160 Vancouver Houses…or Just 60? (City Conversations No One Else is Having #1, Brian Palmquist)

Brian is a guest writer for CityHallWatch. An architect whose career in Vancouver has spanned four decades, with projects range from first proposing the laneway-housing concept to serving as the managing architect on major multi-building development plans, personally designing more than 1,000 social and co-op housing units, and consulting on thousands more. Please visit this page for a list of all his articles, including his 2021 series “City Conversations No One Else is Having.”

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City Conversations No One Else is Having— #1

160 Vancouver Houses…or Just 60?

By Brian Palmquist (originally published 5-Jun-2021)

Vancouver House. Photo credit Brian Palmquist

“My friends all think it’s really cool…they’ll just never be able to afford to live there!”

My son was talking about Vancouver House, the newish 500-unit, 49-storey building we were looking at while enjoying breakfast outdoors on Granville Island.

“What if I was to tell you,” I responded, “that some people feel we need 160 Vancouver Houses over the next decade to accommodate expected population growth?”

“I can’t grasp that,” he answered, “How would numbers like that look in False Creek North?” which is where we were about to cycle.

I paused for a moment to do some mental math. “Well, I worked on False Creek North, then known as Concord Pacific Place. It’s grown a bit from the original plan, but it has about 50 high-rise buildings and about 8,000 housing units (Wikipedia agrees). Some folks say we need more than 80,000 housing units in the next ten years. So that’s 160 Vancouver Houses or ten False Creek Norths—16 Vancouver Houses or one False Creek North each year.”

“Dad,” he responded after a moment, “it doesn’t add up. Ten False Creek Norths with each having 50 high-rises would mean 500 high-rises—you just said 160 Vancouver Houses would do the trick!” He looked pleased, since my seat-of-the-pants math is often better than his.

I hated to deflate his win, but answered, “The tallest high-rise in False Creek North is about 32 storeys; many are as low as 12 storeys. You are right—it would take about 500 of that mix to get to 80,000 homes. But Vancouver House is 49 storeys, 50% higher than the highest buildings in False Creek North, four times the height of the “short” high-rises. That 50-300% more up top reduces the number of buildings needed to get to 80,000 from 500 to 160.”

My son decided to think on that as we set off cycling. About an hour later, we were back at our starting point, this time at Bridges for lunch. He picked up our discussion.

“So, Dad,” he continued, “we’ve just finished a great ride around all of False Creek and Lost Lagoon. We kept riding past huge parks in False Creek South, almost as much in False Creek North—then we came to the West End, which has the beach and Stanley Park. How dense is the population now compared to what we’ve been talking about?”

I had also been thinking and computing during our ride. “As of about 2016, when the last census was conducted, The West End had about 100 people living on each acre of land behind the Park and the Beach. If you were to spread all the folks in False Creek North around its 150 acres, that would be about 130 people living on each of those acres, so a little more than the West End.”

“Sorry,” interjected my son, “those numbers still don’t mean a lot to me. How do they compare with other places?”

“Well, let me see.” I was stalling for time to do my math. “Hong Kong overall has 160 people living on each acre, so that’s not too many more than False Creek North. On the other hand, New York only has 42 people on each acre, which sounds low, but it’s very spread out.”

“I’m still not getting it,” he continued.

“Let’s get back to the 160 Vancouver Houses or equivalents,” I suggested. “If each of the 50 high-rises in False Creek North was the height of Vancouver House, its population would be three times what it is now, so that’s about 400 people on each acre.”

“Where else in the world has that density?” he asked, hesitantly.

I thought for a moment. “Well, Manila’s population density is the highest in the world at 186 people on each acre.” Not helpful. “Then we have the proposed Senakw’ development around the south end of Burrard Bridge. That’s currently proposed at about 750 people per acre.”

“But that’s four times the density of Manila!” he interjected.

“It’s maybe not quite as bad as that,” I continued. “If we were to spread the proposed 9,000 residents of Senakw’ over all of Vanier Park’s 35+/- acres next door as well, then that’s a bit less than 200 people per acre, so pretty much the same as Manila.”

“But that’s not what we were talking about with the West End and False Creek North—you’re mixing your stats!”

“Yes,” I answered. “I agree, but I only did that because some folks like to add in Vanier Park to density discussions about Senakw’.”

“Sounds crazy,” he continued. “You mentioned ‘some folks’ think we need 160 Vancouver Houses over the next 10 years—what do you think is a more realistic allowance for population growth?”

“Great question,” I responded. “Getting real data from the city is impossible right now—” his brows knitted—“…long story for another time,” I continued. “But the most realistic projections from Metro Vancouver, which is concerned with the entire Lower Mainland, are that we will need about 32,000 more homes in the city of Vancouver over the next decade.” He waited for me to translate.

“So instead of 160 Vancouver Houses spread over the city, we need just 60.”

He thought for a moment, then asked, “So why are some folks saying we need 100 more Vancouver Houses than we appear to?”

“That,” I responded, “is a big conversation for another day.”

Brian Palmquist is a Vancouver-based architect, building envelope and building code consultant and LEED Accredited Professional (the first green building system). He is semi-retired, so not beholden to any client or city hall. These conversations mix real discussion with research and observations based on a 40+ year career including the planning, design and construction of almost every type and scale of project. He is the author of the Amazon best seller “An Architect’s Guide to Construction.”

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