Sunday, January 31, 2010

Tragedy at Aguas Calientes

The last stop in our 2007 World Tour was Aguas Calientes and Machu Pichu Peru (see first Sept blog). It was a very memorable place, even though it rained quite heavily.

However, the rain was nothing compared to what has happened there over the past few days. These Vancouver Sun photos portray a very different place than what we saw. What a tragedy.

Although our first impressions were not that positive, we eventually found it to be a charming, interesting village with very lovely people. Let's hope the place can be rebuilt.

Rumble in the Jungle: An unmitigated Success!

"Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone"

Last night, after attending an exhibition of art work by doctors and medical students organized in part by my daughter Georgia, Sally and I headed over to the "rumble in the jungle" fund raising gala that was organized by 'the Friends of Bloedel' in a bid to save the 40-year-old Bloedel Conservatory at Queen Elizabeth Park in Vancouver.

As noted in a good story by Vancouver Sun columnist Steve Whysall, the Friends of Bloedel group was formed to raise awareness and funds to keep the conservatory open after the Vancouver park board decided in November that it needed to close the conservatory because of a $3-million budget shortfall.

The park board has subsequently agreed to keep the conservatory operating as normal to allow "expressions of interest" concerning the future of the facility to be submitted until April 30, and will remain open, even after the April 30 deadline, to give the park board time to review all its options.

While it was expected that 200 to 300 people might attend at $125 a person or $200 a couple, in fact there were closer to 400 in attendance at the sold out event. One of the organizers, Bill McCreery told me they could have easily sold another 200 tickets.

One well known observer of the Vancouver social and political scenes was going around saying there were three groups in attendance: those who have been close to the Bloedel Conservatory for years; those who are a part of the Vancouver/Southlands Nursery gardening world; and people of all political stripes who wanted to publicly show their disapproval with the Vision led Park Board's unfortunate decision to close the facility.

I thought there was a fourth group....those who had enjoyed the Conservatory in the past, but had almost forgotten about it. However, with the threat that it might be closed down, they wanted to show their support for one of Vancouver's few institutions.

I included a reference to the ill-advised decision to close the Bloedel Conservatory in my 2009 Holiday Greeting e-card since I thought it was a terrible decision by people who were perhaps too young, and with too little Vancouver life experience, to appreciate how inappropriate a decision it was.

For me, the answers to the funding shortfalls were obvious. There was a need to embark on a proper marketing campaign and explore new public private partnerships to keep it operating. I agree with Ian Robertson that these approaches should have been undertaken long before the announcement that the facility would be closing.

As evidenced by the attendance at last night's rumble, and the following statistics in Whysall's story, there is already a renewed interest in the facility....

Attendance at the conservatory has soared significantly since the controversy began in November....attendance in December totalled more than 8,000, compared to about 2,500 for the same period the previous year, despite the fact that there was also a free-entry day during that period. Attendance during the first two weeks of January was 5,000...also a record for the time of year....

"People are coming back to the conservatory in droves. They have become aware because of all the publicity that this is a treasure worth keeping.

"They are finding that the place is beautifully maintained and far more interesting than they ever imagined."

The geodesic domed conservatory was a mult-million-dollar gift from lumber baron Prentice Bloedel in 1969. His gift also included the cost of covering the reservoir at QE Park and a piece of sculpture by artist Henry Moore called Knife Edge -- Two Piece.

I do not believe the facility will close. I mean, how can it...a very green jungle of plants, fish, and birds in a city that the Mayor wants to be the 'greenest city in the world'. Indeed, a new story in the Vancouver Sun reports that on the eve of the fundraiser, the Mayor made a new statement about exploring public-private opportunities to keep the facility open. While I'm pleased to hear this, it is a shame that he and his colleagues did not have the judgment to come up with a long term solution before announcing the pending closure.

Of course there's always the possibility that like the message in Joni Mitchell's song, the closure announcement was part of a carefully crafted strategy to generate community support and funding for the somewhat forgotten facility. However, somehow I don't think this was the case.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

My views on views...and taller buildings

A number of people have been asking me what I thought about the two reports dealing with heights and views. While I have previously shared some of my opinions publicly (on this blog, on Frances Bula's blog, at the SFU forum, and most recently on CBC's On the Coast) and privately (Brent Toderian and I have had a few genuinely constructive chats) I would like to summarize my thoughts since this topic is not going to go away, and some unsettling issues remain unanswered for me.

As I mentioned on CBC, when I first saw the view corridor report and the proposal for 4 strategically located ‘tall buildings’ I was reminded of the New Yorker cartoon of the man and woman looking at the New York skyline with all its construction cranes. The woman turns to the man and says:

“I just can’t wait until the city’s finished.”

No one should deny that views of the mountains and water are exceptionally important in Vancouver; they are. And in many cases, the view corridors have been beneficial in keeping open certain public views that might otherwise have got lost. But in other cases, the view corridors (which were established at fixed intersections or points along the waterfront and bridges) have been eroded by trees and low rise buildings. In a couple of instances they have become little more than tiny vertical slivers.

One might say, so what…surely they are better than nothing. The problem is that those slivers are sterilizing, if you’ll pardon the pun, the development potential of some key properties. Why the pun? Because one such property is the St. Paul’s Hospital Site, which one day will need to be redeveloped in whole or part, to fund new hospital facilities.

This, in my opinion, is a very good example of why it was called a ‘View and Capacity study’. Unfortunately, and this is not a criticism of anyone in particular, I don’t think many people fully understood the trade-offs that needed to be considered.

Do you want to protect views? Of course!

My advice? While an important decision has been made (for the time being), some independent entity should be charged with the responsibility of carefully filming with movies, not stills, the view corridors that we have decided to maintain (and the new ones we have just created) so that over time we can properly evaluate their benefits.

Indeed. I would suggest that if we were to sit together in the Fifth Avenue Cinema and look at the film version of some of the view corridors we have just protected, and then be told of the building design and financial consequences for some of the property owners (like St.Pauls and a few of the recently designated office building sites ) we would not likely be so adamant or joyful that the right decisions had been made.

As for the proposal for 4 tall building sites, I was opposed to this for two reasons: as the New Yorker cartoon so beautifully illustrates, the city is never finished. Yes, we established a few sites a few years ago (including the Shangri-la and the Ritz Carlton sites) and we might establish 4 more now, but realistically there will be and should be many more to come over the years. (Some might even violate a particular view corridor.)

However, I think it will be better to evaluate each one on its merits at the time. (We weren’t really able to evaluate the trade-offs for these 4 sites).

The future evaluations could be accomplished with the aid of dynamic view analysis and hopefully one day in a CITY URBANARIUM with a giant model of the city and life-like visuals. Singapore and Shanghai have such Urbanariums…why even Havana has a wonderful giant model of its Old City to review and evaluate what’s happening and likely to happen.

Ray Spaxman proposed this concept for our city decades ago, and as a former director of the Urbanarium Society, I would like to see the city, community and private sectors start to again plan for such a centre now…perhaps as part of the new development around BC Place, or wherever…(There’s a report going to Council this Tuesday requiring a $522,000 contribution from the property owners to the city to fund the planning work for this area….let’s see if we can’t use some of this money to investigate the requirements and financing structure for an Urbanarium as part of the development.

(Ironically, if it was built, it would likely support some different planning visions for this area including, yes, some taller buildings protruding into current view corridors in order to allow better major park designs!)

Finally, with respect to Heights in Heritage areas, I was and am still opposed to the proposals for taller buildings. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure I like the 12 and 15 storey heights.

While there are some nice 12 storey buildings in Kerrisdale surrounded by mature trees, depending on the floor plate dimensions, sometimes it is difficult to tell whether a 12 storey building is a short tall building, or a tall short building.

I still prefer a 10 storey height limit with a more continuous 'street-wall' building form for these neighbourhoods for aesthetic reasons. While the number may seem arbitrary, anyone who has been to Washington DC or many European cities knows this is the upper limit for a mid-rise character.

( I initially supported this character for SEFC (and feel that it was compromised by going up to 13 storeys)

To those Chinese merchants who said this isn’t enough ‘density’ to revitalize the area, I would say you are wrong…you can achieve very high densities within 10 storeys…

To get a sense of how this character works, just look at some of the fine 10 storey buildings developed by DERA and others in the area, and imagine them continuing along the streets, with some of the older important heritage buildings maintained.

So I am a bit nervous about the recent approval for greater heights, but we can monitor the situation, and maybe I’ll be proven wrong. I am glad that we did not agree to a few really tall buildings in this area now, since that would have compromised the possibility of creating neighbourhoods with a different character.

As to the social implications of the decisions, while I do not agree with those who feel more condos will be the end of the DTES, I do agree with the call for an overall master plan and defined socio-economic vision for the area.

I would like us to try and determine what we collectively think is the right mix of new market and non-market housing over the next 20 years; where new parks should be built along with other amenities; and where new commercial can be encouraged. I don’t think any of us really know how we want this area to turn out.

Unlike the former director of the UofT School of Architecture, Peter Pragnell, who once said good planning is simply good architecture, side by side, I believe there are benefits in overall master plans, even though they will need to be changed over time as the city is ‘finished’.

PS. Here's the actual Council decision.

A. THAT Council affirm the View Protection Guidelines and the critical role that they have played for the past 20 years in protecting public views that enhance Vancouver's world-renowned image of a vibrant city in a unique mountain and ocean setting

B. THAT in order to strengthen and improve existing protected public views, Council approve the View Strengthening for existing View Corridors from Granville Bridge to Grouse Mountain (Views 12.1.1, 12.1.2, 12.1.3), Charleson Park to the Lions (View B1), and Alder Terrace to Mount Seymour (View A), generally as described in Appendix A.

C. THAT in order to protect additional important views as the city grows, Council approve in principle the New Views, generally as described in Appendix A, and direct staff to report back on implementation following further technical analysis and Council’s direction on the Heritage Area Height Review.

D. THAT staff assess and report back to Council detailing available higher building opportunities within existing policies and past practices that consider potential community and economic benefits.

E. THAT Council affirm the current, rigorous application of Cambie Street and Cambie Bridge view corridors (Views 9.1, 9.2, E1) and allow “build out” to occur up to the existing, flat plimsol line, generally as described in Appendix A – Varied Building Line – MAINTAIN CURRENT POLICY

F. THAT Council direct staff to report back with an amended General Policy for Higher Buildings that expands requirements for potential higher building sites to include the “demonstration of green building design performance (in particular energy performance) that significantly improves local knowledge and results in green design beyond prevailing policy” and “that establishes a significant and recognizable new benchmark for architectural creativity and excellence, while making a significant contribution to the beauty and visual power of the City’s skyline”.

Friday, January 29, 2010



Chutzpah is a Yiddish word meaning gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, sheer guts plus arrogance;
its Yiddish and, as Leo Rosten writes, no other word and no other language can do it justice.

This example is better than 1,000 words...


A little old lady sold pretzels on a street corner for 25 cents each. Every day a young man would leave his office building at lunch time and, as he passed the pretzel stand, he would leave her a quarter, but never take a pretzel.

This went on for more then 3 years. The two of them never spoke.

One day, as the young man passed the old lady's stand and left his quarter as usual, the pretzel lady spoke to him.

Without blinking an eye she said, "They're 35 cents now."

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Micro Lofts Come to Vancouver

I was filled with delight and envy when I read about the proposal by Reliance Holdings and ITC Construction to renovate the Burns Block in the DTES into 270 square foot rental mini-loft suites. Delighted because I think it is a good idea, especially in this location. Envious, since this is an idea I have talked about doing since the early 1970's when CMHC approved Bradwin Court, a 'high-rise rooming house' on Sherbourne Street in Toronto under its $200 million demonstration program.

A few details about the project:
  • An innovative market rental housing project built by Vancouver companies Reliance Properties and ITC Construction Group
  • Located at the site of the historic ‘Burn’s Block’ in the Downtown Eastside, the building dates back 100 years and is on the City of Vancouver Heritage Register
  • Building will feature 30 self-contained affordable market rental suites or “micro-lofts”
  • Suites are approximately 270 square feet, making them the smallest in Vancouver
  • Average rental value for each suite is projected at $750 per month and starts as low as $675 per month. Suites will also be offered furnished for a small extra charge
  • The building is 18,000 square feet and has five floors, of which one will be fully-furnished
  • Spatially-efficient design contains built-in pull-down wall beds with integrated folding tables, compact appliances, ample storage, built-in safe for storing valuables and “wet” bathroom
  • Building also features a rooftop garden, basement gym and several environmentally-friendly elements
  • The social entrepreneur partnership between Reliance and ITC is an effort to restore the building and to pay tribute to its history
  • The City of Vancouver assisted through council policy including the SRA-By Law, the Heritage Incentive Program and the Downtown Eastside Housing Plan
  • While the former use of Burns Block was for a Single Room Occupancy hotel (SRO) with shared facilities, suites in the redeveloped building will each contain a full bathroom and kitchen
  • Occupants will be students, people in transition and those looking to work and live in the heart of the downtown area at an affordable rent
  • Reliance purchased the building while it was being used as an SRO hotel in 2007, after it was closed by fire officials in 2006. ITC joined the project in 2009 to complete the construction work
  • Scheduled for completion in March 2011
Frances Bula wrote a story about this project in the Globe (I suggested that they be compared to living on a 55 foot yacht, rather than in two parking spaces) and has subsequently blogged about the initiative. Somewhat surprisingly, I have been strongly criticized for supporting this initiative. Some feel it will lead to gentrification, which is not likely true. Gentrification means the replacement of a low income neighbourhood with middle income households. I believe there has been so much money invested in low income housing in the area that the low income households are not leaving.

Another person criticized me since he assumed my clothes closet is larger than these units! Here's my response:

As for my closet, it is quite large, with a window, in a very large house. However, I often lived in rooms that shared a bathroom and kitchen with many others; and subsequently in a one bedroom apartment that I shared with another man (since the living room had a door). I subsequently lived in an older 430 sq.ft. one bedroom apartment, and was very happy to move into a very small, but brand new studio suite in the Plaza International Hotel apartments.

So I have experienced many different modest housing solutions, and that is why I believe a brand new 270 sq. ft. self contained suite with a murphy bed and new appliances that rents for 60% of the cost of the average 1 bedroom apartment is a good idea.

There's another aspect to this story that hasn't received much attention, the role of the contractor ITC. I have known the president Peter Rezansoff since the mid 70's and worked with his company on many projects. ITC (which stands for integrity, trust and commitment) was formerly known as Intertech Construction. It is now the largest construction company (based on construction volume) in Western Canada with its head office in Vancouver and a regional office in Calgary. ITC was the contractor for the Woodwards project and much of the Olympic Village. It has been selected as one of Canada's 50 Best Managed Companies for 6 consecutive years.

Peter has been looking for an opportunity to be involved with a socially motivated housing project in Vancouver for some time since, in its quiet way, ITC has been involved with several Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives including: BladeRunners, a program that offers construction training and mentorship to First Nations youth and it is spearheading the creation of a similar program in Alberta. ITC is 'donating' its normal construction profit back to the project in order to make it economically viable.

I predict this project will be a success. It will be a positive addition to the DTES and I compliment Reliance Holdings and ITC for making it happen.

Monday, January 25, 2010

January 25th Robbie Burns Day!

I love Scotland. I love the Scottish people. I love the pipes. And I even like haggis. So it was with great pleasure that I accepted an invitation to join Michael Stevenson's table at a dinner to celebrate Robbie Burns day and the accomplishments of the SFU Pipe Band. In case you are not aware of it, the SFU Pipe Band is the best in the world. No, not world famous in Vancouver. It really has been judged the best pipe band in the world, on a number of occasions, in an annual competition in....where else, Scotland.So here are a few photos of the event, (note the young boy's cheeks) and Michael Stevenson cheering at the announcement that the band was again voted the best in the world. Truly an accomplishment for a university a long way from the Highlands of Scotland...

Friday, January 22, 2010

A Vancouver Sun Op-Ed on the DTES

The Woodward's project will bring some changes but other steps are needed

By Michael Geller, Special to the Sun
January 21, 2010

Will the recent lighting of the Woodward's W herald a new chapter in the life of the Downtown Eastside?

I do not share the view proclaimed by some community activists that Woodward's and other condominium developments will lead to the eviction of low income households and more homelessness. But there will be changes; some neighbourhood residents will no longer be able to urinate in the streets and alleys and openly sell and use drugs in front of the Woodward's property.

Unless we put in place a National Housing Policy that proclaims housing as a right, like the government of Cuba did after the revolution, there will always be homeless people in our city.
Since we are not soon likely to get a National Housing Policy, below are five approaches that could be tried.

Recently it was announced that the StreetoHome foundation wants to build thousands of new housing units in the city. I would suggest the Foundation copy what its Toronto counterpart did, namely help fund the placement of people into existing rental apartments scattered around the city, along with a range of support services.

Some people on the streets did have friends and families from whom they have been cut off. Perhaps we should devote more resources to help reunify these people with families and friends.
The Salvation Army operates one such program, but with inadequate resources. Maybe additional funding should be provided to it and other organizations offering similar services.

Many homeless and low income people are capable of working, if only they could find suitable employment. Tradeworks, Building Opportunities for Business (BOB) and Eastside Movement for Business & Economic Renewal Society (EMBERS) are excellent organizations trying to help people find work. However, each needs more funding and support.

Some people want to work but cannot do so because of their appearance. So why not have more barbershops where people can get free shaves and haircuts to prepare them for work?

There is no one coordinating entity. Perhaps what we need is a local Community Trust.

One of the worst times in the DTES is Welfare Wednesday when everyone receives their welfare cheque and many head off to pubs and drug dealers, resulting in increased crime. Why not spread the payday across the whole month?

In summary, there is no one easy answer to address the problems of this neighbourhood.

However, while Woodward's may offer many benefits, there may be equally effective but considerably less expensive and time consuming solutions. Let us hope so.

Michael Geller is a Vancouver architect and developer.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The New Mount Pleasant Community Centre

Like many people in Vancouver, I have been waiting for the new Mount Pleasant Community Centre to be completed. It is an innovative development since it also includes a new rental housing project developed by the City. It has been a long time coming and will be a great addition to the neighbourhood.

But I was very disappointed to see the building at night. As evidenced by the photo above, the bright neon (CORRECTION: fluorescent, thanks Jon) light emanating from the work station lamps is very disturbing and most unfortunate. The fact is, more attention needs to be given to how buildings look at night since it is dark much of the time. Vancouver architects could learn from other cities where night lighting is much better thought out. Even on 'sustainable buildings'. This one needs to be fixed!

POSTSCRIPT I Recently was walking along Hastings Street and came across the Birks Building with its new this is a successful effort!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Mighty Matt Hern's salons

As part of the launch of his new book Common Ground in a Liquid City: Essays in Defense of an Urban Future, author Matt Hern has organized four coffee house 'salons' around Vancouver.

Each event will feature presentations by speakers Matt interviewed during the course of writing his book and a short reading, with lots of time for conversation, questions and discussion. Matt sees each event as" a great opportunity to meet, talk, argue and consider the future of Vancouver with some compelling thinkers".

These events are all free. Please pre-register. You are welcome to just show up - but if you pre-register he’ll save you a seat – there are only 30 spots and they’ll all be full. To sign up contact Matt Hern -

SUNDAY, JANUARY 17th, 6:00 pm
Rhizome Café (Broadway and Kingsway)
All great cities have a certain flavour and vitality. How does a city get that life and vitality? How does Vancouver get some flavour?
-with- David Beers, Michael Geller, Joan Seidl, Marcus Youssef and Matt Hern.

THURSDAY, JANUARY 28th, 7:00 pm
Riddim and Spice (1945 Commercial Dr. - at 3rd)
A great city has to take care of its people. But what does security mean? What is real safety? Who has a right to the city? How might Vancouver be designed so that ‘city air’ really does make people free?
-with- Am Johal, David Eby, Harsha Walia, Lance Berelowitz and Matt Hern.

SATURDAY, JANUARY 30th, 7:00 pm
Riddim and Spice (1945 Commercial Dr. - at 3rd)
What is a great city? Should Vancouver even be trying to be one? What would a great city look like here?
-with- Frances Bula, Erick Villagomez, Gord Price, Carm Mills, Dustin Rivers and Matt Hern.

SUNDAY, JANUARY 31st, 1:00 pm
The Purple Thistle Centre (975 Vernon Dr. – at Parker)
A great city has to be an ecological city. What should urban agriculture look like here? What does ‘food security’ really mean? Can a real city feed itself – should it even try? Does ‘greening’ the city undermine its social vitality?
-with- David Tracey, Conrad Schmidt, Cease Wyss and Matt Hern and co-sponsored by COPE’s Freedom of Speech Series.

Last night's event included David Beers of The Tyee, Joan Seidl of the Vancouver Museum, Marcus Youssef, a prominent player in the local theatre scene and me. The restaurant was packed and after a reading by Matt from the chapter in his book dealing with Montreal, we were asked a series of questions about what gives a city its 'funk'; the importance of public or common places; whether Vancouver is a no-fun city; and how we can make it a better place.

While I like to think that the featured speakers did a very reasonable job...David Beers kick-started the evening's discussion by comparing the the city to his teenage son's bedroom, and Marcus was very entertaining throughout, Joan often talked about the importance of understanding the city's history.....I was particularly impressed by the quality of the commentary by the audience and the questions asked. As my wife said on the way home, there really wasn't one inappropriate remark...everyone was quite thoughtful, and genuinely interested in making Vancouver a more lively and special place.

One of the topics of discussion was whether 'master planning' is necessary or a hindrance. Matt's view is that people should make things happen in a more ad-hoc and incremental way, rather than allow planners and developers to design places for us. I noted that one of my former professors, Peter Pragnell once suggested that good planning was simply good architecture side by side. However, I no longer agreed, and thought that many of the great places in the world, such as Paris or the Grande Place in Brussels happened because of a master plan. Unfortunately, we do not have many well designed public urban spaces in Vancouver....the VAG lawn is a successful gathering place despite its awful design. I lamented the design of the new open spaces next to the convention centre....what a wasted opportunity, but maybe they can be repaired.

One of the themes that ran through the discussion was the need to bring more vitality to many public places.David Beers and I both suggested that the seawall, for all its beauty is too dull, and I described my efforts when designing Bayshore to have more structures on the outside of the walkway, along with a pier at the end of Denman Street, a waterfront bridge, and places to buy ice-cream, etc. I also thought we needed more street vendors and musicians, not unlike what one finds in all Asian cities.

Suzanne Anton suggested that what we needed was more 'commerce' in such places.

We also discussed the need for further relaxations of our liquor laws and other regulations. Many people noted how the things that make Montreal so special usually can't happen here for 'health and safety; reasons. (Although not that many people die in Montreal from the things we are not allowed to do.)

In terms of how to make more things happen, Matt talked about his efforts to organize community picnics, and I mentioned Matt's efforts to start car-free days in Vancouver. As one of the audience members correctly pointed out, sometimes the design of a space is important, but more often it is the organization of activities in that space that is more important.

When one of the audience members questioned whether it will take 150 years to change the rules we currently have to live with, all of us were a bit more optimistic. What with the new social instruments like Facebook and Twitter, blogging and alternative media like The Tyee, it is possible to promote new ideas and gain community support for them. Yes, it does take someone like Matt to help organize things, but it is possible. I referenced Clay Shirky's book 'Here comes Everybody: Organizing without an organization' as a good example of how to do this.

I like to think that everyone who came last night enjoyed the experience. I certainly did, and would urge people to attend the future sessions if you can. And again, congratulations to Matt Hern for getting his book published. While I don't agree with much of what he has to say, I certainly admire and envy him for pulling it off!

Woodwards and the SFU School for Contemporary Arts

I was delighted to have the opportunity to celebrate with the Henriquez family and over 800 Vancouverites on Friday night at the community opening for Woodwards and the SFU School for Contemporary Arts, A highlight of the evening for me was standing with Kip Woodward as the big W was lit, after a couple of decades of darkness.

Much has been written, and will be written about the Woodwards development. Books will be published (BODY HEAT, a book that tells the story of the Woodwards redevelopment, edited by Robert Enright, was launched at the event) and films will be made (My friend Bob Duncan of DocTV started a documentary during the competition process that was aired on CBC's The Passionate Eye.)

Like most significant events, there will be some reconstruction of the history of the events leading up to Friday's opening. Everyone who has been involved likely has a slightly different version of the facts, as he or she tells the story. Here's my story.

I was involved with the redevelopment of Woodwards on two different occasions. My first direct involvement was in 1998 when my company was retained by the Province of British Columbia's Ministry of Employment and Investment to prepare a Redevelopment Feasibility Analysis as part of the Province's due diligence with respect to the acquisition of the property. My study was carried out in association with Strategic Development Services who reviewed the residential markets, Colliers, who reviewed the commercial markets, and Helyar who prepared a detailed cost estimate.

It is interesting to note that Fama initially paid about $18 million for the Woodwards building and adjacent parkades. It then sold the parkades to the city for about $12.5 million; however, the city subsequently discovered that the building was not as structurally sound as it had hoped and Gregory Henriquez and structural engineers were hired to prepare plans for a substantial rebuild.) Fama sold a half interest in the remaining Woodwards building to TA Developments of Malaysia for another $12.5 million.

Fama and its partner subsequently submitted a preliminary development permit (PDP) application for a mixed use development comprising retail and office uses on the lower, main and second floor, and residential uses on floors 3 to 8. After getting the PDP Fama entered into discussions with the Province and reached agreement in principle to develop approximately half of the residential space as non-profit cooperative housing a a price of $163 a square foot. However, negotiations broke down, in part since Jim Green, a consultant to the Province at the time, and others were concerned about the potential negative impacts of the project's 216 condominium units on the community. Fama subsequently submitted a revised development permit for all market housing which was approved. At this point, at Jim's urging, the Province decided to investigate the acquisition of the property.

Fama and its development partner wanted $25 million. However, based on our analysis, we valued the building and land and repairs at $9.5 million. Notwithstanding our report, the Province paid $22.5 million for the site. It was subsequently sold to the city for something in the order of $7 million.

The city then developed terms of reference for a Public/Private Partnership Proposal Call and I again became involved with the Woodwards project as an advisor to SFU on structuring a deal with the successful developer for the SFU School for Contemporary Arts. Although Millennium (yes, the Olympic Village Millennium) offered the most money in response to the RFP, its high rise tower proposal was considered much too aggressive. A very good proposal by Concert Properties was rejected in part because it was seeking a commitment from the City to allow the transfer of density to the Ritz Carlton site. As a result, the proposal by Westbank, initiated by Gregory Henriquez, with the high profile support of the Portland Hotel Society, ultimately won.

It is interesting to note that while SFU's involvement is now being highly acclaimed for the project's social and financial success, Jim Green and others initially had reservations about SFU being part of the project. The reason? It was feared that like condominiums, a university facility would gentrify the area. However, after many negotiations, a deal was finally concluded in 2007.

Many people want to take credit for obtaining the Province's financial support which ultimately allowed SFU to be a part of the project. However, as Ian Gillespie admitted on Friday night, he and Bob Rennie embarked on the highly successful marketing of the condominiums (as 'an intellectual property') without actually having a commitment from SFU. His banker didn't know that, and neither did the purchasers.

I personally believe that most of the credit should go to SFU President Michael Stevenson who from the beginning was committed to seeing SFU as part of the Woodwards project. Credit should also go to Vice-President Warren Gill, who was instrumental in creating SFU's downtown campus at Harbour Centre and who led SFU's negotiating team. I'm told that Bob Rennie also played a role, but then he had to. He had sold hundreds of condominium units to buyers who expected SFU to be part of the project (although the legal documents drafted by Westbank's brilliant real estate lawyer made no commitment regarding SFU's participation in the project.)

And of course, credit must go to the Province and Gordon Campbell because they came up with a very sizable contribution to allow this to happen.

I thought it was unfortunate that when Woodwards was being discussed on CBC's Sunday Edition yesterday, while there was much praise for the developer, SFU, and architect, there was absolutely no mention of the financial contributions from the various levels of government to the project. While I am not privy to all the capital payments, heritage density bonuses, and future subsidies, they total well into 9 figures. There is a lot of public money in this project.

Notwithstanding all this public money, at Friday night's session some concerns were expressed about whether the project will 'work'. The cause for this concern is whether the integration of the very low income, and oftentimes mentally ill and drug addicted residents and neighbours into the project will be successful. Much is being made of the fact that all of the public spaces are common spaces for everyone....and there will be a very high level of inclusiveness...Gregory must have used this word a dozen times on the CBC interview.

Many others are concerned over the potential of this project to gentrify the Downtown Eastside. Before responding, it is important to distinguish between GENTRIFICATION and REGENERATION. The former specifically refers to the expulsion of low income households by higher income households when buildings are renovated and the physical features of a neighbourhood are improved.I personally see Woodwards as a very positive regeneration force in the community. I do not think it will gentrify the area because there are already thousands of publicly funded social housing units which are not going to go away. But I do agree that the 'body heat' that will result from this project will force some people to behave stop openly urinating and shooting up in the streets and alleys. On the other side of the ledger, it will result in much needed employment opportunities for local residents. It will also reinforce the DTES as a place for art and creativity. This is a very good thing.

So to conclude, while I have regrets about various chapters in the Woodwards story, I do hope the building will achieve the results so many people are hoping for. And congratulations to Jim Green and Gregory Henriquez, because while your vision changed over time, the project has now become a reality and its ramifications could be very significant. And congratulations to Ian Gillespie and Ben Young for taking the risks. I'm glad they have paid off!

My story on Cuba: Vancouver Sun January 16,2010

Cuba a lesson in residency as a national priority
Michael Geller
Special to the Sun

Canada's deteriorating co-ops and rental housing merit a similar commitment

Alot has been written recently about the need for a national housing policy for Canada and a greater federal role in housing. I thought about this over the holiday season when I visited Cuba for the first time.

While I spent most of my days in Varadero, Cuba's expansive resort area, I also visited the city of Matanzas--often called the "Venice of Cuba" for its many bridges and river crossings -- and Havana. In both Matanzas and Havana, I observed the country's housing challenges and learned about the role played by Castro's government in shaping Cuba's national housing policy over the past five decades.

Opinions about life in Cuba vary considerably, depending on whom you speak to or what you read. Cuba in the 21st century is a country where resources are scarce and life is very difficult, with profound poverty and routine food, electricity and housing shortages.

Or Cuba is a country with virtually no homelessness, little unemployment, free health care and education, and a place where 85 per cent of the residents own their own homes with little or no mortgages. I will not defend Castro's brutal regime or his communist agenda. However, I believe Cuba is a most interesting and worthwhile place to visit, especially now. I also think that Castro's housing programs highlight important issues and lessons for Vancouver and other Canadian cities.

Many Vancouver renters would likely welcome the measures that were put in place following the revolution. In 1959, Castro's government immediately reduced rents by 50 per cent and eliminated a law that forced the eviction of families when they were unable to pay rent.

A year later, the Urban Reform Law converted half the urban tenants into homeowners, and other tenants were given long-term rent-free leases. Some tenants were assigned leases at no more than 10 per cent of household income, which conveyed ownership after 15 to 20 years of payment.

This law also abolished the markets for housing, real estate and land. Individuals were no longer able to sell houses to other citizens; instead, they could only sell them back to the government, which, in turn, resold them. It became illegal for a family to own more than one primary residence and one vacation home.

In subsequent years, the country embarked on three main forms of housing construction: state-sponsored, individual self-help and collective self-help.

The state-sponsored dwellings were initially known for their uniform appearance, materials and layout. Many projects were built using designs and prefabricated construction methods imported from the Soviet Union and were often out of character with their neighbourhoods. For this reason, state-sponsored construction was often criticized, even by Fidel Castro himself.

(It is interesting to note that many of the same criticisms were levelled at the early Canadian public housing projects that were modelled on designs brought over by British architects and planners working for the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.)

The government soon recognized it could not meet the housing demand on its own, and in 1970 Castro instituted a program of "microbrigades" to allow workers to build new houses for themselves and their colleagues. The idea behind these "housing co-operatives" was the collective advantage of pooling skills, labour and sites, and many multi-family buildings were constructed in outlying communities.

However, after a few years it became apparent that the workers did not have the necessary skills to build their own homes, and the program was ended. In later years, a new microbrigade program was instituted that focused on renovation and revitalization, as opposed to new multi-family construction. Ten years ago, Castro unveiled a plan to build 150,000 houses every year. The goal was subsequently reduced to 100,000 houses annually, but even that became an impossible objective. It is now estimated that about 15,000 homes are built annually by the government in a country of 11.2 million people. Interestingly, on an annual basis, more houses were constructed from 1930 to 1959 than in the post-revolutionary period between 1959 and today. However, as a result of various government initiatives, it is today claimed that 85 per cent of Cubans own their own homes and pay no property taxes and little if any interest on their mortgages.

Although much of the housing stock is in need of repair, there is virtually no homelessness in the country, other than that involving some mentally ill people who prefer to remain on the streets.

One reason for the poor housing conditions is the weak economy. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cuban government turned to tourism as the primary economic generator. Since then, considerable attention has been focused on the Habana Vieja district of Havana, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. Although many of the buildings are still in serious states of disrepair, new investments are transforming colonial Old Havana into an attractive and exciting place, with 17th-century palaces converted into hotels, housing and restaurants, practically all state-owned.

Interestingly, a booming black market in real estate is now operating in Cuba, even though the government owns most property. In some places, prices are soaring as property changes hands in a complex, illegal system called "permute."

So what lessons can we learn? Like Castro's government, perhaps we, too, should question whether it is not better for people to own, rather than rent. Cuba is not alone in promoting home ownership.

The U.K. and other countries have implemented innovative programs to help renters become homeowners. I believe there is a need for creative and innovative programs across Canada.

Second, we need to review how best to repair our deteriorating government-funded, co-operatively owned housing stock.

Without some special provisions, many low-income single parents and other households will soon be forced out of older deteriorating housing co-operatives they cannot afford to repair. Third, we need to consider how best to encourage the repair and upgrading of Vancouver's privately owned and aging rental housing stock.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A discussion about the City :Sunday January 17, 2010

Matt Hern recently published a book about Vancouver...Common Ground in a Liquid City: Essays in defense of an urban future. For those of you who don't know Matt, he is the fellow who initiated Car-Free days in Vancouver. He is also a teacher, community organizer and all round energetic East Side Vancouver community guy.

I met him when he was conducting interviews for his book, never really believing he would ever publish it. But he did. It includes a series of essays on Vancouver from the perspective of ten other international cities.

As part of the book launch, Matt decided to host four evenings...salons if you like, to explore different topics addressed in the book. On Sunday January 17, I will be joining some very clever people, David Beers, Joan Seidl and Marcus Yousef to discuss various aspects of life in our city and how they might be improved.

At the event, Matt will also read from his book.

Matt is a very impressive guy and I'm delighted to be part of his show. If you have some time, come by the Rhizome Cafe at 6, have something to eat and drink, and engage in what should be a most stimulating evening. I'm looking forward to it. Please rsvp to ensure space is still available.

Monday, January 11, 2010

LePage predicts 7.2% increase in Metro house prices

Royal Lepage predicts Vancouver house prices will continue to increase in 2010

Vancouver's real estate market saw substantial year-over-year price increases for the final quarter of 2009, and prices are expected to increase 7.2 per cent in 2010, according to the latest Royal LePage Market Survey Forecast and House Price Survey.

So says the press release issued by LePage and reported in numerous media outlets and on many blogs. There were 44 links to the story on the first 5 pages on Google. Derrick Penner of the Vancouver Sun also reported on the LePage prognosis.

So what, you might ask.

When I read the story, the first thing that came to mind was what did LePage predict would happen last year. I re-read Penner's story but there was no mention of last year's prediction. All he wrote was that in 2009 Metro had experienced a double digit increase in house prices.

So I spent 30 seconds on-line and quickly found the answer. For 2009, LePage had predicted ....are you ready? a 9% DECLINE IN PRICES.

Now, I don't know about you, but I think that is something that Penner and other responsible journalists should have reported. Yes, LePage is a big company, with a recognizable logo, but they are not always right. I wrote to Penner and eventually got a response through Twitter...."yes LePage was wrong last year, but so were most people" Nonetheless, I have sent in the following letter to the editor of the Vancouver Sun.

I would caution Vancouver residents not to make any significant purchase or sale decisions based on the LePage prediction that Vancouver real estate prices will rise 7.2% in 2010. (Metro home prices heading up in 2010 firm predicts, January 8, 2010). What reporter Derrick Penner forgets to mention is that last year around the same time, LePage predicted that Vancouver area prices would drop 9% in 2009, when in fact there was a double digit increase by year end.

I will not pretend to know what will happen to Vancouver area prices in 2010, other than to predict that the change will not be a 7.2% increase. There are far too many variables for any of us to offer such a precise prediction. But I do encourage Sun reporters to take a few moments to check the accuracy of previous crystal ball gazing, when reporting on future predictions. It might give Sun readers a better perspective on their potential accuracy.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Helping the Homeless: Jobs and family reunification

In a pre-Christmas post, following a few hours at the First United Church shelter and kitchen, I raised some questions regarding other initiatives that might help the homeless. In particular, I wondered whether more could be done to help people get into the workforce. I also asked if efforts should be made to reunify homeless people with family and friends.

Today I received a response from Judy Graves, the City of Vancouver's tireless street housing worker, who probably has a better understanding of the challenges facing those on the street than anyone else in the city. I found many of her comments quite startling, and while I do not agree with everything she says, I think others will be interested in what she sees as some of the challenges, and solutions.


Hello Michael,
There are programs in the DTES helping people get work. The best of them is likely BOB.
We are in a recession and people are losing jobs. A number of construction workers landed in the HEAT shelters for instance. I found others in Stanley Park in soaking tents. In spite of this, many of the people staying in shelters right now are, in fact, working. I routinely find people living rough who are working, and have found working people sleeping outside for some years. The jobs do not pay enough to cover rent. Subsidized housing in fact subsidizes the low wages paid by employers, as does the money we spend on transit. They cannot get themselves inside, let alone ahead.

They could use a rent bank that would make possible a one time security deposit and first month's rent on a non-repayable basis, so people who are not willing to accept welfare could get started living indoors. People who are coming out of recovery programs, clean and sober and working full time are not able to find adequate housing because their wages are so low. They remain a long time in residential recovery programs, saving money with which to pay rent in the future.

The sweeping destruction of the unions over the past couple of decades is one reason why BC has the highest child poverty rate in the country. The families can no longer afford adequate housing, even with two parents working. Single men at the bottom of the construction trades, single women in retail cannot afford rent in the Lower Mainland anymore. We see in the DTES families no longer together because the stress of poverty is too hard. The children are better fed in foster care. The Government pays money to foster families, but is unwilling to subsidize families so they can care for their own children.

The Salvation Army has an excellent family reunification program, at Dunning St in Burnaby. They find lost relatives and interface sensitively. The problem is - about 50%+ of the street homeless grew up in foster care. If a birth mother can be traced, almost certainly the birth mother is about as poor as the searching adult child, and has no means with which to support. On many of our First Nations reserves, living conditions and the hope of finding housing is no better than living conditions and housing in the DTES - and more hopeless. While people return for funerals, or for a visit, they do not want to return permanently.

A dear friend of mine is an archivist who traces Métis ancestry for homeless shelter guests in Alberta. The result is more often the paperwork that can get them a Métis status card, than contact with a living relative capable of hospitality or support. Many of the problems of the inhabitants of the DTES go back generations. many are caused by grief, losses unthinkable, great trauma, serious head injury, depression, panic attacks, lack of access to capital. Important to listen long and carefully before trying to help. First - do no harm.

I am particularly interested in the suggestion about the need for a 'rent bank'. However, I still want to know why the Provincial government doesn't reconsider its policy of giving everyone welfare money on the same day each month, since I am told this often contributes to havoc in the community.

I also wonder whether a program that offers men free shaves and haircuts might also help some people to get more work. Perhaps Judy or others more knowledgeable than me can respond to these two specific suggestions.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Back from Havana

I spent the week between Christmas and New Years in Cuba. It was my first trip, and while the food is often as bad as people describe it to be, based on my short visit, I think it is a wonderful country and well worth a visit or two, or ten, which is the number of visits by my colleague architect Foad Raffi.

There is so much to report, that I don't really know where to start. But suffice it to say, it is now easy to get to, with direct flights from Vancouver; it's fascinating to be in a country with no Americans, since they are not allowed to visit; and where the Canadian dollar is worth more than the US dollar!While I spent most of my time on the beach or playing golf in the large resort area of Varadero, (where there are more than 60 resort properties of various styles developed through joint-ventures with Spanish and other international companies) I did get to spend some time in the nearby city of Matanzas where I found this man cleaning his New Year's Eve pig dinner in the street.The highlight of the trip, without a doubt was Havana, with its mixture of housing types, old decaying mansions and other buildings, and newly renovated areas. I learned that with the decline of the sugar industry, and financial aid from Russia, the government is relying on tourism as a key economic generator. An important aspect of its tourism strategy is the restoration of La Habana Vieja, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in the eighties. While there is much, much work to be done, I was impressed with some of the work to date. (There is a large architectural model of the area on display which documents the progress being made.)One of the famous landmarks is the Hotel Nationale which is very much in operation and where you can get a double room starting at $200 or ten times the average monthly wage for a Cuban worker.
Everywhere you go you are reminded of the revolution which took place just over 50 years ago, although it was interesting to see revolutionary posters in the windows of fashionable shoe shops.
There is an expansive waterfront walkway lined with buildings of various styles and colours, many of which were repeatedly destroyed by the frequent hurricanes that have hit the city.In addition to the buildings, I was fascinated by the cars....many from the 1950's and before, still running with rebuilt engines. There are not just a few; there are thousands, everywhere throughout the country. Many are operated as taxis.I am writing some articles for the Vancouver Sun on the various housing initiatives that have occurred over the past 50 years but suffice it to say, there is virtually no homelessness, and 85% of the population own their own homes, mortgage free.

Housing styles vary from small concrete block and stucco houses to large Russian designed blocks, and everything in between.I am posting a few pictures to give those who have never visited a flavour of this fascinating country. (The rum is great; the seafood....well the rum is great! More to come later.I highly recommend a visit, not just to Varadero or Havana, but also to Trinidad and Santiago which I am told are even more beautiful and charming. And yes, the country is very safe for tourists, it's not overly expensive, and did I mention that the rum is plentiful, and very inexpensive, although the 15 year old Havana Club will set you back about $36 dollars. If you want to try some, come on over to my house!