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March 27th DVA Amenity Forum: “What Do You Expect?”

Apr 05, 2012

By Graham McGarva, Founding Principal, VIA Architecture

Three key statements from the DVA Forum held on March 27th on Vancouver’s Affordability/Amenity dilemma illustrated the paradoxical nature of the competing forces that must be resolved to maintain any equilibrium in Vancouver’s expectation of livability. Such as:

  • We need more older homes
  • Transit is not about transit, it is about childcare
  • Where is Vancouver?

With the focus of the Forum being “Realities”, a key issue was raised as to whether we have the will to “Rewrite the Amenity Contract.”  Our urban development system has been based on the premise that growth pays for new or expanded amenities, and that property taxes for existing residents are kept as low as possible.  User pay is increasingly an element in programs such as at community centres, in which participation can be seen as discretionary.  However, two essential amenities are vulnerable to dysfunction through the expectation of low property taxes: mass transportation and child care.  Sufficient and affordable child care is essential for a liveable city.  This includes neighbourhood parks and playgrounds, kindergarten, pre-school and after school, in addition to formal elementary and secondary education.  The private car, with its $600 per month average cost, is beginning to recede as the default transportation option, particularly among younger families.  So, mobility access via bus and rapid transit for work, home, and child care, and location of this trinity within immediate reach of the frequent transit network becomes the essential amenity.

Downtown Vancouver has amazed everyone with the number of children clamouring to register for grades one through three at Elsie Roy Elementary in False Creek/Yaletown.  A second Downtown Elementary school at International Village is at the top of the School Board’s priority list for capital funding (the site has already been turned over to the City by the land developer).

However, day care centres are still too thin on the ground, and many young families leave downtown solely for that reason.  Another reason that draws families out of downtown is that by about grade four, the amenity-rich environment for young kids is no longer supportive of the needs of children, neither in terms of out of school programs nor places to assert their growing independence ( itself a topic of broader societal debate).  The omnipresent issues of compressed space in most apartments become larger issues in the lack of supportive amenity to grow up outside the home.  In fact the West End, with its stock of larger, older apartments as well as a High School provides a more supportive child-raising environment.  This data is now being seen in school enrolments and real estate transactions.

A model is emerging whereby Downtown living becomes a time rather than a place.  The expectation has changed over a couple of decades whereby urban amenities activities are what are desired in greater and greater proportion.  Accordingly, the development in the urban nodes of suburbia is increasingly rising in expectation, while the lower land price pressure on the new housing stock improves the raw cost component of housing affordability. The two other axes of the amenity trinity need policies and regulations that address the realities of the present 21st Century amenity dilemma, as opposed the set of expectations that drove the closing decades of the last century.

Other icebergs, whose tips were only briefly touched upon, included the importance of the arts, formal and informal, in urban culture, and that “retirees are not all about health care.”

In addition to the discussion, many of the fifty participants in the forum, gave written ‘snapshots’ commenting on the specifics of affordability and amenity dilemmas that they live with.  All of this material will be carried forward to the second DVA forum at BCIT Downtown Campus on Tuesday April 24th from 7:30-9:00am, where the question of priorities will be explored.

Participants on April 24th from 7:30am to 9:00am:

Panelists:

  • Jennifer Podmore Russell, Deloitte and Touche
  • Gordon Price, SFU City Program
  • Geoff Meggs, Vancouver City Councillor

Moderator:

  • Graham McGarva, VIA Architecture, DVA Vice President