Friday, March 29, 2013

Remembering Art Phillips

It was particularly sad to learn today that Art Phillips had passed away.

It was such a beautiful day. But then again, maybe it was appropriate. After all, Art Phillips lived a very charmed life, as a successful investment banker, Alderman and Mayor, federal politician (although this was not his finest hour by his own admission), husband, father, and grandfather. Perhaps it's right that the sun should be shining in Vancouver on the day that he passed away.

I first met Art Phillips in 1974 when I came to Vancouver with CMHC. I got to know him in the following years when I was appointed CMHC's Special Coordinator for the redevelopment of the South Shore of False Creek.  Phillips was Mayor at the time and along with his TEAM Council had been instrumental in the acquisition and clearing of industrial lands along the South Shore of False Creek in order to create a new inner-city community. While such initiatives are commonplace these days, they were not so in the 1970's and I often joked that the reason I got this high responsibility assignment while in my late 20's was that almost everyone else at CMHC was convinced the City of Vancouver was going to fail with this venture.

And it nearly did. 

However Art Phillips and his friend Doug Sutcliffe, with the help of Ron Basford, Walter Hardwick and a few others eventually pulled it off.  They had to convince two builders...Frank Stanzl and Hans Haebler, to become developers since none of the conventional developers wanted to be involved.  When the City's banker initially refused to  finance the project, Art had to threaten to change banks to ensure the required funding.

When it appeared that no one wanted to buy the condos, the first on leased land in Canada, Art announced that he and Carole would be moving in to a condominium 'above the corner store'.  Doug Sutcliffe said he would move in too. And eventually, the project gained market momentum. I too bought a unit, although I gave it back when I was transferred to Toronto in 1977.

Carole and Art lived in their condominium for a number of years and moved away only after the community was well established.

I told this story to my colleagues at Aoki Corporation when we started the somewhat pioneering Bayshore Project in Coal Harbour in the early 1990's.  I said we needed to find someone to give our project the necessary credibility, just like Art and Carole did two decades earlier on False Creek.

And we eventually found the perfect couple....Art and Carole. They told me that just as False Creek was the quintessential Vancouver project of the 1970's, the redevelopment of Coal Harbour would be the same for the 1990's. They purchased the penthouse at 1710 Bayshore Drive and I knew then the success of our project was assured.

A decade later, I moved into the building next door and often saw Art walking his large dog along the streets and nearby parks.  One of my best memories was an evening when he called to say Carole was in Ottawa and was I interested in going out for dinner.  No agenda he said...just a chance to chat.  We went over to Cafe de Paris and spent a long evening reminiscing about the City and how it had changed since he was Mayor.

When the bill came he said this should be Dutch Treat...and as I was about to sign my credit card slip he added "I always like to leave a tip of 20%"  He was a generous man.

In later years I got to chat with Art at The Roundtable, a discussion club we both belonged to that met every Tuesday at the Vancouver Club.Although he was such a handsome, elegant, well known and yes...wealthy man, he was always incredibly unassuming and modest about his life and accomplishments.

Over the past year or so, as his health declined, he stopped attending. But he wasn't forgotten, and one of our discussion group leaders, Michael Frances took it upon himself to encourage the Park Board to re-name Discovery Park at Burrard and Dunsmuir where Art often walked ...Art Phillips Park.  We recently learned that the Park Board had approved this initiative and a dedication was to be forthcoming. We were all looking forward to it.

No conversation about Art would be complete without some words about Carole. They were the perfect couple. Everyone who knew them knew that.  Carole was always so supportive about Art; and Art was always supportive about Carole. However, there was one position that he insisted she should never accept. He was so insistent that he made her put it in writing! If you want to know what it was, ask Carole. I promised never to tell!

Art, you may well have been the best mayor we ever had, and we've had some good mayors. You transformed the City in so many ways. You were always an elegant and decent man, and your passing is a great loss for the City.  May your memory be for a blessing.

Thanks to City Caucus for sharing a copy of Art Phillips' Inaugural Speech. It's well worth a read

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The DTES needs a good Spring Cleaning

This week, as DTES activists protested a proposal for a 29 unit housing development, that would combine 24 entry level condos with 5 non-market rental units....what can best be described as a welcomed addition to the neighbourhood housing stock....,on a garbage filled vacant lot next to Antoinette Lodge, a social housing project that I helped develop while with CMHC in the 1970's.... I received calls from CTV and CBC to offer my thoughts on the highly publicized concerns about the gentrification of the DTES.  I also discussed the situation with Frances Bula and Lesli Boldt during our regular Civic Affairs Panel on the Bill Good Show.

While I can appreciate the genuine concerns of some community organizers about the potential loss of low income housing stock as a result of new condominium developments and the opening of new restaurants, I feel the situation in the DTES neighbourhood is so bad, that regeneration and revitalization is essential.

And yes, Frances, some of the disgusting SRO hotels that provide cheap housing may eventually get fixed up, and rents will increase from $375 a month to $425 or $475 a month, but is that so terrible, compared to the current situation?  I don't think so.

The reality is that for years the shelter allowance of welfare has been too low.  It's not realistic to expect decent housing to be provided for $375 a's simple not economically viable.  I would prefer to see these buildings repaired and cleaned up with a corresponding increase in the shelter allowance for those who are truly needy. How might this happen?

It might happen if the City more aggressively enforces maintenance and occupancy standards. This is not a partisan comment. The NPA was as lax about this as the current administration.  Yes, I know there is a fear that some hotel owners may close down rather than repair their rat and cockroach infested buildings, but this can be managed.

I am not supportive of the recent Provincial Government announcement to spend $143 million....yes upgrade 12 hotels, some of which have already been upgraded. This money is going to a private sector consortium, and I just know it is not going to be value for money.

What the DTES does need is a neighbourhood plan, and one is in the works.  Hopefully it will prescribe a mix of market and non-market housing, along with new commercial areas and public infrastructure.  But more importantly, we need to review the poverty industry that operates in this neighbourhood, and the effectiveness of the expenditure of so much public money.

I would also like to see the City and community embark on a Spring Clean-up of the area. It's a disgusting mess...yes some areas are better than before...but too many storefronts are derelict; there are too many filthy vacant lots, (like the one at 557 East Cordova where Boffo will build new housing); and too much garbage on the sidewalks and along the back lanes.

Here is a TV clip of some further thoughts shared with CBC's Kirk Williams, who I compliment for genuinely caring about the neighbourhood and the threatening actions of some community activists.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

City rejects seniors housing application

Naoibh O'Connors story in Friday's Vancouver Courier has got me thinking.

The thrust of the story is that given the significant community concerns over the proposed six storey building form, and staff concerns that rents (around $5,000/mo for full service high end congregate housing which includes meals, activities, etc.) are not affordable, the project has been rejected. 

However, reading between the lines, I got the impression that if units were more 'affordable', the six storey form might have been supportable.

This raises some interesting questions.

While I am very supportive of the creation of affordable housing (indeed, I even chaired a roundtable on Building Form and Design for the Mayor's affordable housing task force ) I will worry if we start to approve building designs that might not otherwise be deemed acceptable from a planning point of view, just because they are affordable.

I also worry when City Hall starts to determine what is 'affordable'. Affordable for whom?

As Pacific Arbour's Peter Gaskill correctly notes, while $5,000 per month rent might at first seem very high and 'unaffordable', when you consider that the rent includes meals, activities and a range of services in a very attractive environment; and potential residents are likely selling a $1.5 to 2.0M home, the project is indeed 'affordable'; at least to those seniors who are selling a single family house they no longer want to keep up. And believe me, there are a lot of such seniors in Dunbar and Kerrisdale.

Now as for the acceptability of the six storey building height, I would offer two different perspectives.If the proposal is to rezone just these lots but nothing else, then the building is probably too high, considering the subject properties and adjacent lots are currently zoned for single family housing.

However, since that the Stongs site to the north is likely to be redeveloped at around six storeys (something that I do support) I think a five or six storey building on this site could fit in, if the surrounding properties were also rezoned and allowed to redevelop over time at a 'transitional' height of 3 to 4 storeys.

In other words, a spot rezoning that more than doubles the height on this one site is probably wrong, regardless of whether the rents are deemed 'affordable' or not affordable.  However, if the properties to the east and south, and along the wesgt side of Dunbar were also planned for a more modest increase in height, then this proposal could be a suitable and much needed addition to the community.

Finally, as Peter Gaskill noted, if the rents are not affordable, people won't move in! Rest assured City Hall, most developers only build things that are 'affordable'!

A seaside resort in Germany

No chance of a tropical storm here! Incredible pictures show luxury resort complete with sandy beaches, palm trees and clear blue water...

inside enormous German hangar surrounded by snow!!

With sandy beaches, clear blue water and palm trees, this looks like a spectacular and luxurious sun-kissed resort.
Holidaymakers can be seen relaxing in swimming shorts and bikinis. Even the occasional flamingo can be spotted.
But not everything is as it seems at Tropical Islands.

Luxury:                                                        With sandy                                                        beaches, clear                                                        blue water and                                                        palm trees, this                                                        looks like a                                                        spectacular                                                        sun-kissed                                                        resort
Luxury: With sandy beaches, clear blue water and palm trees, this looks like a spectacular sun-kissed resort
Fun:                                                        Despite                                                        appearances, not                                                        everything is as                                                        it seems at                                                        Tropical                                                        Islands
Despite appearances, not everything is as it seems at Tropical Islands
Odd: The                                                        'resort' is                                                        actually located                                                        on the site of a                                                        former Soviet                                                        military air                                                        base in                                                        Krausnick,                                                        Germany
The 'resort' is actually located on the site of a former Soviet military air base in Krausnick, Germany
Tropical Islands is inside a hangar built originally to house airships designed to haul long-distance cargo. And despite it looking like temperatures are through the roof - outside the giant hanger it is actually snowing.
As these pictures show, the resort contains a beach, a lagoon, water slide and adventure park.
Guests can enjoy numerous restaurants, evening shows and can also relax in a sauna.
Indoor:                                                        Tropical Islands                                                        is located                                                        inside this                                                        giant hangar -                                                        with the actual                                                        weather a far                                                        cry from the                                                        conditions                                                        inside
Tropical Islands is located inside this giant hangar - with the actual weather a far cry from the conditions inside
Cold:                                                          Snow surrounds                                                          the giant                                                          hangar which                                                          houses                                                          Tropical                                                          Islands
Snow surrounds the giant hangar which houses Tropical Islands
Relaxing:                                                        Tropical Islands                                                        is inside a                                                        hangar built                                                        originally to                                                        house airships                                                        designed to haul                                                        long-distance                                                        cargo. Visitors                                                        can be seen                                                        swimming in the                                                        lagoon at the                                                        resort
Visitors can be seen swimming in the lagoon at the resort
Holiday:                                                        The resort                                                        contains a                                                        beach, lagoon,                                                        water slide and                                                        adventure park.                                                        Guests can also                                                        enjoy numerous                                                        restaurants,                                                        evening shows                                                        and saunas
A range of options are available for stays, from the basic to luxury. Accommodation includes quaint looking cottages and even beach tents.
As well as flamingos, free-flying canaries also fly around the site.
It is believed that the hall which Tropical Islands is located in is the biggest free-standing hall in the world.
Popular:                                                        Tropical Islands                                                        attracts up to                                                        6,000 visitors a                                                        day and in its                                                        first year                                                        attracted                                                        975,000                                                        visitors
Tropical Islands attracts up to 6,000 visitors a day and in its first year attracted 975,000 visitors
Accommodation:                                                        A range of                                                        options are                                                        available for                                                        stays, from the                                                        basic to luxury.                                                        Accommodation                                                        includes                                                        cottages,                                                        pictured, and                                                        even beach                                                        tents
A range of options are available for stays, from the basic to luxury. Accommodation includes cottages (pictured) and even beach tents
Simple:                                                        Guests can also                                                        stay in one of                                                        the beach tents
As well as the thousands of visitors each day, approximately 500 people work at the site. Tropical Islands opened to members of the public in 2004.
Incredibly, the hangar, which is 360 meters long, 210 meters wide and 107 meters high, is tall enough to enclose the Statue of Liberty.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Selling High Density in West Van: Globe and Mail Saturday March 2, 2013

The retro looks of Hollyburn Mews are one strategy in an effort to bring more multi-family offerings to the wealthy community

by Hadani Ditmars

Where will all the aging boomers go when their large footprint homes become too much to handle?

The traditional choices have been apartments or condos. But a new development in West Vancouver offers the best of both worlds.

Hollyburn Mews, a cluster of cottage-style duplexes and coach houses located on Esquimalt Avenue, is for people who "want to downsize but not downgrade," developer Michael Geller said.

While West Vancouver boasts some of Canada's best examples of mid-century modern design, the 1990's and 2000's saw the birth of large 5,000-plus-square-foot homes that were worlds away from the small footprint single-family homes by the likes of Ron Thom and Fred Hollingsworth.

But now, as many empty-nesters find themselves looking for more practical and sustainable alternatives to fit their changing lifestyles, there are very few intermediate options available in the wealthy district of 42,000. Smaller ground oriented homes with access to yards and outdoor spaces are few and far between.

Marlou and Iain Hume, a retired couple who moved here from Montreal several years ago, are typical of the kind of buyer attracted to Hollyburn Mews. "I wish there'd been something like this when we first arrived," Mrs. Hume said as she tours the six duplexes and three coach houses with developer Michael Geller. "Everything we saw was just so big - we didn't need all that space." Their quest to downsize but stay in the community has led them here.

The new development, with its shared green space, reduced setbacks and community feel, reminds the couple of Montreal or, indeed, of Mr. Hume's native England. But the architectural inspiration (with design by Formwerks and general concept by Mr. Geller) is actually from early-20th-century West Vancouver cottages. While interiors and green technologies are state-of-the-art, nostalgic references like covered porches, board and batten siding, and steeply sloped roofs with dormers hark back to another era.

And yet Hollyburn Mews is actually considered "high density" in bucolic West Vancouver. There was huge controversy about the development, with columnists such as Trevor Lautens of the North Shore News, being quite vocal in their opposition to it. "But now that the homes are on the market," says Mr. Geller with a smile, "some of the same critics are on waiting lists to buy them."

The development which manages to fit three units on a standard 50-foot lot, went through a five-year approval process. The concept won kudos from prominent West Vancouver residents like former mayor Pam Goldsmith-Jones whose plan for "gentle densification" fits Hollyburn Mews like a glove.

West Van resident and former city of Vancouver planner Ray Spaxman (referred by many as the "father of Vancouverism") also liked the concept. "But he felt the density was too low and he didn't think it was correct to do craftsman-style housing in 2013," noted Mr. Geller.

But the reality is, he said, "If I had done a higher-density development in a more modernist style, there would have been much more community opposition."

The traditional touches like wainscotting and specially trimmed windowpanes helped sway Council and community groups, as did the design for the duplexes that avoided traditional boxy duplication in favor of a seamless and assymmetrical frontage that appears from the street as a single-family home.

And unlike Vancouver laneway houses that are generally used for rental and are relatively small, these coach houses (the first in West Vancouver) are 1800 square feet and on three levels.

Formwerks employed aging-boomer-friendly details for added appeal. Each bathroom has illuminated mirrors and staircases have been designed extra wide and with plugs at the bottom for stair lifts.

Features like large porches help create layers between units and common green areas, while Dutch doors that can be opened from the top or bottom half evoke a more neighbourly era.

"I wanted to create a development that offered both privacy and a sense of community," explains Mr. Geller.

Locating the development in such a central area also scores high points for a walkability. The village like environs include the West Vancouver United Church, the HCMA designed community recreation center, a bowling green, the library and many small retail shops and restaurants.

It is no surprise that Mr. Geller is inspired by American architect Ross Chapin and his idea of the "pocket neighbourhood."

"It's the idea of the neighbourhood within the neighbourhood," explains Mr. Geller. "There are many successful examples in the U.S. of gorgeous little cottages with big porches built around communal space."

Indeed, the strip of landscaping between the south facing duplexes and the coach houses to the north will offer neighbourly benches and gardens. The north facing coach houses will in turn engage and re-energize the laneway.

It's hard to believe that sleepy West Vancouver is on the vanguard of new housing for aging boomers. But thanks to former mayor Pam Goldsmith-Jones and her plan for "gentle densification," it actually is.

The contrast is striking compared to areas like Dunbar on Vancouver's West Side, where empty-nesters living in sprawling 3500 square-foot Arts-and-Crafts-style houses is the norm, and where housing for seniors has been actively opposed by an aging community.

"They key," says Mr. Geller, "is to design higher-density developments like this in a way that suits the needs of residents and fits in with the existing neighbourhood. There's a real niche market out there for people who want to stay in their area but aren't ready to move into an apartment."

Special the Globe and Mail.