Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for April 25th, 2008

The Market for Walkable Urban Development

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Shifting Gears

Christopher Leinberger at SFU downtown

Thanks to Frank Pacella I am about to make my first attempt at live blogging.

Chris Leinberger was introduced by Larry Frank as a member of Brookings Institution and also a developer who has written for the Atlantic and the Tyee today

Christopher LeinbergerWatch “Back to the Future” – two ways to build a town 1955 and 1985 Hill Valley and its downtown. Two ways to set up the built environment. Now we are going back to the future.

Built environment is 35% of the asset base of all advanced economies – the largest segment. But only 2% changes every year which is why it takes longer to turn around than a supertanker. Walkable cities were the model for 5,500 years up until 1945: transportation drives development – it dictates the form of the built environment. Pompeii and Pepys London were basically the same urban fabric. Even with the introduction of rail – both where you boarded and got off you had to walk – with country in between. Then cars overwhelmed the right of way. Between 1930-45 building virtually stopped and there was no car production. We got collective amnesia and went down a new path – the new image came from the the 1939 New Yorks World’s Fair – Futurama. Fundamentally different way of building our urban places – all we built was driveable suburban – Levittown. We wanted this! ( “I walked 2200 miles as ten year old”) We made it a very good place to park a car.

In the twentieth century 30% of the economy was directly connected to cars “What was good for GM was good for the country”. And not just the US – China and Chekoslovakia too.

Wall Street commoditised real estate – they have to be all the same to be tradable. The same product is traded like pork bellies. Canada follows a more European model of land use controls. In US it is predictable where growth will go – the edge cities where for every 1% population growth we had 8 to 12% growth in land use.

In Canada, US and Australia there was a lot of land available – because our germs were stronger than their germs. In US we made drivable suburban the only thing you could build. Massively subsidised – cf sewers at 1 to the acre vs 40 to the acre. “One price, all you can eat” – low density means 10 to 22 times the subsidy

Only over the last ten years have we begun to study the unintended consequences. It was based on cheap oil, we have now passed peak oil. Its Achilles heel “more is less”: every addition reduces the quality of life on what is there. NIMBY opposition to growth is rational. And, of course, climate change. 73% of ghg comes from the built environment.

Difference between walkable and suburban is about 2 to 3 times the ghg.

Somewhere about the mid90s the pendulum started to swing back. Walkable urban places are different – as it grows it gets better, and it is also being driven by the market – the Gen Xers and the millennials. The boomers grew up watching “Ossie and Harriet” or Dick van Dyke – it all happened in the suburbs. In the 90s we watched Seinfeld, Friends and “Sex and the City” – all urban. Hollywood does more market research than the rest of the planet and they noticed that people wanted urban places – childless households were 50% 1950, 67% today but 88% over next 20 years.

Tremendous pent up demand for more choices – 50% want or put up with walkable urban – 50% drivable suburban – but there are many cities where there is less than 5% walkable. This will depress the value of suburban houses. In coming years all the demand will be for multifamily dense housing.

Downtown is regionally significant. Washington DC will be the model for the 21st century – mainly because of the subway. In last ten years urban DC has been restored – and office rents have climbed as downtown DC started gaining market share for offices. Not just DC also Baltimore MD, Chatanooga, Portland, Chicago, San Francisco, even downtown Detroit! Light Rail 3.5 mile from downtown to the train station – in the motor city.

Downtown adjacent – lower density but incredible character – Dupont Circle, the West End – in DC and here – Granville Island. It will also be suburban town centres – Bethesda MD, Lakewood CO – Via Italia Mall – now BelMar – 60% premium over rest of Lakewood. Reston VA – lifestyle centres “instant urbanity”

Two thirds of walkable urban places had rail transit.

Unintended consequences – lack of affordable housing, what do we do with the surplus big houses and the old strip malls.

Recommendations for Metro

  • fund new transit plan
  • more tod and overlay zoning
  • create additional private sector led WU non-profits B.I.Ds
  • 13-15 region serving walkable urban places – 6 per million


two panelists at SFU city talk April 25, 2008

Photo by Jason Vanderhill

Jim Cox

it felt like you were blaming us – we did what we thought was the right thing. We do things differently now – smarter now. VanCity Enterprises – after a career of buggering things up – does socially conscious development

Vancouver has a good downtown but a crappy region – sea of suburbs past Kits. We are going to have to stop driving – its too expensive. In Vancouver EcoDensity is going to have a tough time. Bowen Island is dead set against adding second storeys! Huge task to create regionally significant places. “We have just the crappiest transit system of any city I have ever been to.”

Blake Hudema

Less optimistic about pent up demand. You are speaking to the converted but how do we mainstream that? Schizophrenic – filled with fear. Market looks for simplicity and comfort. Current environment is going to be more diverse “the StarWars bar scene” – more types of building, more types of tenure. In shopping we have taken a huge step back when we left regional town centres for big box.

In for a real challenging time


1 What is the incentive for the non profit to do these transit nodes?

CL – I am just reporting from the front. They are funded by property owners – beginning to really brand a place – more aggressive The market wants something different – very complex – more like flying a jet than driving a car. We lost the ability to do walkable urban

2. Influence of parking policy

Jim – parking is bloody expensive you should do a lot less of it – use car co-ops – get the community to let us do it

Blake – look at the efficiencies – look at what those spaces are doing – integrated development.

CL Having a parking problem is a sign of success. Over time the amount of parking needed drops

3 – Offices in these devts?

CL – it integrates quite well: old model we separated land uses. There is no reason why you cannot integrate housing and offices. Post industrial offices and town houses work well together. Perfect shared use due to time differences: the house is occupied at evenings and weekends when the office is empty, so they are perfect neighbours.

4 – What do you want from a transit system?

Jim : Two or three times as much – all suburban communities – transit will one day be cool – driving will be like smoking. Go beyond central Surrey – want more express buses – want to see everybody have that opportunity. We did a really crappy job of concentrating jobs.
Blake – we need a real variety of systems – there are all kinds of barriers to get cheap solutions into place – need for more frequent service – no matter what it is. Trying to retrofit into car based system. We tend to concentrate on rail – we need more demand responsive, cheap transit.

CL – we don’t need any more roads – build transit to sell real estate – have the station underground. On the surface you always have to wrong side of the tracks. You can handle all the growth – you don’t need another sq inch of space if you do it right

GP – what do you do with a dead Mcmansion or a surplus u/g parking lot

CL – Mcmansions will become apartments but they are not going to hold up. There will be a lot torn down

BH – retrofitting will work for different market segments – very optimistic. In the retail sector we only built temporary space anyway. Most buildings of last 30 years will have to be bulldozed

CL – underground parking lots have all kinds of potential uses – paintball, artists …

5 Gateway – goods movement – what kind of policies made these things happen

BH – Gateway is evil – national agenda should have been more advanced – should have got railways

CL – freight railway lines are booming – we will see a shift back to rail. Truckers would vote for transit to clear the freeways of SoVs

Policies were v important – overlay zoning district to encourage the right thing – make it easy and legal at stations put in density

Q – Paul Pinsker – we are putting in local centres and reviewing parking requirements – look at sustainable activities – Bill 27

Affordable housing – how can we get more?

CL – short term – inclusionary zoning 20% must be affordable – put it over a large enough area, land prices will drop and the go back up again. Subsidy will not be felt. Montgomery County MD did it 20 years ago

Low income tax credits, workforce tax credits, auxiliary units “granny flats” should be legalised

Long term expand supply – the NIMBYs that don’t allow density around stations are the problem. More income needs to go into housing less into transportation. Drop one car and put it into your house

Make the right thing easy – downtown

Albuquerque 21 principles

The final question related to cycling and small towns in the BC interior, but I had to leave to go to work.


I am going to be able to use a lot of this tomorrow at the Rail for the Valley meeting. It is refreshing to hear someone else say that we have a crappy transit system. I am fed up with the way our boosters like to think we are doing well, simply because downtown Vancouver is successful. We need much more transit – and very much more affordable housing. And obviously not a single inch more tarmac! Retrofitting the suburbs should have been the main feature as that is going to be our biggest challenge. I was surprised no-one pointed out that the LRSP identifies Regional Town Centres, and only Metrotown and Surrey Centre got any mention. One of the great losses, in my opinion, is going to be the way that the Golden Ears Bridge spells the end of the unique character of Maple Ridge’s centre. It is now one of the few real places with a park and a band shell, community theatre and lots of independent businesses. How long will that last under the impact of the traffic streaming into town? There are suburban places of regional significance – Steveston and Fort Langley for instance. The problem I see is that the heritage stuff is so thin – especially in Steveston – that it is being lost as the place becomes more popular.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 25, 2008 at 7:06 pm

City gets noisy about airport

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C-GJWN A321 YVR 2007_1008_1647

Richmond News

When Vancouver Airport’s Aeronautical Noise Management Committee was opened to the public in December, not one citizen showed up to complain about airport noise at the Dec. 12 meeting.

Doug Louth, who has plenty to complain about, isn’t a bit surprised.

“I wouldn’t go,” said Louth, who has been complaining about airport noise for eight years. “It was just too restrictive.”

When the committee meets — which it does quarterly — only one “selected citizen” gets to speak.

The delegate must apply 30 days ahead, must detail the exact nature of the complaint, must limit the presentation to a single issue and must sign a code of conduct.

He or she gets five minutes to speak, five minutes to listen, and then is “excused” once the committee has dealt with the complaint.

“I’m not surprised that no one showed up,” says Louth of the Dec. 12 meeting. “It was like a security check.”

Louth was thrilled Monday when city council decided to strike its own airport noise task force.

I don’t know why he should be. The City has absolutely no ability whatsoever to influence how the airport behaves. It is legally a federal body. The Airport Authority is in reality responsible to no-one. The feds just collect the rent.

If you wrote a fictional story and used a procedure like the one outlined above, people would laugh – but they would not believe that is how a modern corporation, concerned about its public image, would behave. But YVR does not have to give anyone a hearing – and it certainly will not do anything about anyone complaining. The rerouting of aircraft recently was done by NavCanada. And they showed a similar disdain for the public. The public complained – quite rightly – but nothing happened. NavCanada is no longer held accountable. As long as it makes money, that is enough.

As the story notes it is never clear who is responsible – YVR, NavCanada or Transport Canada – and the three agencies can keep any complaint shuttling between the three of them for an indefinite period until the complainant gives up.

And why does the City of Richmond think they will be treated any better?

Abuse of power like this deserves some sanction. But there isn’t any. There is no recourse. And this is going to become a common experience as more and more functions of public agencies get shunted off to “professional boards” and “crown corporations” like BC Ferries and the new super duper “ram the freeways” through corporation currently being debated to almost no coverage at all in Victoria.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 25, 2008 at 12:42 pm

Peak oil’s a chimera. Dumb policies are the real problem

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Harvey Enchin’s faith in free markets is touching: the invisible hand will sort out every problem for us. As long as we have no governments “interfering”.

He does acknowledge the finite nature of fossil fuels, but I see not one reference to climate change except for a personal attack on Al Gore. Which is not really a very convincing way to make a case. If King Abdullah is really protecting his reserves for future generations, he is a lot smarter than most observers give him credit for. The analysis I have seen has suggested that the reserves have always been a closely protected secret, but the suspicion is that is because there is a lot less there than they say.

Of course the size of the reserves anywhere is very much a function of the price of oil. When exploration found reserves off Newfoundland, a lot of energy economists that I knew were frankly sceptical that it would be worth exploiting, but back then $120 a barrel oil seemed far in the future. It also doesn’t help that we are trying to measure prices in terms of a declining currency. It is a bit like using a tape measure made of elastic.

But Harvey also does not mention that there can be very sound reasons for not developing oil reserves, and in the case of Canada’s west coast, it was not just the First Nations that raised concerns about the fragility of the ecosystem here. Indeed, everyone was affected by the Exxon Valdez – and many still are – and the credibility gap of the oil industry and its claims of being “scientifically sound and environmentally responsible”. Erm, no. Not on the present record they’re not. Denying climate change and funding bogus “scientific papers” supporting their financial benefit over the fate of millions of people is not sound science or responsible.

Yes some government policies are dumb. But what else do you expect when you let some large corporate interests put up a sock puppet for president, rig the election results and then start declaring war on trumped up reasons? Hopefully this will end shortly, and we can return to sanity. And the unwillingness of oil companies to invest in

Kazakhastan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan; Bolivia, Venezuela, Columbia and Ecuador; Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Nigeria, Iran, Iraq and Kuwait

is understandable but then the ability of others to exploit these resources is also a distinct possibility. Certainly the Chinese do not lack the financial resources, although I bet now they wish they had diversified out of dollars some time ago.

On the whole I would rather that we leave the BC coast alone. It is going to be hard enough to mitigate the effects of the Deltaport, the loss of wild salmon and much of the migratory bird population and clean up the mess that Atlantic salmon farming will have left after that dumb policy is ended. If there are petroleum resources there, let us hold them against future needs for products that we are going to have a hard time making in future. There are a lot better things to do with oil and gas than burn it!

But mostly let us review the dumb policies and come up with smarter ones, which will make this place a better one to live in for everyone – not just us. A dumb policy is not just one that seems to block private investment. A dumb policy is one that continues to make the same mistakes and expects a different outcome. Reducing the size of our footprint is something we really do not have much choice about if we take a long term, broad view of the future. Now that may look disadvantageous to the fast buck crowd, but that is just tough. They will have to accept that we are entitled to expect more from them – in terms of environmental protection and restoration, and longer term sustainability.

The point of the peak oil argument is not the date – now, last year, next tear, twenty years away. It is inevitable. A dumb policy is to wait until we have absolute certainty that it is too late and then change behaviour. We have to make adjustments – we should have been making adjustments – our competitors have already made adjustments and have sounder economies as a result (the Euro is not getting stronger just on a whim).

And we also only have one planet. As far as we know this is the only planet that can support life as we understand it. We have yet to discover another – and any candidates are currently well beyond our reach. Looking after the one we have and ensuring it can continue to support us is not a dumb policy at all. Dumb is ignoring that reality and concentrating on fast profits and quick returns.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 25, 2008 at 10:23 am

Planned city office tower on hold

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Carbon-neutral office tower planned for downtown Vancouver


A proposed office tower is not going to be built near GM Place. No potential tenants could be found at a rent that made the project feasible – because it was too far out of the downtown core.

“Once you’re outside of that downtown core, people will say, ‘If we’re paying this much here, we might as well go to the suburbs.'”

if the city wants to create commercial space to ensure that the downtown continues to have space for jobs and not just condos, city planners will have to allow buildings that are a mix of condos and offices. That way, the profit from the condos can help subsidize offices and allow them to be rented at rates that businesses are willing to pay.”If you had residential, then you could sell the office for $30 to $32 and then you attract the businesses back in from Richmond and Burnaby,”

But if you can sell the condos and not have any offices you could make even more profit. So while the idea of more mixed use may be appealing to the city planners, why would it appeal to a developer? Or is this just a way to get more condos into places where the city wants to see offices?

As usual the Sun provides the developers side of the story but not the context or any analysis. But luckily this blog is read by people who know much more about the real estate business than I do, so I look forward to seeing the comments.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 25, 2008 at 9:47 am

Posted in Transportation