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INSIGHT: Downtown Vancouver's Last Resort: How Did "Living First" Become "Condos Only?"

by Trevor Boddy
August 11, 2005

Restaurants are full, tourists pack the sidewalks, and the blunted vaults of condo towers rise ever skyward.


Downtown Vancouver appears to prosper, but in the complex world of city building, appearances can be deceiving. I am not for a moment questioning the prospering part – the whole world is scrambling to live and play on our downtown peninsula, with its paradisiacal combination of mountain and ocean vistas, parks, and urbanity.


I am, however, most certainly questioning the “downtown” part, because the city we are shaping in the current boom is something quite different from any notion of what a “downtown” is, was, or will be.


Paradise, yes, but because of short-sighted urban planning, downtown Vancouver may be becoming a fool's paradise. This is because people are coming to live and play here, but not to work. Director of central area planning Larry Beasley confirmed in a recent interview that no new office tower has started construction or even been proposed by developers for our downtown core in the new century.




After the conversion of the West Coast Transmission Tower on West Georgia and two dozen other commercial buildings (both office and warehouse) into condominium apartments, our current council recently changed policy to require an impact study and its approval before further condo conversions downtown, lest our last stand of office towers also get transformed from places to work into places to live.


Why this is happening is revealed in a couple of disturbing facts about the current state of our core.


According to condo and live/work tower developer Ian Gillespie, there is now a five-to-one ratio between the economic return per square meter of new condominium apartments built in downtown Vancouver versus a square meter of new office space. This is unambiguous marketplace feedback telling us that our core is a brilliant place to live, visit, party, retire, and conventioneer, but a lousy place to do business, especially corporate business, which requires multiple floors of dedicated office space.


I mentioned this five-to-one ratio to a May 26 symposium at New York's Institute of Urban Design, and the assembled developers, realtors, planners, and architects there could not name another major city – anywhere – where the economic return from building condos so eclipses offices.


This ratio, in combination with some ham-handed re-zoning of a good part of the downtown peninsula in 1991 permitting housing in virtually every corner in our downtown, means that developers like Gillespie would be out of their minds to build places to work here, rather than places to sleep, such as hotels and condos. This downtown-reshaping policy, promoted by planners and approved by the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) council of those days, was called “Living First,” but in application it has evolved into “Condos Only.”


How could this have happened?


Downtown Vancouver faces the dismal prospect of fewer and fewer sites having the proper size and location for office towers. This will fix our destiny as a short-sighted residential resort, not the diverse and lively mixture of living and work that is a real downtown.


Whistler residents used to worry about their resort becoming “Vancouver-ized.” As a new home to global hot money, as apartment hub for a generation of Boomers wanting to retire in cities after lives in the suburbs, and with condos-as-commodities emerging as investments of choice, Vancouver ironically now has ample reason to worry that its downtown is becoming “Whistler-ized.”


In a major speech last year to developers at a meeting of their lobby organization – the Urban Development Institute – Beasley urged new investment to “Go east.” In other words, exploit some of the under-used land between Granville and the Downtown Eastside. To paraphrase my Saskatchewan progenitors, Beasley's advice was closing the barn door after the office horses had long departed.


Why has our land-use policy which, by definition, plans for future needs as well as current demand, not left more dedicated office tower sites in reserve where business actually wants them – west of Granville? There is only one phrase to describe the extent of the 1991 re-zonings, and the way they have been managed since – bad urban planning.


The number five pops up in a second factoid that – together with the first – seals the fate of our core as more of a resort than a conventional downtown. This second figure has to do with our vastly skewed property tax assessments, which soak businesses such as offices and stores in order to artificially lighten the financial load for residential property owners. Vancouver businesses pay five times the municipal taxes per square meter than houses and condos do – by far the highest such ratio among major Canadian cities.


The figures are vastly different for two of the cities that compete with us as locales for corporate headquarters operations, even regional branch offices. The ratio for Toronto is 3.3 to one, and for Calgary 2.7, but if businesses are mewling in those cities, you can imagine what a disincentive this makes for any private corporation contemplating offices within our boundaries.


In fact, our corporate sector – such as we had in this non-head-office town – has long ago left for the suburbs and other cities, Vancouver's office building developers leaving along with them. While Vancouver's council and mayor have fiddled away on hobbyhorse and wedge issues in their city building dossier (Jim Green on Woodward's, Tim Louis and Anne Roberts on Wal-Mart, Peter Ladner and Fred Bass on bike lanes, etc.), surrounding municipalities have been more aggressive in attracting offices and new jobs.


Burnaby has been quite successful as the new corporate hub of the Lower Mainland, and now has head offices like Ballard Power Systems that in any other metropolis would be located downtown. Burnaby has also invested heavily to attract the kind of regional offices for banks, high tech, and retail corporations that used to be located downtown. This is especially evident in the recreation possibilities and other amenities of its Glenlyons Parkway re-development.


The only high-rise office tower to open in the Lower Mainland since 2000 is Whalley's Central City, which after a slow start is now fully leased. (It was developed by the former provincial government, in part because, since the completion of Bentall Tower Five, no one is in the office tower business here anymore.)


There are solutions, but to date they have not washed in Vancouver’s strange world of municipal politics. A mild proposal to even out this skewing of property taxes onto the backs of business – to be phased in over a barely perceptible 20-year-long track of tiny incremental adjustments – went down to spectacular defeat by politicos who value short term happiness for house-owners over their city’s long-term health. When it opens as all condos next year, the former West Coast Transmission Tower will generate somewhere between one-half and one-fifth the property tax revenue that it did as an office tower.


The condo-boom-inducing downtown lifestyle depends on huge investments of our taxes in parks, transit, theatres, galleries, and schools, but with no success attracting office development, downtown might soon become a net importer of money for services and infrastructure.


Our current city planning regime's policy of “condos uber alles” is just fine, thank you very much, for our current condo developers, who are key funders of all three of our municipal parties.


So now you know the fools who currently run this fool's paradise.


The myopia of this trade-off is having stark consequences all over the Lower Mainland. Let's start with the implications for transportation of the “de-downtownization” of our core. With the first two SkyTrain lines, and now with the RAV line, we have a radial public transportation network, centred on jobs and shopping downtown. But ridership projections for this latest line predict more people leaving downtown to work in Richmond than coming into the centre.


Downtown as dormitory suburb?


Unless council shifts policy soon, this fate will come sooner rather than later. TransLink indicates the fastest growth in demand for pubic transportation is not trips into or out of downtown, but rather from people who might live in White Rock, for example, but have jobs in Maple Ridge – suburb-to-suburb travel patterns.


This accounts for the current mess that is the Port Mann Bridge, and the short-sighted provincial government plans to twin it, to be followed by Seattle-style networks of suburb-to-suburb freeways. Like those built in our sister city, these new roads will fill to capacity as soon as they open. Downtown as a jobs center not just condo hub is the best Green strategy the GVRD can adopt.


Another illustration comes from a comparison of peninsular San Francisco (population 788,000, 2005 est.) and peninsular Vancouver (population 580,000, 2005 est.), two cities of comparable population but completely incomparable status as homes to jobs and corporate hubs.


Nearly 900,000 people travel into downtown San Francisco daily, but only one third this number enter our core (and our figures are essentially flat, growing at a mere one percent annually, a worrying indicator that can not entirely be explained away by home workers, a factor in both cities).


Vancouver is too young to have grown San Francisco’s capital and business initiatives (the source of great corporations), but our current downtown land use policies ensure our success will eventually have to leave this burg. We may once have dreamed of taking our place in the list of the world's great cities, but unless something is changed soon to preserve and promote our downtown as a place to work, we will instead join Waikiki and Miami Beach on the list of resorts filling up with aging baby boomers lounging around their over-priced condos.


Beasley counters that many of Yaletown and Downtown South’s new condo owners will work from their apartments. Yes, being a home worker, I can relate to that. But what happens when these consultants and start-up companies need to hire their third employee? What happens when we information workers and “Cultural Creatives” have to flee this town because resort-based housing prices make it impossible for us to live and work here, even when we conduct both halves of our lives in 45-square-meter condo apartments with close vistas of other condo apartments?


It all comes down to planning.


Our de facto “condos only” downtown development strategy means high growth businesses will be obliged – by the diminishing options of set-in-concrete urban form – to move to other municipalities, taking their taxes with them.


While they place different policy interpretations on these facts, Larry Beasley and his staff are cognizant of all the urban forces described above, and some of them are as worried as I am about the future of downtown Vancouver.


In addition to requesting the council-approved temporary moratorium on the granting of “housing optional” bonuses for core downtown sites, Beasley has commissioned senior policy planner Ronda Howard and team to bring back a grandly-named “Metropolitan Core Jobs and Economy Land Use Plan” in 15 months.


There are two fatal flaws with how this long-needed report is being handled. First, its final draft will not be completed until long after the November civic election. Second, the report is being produced under Beasley's supervision and will be edited by him before release to the public. Beasley is a dedicated, even brilliant planner, but his entire career and international reputation is based on the seeming success of the “Living First” policy, of which he is the key author and continuing spokesman.


Vancouver needs its council and mayor to wake up, and prevent the cosy closed loops of police department committees evaluating failures in police policy, and senior planners evaluating the success of their own downtown development strategies.


Ultimately, both are political questions, not issues for senior mandarins of the departments in question to decide amongst themselves. Let’s hope our upcoming election campaign offers a real debate about alternative futures for Vancouver's core – as this may well be downtown's last resort.


Currently the architecture critic for The Vancouver Sun, Trevor Boddy has taught architectural and urban design, history, and theory at the Universities of British Columbia, Oregon, Manitoba, and Toronto, and lectures globally on contemporary design and cities. He has worked as an urban designer for planning departments in Calgary and Edmonton, and consults on urban spaces, historic preservation, and architect selection processes across Canada, the United States, and Hong Kong.


Boddy’s independent critical monograph The Architecture of Douglas Cardinal was named “Alberta Book of the Year” and short-listed for the International Union of Architects/CICA prize for best book of architectural criticism published worldwide. His essay “Underground and Overhead: Building the Analogous City” was included in the collection Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space, named “One of the most important books of 1992" by the Voice Literary Supplement. His architectural criticism has earned the Western Magazine Award for arts writing, and he was named co-winner of the 2003 Jack Webster Journalism Award for civic reporting. He welcomes comments at


Also by Trevor Boddy on ArchNewsNow:


INSIGHT: RINCONoitering: How Vancouver Ideas Do - and Do Not Help - in Shaping San Francisco's First High Density Neighborhood - Part I


INSIGHT: San Francisco's New Vancouver-Mania - Part II

(click on pictures to enlarge)

(Courtesy City of Vancouver Planning Department)

© 2005