Saturday, February 19, 2011

Vancouver: a cautionary tale for San Francisco


Planners in SF---and the Chronicle's John King---have long been envious of Vancouver's embrace of the fashionable dense development dogma, since that city is a lot further down the path of highrise development in its downtown than San Francisco. Vancouver resident Matt Hern provides a progress report that confirms my long-time skepticism. Hern is still a True Believer, but he's beginning to have some doubts:

I am not onboard when you call downtown[Vancouver] a 'real success.' The recent renovation of the downtown peninsula is a genuine success in some ways sure (and especially if one were sitting in an office reading stats and staring at maps) but what you once called the new 'forest of glassy towers' is butt-ugly, mostly vapid architecturally and totally unaffordable. The new (decade-and-a-half) densification of downtown has created a widening dialectic of unaffordability as the plague of condos spreads further afield and threatens huge swaths of the city, undermining existing thriving neighbourhoods like the West End, which to my mind has an energy, building diversity, decently-affordable rental stock and terrific density that is entirely missing in the new downtown. And for lots of obvious reasons the new forest of podium towers just won't age anything like as well as the WE has.

Increased density is absolutely essential, but if it is a density that privileges developers and profiteering above community vitality and affordability, then we're barking up the wrong tree. There are cities we know and love with awesome densities without a single tower: the hearts and most vital parts of Istanbul, Paris, the Lower East Side of Manhattan etc. are composed overwhelmingly of four to eight story walkups. Podium towers are most useful for capital accumulation.

What we need is a thoughtful, aggressive densification that adds to existing neighbourhoods instead of swamping them, creates affordability instead of undermining it, adds to the architectural diversity and flavour of the city instead of blandifying it, and builds a city of neighbours, not investors and speculators. I want a city full of people who love this place and want to inhabit it. Our current rendition of density is incubating a city full of people who love this city because it is adding to their net worth.

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