Feint by Numbers — 5, not 20 (City Conversation #51: Simple math + urban design support a 5 storey Broadway Plan) by Brian Palmquist

(City Conversation #50 was first published 9-May-2022)
(For a list of City Conversations by Brian Palmquist on CityHallWatch, please visit this page.)


May 9, 2022—My remarks and those of others at Saturday’s City Hall rally elicited the usual responses—the 20-storey towers are incorrect! Build lots of high-rise and our problems will be over! We can’t all move to the suburbs.

This caused me to do a “back of the napkin” urban design comparison between high-rise and low-mid-rise options for the Broadway Plan. The results may surprise.

The possible build out of the Broadway Plan contemplated by its own words. What happens if we consider only low and mid-rise?—image by Stephen Bohus, BLA

“Dad, your speech at City Hall caused some pretty strong reaction!” offered my son, who was there among the 350 or so who gathered in opposition to the Broadway Plan (the Plan). Six of us spoke about our different visions and experiences in reaction to the Plan. He continued, “I see on Twitter and Facebook you’ve been pretty much demonized by those who favour a high-rise solution to our future. What have you got in response?”

I smiled. “I’ve just been working on an alternative. But before the big reveal, let’s remember, our horrific model is just what the BP says: more than 300 towers across 485 blocks of the city, room for 140,000 new residents, mostly living in high-rises, not the 50,000 folks the planners see in their “vision.” We weren’t exaggerating in our model—we simply said here’s what you get if you read your plan and build it.” He nodded his understanding of my basic concern, that the Plan plays fast and loose with a huge swath of the city, ignoring neighbourhoods, destroying views, neglecting the amenities that make up a community.

“The feedback around high-rise was so venomous by its supporters that I asked myself the question, what can we do if we just go lower? The results surprised even me,” I continued with a smile. He gave me his keep going look, so I did.

“The Broadway Plan allows for major high-rise redevelopment on more than 300 of the 485 blocks covered by the Plan, plus mid-rise development up to six storeys on most of the rest. So I thought, let’s see what that means for each redeveloped block.” He shrugged at the obviousness of that approach.

The Vancouver building block is, in fact, a block

“ A typical Vancouver residential block has ten, 33’ (10 meter) wide by 122’ (37 meter) lots each side of a lane. This is what most of the Broadway Plan is built on.” He nodded.

“The Broadway Plan’s high-rise approach contemplates up to two high-rises on each block of an average height of 20 storeys—more nearer the SkyTrain stations, a bit less further away from the stations.” His silence was my license to continue.

“For each 20-storey, 6 FSR tower, you need to assemble five standard lots. The Plan generally limits high-rise to two per block, resulting in something that might look like this:”

A city block with 400 high-rise apartments and 10-30 left over low-rise homes, laneways and secondary suites

“What are those little rectangles beside the towers?” he reasonably asked.

“Those are the existing homes, duplexes, laneways and secondary suites left over when half the space has been eaten up by high-rises.” Again, he nodded understanding. “They look like orphans,” he offered—my turn to nod.

“Things start to get interesting when I lay out four to six storey buildings instead of the high-rises:”

Four and six storey buildings on the same block

“Now you’re going to need to explain a bit more!” he responded, brows knitted.

“Right you are,” I answered. “These are just as blocky and crude as the high-rises—please imagine designs of the quality Vancouverites are used to in their buildings.” He shrugged, asking, “What are the squiggly lines across the centre of each building?”

“What those say to a planner is double loaded corridor, exit stair each end, elevators in the middle. Other building forms such as townhouses will probably provide fewer homes, but the point is to compare to high-rises, where we know everything is an apartment.” He nodded slowly.

“I’ve shown narrower buildings where three lots have been assembled, slightly wider where four lots are assembled. Some are four storeys, others six—so an average of five storeys.” He gave me his keep going look so I did.

“This city block, not including the two empty areas, produces 200 apartments.”

He interjected, “But the high-rise option produces 400 apartments, so you’re down by half!”

“Well spotted,” I responded. He awaited my inevitable springing of my trap. “But what you’re forgetting is that the high-rise version of the Broadway Plan actually provides more than twice as many apartments as the Plan says it anticipates—their vision is homes for 50,000, whereas their reality is homes for 140,000.” He cold see where I was going but left me to go there.

“So if 4-6 storey buildings only were permitted in most of the areas where the Broadway Plan calls for high-rise, the end result would be the population increase that the planners say their high-rise-only version accommodates.” I smiled my pleasure; he looked a bit skeptical, still.

“You’ve also talked about the absence of community amenities, schools, parks, etc., in the Broadway Plan. How does your lower version address those?”

“Great question,” I answered. “Notice the lower version of a block includes two significant outdoor spaces between the new buildings.” He nodded. “Redevelopment is supposed to involve the proponent providing money for parks, etc.” He nodded again. “In this lower version, each developer’s contribution is in the form of green space that’s right there with the new development—not private to them, but public to the street and neighbourhood.”

A redeveloped block with common outdoor spaces

“So why haven’t city planners come up with this approach?” he asked. “Seems an obvious alternative.”

“I don’t have an answer to that question,” I answered. “There are some areas of the plan where high-rise is not contemplated—the areas further from the SkyTrain stations, for example.” He really frowned at that, no doubt wondering why low-rise folks should have to walk further to transit.

“My speculation,” I continued, “And that’s all it is, is that the low-rise version like I’ve illustrated is too messy. High-rise is simpler, easier to calculate revenue from, easier for major developers to build.” He paused for a moment, then stepped forward with one of his signature hugs.

“These lower buildings are so much closer to my older three-storey walkup. I’ll vote every time for 5, not 20—storeys that is.”

 Call to Action—The Broadway Plan goes before City Council May 18th—be heard!

I have never before participated in a protest rally. Yet, I was at City Hall this Saturday, protesting the loss of trust between Vancouver citizens and their civic government, as exemplified by the Broadway Plan.

It’s unclear at this stage whether ordinary citizens will even be allowed to express their views about the Broadway Plan to Council when it is considered on May 18th. City Conversations will keep you apprised of the status of that meeting and your ability to speak to it..

Meantime, you can contact the Mayor and Council and express your views via email. A few suggestions:

  • Under feedback subject, indicate Broadway Plan
  • Under comment, you can be as brief as I oppose the Broadway Plan or I support it. You have 3,000 characters to express your opinion, so don’t be shy. Councillors read these emails—the clearer you are about your reasoning, the clearer they may be about your situation. Think about your neighbourhood—most of city management and staff, Mayor and Council are not.
  • Fill in the About you section if at all possible, including your neighbourhood. Mayor and Council need to know who is conversing with them, and where they live. I hope that a comment from Grandview Woodlands counts for more than one from, say, Burnaby.
  • If you have poignant images or files, attach them to your comments.

Vancouver’s civic election is October 15th of this year. Lots of damage can be done by the current Mayor and Council, city management and staff before that date—and it will continue, and worsen, unless TEAM for a Livable City elects a majority (6 of 10) City Councillors—less than 6 and not much will change. If you are concerned that what you’ve just read is an example of what’s wrong with our city, and want to bring back its livability, join TEAM and work to restore Vancouver as a place we can all afford to call home.

Today’s question: Do you prefer the higher or lower version of the Broadway Plan? Why?

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City Conversations

City Conversations is all about the future of Vancouver and similar communities.

By Brian Palmquist

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 for the moment, still teaching and writing, 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.” He is also a member of team for a livable Vancouver, a new political party dedicated to restoring a livable Vancouver starting with the 2022 civic election. City Conversations are generally congruent with TEAM policy, so if you like the ideas that I’m writing about, please consider joining TEAM.

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