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Does Vancouver have to be a high-rise condo city? Or are there other choices?

September 15th, 2014 · 64 Comments

I try not to fall in sentimental rhapsodizing about mid-rise European cities, as some of my fellow urbanists do. I know that for every chic French or Spanish historic town, there’s a ring of appalling towers on the outskirts that the immigrants and poor have been relegated to.

But it is puzzling to me that Vancouver, a new city, an innovative city, seems to have invented only two distinctive types of housing: the podium-and-point-tower high-rise and the Vancouver Special single-family house in all its increasingly awful permutations. (The older ones are actually starting to look like Greek temples, with their clean and simple lines.)

As a result, they proliferate: cheap and easy and we think there must be a market for them because the dummies keep on buying them.

And we have a strange gap in our architectural ecology: the small mid-rise. There are the artifacts around, those three- and four-storey buildings that multiplied like rabbits when the federal government gave tax breaks to apartment investors in the 1950s, ’60s, and early ’70s. (Discontinued because the housing activists of the day complained that rich investors were getting undeserved breaks to build housing that wasn’t even affordable — sound familiar?)

But there are few new versions of those being built. Some of you might remember that there was a time when Vancouver’s planning department and the odd councillor talked about how, when new development started moving out from downtown and into the traditional single-family neighbourhoods, the city would work with developers to come up with a new form. Not just a replica of the Yaletown podium and tower, but something that was both dense yet complemented the existing neighbourhood.

Somehow that initial idea disappeared. (I distinctly remember it being talked about in the first plan for a new building at Kingsway and Victoria on the El Dorado Hotel site.) Instead, now we have a city where weird rocket ships emerge here and there from a mostly two-storey landscape, buildings that won’t be fitting into their neighbourhoods any time soon — not until the entire neighbourhood has been rebuilt.

This story I did for Vancouver magazine took a look at what it might mean to have a city where mid-rise buildings had more of a place — and why they don’t right now.

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