Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

The argument for density: Livable, affordable and kind to the climate

with 9 comments

Peter Busby, Special to the Sun

Published: Tuesday, February 26, 2008

I think that we need to know what is tacked on the end first

Peter Busby is managing director of Busby Perkins + Will Architects Ltd. in Vancouver.

Now he is, no doubt, a Good Bloke. But he is hardly impartial, as he depends for his living on developers. Architects do not work for anyone else. And he makes some good arguments. But once again I have to repeat that calling people names is not a way to answer their legitimate concerns. And they are not necessarily NIMBYs, and as property owners would probably like to see the value of their investment rise. But they are right to be suspicious.

Fundamentally what is wrong with ecoDensity ® is that it is being proposed by Mayor Sam Sullivan. And the people of Vancouver do not trust him. Even people in his own “non party” do not trust him, and will not give him a clear run at the next election.

As always, the devil is in the details, and the City of Vancouver cannot deliver on one of the most important. The City of Vancouver gets better transit than the rest of the region already. To make increased density outside of the present dense areas work, there will need to be more transit – and it is not up to the City to deliver it. And municipalities outside of Vancouver are getting very fed up with being promised more transit only to see those promises broken – and more than once. And as long as the Province thinks that the Gateway and a tube tunnel under West Broadway are the most important priorities, there is not going to be more transit for the rest of the region – or more bus service for the currently low density areas of Vancouver.

UPDATE February 28

An op ed piece by Micheal Geller in today’s Sun continues to bang the drum for eco-density:

 We’re beginning to get the ‘Eco’ — but what’s Density?

It seems to be mainly about building height, as if that were the only concern. There is also this mnarvellous bit of throw away

Concerns about traffic and parking can be addressed through better transit, and creative off-site parking solutions.

If you do it properly, you can actually reduce the need for parking. Because walkable, multiple use dense development reduces the need for motorised trips. And it is much more than “off site parking”. But getting more transit has to be the crunch issue. And I would say that the chances of getting enough transit to even satisfy existing demand are pretty low, because once again a massive rail rapid transit project – designed mainly to get transit out of the way of the cars on Broadway – is the centre piece. Not better bus services.

He is of course using the word “get” to mean “understand” – because we are not “getting” any more “eco” in these proposals as far as I can see. When I worked on these issues a few years ago with what is now the Community Energy Association, the big issue was the restrictive municipal rules and regulations which tied developers to a building type which was actually contrary to best planning practices. And while we looked at the issue through the lens of energy consumption (which neatly converts to greenhouse gas emissions) we also pointed to the need to deal with issues like community safety (i.e the size of fire trucks) how you deal with waste – solid and liquid – drainage and so on.  Mandated single use of land doesn’t help either: mixed use and distributed retailing have to be added in. Not to mention parks and schools – which tend to be a bit of an afterthought (see current issues in downtown Vancouver with lack of primary schools and kindergartens.)

In fact, height may be the least of the problems with eco-density – or rather the current proposals in Vancouver. It has to be done right – and so far it hasn’t been.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 26, 2008 at 8:42 am

9 Responses

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  1. Stephen,

    I don’t think its only flaw is that it is championed by Sam Sullivan. It’s one of its drawbacks, but definitely not the only one. The really big one is that real estate developers, construction companies and real estate agents are outstandingly greedy and want to make humongous profit margins.

    A colleague of mine who works in the real estate development business told me that her boss told her once “if I knew that building houses would be so profitable, I would have started doing it ages ago”. I know that greed is inherent to human behavior, but for the love of God, there are profit margins and then there are PROFIT MARGINS.

    I have studied several industries where production volume is high and profit margins are low, and then those where production volume is low and profit margins are high. But I think that there are degrees to which people can make profit off of other people. In this case, affordability is barely dependent on the government but primarily depends on lack of greed. And as we know, all humans are greedy (to varying extents).

    When will this situation change? Probably when the government steps up and buys large chunks of land and develops it and sells those new units at below-market prices. But when is that ever going to happen?

    This is just a thought, and more than likely a half-baked thought as I just woke up from a very bad night of sleep. But would like to bounce ideas off of you to try and build a stronger argument.


    February 26, 2008 at 9:01 am

  2. Not half baked at all.

    The original proposal for the Sheppard Subway in Toronto was that it would be paid for through a development levy. The developers said very simply that if there were a levy – any levy – they just develop elsewhere. But the value of the land would change as soon as a shovel went into the ground, and the cost to revenue ratio for a dense development with low need for parking is far better than a car oriented development. But the developers were not interested in sharing.

    Corporations behave like psychopaths. Indeed, it is also argued that in order to be successful CEO, you need to be psychotic. Yet we seem to accept behaviour from companies that we would not accept from people. There are some organizations that try to be ethical, but I cannot off the top of my head think of a developer that would fit that description.

    And of course you are right – there is much more wrong with the way ecodensity is being pursued than just its proposer. But sometimes I feel the need to be provocative – and I am trying to put up more, shorter posts than extensive essays. Or as Dave Olson put it ” ‘Time constrained’ is another way of saying ‘lazy'”

    Stephen Rees

    February 26, 2008 at 9:21 am

  3. Architects DO have clients other than developers, and those clients are often cities and other public agencies who work under much different principles, the absence of the profit motive among them. A good portion of Busby’s work originates with cities, and though his speciality is sustainability (one of the first in his field to accomplish this), he is also known for design excellence. Examples include the Brentwood and Gilmore SkyTrain stations, and several community centres and municipal operations buildings.

    [Though the Millennium Line has been rightly criticized in this blog for, among other things, the lack of proper community planning, the stations and much of the engineering work were designed locally, and it shows. The Expo Line was completely rendered with an imported one-size-fits-all cheap and totally unimaginative design. The City of Burnaby responded by encouraging TOD at Brentwood that is better planned than its other town centres. The ridership on the ML is nowhere near ideal yet, but the trend to orient high-density development toward transit is well underway there.]

    When Busby is not polishing his Governor General awards and framing the glowing reviews of his work printed in European architectural mags, he can probably tell you down to the fraction of a tonne how much his platinum-rated buildings under the Green Building Council LEEDs (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification system are saving in GHG emissions.

    Busby is guilty for having some clients with questionable histories, Walmart among them. But I have a hunch that he also presses them behind closed doors to look at conducting their affairs more sustainably, and obviously, from his article, one can conclude he would promote transit densities over highway retail. Moreover, if you look at all his other projects, these clients are tiny minority, way below those in more corporate architecture firms who rarely have public clients and who are not noted for principles other than the bottom line.

    The Dockside Green project in Victoria, though not public, is heavily financed by Vancity and has active managerial involvement from a few individuals like Jaques Kouri who have socially and environmentally progressive views. That project has also attained one of the deepest levels of sustainability ever conceived in North America, and is purposely being designed as a walking community just across the Inner Harbour from downtown. It is very well planned and designed. And yes, even such idealistic projects cannot be completed without a profit.

    I am uncomfortable with Busby’s support of EcoDensity because by extension he supports the current mayor who seems to be ignoring prior planning initiatives. Increasing density is also a truly regional issue. But I can also read, and Busby speaks not just to the missing pieces in that policy, the big one being transit, but to attaining a level of sustainability and planning & design excellence not currently envisioned, and he does so by focusing on principles, not personalities.



    February 26, 2008 at 10:41 am

  4. Well bravo for you Meredith. I am really glad you post here and have not decided to go off and blog for yourself!

    I spent one weekend with a lovely bunch of architects organised by Patrick Condon into a design charette for what we thought would be the redevelopment of Brentwood around an LRT station. It covered quite a large area – roughly Boundary to Holdom and down to Highway 1. It was published too. Nice book with lots of pretty pictures.

    While the architecture of the Brentwood SkyTrain station is impressive, I still think that anything that was done that lost weekend would have been better than an elevated station on a highway median . But that is not Busby’s fault. And I did say he is a Good Bloke.

    I think that is why no-one here, in their right minds, trusts any politician any more. There have been lots of very good plans, but very little implementation, and much of that poor quality.

    Stephen Rees

    February 26, 2008 at 10:56 am

  5. Actually Stephen, the design for Dawson Street, as part of the Brentwood Town Centre Plan (if memory serves — an increasingly tenuous thing!), was influenced by Patrick Condon’s charette. Dawson is being rapidly transformed for the better, in my view, starting at the Gilmore Station. The sidewalks are much wider, and the towers are a little lower (and more comfortable) than at Brentwood and offer condo prices lower than central Vancouver. The Millennium Line is also becoming a lifeline.

    I was at a presentation of some concepts for Brentwood developed by separate groups (Condon’s charette?), and found it fascinating. One even had tertiary treatment of the sewage outflow with vats of tropical aquatic plants in a greenhouse. There was also a push to have the entire town centre powered by a Ballard fuel cell demonstration project. Non of that stuff happened, thus illustrating your point how the most innovative ideas often are left as pretty pictures in a report. Nonetheless, the charette did have measured influence on the planners.

    SkyTrain is not ideal, but we’re stuck with it, ugly guideway and all. However, I really think that the Brentwood Station design has set the bar a lot higher. And there are some efficiency and safety gains with grade separation. However, I do agree that surface light rail would have worked quite well on the wide Lougheed corridor notably with the long stretches between crossings, but bringing the station right into the heart of the Brentwood Mall would have been the best solution in my opinion. This also shines a light on the so far absent makeover of the mall — such a vacuum. That toad really needs to be turned into a prince, as do most other malls.

    Blog of my own? Maybe when I’m retired. In the meantime, thanks for supplying a diverse platform!


    February 26, 2008 at 12:09 pm

  6. The eastbound platform at Brentwood could have been designed better; in the PM rush the passenger flow is somewhat constricted, the placement of the single exit stairwell/escalator seems to direct opposing flows of passengers directly into one another.

    >The ridership on the ML is nowhere near ideal

    It’s certainly busy enough in the peaks, some days it’s more crush-packed than the Expo Line, paticularly when a train arrives at Commercial already loaded with passengers from the #84 buses at VCC-Clark.

    One interesting thing about the M line in the AM rush is how many people are heading in the “non-peak” direction. E/B Expo line trains look empty compared to E/B Millennium Line Trains.

    Dave 2

    February 26, 2008 at 12:31 pm

  7. One of the good effects of the UPass was it increased the use of spare capacity on the M line to get students to SFU. Of course, they all have to transfer to a bus to get up to the top of the mountain. But we are straying off topic. This is supposed to be about ecodensity.

    Stephen Rees

    February 26, 2008 at 12:40 pm

  8. Just a few comments on the above posts (though they are off topic wrt Ecodensity):

    The Expo Line apparently involved the predecessor to VIA Architecture in designing its stations, etc., so while the train technology was “imported”, the stations were not. Personally, while the stations do not fall into a “starchitect” category, I think they are well designed and functional and have not aged poorly (as opposed to being brutalist concrete as seen in other cities).

    In large part, the overbearing-ness of the M-Line is due to the location in the middle of the roadway and the transitioning on “bents” from one side of the roadway to the centre and back again. That transitioning was done to keep the line as far from residential areas as possible – i.e. its on the south side near Holdom and Sperling away from the houses to on the north side, switches to the middle @ Bainbridge when there are houses on boths sides, and swicthes to the south @ Lake City when there are houses on the south side. Luckily, the Canada Line has avoided the use of bents.

    Dawson Street is working out very well, and luckily Burnaby had the foresight to realize that Lougheed Highway cold not be tamed into a pedestrian street. Now why Richmond hasn’t realized the same with No. 3 Rd. is bizarre (Hazelbridge or another side street should be the pedestrian retail street).

    Ron C

    February 26, 2008 at 3:01 pm

  9. Raul: “A colleague of mine who works in the real estate development business told me that her boss told her once “if I knew that building houses would be so profitable, I would have started doing it ages ago”. I know that greed is inherent to human behavior, but for the love of God, there are profit margins and then there are PROFIT MARGINS.”

    I thought the same when I bought my first house.


    February 27, 2008 at 3:35 pm

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