Saturday, June 24, 2017

Opinion: London and Vancouver raise similar issues about towers Vancouver Courier June 21, 2017

    I am writing from London, U.K., where many local stories parallel stories in Vancouver.
     Over the past two weeks, affordable housing and high-rise buildings have been in the news in both cities.
     In Vancouver, the high-rise story was 105 Keefer, a contentious 12-storey development proposal for a vacant lot in Chinatown. My colleague Mike Howell has written extensively on council’s somewhat surprising and unusual 8-3 vote defeating the project.
      While I generally support 12-storey building designs and developers willing to create mixed-income buildings, I was pleased to see the project defeated. Why? Because the city’s zoning allowing nine-storey buildings to rise to 12 storeys in return for public benefits was so very wrong.
In 2011, when the city first proposed highrises in Chinatown, I expressed my opposition because I worried they would negatively impact the area’s historic architectural character.
     Former director of planning Brent Toderian recently disclosed to his Twitter followers that planning staff were also opposed to Chinatown height increases. Sadly, council ignored the staff recommendation and sided with misguided Chinatown merchants who thought highrises would bring more people and “body-heat” into the community.
      I do feel sorry for the developer who spent many years and a lot of money doing precisely what staff and council encouraged him to do, only to be turned down. While I hope a future revised Chinatown zoning policy will restrict building heights to something in the order of 70 feet, if Beedie Development Group wants to proceed with a nine-storey proposal for this site, this should be permitted. They have been punished enough.
     While many regarded the rejection of the 105 Keefer project and loss of 25 affordable housing units to be a tragedy, it was nothing compared to London’s recent tower tragedy. Much has been reported about the Grenfell Tower inferno; however, much more discussion and investigation is warranted.
     Over the past week, many U.K. columnists and pundits have argued this disaster vividly highlights why highrises should not be built for lower-income households. They are wrong. Suitably designed high-rise buildings can most definitely provide suitable accommodation for lower-income households.
     This disastrous fire resulted in part because a contractor inappropriately covered a 24-storey building with a non-fire resistant exterior cladding intended for buildings up to three storeys. I should add that Canadian fire codes would prevent a similar product from being installed on a Canadian highrise.
     There’s another aspect to this story that is somewhat relevant to British Columbia.
While most residents impacted by this horrendous fire were low-income, the building was not restricted to low-income households. Like most English Council flat developments, over the years, apartments had been sold off or leased at market rates to higher-income households.
In B.C., the government has also been selling off public housing to private sector and non-profit companies. In principle, I support broader income mixing in these projects. However, as future B.C. provincial governments contemplate the sale of additional public housing, it may be wise to carefully analyze the U.K. experience.
      While the Grenfell fire dominated U.K. news, another major U.K. story had eerie similarities to B.C. I write, of course, about its recent election, which resulted in no clear winner, and many questions about how long a coalition government might last.
     Thanks (or no thanks) to the Internet, it is difficult to avoid what’s happening in Vancouver when travelling abroad. While I was reading about Mayor Gregor Robertson’s recent Big Conversation event on the future of housing in Vancouver, I couldn’t avoid posters inviting Londoners to join London Mayor Sadiq Khan for his June 29 State of London Debate: New London Living Rent Homes — More Help for our Homeless — What’s next for Housing in London? Hashtag #SpeaktoSadiq.
     While Robertson hopes his Empty Home Tax will encourage owners of empty condos to lease them to needy renters, England’s Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is calling for Kensington and Chelsea homes left empty by millionaires to be used by victims of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
This won’t happen, of course. But when it comes to affordable housing, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic seem most willing to say and do whatever they think it takes to attract future votes.

London Architecture Old and New

Many London Bus Tour guides are not only knowledgeable, they can also be entertaining!
    Whenever I go to London, I always spend time riding double-decker buses, both day and night, admiring the variety of streetscapes. On previous trips, I have taken the hop-on-hop-off tours since you learn facts that you otherwise miss just walking around. On this trip, we took a 'night bus tour' leaving from just outside the Ritz Hotel. Unfortunately, since mid-June days are so long, it wasn't really dark enough to fully appreciate how many buildings are lit up at night. But it was quite magical seeing some of the city's grand sights, such as Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral as the sun was beginning to set.
Westminster Cathedral in the Byzantine Revival Style.
Not to be confused with Westminster Abbey which, like many London buildings appears to have recently been cleaned
Dating from the 17th C, Christopher Wren's St.Paul's Cathedral was the tallest building in London from 1710 to 1967
      As I look at some of the newer London buildings, it is difficult to believe that the architects are somehow related to the architects who designed the buildings of the past. But then again, when you look closely, you realize that many of the older buildings were often just as bizarre as what is being built today. That being said, I appreciate how many of the buildings built in previous centuries respected their context much more than some newer buildings.
One of the most detested new buildings in London, and rightly so.
This complex is better viewed from a Thames River cruise.
Another from my 'what were they thinking' collection of London buildings. I'm with Prince Charles when it comes to buildings like this!
   I took a special trip to see the massive and significant new Battersea Power Station development, about which I am writing a column for the Vancouver Sun. The very glassy buildings are a significant departure from London's architecture of the past. However, I can't, for the life of me, understand what they were thinking when they designed what seems like an absurd open wooden decking balcony deck detail.
After 30 years of different proposals, the Battersea Power Station is now the focus for a major new redevelopment being undertaken by a Malaysian consortium.

Here are a few more photos of what I saw riding the upper deck of London buses.

Is this an option to be selected by BC's Mobility Pricing Commission? Somehow I don't think so.
But this is an idea more Metro municipalities might adopt. It most definitely saves lives.
A cycle superhighway. Now that's something t

hat would no doubt fascinate Gordon Price

Friday, June 23, 2017

A final stop: London!

We arrived in London during a period of temendous turmoil and sadness. The day before we arrived, a tragic fire had occurred in a London Council apartment, the Grenfell Tower, with what remains an unknown number of the deaths. Moreover, the Conservatives had lost their majority in the recent UK election, adding uncertainty regarding Brexit and the future of the UK economy and participation in the EU.
     One of my main purposes in going to London was to see two old friends; John Townsend with whom I had worked at Building Design Partnership in 1968/69 when I took a year off from architecture school and lived in Manchester; and Keith Tapping, the former Assistant Regional Director for CMHC who gave my professional career a great start by appointing me as CMHC's Special Coordinator for the South Shore of False Creek in the mid-seventies. Keith went on to become Regional Director in Ontario and BC before retiring. Many think it's a pity he didn't serve as President.
     I am often fond of telling the story of a particularly long lunch with Keith in the mid-80s, which involved more liquids than food. Around 4pm I suggested it was probably time for him to go back to the office. He said it wasn't really necessary. "But what if the President calls and you're not there?" I responded. "You could be fired!" Keith responded that the President would never fire him. He had promised his job to too many people!
    While in London I was struck by the many differences and similarities with Vancouver. The differences of course are obvious.  London is a city rich in history with very different streetscapes than found in Vancouver. There is also incredible wealth disparity; far more than in Vancouver which also has significant disparity between the haves and the have-nots. But it was overwhelming in London, as I watched the parade of Bentleys, Jags, Mercedes and very noisy sports cars in the city.
     The Grenfell Tower fire, so close to fashionable Kensington, highlighted this disparity, which was also apparent from looking in the shop windows....especially some of the shops selling children's clothes.
I couldn't help but wonder if the children of the French aristocracy were buying clothes of a similar quality just before the French Revolution!
The food floor in Harrods. Breathtaking displays of food that most Londoners will never experience.
I was told the average cost of a Knightsbridge residential property was 18 million pounds.
Wouldn't it be nice to see streetscapes of a similar scale along some Metro Vancouver arterials.

The similarities? Both cities are struggling with housing affordability. Coincidentally, while I was there Mayor Robertson was holding a Big Conversation for Vancouver residents to put forward their ideas to address housing affordability. Next week London Mayor Sadiq Khan is holding a similar conversation with Londoners. (When it comes to housing affordability, it seems politicians are keen to do whatever it takes to get votes on both sides of the Atlantic.)
We stayed in Park Mansions, just above the Buddha-Bar restaurant and club.
     Since we had the girls with us, and Sally's sister was planning to join us, we stayed in a large 3-bedroom Airbnb in a very good location. It was across the street from One Hyde Park, one of the most expensive condominium projects in the world. (The units came to market at about 6,000 pounds per square foot, and one unit reportedly sold for 140 million pounds. We were also above the Buddha Bar and next to Mr. Chow. It was very convenient. However, the building was undergoing a renovation and while very large, and featuring most modern cons, the suite was by no means luxurious.
     John Townsend suggested that we meet up with him and his wife Lynne at The Design Museum on Kensington High Street. It is well worth a visit if you are the least interested in design. (I was delighted to see that the watch we were both coincidentally wearing was included in a display of well-designed artifacts, along with my Manchester friend Eli Harari's SanDisk memory stick!)
John and I were both astonished and delighted to discover that we both were wearing similar Swiss Railway watches to that on display in The Design Museum!
   On Saturday I took the train to Deal to meet Keith and his daughter Jasmine. (Below are photos of them taken during an earlier visit, but they haven't changed much. Keith still wears yellow cords whenever I visit!)

As I travelled around England I came across a few images that highlight some of the differences between UK and Vancouver. See the next post for more photos of UK architecture.
One of the things I noticed was security cameras everywhere, which have helped solve a lot of crimes. Will this be the future Vancouver?
We stayed across the road from One Hyde Park, one of the most expensive apartment complexes in the world. Suites sold for 6,000 pounds per sq.ft. with one apartment reportedly selling for 140 million pounds.
There are a lot of eccentric people in the UK, including the fellow who built this houseboat in Deal Kent
A family gathering in the pub near our apartment

Vienna's Heurigers or wine taverns

   Wanting a more typical Viennese dining experience, I asked our hotel concierge for a restaurant suggestion away from the downtown. “Is there somewhere we can go on the tram that stops outside the hotel?” I asked. He recommended three restaurants 25 minutes away in Grinzing, in the direction of Nussdorf. It was here that we discovered the Heuriger, or wine garden. indoor/outdoor taverns operated by wineries.
     While I had heard of the Vienna Woods, I wasn’t aware that there are numerous vineyards and wineries within Vienna’s urban boundary. While each heuriger is different, many often offer a buffet rather than menu service, that is set up inside where you point to what you want and the price is based on weight.

     Our first visit was to Werner Welser where our server appeared in traditional Viennese dress. I asked for a wine list and she said there was a red wine and a white wine. In another I was offered the choice of new wine or old wine.) While there were other tourists in the restaurant, and some cater to large busloads of tourists, we were told that these places are generally frequented by locals.
     On our last night, we ate at Heuriger Zimmerman, which offers a more conventional restaurant-style service with a menu and wine list. However our server did not speak English which Sally thought was a good sign, but it did make ordering somewhat awkward, with surprising results!
     If you go to Vienna, I highly recommend a visit to one of the many Heurigers.
It wasn't the healthiest food in the world (we did have salads beforehand) but it certainly was tasty!
I was surprised by the traditional outfits worn by servers but discovered this wasn't just for tourists....this is the norm for the locals as well.
Heuriger Zimmerman, one of the better rated restaurants in the area

In the mid-afternooon, an interior view. Shortly after this was taken a busload of 60 tourists from Asia showed up!

Can you tell the old wine and the new wine? More importantly, this is a glass of wine in many of the Heurigers (about 3 euros each)