Monday, October 10, 2016

Opinion: Which is the better city — Toronto or Vancouver? Vancouver Courier September 30th

I’ve been thinking about this after recently spending five days in Toronto to attend a conference organized by Lambda Alpha International, an urban land economics society. The conference featured tours and speakers including Jennifer Keesmaat, the city’s rock star director of planning, along with housing experts, economists, local architects and planners.

For me, this was also a trip down memory lane, since I lived in Toronto for 23 years from the age of five through university and my early years as an architect and official with CMHC.

As I listened to the presentations and toured various city neighbourhoods, I realized there were many lessons Vancouver could teach Toronto. But there was also much we could learn in return.

Toronto is now a very big city. An estimated 100,000 immigrants move there annually, and now more than 50 per cent of the population was not born in Canada. While Vancouver is a cosmopolitan city, I could not get over how many people on the street and excellent public transit spoke a language other than English.

While Vancouverites are proud when we rank highly as a livable city, planner Joe Berridge noted that Toronto has become one of the world’s top ranked cities when it comes to most categories.
Pearson airport ranks along with New York, London, Hong Kong, and Mexico City when it comes to connections to other cities. Vancouver has a similar ranking to Montreal, Boston, Lisbon, and Geneva.

Toronto ranks very highly when it comes to innovation, as measured by the number of patents registered each year. It also comes fourth in Price Waterhouse Coopers’ Cities of Opportunity ranking. Only London, New York and Singapore rank higher. Sadly, Vancouver was not even on this list of 22 international cities.

Vancouver was also missing from the Economist magazine’s ranking of top cities in which to live and work. According to a Globe and Mail story reporting on the study, Toronto ranked first.
Berridge attributed Toronto’s success to its influx of immigrants, excellent universities and library system, a high standard of peace and order, and with the exception of Rob Ford’s reign, good government. The consensus seemed to be that amalgamation had worked.

However, Berridge also noted Toronto has relatively poor convention facilities, few great tourist attractions, and no new universities. Toronto’s climate is worse than Vancouver’s and our city has a more magnificent natural setting. However, this does not necessarily mean Vancouver wins the beauty contest.
As I toured the city, I was impressed by an improved standard of cleanliness and beautiful new street planting. We were told the maintenance and planting programs are often undertaken by 82 local Business Improvement Associations (BIAs) around the city.
Toronto also has an expanded program encouraging the creation of POPS — Privately Owned Public Spaces. As I listened to an impressive presentation by the city architect overseeing the program, all I could think of was how Vancouver is losing many of its POPS, including plazas at Georgia/Howe and Seymour/Hastings.
While Vancouver is planning to create new parks by removing the viaducts, Toronto is contemplating a project that would build a major new park above a portion of its downtown railway lines, comparable in size to New York’s Central Park. Other major parks have been created along the waterfront.
When it comes to housing, it was reported that Vancouver has 161 major condominium projects underway. In comparison, Toronto has 431. However, in the absence of new purpose-built rental buildings, 70 per cent of these new units are purchased by investors. When compared with Vancouver, I found Toronto’s buildings often too large, and much too close together.

Given a shortage of family-sized two-, three- and four-bedroom units, a major concern in both cities is where millennials who occupy downtown units are going to live when they start to have families. Toronto has therefore initiated a “growing up vertical” program to encourage larger units and child-friendly amenities in new developments.
An interesting comparison is how the two cities have tackled the challenge of regenerating older public housing projects. One only has to look at the highly successful redevelopment of Regent Park, once the worst public housing project in Canada, and compare it with slow redevelopment of Vancouver’s Little Mountain Public Housing, to see who wins in this category.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Opinion: The return of a National Housing Strategy Vancouver Courier September 15, 2016

I would like to see changes to zoning and building codes to allow small apartment buildings like this to be built again around Vancouver and the region.
I was fortunate to spend 10 years during the 'golden era' of CMHC. It was golden since we had a lot of gold to distribute for a variety of housing projects including public housing, non-profit rental and coops, residential rehabilitation, affordable home ownership, and more. Sadly, in 1993, the federal government's involvement in affordable housing diminished considerably.

However, Justin Trudeau seems to be following in the footsteps of his father and wanting to get back in the game. Yesterday both the federal and provincial government ministers spoke about a return of a National Housing Strategy and here's my column from today's Vancouver Courier.

Let’s talk housing.
Housing was certainly top of mind this past week as The Honourable Jean-Yves Duclos, Federal Minister responsible for Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, was keynote speaker at a special Metro Vancouver Board of Trade luncheon.

The board invited the minister since deteriorating housing affordability is regarded by many as the greatest challenge impacting Metro Vancouver. In the 2016 Greater Vancouver Economic Scorecard, Vancouver earned a “D” grade in housing affordability, coming 15th out of the 17 jurisdictions measured.

In his remarks, the minister described the federal government's vision to keep housing in Canada’s urban centres affordable and accessible for everyone, and steps the federal government is taking to achieve this vision, including the development of a National Housing Strategy.

While the federal minister was speaking to the Board of Trade, Rich Coleman, the provincial minister responsible for housing, was addressing stakeholders from across the province who had been invited to a one-and-a-half-day workshop to help inform the B.C. government’s formal submission to the federal government on its National Housing Strategy.

Minister Coleman spoke about the province’s six “Housing Matters” priorities, namely, access to stable housing with integrated services for the homeless, priority for B.C.’s most vulnerable, addressing aboriginal housing need, improved access to affordable rental housing for low-income households, homeownership as an avenue to self-sufficiency; and a safe, stable and efficient housing regulatory system.

Earlier in the workshop, I participated on a panel with SFU’s Gordon Price, urban affairs commentator Frances Bula, and urban futures demographer Andrew Ramlo. I reviewed the federal government’s historic role in housing and shared many of the ideas I have written about in the Vancouver Courier over the past two years.

For seven decades, the federal government has played a major role in financing and building Vancouver’s affordable housing.

Much of the city’s rental housing was financed through a myriad of programs including the Limited Dividend Program, which provided 100 per cent loans to developers who agreed to limit their profits, ARP (Assisted Rental Program) and CRSP (Canada Rental Supply Program), which offered preferential financing, and the CCA (capital cost allowance) program, which allowed Canadians to write off a portion of their investments in rental housing against other income.

While these programs usually made rental housing projects feasible, my dear friend Morris Wosk, who built many apartments around the city, often reminded me that in the early years, it was the coins from the washers and dryers that made the difference between positive and negative cash flow.

In addition to rental housing programs, the federal government offered first time homeowners’ grants and programs such as AHOP, the Assisted Home Ownership Program, which provided preferential financing for Vancouver homes selling for $47,000 or less.

From 1947 to 1985, the federal and provincial governments developed public housing developments, including Little Mountain, Maclean Park, and the West End’s Sunset Towers. Today, most of these projects are ripe for regeneration.

While redevelopment of the Little Mountain project has been a complete fiasco, hopefully more successful strategies will be followed in coming years. Lessons can certainly be learned from Toronto’s Regent Park, once the most notorious public housing in the country, which has been phased into a most successful mixed-income community.

In the 1970’s the federal government introduced new programs to allow non-profit organizations to build rental and cooperative housing projects catering to lower income households. During this period, the redevelopment of the south shore of False Creek got underway. This project was highly controversial at first, with one senior city planner resigning, arguing it would be a terrible place for families to live. Over the past 40 years, the community has been highly acclaimed, but today it, too, is ready for renewal, offering numerous opportunities for additional affordable housing.
A National Housing Strategy will hopefully offer additional federal money. However, there will never be enough. Other innovative approaches will continue to be required, including changes in municipal regulations to allow smaller houses on small lots, basement suites in duplexes and rowhouses, stacked rowhouses and other compact housing forms.

It is also time to revise building codes to allow smaller rental apartment buildings like those built 50 years ago. With laundry rooms and coin operated washers and dryers.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Opinion: Seven things Vancouver should copy from Montreal Vancouver Courier August 30, 2016

I recently spent a few days in Montreal and came back with a number of observations and ideas that Vancouver might want to consider. Here are seven, in no particular order.
This small Montreal infill housing development offers affordable housing choices not found in Vancouver. Photo Michael Geller
1. Alternative forms of affordable housing
One of Montreal’s traditional housing forms is the maisonette, which offers one and two-level suites above a single level suite, with direct access from a winding outdoor staircase.
While Montreal snows more than Vancouver, I was surprised to discover this affordable housing form continues to be built, appealing to those who cannot afford a house or townhouse, or prefer not living in an apartment building. 

In other Canadian cities, the stacked-townhouse is a variation on this housing form. While some stacked-townhouse developments are now being built in Vancouver, they need to be more common.
I also discovered small eight- to 12-unit infill developments around the city. They offer grade level townhouses with their own garages, and smaller suites above accessed from the street. Upper floor residents do not have off-street parking and must rely on street parking, car-share, or do without a car. As an increasing number of Vancouver residents no longer need to own a car, similar infill developments would fit well in Vancouver.
These Montreal taxi drivers drive Tesla cabs. Photo Michael Geller
2. Electric taxis
While Vancouver is rightly proud of its many hybrid taxis, I was surprised to discover one Montreal taxi operator offers a small fleet of Teslas. Now that’s one-upmanship.
3. Illuminated murals
Last week, many Vancouverites were delighted by the first annual Vancouver Mural Festival, which took place in Mount Pleasant. Montreal has been organizing similar festivals since 2013. It also offers the annual winter Montreal en Lumiere, which illuminates murals on downtown buildings. Some continue year-round, and I was delighted to see illuminated murals transforming a grey-concrete structure at the University of Quebec. Many of Vancouver’s building facades could serve as nightly canvases.
4. A city of bikes
While Vancouver drivers complain about the number of bikes and bike lanes being built around our city, there seemed to be far more bicycles on Montreal’s downtown neighbourhood streets. Like Vancouver, the city has set up electronic monitors to count the number of cyclists using separated bike lanes.
While I am on the topic, I noticed that much-needed new bike lanes have been added along both sides of Southwest Marine Drive, between Granville Street and Dunbar. However, did the engineers really have to install sporadic concrete barricades and flimsy white poles? I think they look awful and question the need.
5. Slower and more respectful drivers
While Montrealers always had a reputation of disregarding traffic regulations, I was surprised to discover far more motorists driving at the posted speed limit compared to Vancouver. Drivers also tended to stay in the inside lane, except to pass, something Vancouver drivers rarely do. While others may not share my experience, at a time when ICBC rates are climbing due to an increased number of accidents, perhaps it is time for Vancouver motorists to obey speed limits, signalization, and driving in the proper lanes.
Alternatively, maybe it is time for the province to introduce mandatory driving tests every five or 10 years, before renewing drivers’ licenses.
Just one of the many street planting installations in downtown Montreal. Photo Michael Geller
6. Attractive street planting
Wandering around downtown neighbourhoods, I was impressed by many new street planting installations. While it was not evident whether they were funded by the city or neighbourhood improvement associations, they certainly enhanced the city. Sadly, while attractive street plantings can be found in many other cities and metro municipalities, this does not seem to be a priority for Vancouver.
Vancouver could use at least one more Jewish deli like Montreal's famous Schwartz's. Photo Michael Geller
7. Jewish delicatessens
For many, myself included, no visit to Montreal is complete without a visit to Schwartz’s or one of the city’s other Jewish delicatessens for a bagel and lox or smoked beef sandwich. While we now have a branch of Montreal’s Dunns, as well as Ominitsky’s on Oak Street, and the recent pop-up Mensch Delicatessen on East Broadway (that serves a hearty pastrami sandwich), Vancouver desperately needs another traditional Jewish deli. After all, you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy good Jewish deli.
While there are many things that Vancouver could teach Montreal, including how to better deter graffiti, hopefully some of these ideas will find a place in Vancouver in years to come.
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