Thursday, January 22, 2015

My letter to City of Vancouver re: 555 West Cordova Street

Architects' illustration of the new tower as viewed along West Cordova Street
By email

January 22, 2015

City of Vancouver
453 West 12th Avenue

Attn: Brian Jackson, General Manager of Planning and Development

Dear Mr. Jackson,

Re Development Permit Application 555 West Cordova Street

I am writing to express my concerns with the proposed office building design at 555 West Cordova Street next to the CPR Station.

From 1983 to 1999 I had my offices in The Station and know the subject property and surrounding area very well.

Let me begin by declaring I like modern buildings juxtaposed with historic buildings, such as Arthur Erickson’s Bank of Canada addition in Ottawa which literally encases the old building inside a new glass block.

During my travels I have seen many modern new buildings successfully added onto or built beside heritage structures, including some literally on top of the old, and others cantilevered out over the old.

My fundamental problem with the design of this building is that it is neither an architecturally pleasing addition to the Station, nor a complementary new building beside it.

With its contrived geometric shapes at the street level and the first few floors where it appears to engulf the heritage building, it looks and feels both awkward and disrespectful.
Heritage Committee member Anthony Norfolk put it a different way. “It is as if a rodent from Jurassic Park had chewed the base at the ground level” where the old building comes up against the new.

A local urban designer wrote to me that “the new building will be jammed up against and in fact beetle over the top of the former CPR Railway Station”. He went on to say it seems like the architects have been drinking the same Kool-Aid that Daniel Libeskind imbibed when he came up with Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum extension. Anyone who has walked by or been inside this wildly unpopular building will know precisely what he means.
I have two other concerns. From the drawings and model, the building seems too big for its site, and is out of keeping with Vancouver’s tradition of respecting the pedestrian at street level. The latter is why former Director of Planning Ray Spaxman called the building “a horror”. I think he’s right.
I suspect your planning department knows this building design is not the best for the location. I am told one of the reasons it is so jammed up against the CPR Station is that city engineers insisted on a greater separation from the historic Landing building to allow a right of way for a future roadway. If so, why could the new building not be moved away from the Station with the right-of-way partially underneath the new structure?
I understand the building massing has also been constricted by the height limit imposed by the required view corridor of the mountains from Queen Elizabeth Park. Personally, I would relax this distant view corridor in order to allow greater views at the street level, a more sympathetic relationship between the old and new, and a less squat building shape.

Alternatively, I would encourage the city to grant the developer approval to transfer some of the building density allowed on this site to another site. The fact that the developer is not being required to provide the customary parking provision on site is a significant relaxation which could be traded off for a further reduction in building size.

Other design approaches might be to further cantilever the new building, raise it up on columns above the old building, or design it as a creative addition to the Station.

These approaches might be more architecturally challenging, but the architects for this building, internationally renowned Chicago-based Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture with input by local firm B+H Architecture should be up to the task. After all, Smith is responsible for designing Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, currently ranked the tallest building in the world, and Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Tower which will be the world’s new tallest when completed in 2018.

In conclusion, I am concerned that if this development is built as currently designed, it will not create the beautiful gateway to Gastown and future Port Lands development that city planners hope to see.

I would therefore urge the City to instruct the architects to increase the separation between the new building and the CPR Station, resulting in a less contrived building shape, and better integration with the Station.

I would also urge you to require a slimmer, more elegant building form, either by allowing the building to be higher, or through a reduction in buildable area.

Finally, I would urge the city to arrange an Open House, or instruct the developer to hold an Open House well in advance of the Development Board meeting. This would allow the general public and Vancouver’s design community to review all the materials that have been prepared, and presented to staff, such as the video and new model.

Having served as an advisory member of the Development Permit Board for six years, I would respectfully suggest that this will result in a more informed and constructive discussion at the DP Board meeting.

I hope these comments are helpful.

Michael Geller

cc Mayor and Council

Opinion Vancouver Courier It's time to fix Vancouver’s broken taxi system January 21, 2015

Have you ever waited too long for a taxi, or not got one at all?

Last week, SFU’s noon-time discussion series ‘City Conversation’ examined Vancouver’s taxi industry and emerging technology-based alternatives such as Uber. Participants included Mohan Singh, President of the B.C. Taxi Association (BCTA), which represents most taxi companies in the province, and former Vancouver city councillor and writer Peter Ladner.
While Uber and its aggressive tactics have attracted media headlines, there are other ride-share providers wanting to serve us. This could have significant ramifications for taxi passengers, drivers, and the industry as a whole.

I attended this discussion since for many years I have believed Metro Vancouver’s taxi system is broken, especially when compared with other cities where I have lived and travelled. 

The fact that the BC Taxi Association represents all 140 taxi companies in BC except for the four companies operating in Vancouver is, to my mind, evidence that something is amiss.
While the BCTA is proud of its lobbying efforts to keep the BC taxi industry regulated, many provincial regulations are outdated, short-sighted and neither sustainable nor in the best interests of passengers.

For example, except during weekend evenings, North Shore, Surrey, or Richmond taxis bringing fares into Vancouver are not allowed to take fares back to their home municipalities. They must return empty. This is a sustainable transportation system?
At the same time, Vancouver taxis are often reluctant to take fares to distant parts of Metro since they too are restricted from bringing fares back to the city.

If you have ever waited a long time for a taxi or not found one at all, it may be because Vancouver has the lowest ratio of taxis per capita of any major Canadian city.
It is significant that not one new taxi company has been allowed to enter the Vancouver market in 25 years. Compare this with any other retail or service industry.

If you thought fares seemed expensive, Vancouver rates are approximately 15% higher than the average in major Canadian cities.

SFU graduate student Benn Proctor has written an excellent master’s thesis on the taxi industry. He concluded that the primary beneficiaries of current regulations are the taxi company shareholders who can charge $800,000 for a single taxi cab license.
Meanwhile, taxi drivers who work half their shift just to pay overhead and operating expenses and taxi passengers are the losers; especially those of us trying to get a cab during peak times or around 4pm when the customary 12 hour shifts start and end.
While deregulating the taxi industry might seem like a possible solution, it has been tried in many places around the world with limited success. Regulatory reform would seem to be a better approach.

However, without public outcry, significant regulatory reform is not likely to happen in Metro since, as I learned when I ran for City Council, taxi cab owners are very influential and highly visible at election time.

For these reasons, I and many others would like to see Uber or similar companies operating in Vancouver. 

Uber’s stated mission is “to improve city life by connecting people with safe, reliable, hassle-free rides through the use of technology”. Passengers use a smartphone app to connect with private drivers.

Uber currently operates in 253 cities in 53 countries worldwide. While it has generated concerns, as noted during the SFU discussion, including highly publicized reports of drivers raping passengers, everyone with whom I have spoken who has used Uber is full of praise.
Fares are generally lower, cars come quickly, and the smartphone application provides details on vehicle identification and arrival. Furthermore, no cash changes hands.
Today New York City has 14,000 cabs for 8.5 million people. Mexico City has 100,000 cabs for 9 million people. Metro Vancouver has 1500 cabs serving a population of nearly 2.5 million.

As more Vancouver residents chose not to own a car, and tougher drinking and driving laws are introduced, the need for more taxis and taxi alternatives will increase.
Vancouver needs to develop a ‘taxi culture’ like other major world cities. More cabs and alternative transportation choices like Uber will help make this happen. @michaelgeller

Friday, January 16, 2015

Opinion: Writer Sean Rossiter built a legacy covering Vancouver Vancouver Courier January 14, 2015

There was a standing room only crowd at Sean Rossiter's Celebration of Life on Thursday January 15, 2015. I just wish Sean had been there to enjoy the kind words from friends from so many different walks of life.

“The pen is mightier than the sword.”

So wrote English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his 1839 play Richelieu: Or the Conspiracy, although seventh century BC Assyrian sage Ahigar is reported to have written “The word is mightier than the sword.”

I have been thinking about these quotations over the past week as a result of the tragic Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris and other related events. I cannot help but admire the bravery of the journalists who were murdered and the phenomenal response by people around the world. On Sunday, the sight of world leaders marching arm in arm in front of more than a million people through the streets of Paris is something I will never forget.

We can only hope that this tragedy will lead to a better understanding of the concerns of Muslims, Christians and Jews in France and greater world harmony. However, I am not overly optimistic that this will happen in my lifetime.

Last week we lost another great journalist. Vancouver writer Sean Rossiter died after a decade-long battle with Parkinson’s disease.

As repeatedly noted in other obituaries, Sean was universally regarded as a great writer, but more importantly, a true gentleman. He authored 26 books on various topics but was best known to many of us in the architectural, planning and development community as the author of the “Twelfth and Cambie” column, which appeared monthly in Vancouver Magazine from summer 1975 until fall 1991.
In one of his last columns in June 1991, “City Hall Wins One For The Bureaucrats,” he wrote about the Bayshore project and my failed attempt to get permission to develop a residential tower on piers in the marina in return for extending a public pier at the end of Denman Street, linking it to the shoreline with an Amsterdam bridge.

As he wrote, “One reason the planner gave for turning thumbs-down on the tower-in-the-water was that there aren’t a lot of examples of towers on waterfront in Vancouver. No wonder! It is noteworthy that the only alderman who voted for it was the only newcomer to civic politics, the only truly open-mind on council, Tung Chan.”

Twenty four years later, I still think it is a shame Vancouver does not have a lively public pier and more places to gather along the waterfront.

During the ’70s and ’80s, Sean was the only Vancouver journalist regularly writing about architecture and urban issues. Each month, architects around the city would eagerly await the next issue of Vancouver Magazine to see what topic he was tackling. He often wrote about the importance of protecting older buildings while saluting visionary architects and planners.

Former Vancouver Mayor and BC Premier and recovering politician, Mike Harcourt was one of many who spoke about Sean's special qualities as a cartoonist, writer, hockey player, and true gentleman
In 2007, in one of his last books, Sean collaborated with Mike Harcourt and Ken Cameron on City Making in Paradise: Nine Decisions that Saved Vancouver. For those who have not yet read it, the book describes, amongst other things, the efforts to save Strathcona, the creation of the Agricultural Land Reserve, Expo ’86 and the remaking of False Creek, and the important role played by the GVRD and Regional Planning.

Sean was one of the founding directors of Vancouver’s Urbanarium Society, along with former chief planner Ray Spaxman, architects Richard Henriquez and Frank Musson, landscape architect Jane Durante and others. The goal of the society was to create a special museum similar to those found in Singapore and Shanghai, housing a large model of the city and other displays. It would be a place where one could discuss future projects and plans and important urban topics.

With Sean’s help, the Urbanarium Society launched the Builders of Vancouver series, which profiled architects, engineers and other personalities who helped create our city.

Today, former Urbanarium directors, along with Leslie Van Duzer, head of the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, are continuing to explore the feasibility of creating an Urbanarium for Vancouver.

I hope they succeed so we can one day wander through the Sean Rossiter Gallery. 

Sean Rossiter leaves behind his wife, Terri Wershler, and other family members. A memorial service is being held tomorrow (Jan. 15) at 4:30 p.m. at Dr. Sun Yat Sen Garden. Rest in peace, Sean.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

SFU Lecture Monday February 2, 2015: I hope you can join me!

12 Affordable Housing Ideas for Vancouver

Mon, 02 Feb 2015 7:00 PM 
Vancouver will always be an expensive place to live. However, with innovative planning and financing ideas, we can create more affordable housing choices throughout the region.

This presentation by Michael Geller will examine housing designs and financing programs from around the world that should have a place in Metro Vancouver. It will be of interest to municipal politicians and planners, architects, developers, and the general public.

Date: Monday, February 2, 2015, 7–9 pm
Admission: Free, but reservations are required. Reserve
Venue: Room 1400, SFU Harbour Centre, 515 W Hastings St, Vancouver
Related topic: Community Building

About the Speaker

Michael Geller is an architect, planner, real estate consultant and property developer with four decades' experience in the public, private and institutional sectors. He serves on the Adjunct Faculty of the SFU Centre for Sustainable Community Development and writes a weekly civic affairs column in the Vancouver Courier. A past-president of the Urban Development Institute, he travels extensively and writes a blog at


The City Program | SFU Continuing Studies

Friday, January 2, 2015

Opinion Vancouver Courier New Year's Eve 2014

New Year’s Eve: A time for reflection, predictions and resolutions

2014 was my first year as a Courier columnist.

Since starting this column in May, I have enjoyed numerous twitter and email exchanges with readers. While some columns garnered limited response, others struck a chord with many of you. As we look forward to 2015, I expect that the topics that generated the greatest response in 2014 will continue to be of importance to Courier readers.

In May I wrote about the increasing number of older homes being demolished with a resulting loss of traditional neighbourhood character. The city subsequently imposed a moratorium on the demolition of pre-1940’s houses in Shaughnessy and new regulations related to demolitions elsewhere in the city. While some readers questioned whether government should be interfering with private property rights, others saluted these initiatives.

Rather than impose moratoria, I believe the city should offer incentives to preserve older houses. These could include permission to build a second home for sale with unused density, or subdivision of larger houses into suites. I predict we will see creative new zoning measures in 2015 to address this ongoing concern.

This is not an isolated case. Many street medians are similarly neglected.
Is this any way to treat a once prized waterfront walkway?
Sadly far too many people still consider city streets and planters to be ashtrays.

In June I wrote about the dismal state of many streets around Vancouver with weeds growing through asphalt medians and along sidewalks. I was troubled by the increased number of unkempt properties and cigarette butts and other garbage strewn about the city. While some thought I was being rather petty, many of you shared my concerns and this column attracted considerable media attention.

Sadly the weeds remain and the city’s overall cleanliness has not improved. If anything, areas like the Downtown Eastside are getting worse. I expect we will all have much more to say about this in 2015.

In July, following participation in a national planning conference, I wrote how well-designed cities can contribute to better health. I noted the irony that in trying to make cities and buildings safer and more accessible for those in wheelchairs, we were discouraging children from walking to school and the rest of us from using stairs.

As healthcare costs rise, we are going to have to look at innovative ways to improve public health. I predict many discussions on reducing healthcare costs in 2015.
As the municipal election campaign heated up at the end of the summer, we heard a lot of concerns about neighbourhood planning around Vancouver. My column suggesting that expert planners should have as much input as neighbourhood residents did not sit well with everyone.

In 2015 we will get to see if the City is going to change its approach to planning neighbourhoods, as well as how the Citizens’ Assembly model works out.
In September I wrote about parking concerns, bicycle accidents and registration, and whether the Mayors’ Council really agreed to fund an underground subway along Broadway. All three articles generated considerable interest and I expect debate on these matters will continue in 2015.

As an electric car owner, I will be particularly interested in how older condominium and rental apartments accommodate the parking and charging requirements of an increasing number of electric cars.

As someone wanting better public transit, I will be awaiting the outcome of the Transit Referendum, or as one reader suggested I call it, the Transportation Referendum, noting TransLink has responsibility for roads as well.

A topic of great interest throughout the year was the impact of foreign buyers on the cost of housing. Following my October report from London, others questioned whether municipal governments could really address this issue without support from the federal and provincial governments. I predict this issue will not be going away.

The management of urban trees is an issue I resolve to address in 2015

And now for some resolutions. In 2015 I resolve to explore the need for better management of public and private trees in the city; what to do about deteriorating conditions in the Downtown Eastside; how to improve community neighbourliness, and what to do with older social and public housing projects and whether governments should encourage longstanding residents to purchase their units.

Until then, thank you for your interest and comments over the past year and best wishes for a happy, healthy and humour filled 2015. @michaelgeller