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Talk About A Revolution ~ Vancouver Real Estate

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Story by Tyee Bridge

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Ah, condos. What was life like before condos? Already it seems impossible to imagine Vancouver without a half-dozen construction cranes in immediate view, and pre-sale lineups snaking around the block like an Iron Curtain-era bread queue. Besides being the subject of 10,000 after dinner arguments over bubble markets and investment strategies, condos have been the basic building block of Vancouver’s striking transformation in the past two decades. Take False Creek as an example.

While still a work in progress, where there were once only grim industrial lands along both shores, there are now grassy expanses of green space, a recreational seawall and dense aggregations of condominiums. The south shore from the Cambie Bridge to Granville Island is a series of low-rise units that rise up off the seawall like multi-residential barnacles. A few glassy towers grace the east end by Science World, foreshadowing the same growth that has made Yaletown a thicket of towering “see-throughs” and the prestigious address of choice for baby boomers and young creatives.

Talk about a revolution. Manhattan is now the only other city in North America that matches downtown Vancouver for housing density. In most cities across North America suburban flight has emptied downtowns, leaving bleak canyons of vacant office towers. By contrast, Vancouver’s downtown has increased by more than 40,000 people in the past 20 years, nearly all of whom live in condos. The five o’clock exodus is still in effect, as anyone on the Lions Gate or Port Mann bridges can tell you.

But Vancouver can boast something few other cities have these days: down town streets bustling with people after business hours. Those responsible for this intentional transformation are gaining renown around the world for shrewd urban development. They’ve even spawned a buzzword, Vancouverism, which crops up occasionally in the New York Times and in planning meetings from Brisbane to San Francisco. This isn’t a regional architectural reference to wrought-iron railings, concrete lions or a preoccupation with stucco.

It refers to the planning strategy championed by City of Vancouver urban designer Larry Beasley and others, who have aimed for a lively, densely populated, sustainable downtown core. As a unique expression of New Urbanism, a planning philosophy that’s bringing cities around the world back to life, there are several key elements in the Vancouverism manifesto. But for simplicity’s sake you can get a handle on the phenomenon by sticking to one word: condos. The revolution has been, as Rod Serling would say, one not only of sight and sound, but of mind.

The sight and sound half is obvious to anyone who has ventured downtown in the last decade. But there’s also been an accompanying revolution in mindset. The way most of us think about real estate has changed, because what constitutes a desirable lifestyle has changed: suburbs are less attractive than they were, and downtown living has acquired a fresh cachet. Bob Rennie is the head of Rennie Marketing Systems, the real estate promotion and sales firm that sold more than $400 million in condominiums last year. “Vancouver is unique,” Rennie explains, “because we’ve put residential into the core, and it works here because we planned for it.”

“Frankly, as a city, we live on our wits and our good looks. Vancouver doesn’t have the industrial base of other cities. Instead, our economy is driven by creativity and tourism.

Thanks in no small part to the marketing savvy of real estate demigods like Rennie, the triumph of Vancouverism is also the result of a sea-change in public opinion. “The condominium is like the small car,” says Rennie. “Once it wasn’t socially acceptable or desirable to own a small car. Now it is. At one time, say 20 years ago, if you were buying a condo you had to be in some sort of hardship. It was a lower form of ownership. Now it’s a form of status it’s like buying a smaller luxury car instead of an old oversized Cadillac. You can still have all the options, all the luxuries you want.

It’s just smaller, more efficiently designed and more convenient.” The key to successful urban renewal, says Rennie, is to make sure that residential development coincides with amenities that make a city livable and enjoyable. “You can’t just build an apartment building in isolation. If a developer goes in and builds a residential tower in a downtown with no residential infrastructure, it’s never going to take off. Concord Pacific didn’t really work with local buyers until Urban Fare came in.

You need grocery stores, shops, entertainment, restaurants. Isolated densification doesn’t work.” Larry Beasley, Co-Director of Planning for the City of Vancouver, traces the origins of Vancouverism back to the West End and False Creek South neighbourhoods in the 1960s and 1970s. These residential areas close to

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the core were the seeds of an emerging downtown lifestyle. But further growth was blocked in the 1980s because of the lack of appropriately zoned land. At that point, as Beasley described in an article for the American Planning Association, “in a major stroke of rezoning, some eight million square feet were converted from excess commercial (office) capacity, to allow residential development.” That was the beginning. A lack of nearby freeways, the immigration influx from Asia, and the peninsular features of downtown itself all combined to create a unique architectural hothouse. Development-wise, there was nowhere to go but up.

According to Beasley, there are at least four key elements to Vancouverism: attractiveness, intensity, sustainability and diversity. In a recent discussion, Beasley addressed the question of attractiveness first. “Frankly, as a city, we live on our wits and our good looks. Vancouver doesn’t have the industrial base of other cities—instead our economy is driven by creativity and tourism. Our emphasis on design with the development projects we oversee is to create a city that’s beautiful and comfortable. Quality of life is not just an aesthetic thing: it drives the economic engine.”

In practical terms, City of Vancouver planners keep Vancouver looking good by requiring developers to design their projects within New Urbanist guidelines. Sidewalks feature avenues of grass and trees to break up the concrete, and isolated private plazas for each building are discouraged in favour of shared public parks—as seen in Coal Harbour and Yaletown—that surround condominium clusters. Shops, restaurants and other amenities are divided to keep noise down and bring housing to the sidewalk. Residential towers are narrow, their bases hidden. “Views are carefully managed,” writes Beasley elsewhere.

“Sun access and shadows are manipulated with a painterly touch. And, lastly, the city facilitates the creation of wonderful private courtyards, where residents can escape the action of the street for the privacy and quiet of their own little garden. If all this is done carefully, a great deal of housing can happen with little negative effect.” In Beasley’s lexicon intensity means enough people to create a cultural critical mass, with plenty of attractive experiences close at hand.

Toronto expatriates might scoff at our comparatively limited cultural offerings and rather subdued nightlife, but things are getting better all the time and you don’t get ocean beaches, cedar forests, and mountain views anywhere near Bloor Street. Diversity means a generous variety of housing styles, where social and affordable housing is integrated with upscale residences. This ensures a vibrant community mix, with room for artists, students and people who work in the restaurants, grocery stores, libraries, retail shops and other essential amenities of the urban core.

It also draws families with children. Currently downtown has close to 4,000 children in residence, more than West Point Grey, which surprises many people. As for sustainability, densification itself is “green” in that it reduces commuting and allows those who live and work downtown a much smaller environmental footprint. In other words, a two-bedroom condo generally uses a lot less energy and resources than a suburban home.

But with the development of Southeast False Creek, future home of the Olympic Athletes Village, Vancouver is taking the next step. Beasley envisions the neighbourhood as “a world model for sustainable inner city living.” Buildings will adhere to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards, and the site will model cutting-edge practices in shoreline and habitat restoration, wastewater management and even urban agriculture.

“The whole world is urbanizing,” explains Beasley. “We have to make sure that we’re not degrading the natural world that surrounds the city.” The revolution continues. Vancouverism’s emphasis on sustainable density appears to be the future, and if things go as planned more than 120,000 people will eventually call downtown home. In addition to the Southeast False Creek development, the city has several large-scale projects on the drawing board, from a potential “third downtown” in the False Creek Flats area to a community of 10,000 people on the Fraser River near Boundary, along with ongoing revitalization in Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside. If we’re smart, we’ll all take our “before” photographs of Vancouver now, while we can still recognize it.

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