Opinion

Why One Corner of East Van Could Be Truly Revolutionary

Alas, what 'the People's Republic' wants today may not fit tomorrow.

By Ian Gill 18 Apr 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Ian Gill's Tyee column, The Poor Mouth, appears every two weeks or so. Gill lives and writes in Vancouver and works on social innovation initiatives. Find his previous pieces in The Tyee here, and find him on Twitter @gillwave.

East Vancouver needs a new angle.

Actually, it needs a number of new angles. And it needs to take much better advantage of the ones that it already has, lest it end up a kind of sump dump for a Lower Mainland transformed by global wealth.

Naturally, the development tsunami sweeping the region has provoked resistance. Even more naturally, the strongest pushback has been in East Van. An already agitated and excitable neighborhood went rabid with the release almost three years ago of a plan for Grandview-Woodland in which City Hall floated a trial balloon -- more like a Hindenburg, really -- that contemplated 22 condominium towers rising as high as 36 storeys on and around the Safeway site at Broadway and Commercial Drive.

City Hall was rocked by the whole clumsy mess, and rightly so. Some planners left or were pushed out. Vision Vancouver nearly lost the last election in part for seeming beholden to developers. Heads eventually rolled: Penny Ballem out as city manager, Brian Jackson out as head planner. And, to begin to repair the damage in East Van, a Citizens' Assembly put in place to voice what the neighborhood had to say.

That body handed their final report to Vancouver's planners in June. Months later, a new plan is set emerge for East Van. A plan that, alack and alas, will condemn the neighbourhood, my neighbourhood, to a kind of slow-motion oblivion.

The Citizens' Assembly report is an inward-looking, insular, incremental and uninspired grab bag of development compromises that will gradually erode the one thing that East Van has always offered Vancouver that no other neighbourhood can -- its edge.

This was all too sadly predictable, which is why, when I wrote about Grandview-Woodland last year, I suggested that East Van needed to raise some righteous noise about the whole process. But by then the neighbours were already caught in City Hall's inexorable process grip, grinding out a middle ground in a Citizens' Assembly that was doomed from the start -- if for no other reason than, as their final report says, "in drafting their recommendations, assembly members were asked to assume the role of community planners." What a curse. As if more planners, and more than 40 amateur ones at that, was ever going to solve anything. As for their final report? No noise here, righteous or otherwise. Just a tortured mumble. Rather than a plan that will meet the community's needs, it's a long list of ailments and 270 recommended cures. And now City Hall is about to convert the assembly's recommendations into a plan that "will ensure that future growth in the area will meet the needs of the community for the next 30 years." Except that it won't.

The issue, three years ago as now, is density. Under the faulty towers plan, it was deemed acceptable to house a steep increase in residents in a thicket of blandly looming forms borrowed from downtown. In the assembly's plan, an anti-downtown, small-is-beautiful mentality has taken hold -- an assemblage of low expectations that might satisfy a bias for low-rise buildings, but promises precious little else.

Could a different ambition offer a third, better future, for East Van? What if density were the chip bargained, fiercely and shrewdly, in exchange for streetscapes stunning to see and exciting to inhabit? No to commuterville condos. Yes, however, to a density of doers. If the Drive's wealth lies in its cultural and commercial creativity, the question becomes how to transform density into wealth that's generated by and stays in the neighborhood. I don't trust City Hall to figure that out on its own, and I don't believe the assembly has offered a bold enough vision to lead city planners to the Promised Land.

Let's take a ride into a different future.

Building atop 'an architect's graveyard'

Arriving by SkyTrain at Surrey Centre, the skyline is sliced by what look to be a couple of scimitars atop a tall building designed by Edward Scissorhands. Actually, scratch that -- designed by Bing Thom Architects.

It's a chilly, late winter Sunday, mid-afternoon, and while the offices at Surrey Central City are closed, Simon Fraser University's Surrey campus is buzzing. There is a pleasing warp and weft to the interior of the building, its S-curved concrete steps like a shoreline, its great hall like the inverted hull of a galleon. Even on a dull grey day, the whole scene is warmed with generous lashings of natural light and the quiet movement of people spread through the space that is both inviting and functional. There are students tapping at laptops in every nook on several floors of the university. A notice tells me I am three days too early to sit in on a PhD thesis defence in the School of Mechatronic Systems Engineering titled, "Employing Piezojuntion Effect for Resonant Micro-Device Applications." Surrey as intellectual frontier. Why not?

Bing Thom Architechts' work on Surrey Central City is an example of the transformative power of good architecture. In their book, Bing Thom Works, Thom and his co-principal Michael Heeney recall Surrey Centre as "an architects' graveyard of ideas. There was no 'downtown Surrey.' It was Nowhere, North America." In the midst of the urban sprawl that characterized Surrey and its even poorer sister, Whalley, the challenge was to get people to congregate in sufficient numbers to make a development like Surrey Central City pay its way. The users of an existing shopping centre and commuters off the SkyTrain weren't enough -- but an insurance company (ICBC) was prospecting sites for a regional head office, and a university (SFU) needed a new campus. Part of Thom's approach to architecture is to cajole unlikely and sometimes reluctant players, including governments, into almost alchemical partnerships that, ideally, then allow for good design to find its expression in built form. In the case of Surrey Central City, landing ICBC and SFU sealed the deal.

582px version of SurreyCentralCity_610px.jpg
Bing Thom's Surrey City Centre complex: While of a scale larger than appropriate for Commercial and Broadway, Thom's willingness to take risks and push the edge paid off in a desolate zone of Surrey. East Van, take heed.

In a review of Bing Thom Works in the Literary Review of Canada, critic Adele Weder says the Surrey Central City project "created a sense of urban core and, in the process, helped revitalize a socially and economically arid swathe of town." Thom and Heeney claim, perhaps a little immodestly, that their building "changed the trajectory of Surrey."

It is this idea of finding and working at the edges of cities that is most appealing about Bing Thom Architects' approach, something you'd think might be more celebrated in Vancouver. "Vancouverites are edge people," write Thom and Heeney, "and Vancouver -- founded in 1886, burned to the ground in 1887 -- is on the edge of the continent, equidistant from both Europe and Asia. But, really, it is Asia, not Europe, that has most strongly affected Bing Thom Architects' conception of space in architecture, where the negative is as important as the positive." Which is worth bearing in mind when, on the return journey from Surrey, one is deposited in the middle of not just an architect's graveyard, but the veritable Bermuda Triangle of Vancouver city planning: the blighted junction of Broadway and Commercial Drive.

Crafting a corner: Potential and risk

Canada's busiest transit hub for thousands of kilometres in any direction is as demoralizingly drab and dysfunctional as any corner in the city. Even Main and Hastings has more charm than Broadway and Commercial. Among all the drug stores, banks, walk-in clinics and chain restaurants and their garbage, more than 150,000 people come and go every day here, although only a small percentage of the hub's users actually live in the neighborhood. It is as if we have a sort of reversible waterfall of people sloshing forth and back through our corner of the city, all busy going someplace else, uninterested and unengaged. All those people present a terrific opportunity, depending on what you do with them.

582px version of CommercialDriveTowersDraft_610px.jpg
Towering infernal: Vancouver's planning department floated a vision of 22 high-rises up to 36 storeys tall radiating from Commercial and Broadway -- a lackluster lunge for density that caused the Grandview-Woodland citizenry to revolt. Did they dial it back too far?

Of course you could pile them up on top of one another in 22 tall towers radiating from the Safeway site. Happily, that daft idea didn't come home to roost. But to cauterize the wound caused by even suggesting such a thing, the Citizens' Assembly has gone beyond just offering an opinion about what should happen here, and in fact "directs" Vancouver's city hall "to permit an eight-storey commercial building at the northeast corner of Broadway and Commercial above the SkyTrain in order to create more job opportunities at this highly accessible location." It further recommends focusing "on significantly increasing the density in the (wider) area, but in the form of low- to mid-rise buildings that fit with the neighborhood. The aim (is) to bring more housing, retail and office space into this area, and at the same time create more program space for non-profits and artists, more subsidized housing, a new plaza and new and improved green spaces." This is the sort of Soviet collectivist approach to neighbourhood building that results in, well, Soviet-style buildings and neighbourhoods. Why eight storeys, exactly, and not seven, or nine, or two? What sort of plaza? You can imagine that going very bad very fast.

And what about the Grandview Cut, that remarkable angled incision on the bias of East Vancouver's grid system? That could and should be our very own Arbutus Corridor greenway, or better yet our rustway, if only someone had the wit to do something imaginative there. Our valiant assembly leaves that vision hostage to the city's planning department, telling them to "immediately study the feasibility of creatively developing the Grandview Cut with the express purpose of creating additional park and public space." Do not hold your breath.

What is needed in this neighbourhood is a serious jolt. So I went and asked Bing Thom for his take on East Van -- asked him if he's ever even given the place a second thought, which it turns out he has. As ever with Thom, the discussion is less about design, or building form, or materials, or heights, or even density. It steers more to global trends that affect Vancouver much like they do any other desirable and increasingly unaffordable western city. He cites a Guardian report that shows that millennials the world over are falling behind, a "financial rout," the Guardian says, "besetting an entire generation of young adults around the world. A combination of debt, joblessness, globalization, demographics and rising house prices is depressing the incomes and prospects of millions of young people across the developed world, resulting in unprecedented inequality between generations."

That, in Thom's view, is what is going to drive the success, or otherwise, of neighbourhoods like Grandview-Woodland or the adjacent Kensington-Cedar Cottage. A lack of jobs, increasing income disparity, and growing unaffordability is "getting worse" in Vancouver's neighborhoods, Thom says.

How, then, do such trends come to augur on Grandview-Woodland's Safeway site? What about the Grandview Cut? Thom doesn't single out the Citizens' Assembly per se, he is too diplomatic for that, but he does believe that asking people what they want is the wrong question, "because, of course, no one wants any change."

Imagine, he says, a city without politicians that quake in fear of residents' anger, and a neighbourhood ready to take a leap in order to preserve and even enhance its local vitality. Imagine, on the Safeway site, atop the transit hub, an office complex that draws 5,000 people to work on that corner, not just spit out their chewing gum on their way someplace else. That, says Thom, could spark the same sort of transformation he saw take place in Surrey.

And why not embark on a radical remake of the Grandview Cut, maybe even spanning it with a couple of Ponte Vecchio-style bridges so artisans can ply their trades and sell their wares where, today, street entrepreneurship is limited to used books and T-shirt sales? And why not find creative ways to better capture the brilliant views west to the city? As for getting down into the cut itself... well, of course that's too costly and the existing rail uses make it unsafe and impossible if you think like a planner.... But if you think like an architect who has, for instance, totally reconfigured the watercourse in Fort Worth, Texas, to enable a spectacular urban regeneration to occur? Don't expect anything like that to come out of 12th & Cambie and Thom himself doesn't want to speculate on exactly what might happen in, over, or next to the Cut -- other than to note that the results will look much different if you approach it from assessing its potential, as opposed to minimizing risk.

'What happens in the middle'

I asked Councillor Andrea Reimer about what's likely to emerge from City Hall soon. It's not specifically her file, although she lives nearby and is acutely conscious that the strains on the community "are not theoretical. Prices are rising, people are moving out, families are suffering." She is concerned that there is too much focus on the Safeway site and, down towards the northern end of Commercial Drive, Boffo Properties' plans for a 12-storey condo tower at the corner of Venables. Both these corners are "important, iconic sites... but what happens in the middle, everything in the middle is what will influence peoples' quality of life in the neighbourhood," Reimer said. I specifically ask if, at this juncture, an intervention by someone like Bing Thom would be welcome. Thom does a lot of work internationally and "it would be nice to have him working in Vancouver," Reimer says. But she hesitates, sounding weary of the whole thing, and who can blame her? "There's a lot of gears moving around. Another gear moving around is, mmm." Her voice trails off.

A few days later, Andrew Pask, the city's embattled point man on the file, broadcasts a message to a neighbourhood list-serv with the encouraging news that "planning work continues."

Reading it reminds me of that infamous field note from the Spanish Civil War, when Loyalist forces were bogged down so badly near the village of Lopera that their headquarters attempted a face-saving communiqué: "During the day the advance continued without any loss of territory." So too at the planning department. Analysis of the Citizens' Assembly's 270 recommendations has created a "sizeable amount of work ... and it's taking time. Thank you for your patience!"

While we wait patiently, and in order not to nod off, let's get real. And really imaginative.

East Van, as Bing Thom sees it, needs a strategy to intensify density in a way that "grows the industrial base for the creative class." One that addresses affordability by getting people working here, not just passing through; adds more texture to residential areas; adds artisan and co-work spaces; and intensifies the area's infrastructure "so it gets more utilized." A strategy that makes East Vancouver truly more like the village it pretends to be, and less like a suburb with a funky shopping street. Thom doesn't have a magic wand, and he doesn't have a corporate HQ or a new university campus to throw into the mix. But at the busiest crossroads of one of the world's emerging cities of the future, what's the harm in casting our net wider, and looking for a little alchemy instead of settling for mediocrity? Thom has proven elsewhere that he is not afraid to administer a little urban CPR, and he doesn't see a lot of merit in asking the patient's opinion about whether it's needed or not.

In East Van, Thom says, "What they need is something they've never seen before."  [Tyee]

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