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Towers on Cambie: Vancouver's Top Planner Explains

Brent Toderian on the city's mid-rise future, thinking in corridors, Goldilocks, and more.

By Erick Villagomez 13 May 2011 | re:place magazine

Erick Villagomez is one of the founding editors at re:place, where a longer version of this interview was first published. He is also an educator, independent researcher and designer with academic and professional interests in the human settlements at all scales. His private practice -- Metis Design|Build -- is an innovative practice dedicated to a collaborative and ecologically responsible approach to the design and construction of places.

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A view of the Cambie Corridor, from downtown Vancouver. Photo by tuchodi, via Creative Commons.

Vancouver is well-known for its approach to urbanism, and using densification towards creating a more liveable city. In reality, however, this popularity is focused on the relatively small area of Vancouver's downtown core and the neighbourhoods immediately surrounding it. Moreover, emphasis is often placed on the city's podium-towers as the future of sustainable urbanism.

The vote Tuesday by city council to approve the Cambie Corridor Plan, allowing mid-rise towers of up to 12 stories along that key artery -- and taller towers at Marine Drive and Oakridge intersections -- shows a different version of what the future may hold. More recent developments in Vancouver outside the downtown core, such as Olympic Village, have successfully deployed a mid-rise urbanism, and the Cambie Corridor Plan builds off many of the lessons learned from such projects, instead of the renowned downtown peninsula.

Recently, I conversed with Vancouver's director of planning, Brent Toderian, about the Cambie Corridor Plan, and what it means for the future of Vancouver and the City's approach to urban planning. Here is a condensed version of that discussion (with a longer version found here.)

Erik Villagomez: This is the first time since 1928 that a large area of the city, spanning multiple neighbourhoods, is attempting to be planned comprehensively. Can you talk about how it differs from past approaches that focus more on developing small pockets of the city individually?

Brent Toderian: "It's true, the Cambie Corridor work represents the largest and most complex area planning exercise -- crossing several neighbourhoods and involving a significant intended transformation over time -- that we've ever undertaken outside of the central area. I've also suggested that the corridor will eventually become the third most significant area of complex urbanism in the city, after the downtown and the Broadway Corridor.

"Originally, the planning department had conceived the work program along Cambie Street as a series of station area plans, and that would have taken a long time -- six to eight years in total -- to do one at a time. Not only was that approach lengthy and time consuming, it also, to my mind, thought about the street and transit line in the wrong way. It didn't think about the corridor as a corridor, but saw the corridor as a series of individual areas. And it didn't necessarily think about change along the corridor in the areas in between the stations. From my perspective, you don't have to choose one or the other, you can do a corridor approach that recognizes the transit-related commonalities and consistent principles along its length, but also recognizes the unique identity of the station areas.

"And that's what we've done -- a corridor approach that also breaks the corridor into distinct neighbourhood areas, each with their unique identity."

Do you see this type of large-scale approach to city planning that you took to Cambie Street as something that will be happening more frequently in the future?

"Well, absolutely. We're seeing the corridor work as a way of significantly educating ourselves around transit-oriented planning, in general, across the city. A way of moving from 'being a bit behind' in this key aspect of city-building, to being right on the cutting edge, a new North-American 'best practice'.

"And as we conceptualize this corridor, we're thinking ahead about how it relates to the entire corridor structure of the city. That's going to serve us well once we move into doing a new physical plan for Vancouver -- something that's been called for over the last few years, and I'm very keen to initiate. So, the corridor program is a bridge, if you will... This plan signifies for us a new definition for success -- the robust integration of land use, transportation and energy.

"Further beyond that, our corridor thinking worked very hard to integrate a number of factors -- from affordable housing aspirations, social diversity, jobs and community amenities to public realm design, economic analysis and infrastructure. There were a number of interests and disciplines that we fully integrated in this process into a holistic urbanism. That's where we want to be."

In a city known for its podium-towers, can you speak to how and why, in the plan, the dominantly mid-rise built form was decided upon as being the "right" choice for the corridor?

"Vancouver has gotten a great deal of attention for its podium-point tower building type, but in truth we've been doing mid-rise forms very well for years along our corridors, like Broadway. I tend to think of specific projects like The Rize and Crossroads, at the corner of Cambie and Broadway. We have as much innovation in our mid-rise form as in our high-rise form, and possibly even more, but the podium-point tower tends to get all the attention.

"What we've done in the Cambie Corridor program is build on the success of those mid-rise prototypes: particularly, building on the urban form success of Athletes Village -- the Olympic Village -- and we're translating that into a predominant urban form for the city. Vancouverism 2.0, really.

"What we're talking about is a clarity that the majority of the transformation of the city in the future, outside of the central area, will be in low- to mid-rise forms. That the tower form will be the exception, not the rule. It will be strategically used in places, like right at key station areas and on special sites within neighbourhood centres. 

"So even in our neighbourhood centres, the dominant forms will be low to mid-rise with towers being the exception.

"The point is, the majority of the pattern of change will be in the low- to mid-rise. Low-rise densification in the context of the single family blocks -- what I call 'gentle density', in the form of rowhouses, laneway houses, etc. Along the primary corridors, mid-rise of various scales, anything from four stories up to 10 stories depending on the character of the corridor. So we're still talking about very ambitious density, but avoiding that automatic assumption that density will be in the form of slim towers on a podium everywhere.

"That's a transition for us because our development industry, and even the marketplace, has come to expect that densification will mean towers with views. I often hear that's what sells in Vancouver, that's what the market expects. On the other hand, our mid-rise projects do very well in the city. They can be more sustainable. They can even be more affordable, and they are more acceptable to the public, who tends to be more negative to height than they are to density. So if we can provide clarity on where towers will be, and by definition where they won't be, that helps with our entire discourse on densification in the city.

"So (along Cambie), we're making the point that the majority of the built form is mid-rise. Only at Marine and Cambie, and at Oakridge are tower forms contemplated. The rest is four- to six- to eight- to 10-stories."

What were the pressures to take other approaches, and can you discuss the motivations behind these different approaches?

"Well, there have been times through this process where I've joked that we feel like Goldilocks and the three bears: where some people are saying the porridge is too hot, and some people are saying the porridge is too cold. Some of the public is saying that the densities and heights are too high, particularly around some key locations where they'd prefer that the area around transit stations remain relatively unchanged -- remaining as dominantly single detached housing. And then others have asked, 'Why aren't there more towers? Towers are the assumed built form, so why are we going against that assumption? We should just have a corridor of towers, or at least have more towers at stations, because that's what the market knows how to build and that's what the market expects.' So, you see what I mean... the porridge is too hot, or too cold.

"But increasingly, I think, as we've had this discourse with the public and shown the urban design performance, the sustainability performance, the affordability performance, etc., we're getting more and more people saying the porridge might be just right... And that form is not a false choice between single family houses and podium-point towers. It can be in many other forms that provide us the density we need -- to lower our carbon footprint, to enhance our affordability and sustainability, etc., -- without the polarizing effect of the fear of tall towers everywhere within the neighbourhoods."

Do you mind elaborating on what you see as the future of Vancouver's urban form?

"I think Vancouverism 2.0 is going to be a range of housing types for a range of different challenges and contexts. We have challenges of artful densification in single family neighbourhoods. We have both a local and regional market that appreciates ground-oriented units, and so ground-oriented densification has to be part of our strategy. Not everyone wants to live in a high-rise or even a mid-rise, so for ground-oriented forms I've created terms like "gentle", "hidden" and "invisible" density, in the past -- secondary suites, laneway houses, rowhouses, duplexes, etc. With these forms, we can double or triple the population density within single-family neighbourhoods, while still keeping a compatible urban form with the single-family housing.

"You know, the truth is that 'single-family lots' are no longer single-family lots. That isn't really accurate anymore, because many of those single-detached lots have a secondary suite in them, and now a laneway house. So, there could be three families living on that lot, even if you don't factor in the cultural family structure nuances. So, you can triple the density on the single detached lot in terms of population. Or not... you might just return the population density to what used to be there, because we know there are fewer people living on single-detached lots these days, with fewer people per household.

"So, whereas a single detached lot may have had a family of five in the past, perhaps it went down to a household of two. But then the secondary suite brought someone else back and the laneway house may now has a couple living in it. So now maybe you're back to five. Maybe you haven't densified beyond what it used to be, but perhaps have returned the density to what it was originally. Hopefully, there are kids present in at least one of the units so that the local school stays open.

"So, we've looked a strategic densification in different places and come up with different strategies, and the key message is that it's not a one-size-fits-all."

Can you tell us what is going to happen after the Cambie Corridor?

"We do have standing council direction to develop a city-wide plan, a "Plan Vancouver" if you will, and it essentially starts with -- and respects -- the results of CityPlan and the various Community Visions and area plans. It would also seek to address both our city-wide needs and regional issues, not the least of which are the pressures of sprawl on agricultural and industrial lands. But it would not do all this at the expense of the "city-of-neighbourhoods" concept that is so important to us. It would provide greater clarity around what physical change can and should look like across the city, because the more clarity we can provide in the context of a shared vision, the less we'll have debates on a project-by-project, proposal-by-proposal basis, when everybody is concerned about a project setting a precedent.

"But as you can imagine, you don't do that exercise unless you are able to do it properly and successfully. It will take the right resources, it will take the proper mandate, and I'm hoping to see that materialize in the next few years."

The Cambie Corridor Plan can be downloaded at the City of Vancouver website.  [Tyee]

Read more: Housing

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