Plea for low-rise density & lament for Chinatown

Photo of Athens condo tower, via the highrise-loving blog skyscrapercity. Athens has now put a stop to highrises and is sticking with low-rise density. Is the above what we want for our Chinatown?

Vancouver City Council recently decided to allow towers in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown. Not only will this push traditional residents out of the area, but it will destroy one of the oldest heritage areas of this very young city. Contrary to what the developers would have us believe, towers are neither more dense nor more green, and yet our supposedly green City Council with its “Greenest City Initiative” is letting developers build these things willy nilly.  I expect the fight is not over. We will see people lying in front of bulldozers.

Vancouver’s Chinatown features some stunning buildings—among the oldest buildings in the city, some with 1886 engraved on their faces—and it has a unique residential character and population. Other than naked profit, there’s no reason why its densification and renewal couldn’t happen at a lowrise level consistent with its current face. Many have tried to get heritage designation for the area from the federal government, to pave the way for UNESCO World Heritage Site designation (which would immediately attract tourists from China and which in general radically increases tourism), but clearly development forces have been blocking this plan behind the scenes. Now the real estate gold rush that Council seems unwilling to rein in is set to ruin one of the last low-rise dense areas of the downtown, despite the fact that the green architecture community is increasingly warning that towers don’t make a city either green or livable. This is hereby a plea for Council to move back to a plan for low-rise density in Vancouver. Developers promulgate the idea that high towers are greener and denser only in order to maximize profits on each building footprint. The architectural and social record of these mega-developers in Vancouver is atrocious. No trading for amenities will make up for these height relaxations. What we actually need are more, smaller developers and developments. How many times are people going to have to point out that many older, lower European cities have greater density at lower heights (max 6-8 storeys)?  I’m reprinting (with permission) a blog comment by Adam Hyslop in Vancouver on this topic:

The environmental and social benefits of higher density development can be achieved through a variety of building forms (townhouses, mid-rise apartments, laneway housing, etc) that don’t drastically change the character of a neighbourhood. Equating density directly with height is a common misconception. Many European cities have densities much higher than downtown Vancouver without having any high-rises at all. Height limits exist for a reason; high-rises done poorly can have very dramatic livability impacts. There are also diminishing returns (in terms of environmental and social benefits) as you go higher. For example, wood-framed construction can now go as high as 6 storeys, avoiding GHG-intensive concrete.

The City’s current zoning bylaw allows them to get community amenities (parks, schools, community centres, etc) partially funded by development through the rezoning process and through density bonusing. This is an important funding source that would be lost if all restrictions were lifted. The City’s EcoDensity program and land use policies do advocate for increased densities and a lot has been done already. All single family zoned areas, for example, can now legally include basement suites or separate laneway housing for rent.

Being strategic about where we target higher densities is also important (around rapid transit stations, near high concentrations of jobs, etc.). Putting a bunch of highrises out in the middle of nowhere won’t have any environmental benefits since their residents will still end up driving everywhere.

Ensuring a mix of housing types and tenures in all neighbourhoods, with a focus on higher-density affordable housing and rental suites should be the focus, not just opening the flood gates on high-rise construction.

Chinatown Vancouver 2

Chinatown Vancouver 2

Lastly, WE NEED PROPERTY SPECULATION TAX IN THIS PROVINCE! Hong Kong, Singapore, and Australia all have such a tax. These Vancouver developers are all just real estate gold rush speculators. The problem is, Vancouver isn’t a remote gold claim. We have to live here.

For another example of a building that towers over all its neighbours, also a product of wild fortunes but in a different way, click here.

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