in terms of household income more than 80% of the homes at LM will be affordable to only the top 20% (if that)—the remainder to the bottom 20%. To relegate more than three quarters of the low income families to the least desirable parts of the site, in accommodations that are less than appropriate, is an outrage.
It is of course crucial that AA be included in phase 1. Leaving this keystone site for phase 2 (as currently proposed) would be a huge mistake because the Community Plaza and associated buildings would be subject to noise, dust and disruption during phase 2 construction, which would severely limit its usefulness for an additional three years or more. Therefore, construction of buildings AA and BA should be required in phase 1, with consideration given to including parcel CA, thereby completing the streetwall along 37th Avenue to Ontario Street. Surely, after all these years of delay it is only reasonable to expect that at least a third of the site be developed at the outset.
While these proposed revisions would only partially address the serious (in some cases insulting) deficiencies in this proposal, they are fully consistent with the LMPS, and the very minimum that human decency demands.
I was pleased and grateful that the UDP withheld support for this proposal. While their function is advisory, not regulatory, their findings in regard to energy and design performance are certainly significant enough to justify sending the developer, architects, CoV planners and the CAG back to ‘the drawing board’—though hopefully not for years. But to allow the possibility of further delay to excuse mediocrity and elicit CoV support for a seriously inadequate proposal would serve to reward this developer for past delays and, in the process, set a very bad precedent. We must do better!