Vancouver Councillor gets the Urbanism Wrong

meggs blog 2013-10-25 at 6.06.16 AM

During the 23 october 2013  Mount Peasant Community Plan Implementation Public Hearing held at Council Chambers Councillor Geoff Meggs consistently asked speakers at the podium misleading questions about the Mount Pleasant Charrette Plan. Prepared by the Mount Pleasant Implementation Committee (MPIC) acting independently of City planners the plan boldly calls for a New Planning Paradigm to come into effect outside the downtown tower districts.

While the modern media regularly doles out succés de scandale it is important to set the record straight. Councillor Meggs posted his analysis: Contradictory voices: MPIC collapses in confusion. Of course, here we are served yet another icon of modern media, recalling Samuel Clements (aka Mark Twain) infamous reply to the erroneous report in the New York Journal of 2 June 1897, that “The report of my death was an exaggeration”. Far from being down and out, as of 20 october 2013 members of the MPIC are participating in the city-wide Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods.

Quotations in bold below are mis-characterizations posted on the Meggs blog. Civic politicians are tireless servants with full and busy schedules. Thus, we see this moment as an opportunity to explore the new paradigm in planning to be used outside the tower districts. As with everything new, signs of learning are progress.

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2 town square

Illustration of Kingsway Square in the Mount Pleasant Charrette Plan (Panel 6)

Meggs Blog: “Some speakers at council said [The MTP Charrette Plan] also called for closure of Kingsway, but I couldn’t find that in the charrette report”.

From: “The Mount Pleasant Charrette Plan: Key Principles”:

 

6.  The unit-block Kingsway is designated as a pedestrian priority zone figurating the sense of place.” 

..

From “The Mount Pleasant Charrette Plan: [Panel Board Number 6”:

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Unit-block Kingsway as Pedestrian Priority Place… The entire page; a birds eye rendering (above) and four illustrative photos deal with the “Village Square” planned on the road right of way of unit-block Kingsway.” 

Calling for the “closure of Kingsway” invokes incendiary rhetoric. Designating the unit-block Kingsway “as a pedestrian priority zone” and “place”, or designing a Village Square to mark the historic heart of Mount Pleasant, adopts a timeless principle in designing ‘good’ urbanism for this wonderful place.

“The Donut Principle” as I have dubbed it states that the centre of a neighbourhood should be an open space. A ‘people place’ and a destination for walking trips where people can meet each other spontaneously, without having to text or phone. A transit stop should be located nearby, along with a concentration of shops, services and housing.

In contrast, the Mount Pleasant Community Plan Implementation fails to designate a Village Square in the neighbourhood.

1 street section

Revitalization of Arterial with parking and streetcar (Charrette Plan Panel 3)

Meggs Blog: [The Charrette Plan calls for the] “…virtual elimination of street parking on arterials”.
 
From Charrette Plan Panel 3:
• two lanes of moving traffic in each direction with off-peak parking;

The picture tells the story (see above). The merchants get BRT or LRT at the centre of the street with a trip capacity matching that of the Cambie Line. This practice has been used successfully in places like the UK and Curitiba, Brazil. The transit is ready to go. BRT can simply be buses or trolleys running on the reserved centre lanes. Translink officials stated that moving trolley wires to the centre of the right-of-way is not a daunting process.

In the street section above new buildings set back 10.5 feet on redevelopment sites (standard practice in our city—already used in Commercial Drive and Robson Street, some of our most popular shopping districts). Sidewalk width increases to 22 feet. The trees in the centre of the street shade the sidewalk; screen transit and half the traffic lanes; and stand at sufficient distance to be admired from sidewalk cafés. In consultation with the merchants, the City might charge back to the merchant a yearly fee for using the sidewalk (or not). BIA may be involved in this process that could over a 40-year term, pay for the improvements with a Bond Issue.
Parking is removed in the direction of peak hour traffic on those arterials that present vehicular volumes over 10,000 to 15,000 vehicles per day. On lower volume arterials the parking can remain all day long. However, local cash registers ring at a distance less than a 5 minute walk from the front doors of 10,000 residents. Thus, local retail is not beholden to parking. Parking can also be used as a traffic calming measure to slow down traffic when local aspirations demand it.
As with many target figures in the Charrette Plan, this estimate needs vetting with City Staff and special consultants. That function was not made available to the MPIC charrette. The municipality set up the MPIC to fulfill the public consultation function, yet when MPIC members asked questions the City did not always engage or answer.
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4 streetcar

Streetcars and Trees in New Orleans, Garden District (Charrette Plan Panel 3)

Meggs Blog: “arterials…. widened dramatically over time”
 
From Charrette Plan Panel 3:
• two continuous rows of street trees planted either side of…
• two dedicated transit lanes in the centre of the R.O.W.;
• two lanes of moving traffic in each direction with off-peak parking;
• two 22-foot sidewalks.
The only “drama” here is the spectacle of the winter sun reaching the sidewalk every day! The Mount Pleasant Plan Implementation will approve buildings that shadow the sidewalks along Broadway and along Lower Main Street all winter long. Vancouver is a winter city. Yet the love affair with the tower-and-podium typology sees us ill equipped to design streetwall urbanism.
For towers we calculate shadows on the equinox. Residents in tower districts are satisfied with the prospect of living with a shadow for 3 hours or more every day. However, when we turn to build streetwall urbanism, we must be prepared to accept a different set of urban design principles. One such principle is that Street Aspect Ratio (SAR). In winter cities the SAR must be measured at the winter solstice and calculated to maximize solar penetration. Thus, the SAR must not exceed the 1 : 3 ratio or an angle of 18°—equal to the height of the sun above the horizon on the shortest day of the year.
Ignoring these concrete and verifiable facts the Mount Pleasant Implementation Plan shows a weak grasp of urban design fundamentals.
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3 build out map small
Mount Pleasant Intensification Plan (Charrette Plan Panel 2)
 Meggs Blog: [The MTP Charrette Plan] “ include[d] all lots in Mount Pleasant”.
 
 From Charrette Plan Panel 2:
 
“Residential Intensification engages the full neighbourhood footprint bringing the benefits of contextual redevelopment to every street.”
Councillor Meggs’s words intend to paint the Charrette Plan into a corner by pointing to a hot-button issue: the redeveloping of single family residential areas. The charrette discussed in detail the difference between “neighbourhood edge” and “neighbourhood middle”. Opting to concentrate attention on the “neighbourhood edges or arterials”, the charrette sought to preserve the “neighbourhood middle” while addressing negative effects from hi-levels of traffic on the edge. Automobile pollution threatens the health of residents living on parcels fronting or near high-traffic volume arterials with cancer & respiratory disease.
The Mount Pleasant Implementation Plan passed by Council 23 october 2013—with one vote opposed—perpetrates the distortion of selecting just two streets and three “high-rise sites” for neighbourhood intensification. In so doing it fails to identify issues of high-traffic volume and its attendant health risks neighbourhood wide.
Missing from the density counts presented to MPIC by the City are contextual intensifications currently underway all over Mount Pleasant in the single family lots (i.e. the “neighbourhood middle”). This represents a significant number of new housing units left out of the Mount Pleasant planning process.
In sharp contrast, the Charrette Plan proposes considering the neighbourhood as a whole, then selecting locally supported redevelopment strategies in either “red” (redevelopment with apartment or row-house); “blue” (contextual incrementation retaining extant neighbourhood character); or Yellow (historic buildings) sites.
The question we should be asking is the one posed by the Charrette: Why wouldn’t a plan for neighbourhood regeneration include all of Mount Pleasant? Not just all lots, but all streets, lanes, parks and publicly owned parcels as well?
What the Councillor’s comments intimate—that the charrette was putting every house lot on the chopping block—is clearly refuted in the diagram above. Such a misunderstanding probably originates in the experiences of a City Council withstanding successive barrages from outraged neighbours clamouring for a better option than having towers rammed down their throats.
The Charrette Plan paints the new planning paradigm—an alternative vision to the tower district—in red, blue and yellow properties. These are expected to either build incrementally, or revitalize contextually, over a 40-year period. Only the red sites contemplate contextual redevelopment.
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 HARP MTP_Panorama[sm]
Oldest buildings in the city outside the downtown (Bruce Macdonald)

Meggs Blog: “None of these proposals are consistent with the plan they are supposed to reflect — they contradict it.”

MPIC was not directed to march lock-step to the 2010 plan, which reads as a long stream of generalities cast in ambiguous and imprecise language.As I testified at the hearing, after sitting out the Mount Pleasant Planning process, I volunteered my time for the MPIC “with my hair on fire”. As document above there are egregious errors in urbanism in the 2010 Mount Pleasant Plan. The Implementation phase, I was told by planner Peter Burch, was an opportunity to address such issues.

As demonstrated above, problems with neighbourhood footprint; building type; street type; transit implementation; identification of public urban rooms (“The Donut Principle”); lack of targets for build out; selection of only Main & Broadway for intensification strategies; no heritage preservation district or strategy; all these are failings in the 2010 Mount Pleasant Plan should have been addressed in the implementation stage.

Meggs Blog: “Not surprising: Council was told today that many MPIC members actually opposed the plan all along, urbanist and charrette organizer Lewis Villegas among them.”

After 25 years of paying property taxes in my neighbourhood, adjacent to East Broadway, I felt it was high time to have the community plan re-drafted. I received the call for a planning process in my neighbourhood with open arms, and an open mind. What we got instead was towers being shoved down our throats.

Nothing could have prepared me for the failing—as compared to planning practice elsewhere in North America—of the 2010 Mount Pleasant Plan. Or the shambled, broken process dubbed the MPIC that I would participate in as a volunteer for over two years.

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5 thoughts on “Vancouver Councillor gets the Urbanism Wrong

  1. I agree with a lot of what is on this blog, especially the focus on the pedestrian realm. I agree that added density shouldn’t be isolated to the arterial streets. Personally, I have nothing against towers and think they can fit in well in the community, especially at Main and Broadway. I’ve never found shading to be an issue.

    I did want to point out one confusing rebuttal you had for Geoff Meggs. You said you “Calling for the ‘closure of Kingsway’ invokes incendiary rhetoric.” Is that not what your plan suggests?

  2. Towers and incendiary rhetoric…. To the rhetoric first. I agree that calling for the closing of a street is going to be “controversial” in some cases. However, at the hearing Councillor Meggs appeared to be on a rampage to touch off hot-button issues, rather than open up the discussion on how the City’s plan could be improved to adopt many of the principles widely held to promote ‘good’ urbanism. On this point, the MPIC Charrette Plan suggests a graduated process that might get us to a full closure of Kingsway. It does not peel off into ‘incendiary logic’.

    On the second issue, I’d ask you to think a bit more closely on whether towers are necessary outside the downtown. I wrote a post outlining the historic development of the tower in our region, and pointing out the problems of the tower for sustainability in urbanism here: http://wp.me/p1mj4z-tp.

    Have a look and get back.

    • I read it. It’s an interesting piece of history. I still don’t have any problem with towers after reading it, but I’m not attached to the idea either. The problem is the NIMBYs don’t want any development. Not towers, not midrises, not laneway housing. I see the same people protesting 6-storey buildings as towers.

      I’ve lived in a variety of housing in Vancouver – a co-op in Point Grey, a 30 storey apartment in the West End, a basement unit near the Drive, a 3-storey apartment just off Main and Broadway, and a midrise in the Olympic Village. The best experiences so far have come in the neighbourhoods with the most density. I want walkable, mixed-use neighbourhoods with lots of amenities nearby. I don’t care what the housing form is.

      • I moved into a Mount Pleasant as a single guy, now I’m a Dad. See the place throughout the eyes of my children’s school principal; the Parents Advisory Council; and my kids and their school friends. Changed the way I use the neighbourhood; but hasn’t changed my values much either.

        We have a lot in common. I too support towers in the downtown where they are doubling down on the Central Business District (CBD) that has all the infrastructure for towers, but was feral after business hours and weekends. Adding condos there was a no-brainer. Moving the same form into the neighbourhoods has a long history of trouble. IMO Knight and Kingsway is a disaster!

        I also agree with you that NIMBYs are not helping us move into a much needed new paradigm for Vancouver urbanism. I was out in front of the Olympic Village debacle right from the start. My proposal was for a 4-story row house and walk-up neighbourhood that would be turned over to ⅓ market; ⅓ co-op; and ⅓ social housing. Not a ghetto for those with mental health issues; but something along the lines of “Council Housing” in Vienna or London (where Thatcher gave most of it away).

        The way forward, in my opinion, is to identify those places in the neighbourhoods that don’t work. We know that arterials with heavy volume are toxic for residents. Yet, there we have them, all along the arterials at regular intervals of ½-mile. So, how do we take 40,000 vehicles per day and turn it into 10,000? Neighbourhoods are going to have to become walkable places, and the commuter trips will need to be pinched by fast & effective transit.

        Then, how do we turn those arterials into livable streets? Through design that is people-driven not auto oriented. Finally, how about affordable housing Are you renting or paying mortgages in all those places you cite? I want young people owning a pad. Then, with their future partner, trading two pads to own a row house. Later maybe a single house on a lot.

        Small is Beautiful. That’s the part we forgot in the rush to tower & podium.

      • You’re right, we do share a lot of common values.

        I’ve always rented. My wife and I both make good money and could technically afford to buy in Vancouver, if we were willing to put all of our disposable income into a mortgage. It just doesn’t seem worth it – too risky. We plan on having kids soon, and that might change our position. We’ve gone to a few open houses and it’s depressing. It’s impossible to find a place that’s affordable, of decent quality, close to downtown, and gives us space to grow.

        A lot of the tension I see in neighbourhoods right now is between tenants and owners. The owners oppose a lot of the development and added density, because they’ve already secured their spot and any change is risk that might affect their home’s value. I’m not sure what the mix was like on your committee, but it seems like the vocal resident associations are heavily owner dominated, even though 50% of the people around here rent.

        I love Jane Jacobs-style urbanism, but when it comes to solving housing affordability, I think people like Sam Sullivan might have a point. I’m sure you’ve read this Georgia Straight article. It’s interesting that Sullivan is now my MLA, not that I voted for him.

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