The dilemma is that although the City of Vancouver and its residents have, in most part, adopted the principles of mobility and growth, the other municipalities of the region have been formulating the right balance of growth and livability.
What is often forgotten is that by densifying the areas near transit, the pressure for growth in existing single family neighbourhoods is lessened. Vancouver is often associated with images of high rise towers but in fact 80% of the City’s residential land area is occupied by single family homes.
The regional cities are wrestling with what it means to be more urban, what the appropriate and authentic form and character should be for their cities, and what the ingredients and the necessary components are to make their cities work successfully.
For these suburban communities to move to a more urban model, it means that residents and businesses are asked to reconsider a vision for growth and livability that is significantly different to the norms that have defined suburban life for six decades: the automobile and the single family home.
At the heart of the potential transportation referendum for these suburban communities, their residents and businesses, is that they are being asked choose to fund transportation initiatives that seem, at first blush, not to support the suburban lifestyle they have chosen. By pitting transit against the car in this discussion, both the suburban and urban ways of living in the region will be undermined. The focus of the discussion has to return to preserving the natural beauty of the region, promoting food independence and water quality, and creating a range of transportation choices that supports a range of housing and employment choices, both urban and suburban.
Vancouver – leading the way in Canadian cities’ transit infrastructure expansion
VIA Architecture was recently invited by CBC-TV to provide comment on the Pembina Institute’s study of transit system in Canada’s major cities. The study highlighted that Vancouver has built the most kilometres of rapid transit over the last 3 decades. But whereas Toronto and Montreal’s 40 year old transit lines provide service within 1 kilometer of more than 30% of the population, less than 20% of Vancouver’s population has the same connectivity. Entering a Municipal election cycle where provincially controlled transportation funding is a key issue, this provided fodder for knee jerk blogging about bloated transit funding not serving the needs of the majority.
Fortunately, in conjunction with our discussions, CBC went deeper into the analysis than that. The Pembina authors had pointed out that in comparing the Cities they used the Metro Vancouver average data to match the scale of regional completeness of Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Edmonton’s civic borders. Approximately 640,000 of Metro Vancouver’s 2.4 million population live in the City of Vancouver. Using Pembina’s index of transit proximity, 54% of Vancouverites live within the rapid transit walk-shed, but less than 13% of those in the other 20 municipalities do.
Where are we heading now?
Through the joint initiative of the Mayor’s Council for metro Vancouver, TransLink has a plan for rapid transit extension that will be tested by the voters in 2015 in a funding referendum. Amongst its many provisions covering, roads bridge and bus and bike routes, most attention has been focused on Rapid Transit in Vancouver and Surrey.
In Vancouver the plan would see a SkyTrain extension of the Millennium line connect across the inner City to the Central Broadway employment and medi-tech corridor and interconnection with the north- south Canada Line.This extension is generally accepted as requiring an underground subway. With an (interim?) terminus at Arbutus it somewhat addresses the connectivity to the major transit centre of UBC to the west.
Surrey has a larger but much less developed land base, with a population that is expected to match Vancouver‘s in 30 years. Here the plan is to bring 3 LRT lines through the emerging City Centre and connect with each other and the existing SkyTrain line.
The political temptation is to dodge the bullet of large public expenditures and force a choice between the two transit strategies. To the credit of the process to date, there has been a general political acceptance that the whole Transportation funding package (including the Surrey and Vancouver rail transit) should be adopted as a whole. The sniper fighting (which will escalate for both the Civic elections in November and next year’s regional referendum) has tended to be about which form of tax to use, and thereby whose pockets will be targeted more than others.
Views from the past; views from the present
The Pembina study frames the dilemma of transportation as differently seen in mature and emerging urban contexts. In Vancouver, which had a streetcar network a century ago that reached south to Richmond and East to Burnaby, New Westminster, public transit is “Normal”, not “Special Needs”. In the expanding auto-oriented suburbs, particularly Surrey and south of the Fraser River, transit is still seen as a special need for those disadvantaged through not having access to a car.
The tipping point North of the Fraser was the Canada Line. Following the success of mobility throughout the 2010 Olympics, transit related developments have sprung up whose keynote is being “11 minutes from Downtown” etc. This connectivity works both ways, as each transit node becomes a magnet of its own for employment and recreation as well as residence.
Creating urban centres but not downtowns
South of the Fraser does not want to be Downtown Vancouver. But people do increasingly wish for urbanity, both in the array of places to hang out and enjoy food and beverage, shopping and entertainment, as well as to enhance the daily life spent moving between home and work. There is a 21st Century urbanism that needs to be established here, and one that integrates the automobile, whose passengers may turn to using transit in the future, lessening the demands on drivers to drive so much.
The problem is that the bogey man of traffic congestion is seen as caused by urban development, and too often resolution is framed in terms of speeding up traffic rather than creating places closer together than people want to spend more of their time in.
Land use planning in conjunction with transit planning
Transit is about nothing if it is not about the pedestrian and where the pedestrian wants to be. Regardless of transportation funding people should be demanding more joy in their daily lives. Some of that joy is having more time to connect with those you care about most, family, friends and colleagues, and the opportunity to move between those environments. At the top of the hierarchy would be being able to walk between one joy and another – life as a village.
Transportation is not this joy but its quality can and must be factored in to the equation. Thus transportation planning is nothing without supportive land use. The marketplace is what determines how land use works. Public leadership and investment can help, but need private investment to follow up. Surrey’s newly relocated City Hall now hopes to engender synergy that the relocation to BC Place’s Downtown Stadium did for Vancouver’s Downtown thirty years ago.
The focus of the suburbs has been on autonomy in daily life, on privacy and individual territory. It was assumed that community life would flourish around the cul-de-sac. This has turned out to not be the case. For several decades the shopping mall became the protective shell for public interaction. But the cul-de-sac and the strip mall discourage casual social encounter and thereby the social richness of our daily errands in the marketplace. The key for the suburbs is multiple urban village centres, and the foregone travel trips that their synergy reduces. Parking is the immediate world of 87% of Metro Vancouver who live outside Vancouver, and it is this world of the suburbs that we have to respect, understand, serve and collaborate to transform this parking, step by walkable step.
To attract the interest of those who live beyond the measure of typical transit accessibility, the coalescing of urbanity around urban village nodes (park once, linger longer, feel happier) is critical. It will be a challenge to secure a positive result from the transportation referendum, but the greater challenge is to frame this path forward not as car vs transit, but as demand for high quality of urban place to reward all those people arriving somewhere in their buses, trains and cars, if not by foot.
For more information:
by Dan Bertolet
It is widely established that concentrating growth near transit is a key strategy for sustainable urban development. Historically, planning for transit station areas has focused on housing rather than employment — when most people think of transit-oriented development, they picture dwellings above street-level retail.
In recent years, however, the value of planning for employment around transit has become increasingly recognized for several reasons. From a practical standpoint, jobs near transit boost ridership and help leverage transit investments. But more importantly, creating a healthy balance between employment and housing is essential for growing a complete community that maximizes opportunities for both residents and workers.
In some station areas the primary need is for new employment that builds upon the assets of the existing community and becomes a source of living-wage jobs for locals. In other cases, the main challenge is to avoid displacement of existing businesses. Industrial jobs are particularly challenging since they can conflict with residential uses, and often rely on the availability of cheap land.
Of course the catch is that there’s no easy formula for bringing high-quality jobs to desired locations. Do innovation districts just happen, or can the public sector help them along? VIA recently engaged in two employment-based planning efforts that illustrate concepts and approaches, as described below.
Seattle’s southernmost Link light-rail station is in Rainier Beach, a highly diverse, relatively low-income neighborhood. Within a quarter-mile of Rainier Beach station are a handful of small businesses, and the housing is mostly single-family. There has been no significant redevelopment near the station since the trains started running in 2009.
The city recently completed a neighborhood plan that focused on opportunities in the station area. During this process, the community consistently expressed a high priority for redevelopment that creates high-quality employment that can improve economic mobility for residents, such as low-impact production, light-industrial, food-processing, education and incubator businesses.
To address this goal on the regulatory side, the city is developing new zoning that will incentivize educational, industrial and innovative commercial uses while promoting a vibrant, sustainable and walkable urban environment. Proposed zoning includes floor area or height bonuses for projects with the employment uses noted above, first-floor minimum height requirements for flexible accommodation of commercial uses and special allowances for loading.
With easy access to the industrial corridor that extends south from the Duwamish, Interstate 5, Sea-Tac Airport and downtown Seattle via light rail, as well as relatively low land costs, Rainier Beach is well situated for many types of innovative business pursuits. However, stakeholders also recognized the need to start with a specific sector that could leverage existing community assets for competitive advantage over surrounding areas, and the idea of a food innovation district rose to the top.
Rainier Beach is home to Seattle’s largest urban farm, and its diverse population provides a wealth of ethnic food knowledge. These assets provide a unique opportunity to leverage its light-industrial zone to become a hub of food and agricultural production, combining educational and training facilities with processing and distribution.
To catalyze the growth of a food innovation district, the planning team proposed an opportunity center for food education and entrepreneurship. This facility would combine commercial and training kitchen facilities, classroom space, office space, meeting areas, computer lab and community gathering space.
The city convened a workshop to gather input from potential partners and users of such a facility, including Seattle Tilth, the Emergency Feeding Program, Rainier Valley Food Bank, Project Feast and Fare Start, as well as the Seattle community colleges, Renton Technical College and Bainbridge Graduate Institute.
Input from the workshop led to a prototype building design. Unfortunately, the Rainier Beach station area lacks any existing building stock suitable to be adapted for the center, so new construction will be required. The next steps to implementing the center involve establishing partners, developing a business plan and space programming, securing a site and financing, construction, and lastly, operating the facility.
The Portland-Milwaukie light-rail extension, due to open in 2015, will have two stations in Southeast Portland’s Central Eastside, one of the city’s most important and dynamic industrial and employment centers. To address this unique environment, the city and its consultant team have been developing a new model for station area planning known as employment transit-oriented development, or ETOD.
The overall goal of the city’s ETOD approach is to strategically intensify and diversify the range of commercial uses on industrial lands, with the primary intent of increasing jobs, but also to leverage transit investments. At the same time, the city is intent on controlling land speculation, since high costs tend to push out many of the desired businesses. While there is already streetcar service in the Central Eastside, it is not another Pearl District, nor does the city want it to be.
A key strategy will be to reduce conflicts between the Central Eastside’s long-established businesses such as lumber and mill works, a dairy, and boat repair, while also welcoming an increasing number of new small, nimble technology and production companies that value a close-in location. These “makers” are seen as an important next generation of commercial enterprise whose employees are likely to bike commute and patronize the small-scale restaurants, bars and lunch spots that have begun to populate the area.
Another important piece of the ETOD puzzle is an intensification of land use in buildings that blend industrial and production uses on the ground floor with flexible office spaces on multiple floors above. The goal is buildings that can provide a delicate balance between a diversity of new businesses, and an industrial core of users that rely on lower land values to stay in business.
This configuration is already beginning to emerge in the Central Eastside, and one of the best examples is the newly constructed Pitman Building, with 11,000 square feet of space for six production kitchens on the first floor and 3,000 square feet of office space on the second floor. The area’s supply of historic buildings is also an asset, as exemplified in the recently renovated Ford Building, a former Model T assembly plant that now houses office, retail, artist studios, and a variety of small, creative businesses.
The role of partnerships
Lastly, partnerships between large institutions and the private sector are an essential ingredient for catalyzing true innovation districts. With the goal of creating an environment suitable for 21st century industry and providing meaningful occupation, many cities are establishing collaborations with universities that have a technical research and innovation focus.
For example, New York City has established a collaboration called Cornell NYC Tech, with Cornell, Teknion (an Israeli technical university) and Google. In Portland, there is a huge opportunity to tap into the synergies between the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland State University, the burgeoning “makers” industry, and/or a corporate giant such as Nike.
The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry owns significant riverfront property adjacent to future light rail, and has great potential to leverage its location at a regional transit gateway and bring culture and complementary employment to the Central Eastside. In this case, the most advantageous outcome may be a new large tenant that would both benefit from and contribute to new synergies with existing business clusters.
Note: This post originally appeared in the Daily Journal of Commerce.
By Brendan Hurley
VIA Architecture is proud to have participated in the City of Surrey’s 2014 PARKit Design Challenge. A team of VIA designers presented ‘PalleTopia’, a design to use stacked reusable pallets as modules to create a playful and multi-functional space right next to the entrance of Surrey Central Station. This endeavour was part of a public call for the design and installation of a $15,000 summer season pop-up park. PalleTopia, designed by Zhaleh Moulaei, Sophie Steer and Brendan Hurley was granted Honourable Mention amongst all of the submissions received by the City. Exercises carried out within the VIA Office in Vancouver helped develop a vision for the mini-parkit as a simultaneous node, stage and gateway to create a place that comfortably and elegantly connects the people of Surrey with their urban centre and to each other.
This spring’s opening of Surrey’s new City Hall right next to rapid transit marks a turning point for the City’s transformation from suburb to city. It is now centred with a transit connected central business district and civic heart for its 500,000+ residents. The area around Surrey Central Station now becomes a central node in a new and future axis of the City’s core. It is a crossroads of moving people (through transit), moving commerce (with a renovated retail mall) and moving minds (with the Simon Fraser University campus and recently built public library). Yet, this site has great potential to allow people to connect in a more meaningful way. The ParkIt under the guideway of the SkyTrain will help making a more visually special place that clearly stitches the elements of the Central City.
For this year’s challenge, the VIA Team’s goals in these design elements was to enhance the power of this place to facilitate connective community in Surrey’s core and to make this place special for visitors and passers-by alike. Our design presented a porous space made with stacked pallet modules. Dubbed ‘PalleTopia’, the pixelated modules rise, fall and disappear to create a plethora of social spaces, resting places and passageways. Shipping pallets were chosen as the base material to reduce environmental impacts and costs, and their design was specifically tailored so it would maximize the reusability of the pallets when they were returned to industrial circulation. A smooth wood surface would provide comfortable seating and staging on top of these more industrial wooden bases. The stacks rise to a crescendo on the northwest corner to, not only, act as a buffer and refuge from the transit centre’s noisy bus loop, but also to create a vibrantly coloured visual signifier to mark entrance into a special space.
The VIA team salutes the many other participants of this challenge, who, by contributing to this site with their creativity and ideas, have increased the likelihood of this central place to coalesce into something greater than the sum of its parts… a brighter more connective new urban core for Surrey. The top honours go to ‘Gingham Style’, a submission by Liz Nguyen and Mike Wartman that evokes and was inspired by the archetypal gingham checker-pattern of a picnic blanket. Congratulations all for your efforts and thinking on this space and we hope to join you in enjoying and celebrating this renewed urban space as it continues to evolve and develop.
There’s a new type of space coming to Seattle – it’s tiny, but packed within its small stature are all kinds of good qualities. Residents are reclaiming the public right-of-way (i.e. roadway), traditionally taken-up by parked cars, for open and green space. It’s called a parklet and like the name suggests, the easiest way to describe them is as “mini open space.” And yet that term just doesn’t quite capture the breadth and beauty of these little spaces because they’re so much more than a plaza or patch of green space. Read the full article on CapitolHillSeattle.com by clicking here If you want to learn more about Seattle’s pilot program or get involved in one of the 13 parklets already being planned, consider checking out SDOT’s project website. And remember, these little parklets are being funded completely by our communities, businesses, and neighborhood organizations so if you’re short on time but still want to support the mission of these little gems, you can always help by donating! If you’d like to contribute to the 25th & Union Parklet, you can do so at this parklet’s online Crowdrise campaign.
On Sunday May 4th, planners and architects from VIA kicked off the 2014 Jane’s Walk with a twist: our “walk” included transit, which is an integral part of the history and future of development in Vancouver. Our 2.5-hour-long urban exploration covered more than 44 km (27.5 mi) of Vancouver’s urban development context and history by including a ride on the SkyTrain.
The intent of the Jane’s Walk is to celebrate the life and works of urban thinker and activist Jane Jacobs by presenting free community tours that examine elements of what makes a city work. Our tour focused on building and enhancing walkable, connected communities by viewing transit as an extension of being a pedestrian. It revolved around the past, present, and future of transit-defined visions of the Vancouver region and its neighbourhoods.
An Ongoing Tradition of Rapid Transit
The tour covered a lot of ground AND track, but followed the historic path of transit in Vancouver. We started on the Expo Line, the oldest line of the SkyTrain rapid transit system, where portions of it followed the path of the Central Park Interurban Line that ran from 1890 until the 1950s, connecting downtown Vancouver with New Westminster. In some places, evidence of the system of 120 years ago is still exposed below the pillars of SkyTrain. The modern system is a dream of a region-connecting “people mover”—part of the legacy of the 1986 World Exposition.
As a group, we discussed that there was an intentional experiment in common sense when the Vancouver region developed a plan to intensify “town centres” around stations in the 1970s. With the construction of the Evergreen Line and the completion of the Canada Line, we are now reaching a vision of a fully connected network, however there are emerging challenges. Updating and maintaining the Expo Line as it approaches its 30-year mark while keeping it running is one of these challenges, currently addressed by projects including the VIA-led Main Street and Metrotown Station upgrades.
A Continuum of Transit Development
The impacts of thoughtful and integrated design have shaped neighbourhoods and the activity of the City as a whole. Our walk yielded a lot of conversation about the changing nature of transit-oriented development. Transit infrastructure has created new ways of experiencing and building the City, which planners and builders have adapted to. Developments are now doing their best to be incorporated into the station areas and the system itself—a tight integration of buildings, people, and activity. For example, at New Westminster Station, housing towers and retail spaces share the land and rights of way with the rail transit, allowing people to move, live, shop, eat, and play in the same place. The mall at Brentwood Town Centre is undergoing renovation to re-orient its retail layout as urban fabric and development to focus on the station and place itself as a powerful core for its neighbourhood.
The expansion of transit in the Vancouver region has strong roots and aspirations. The network is a result of visions that were produced because of a change in ideas about how the City worked: a region that revolted against freeways and grasped a future that connected and moved people through an ever-improving and expanding network. It is a system where transit has been a tool to integrate the lives and reach of the pedestrian. It is a pump to inject characters onto the stage of what Jane Jacobs called the “sidewalk ballet.” A ballet where we hope to find ourselves and our future on the walk home from the train.
As part of Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day, VIA opened the office to young people ages 8 to 18 who wanted to learn more about architecture and planning.
Director Catherine Calvert, who participated with 14-year-old relative, Meegan, said, “Today provided not only a great opportunity to share our profession with a curious young person, but it also allowed all of us to think back to our fascinations at that age and remember why we were drawn to the idea of becoming architects. Almost everyone we spoke with said that they ‘just knew’ that they wanted to be a designer from a young age, and sought every possible opportunity to build, to draw, and to create. Meegan was able to see and hear about many of VIA’s projects currently ‘on the boards,’ and learned about the profession from a variety of people at different stages of their careers. I look forward to further conversations with Meegan about what she learned today, how she can feed her creative spirit, and how she can prepare herself for her own eventual career.”
More than 37 million youth and adults participate in Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day at over 3.5 million workplaces each year, and the program has been in place for 21 years. The theme for 2014 was “Plant a Seed, Grow a Future.”
At the start of 2014, the sharp criticisms of one state agency against another made California planning headlines. The State Smart Transportation Committee (SSTI), in a report to the legislature, called out Caltrans as “archaic,” incapable of adapting to a changing transportation environment, and lacking resources needed to lead in the modern, post-Interstate building era. The report enumerated the problem with a Caltrans which is at direct odds with other statewide agendas to promote smart growth, sustainability, and reduced GHG emissions through SB 375. A culture change is in order.
Taking the report at face value and diving into the wake it opened up, Caltrans’ Director, Malcolm Dougherty, together with the Leadership of Transportation Secretary, Brian Kelly, is leading a swift response. A new mission statement published in February redirects the agency from that of “master builder” of roads and highways to an emphasis on its role as a partner within the context of an integrated and mature transportation system. The intention is to allow for better collaboration with “self-help” counties who bring a large share of local dollars to the table for infrastructure projects, as well as a major policy realignment toward all forms of transport, that brings the department up to date. In the end, perhaps it might look more like San Francisco’s SFMTA Department of Sustainable Streets, as statewide Complete Streets in chief.
Dougherty’s comments given Tuesday at UC Berkeley, that “land use matters,” reflect the inner struggle of an agency now looking to apply better understanding of context. One of the recommended early steps in the SSTI report is the full implementation of the 2010 Smart Mobility Framework – a plan to better link transportation design with existing community patterns, using performance criteria and a “place type” framework (such as main streets, downtowns, or office campus) to guide decision making. Another initiative underway is to transfer multi-modal and bike/ped projects away from their former status as “special projects” requiring expensive design exceptions, toward their own set of design standards and procedures. To this end, just last week Caltrans adopted NACTO’s best practice Urban Street Design Guide and Urban Bikeway Design Guidelines as a ready-to-go alternative for metropolitan areas. (Caltrans is the third to adopt the standards, after Washington DOT).
For those of us working in urban sustainability, it is all good news, and changes can’t come fast enough. One last big planning policy shift is on the horizon: Caltrans, in collaboration with the CA Office of Planning and Research, must also coordinate on rule-making to implement the 2013 passage of SB 743. This bill removes auto “level of service” as a criteria for CEQA analysis in infill areas. In the most simple terms, SB 743 shifts the public concern in an environmental review from vehicular “delay” to thinking instead about performance, i.e. the overall number of trips a project might create, with an accounting for which mode it best supports (e.g. car, bike, transit or walking). Still, the measures are undefined; we are all looking forward to seeing how it comes out this year in July.
Graham McGarva, Founding Principal of VIA Architecture, will be speaking at Cascadia Cities: Then + Now which is presented in conjunction with the Urban Land Institute’s The Cascadia Experience: Behind the Emerald Curtain event, exploring the unique market drivers that shape the cities of Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver. The lunch program takes place Tuesday, 08 April 2014, from 12:30 – 2 pm at the Grand Hyatt in Seattle, WA.
Graham will be presenting the Vancouver perspective, alongside a panel that includes former Mayor of Seattle Norm Rice, and Scott Andrews of Melvin Mark in Portland. His presentation will include a recount of the history of Vancouver, the successes it has seen along the way—including the advent of the pencil tower, the planning and development of the False Creek area, and growth of regional transit—as well as current issues, and what the city faces in the future.
The program will cover how the geographic, cultural, economic, and environmental elements of the Pacific Northwest region of the United States and Canada have yielded unique communities. For more information visit http://northwest.uli.org/event/cascadia-cities-then-now-seattle/
VIA is thrilled to bring our practice in planning, architecture, and transit systems design to the Bay Area. For 30 years, we have focused on creating sustainable communities, with a collaborative approach that yields meaningful solutions.
We are also pleased to announce the hire of director Jeff Stahl, AIA, who brings more than 25 years of experience, focused on transportation, commercial, housing/mixed-use, and academic projects in Northern California. Jeff joins director Kate Howe, AICP to manage our Bay Area team.
Our new office is located at 525 Brannan Street, Suite 406 in San Francisco. We look forward to bringing our passion for connected communities to California.
Help Build a Mobile Parklet!
To celebrate VIA’s office on the move, we are contributing to Out of Site Youth Arts Center’s Mobile Parklet!
Please join us today in making a donation on Crowdrise to ensure tools get into the hands of high-schoolers for a spring break devoted to community building.