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by Kate Howe, urban planner for VIA Architecture

As planners and designers of award-winning projects like South East False Creek in Vancouver, we’re always interested in innovative development approaches that lead to financially viable sustainable neighborhoods. One such project currently in development is Dockside Green in Victoria, BC.

This project is comprised of light industrial and mixed uses along the waterfront, with commercial, residential and open space tied to a walkable neighborhood. At full build-out, Dockside will have 2,500 people in three neighborhoods and 26 buildings totaling 1.3 million square feet.

What is most interesting about DockSide Green is not just its green building and urban design, but that it is financed and 100% owned by Canada’s largest Credit Union, VanCity – which donates 30% of its profits towards community development. For an America bedraggled by our Wall Street bail outs, and besotted with financial institutions who seem to be competing for most out-of-touch, this idea seems simply radical.

The project is still in its first phases, but according to the developer (Joe Van Belleghem, also the head of the Canadian Green Building Council and Windmill West development) overall costs were just ONE percent more than a traditional development. And yet, each of its 26 buildings will achieve LEED Platinum….how is this possible?

Well, when the numbers are added up, it becomes clear that sustainability makes business sense. Windmill West uses what they call a “holistic costing method” combined with integrated site and building design. The commercial and residential buildings share energy costs efficiently with a biomass gasification plant (developed by local company, Nexterra). Green stormwater infrastructure and low water use applications lessened the need to build expensive sewage treatment systems. They also save money by building less parking infrastructure. And much of the parking they have created is shared through programs such as a Smart Car Co-op. The product itself – both living and working spaces – will save buyers money over the long term through lower heating bills, not to mention the many other benefits from going LEED Platinum: better public health through walking, clean air and access to open space.

For all the amenities built into the project, buyers still needed to be educated about the long term savings from going green. According to Van Bellengham:

“What we’ve tried to train our people [to do] is to really make sure the customer knows what they’re getting. Because if you’re saving a lot of energy and water and sewage and you start to look over time how much that will save you over a 20-year period, it’s phenomenal how many dollars you’re saving. Nobody thinks of that.”

When put that way, maybe people do care about green building. As of this writing, about 95 percent of the first phase of Synergy’s residential units are sold or leased.

Why, in other locations, is it so difficult to convince corporate financial institutions that sustainability is really the only way to design?- And how do we start to build a long term green financing model?

Monday News Roundup

Apr 26, 2010

Every Monday, we post links to articles and blogs that you may have missed from last week. Enjoy!
 
America’s least wasteful cities (GOOD)
Apparently, the water bottle makers at Nalgene also produce (or simply commission) a pretty good survey of which cities are the least wasteful.

Bring on the Bikes! (Infrastructurist)
Cycling Rises 28% in New York City

Should we plan transit for bikeability?  (Human Transit)
As cycling becomes more and more popular, how should transit planning respond?

Project — Help us create Neighbor Day (GOOD)
Admit it: Your neighborhood isn’t like Mister Rogers’s. You don’t know the name of your postal carrier or beat cop, or even the person who lives next door. But why shouldn’t you? These people who occupy the orbit of your house have the potential to turn an otherwise dull domestic existence into the rich experience we used to know as community.

British Pavilion; Chelsea Barracks  (Guardian)
‘Outstandingly memorable’ … Thomas Heatherwick’s design at Shanghai Expo

Sson 028  (Cool Hunting)
A new minimal fixed gear from Stockholm, complete with a travel-friendly bike crate

Recruiting kids for Greenmyparents  (Oregon Live)
Greenmyparents wants to build an army of green kids, lauching on Earth Day

Share your yard (GOOD)
A list of all of the potential benefits when you share your yard with neighbors

Green tracks — spot the wires  (The Overhead Wire)
It’s called, spot the wires. Sure are ruining this nature scene for everyone!

by Catherine Calvert, VIA’s Director of Community Architecture

I’m starting to get an uneasy feeling. It’s not a new feeling, but one that’s been nagging at me for some time, and has only been heightened since the basic failure of anything substantial to be accomplished at the climate talks in Copenhagen back in December. 

As a part of a firm that spends a lot of time practicing and thinking about sustainable design, it’s been easy to feel that our good work will make a difference toward efforts to change the course of our planet’s climatic transformation. To quote the US Green Building Council, “As the built environment accounts for 40 percent of global carbon emissions, the green building movement has an unprecedented opportunity to make a major contribution to new global carbon reduction targets. [We need to] understand how we can work together to show that green building represents one of the most direct, immediate and cost-effective opportunities to help tackle climate change.”

But it’s not enough. Bill McDonough was so correct in his 2002 groundbreaking book Cradle to Cradle, when he said “being less bad is no good.” Making slightly better choices under the banner of green building only has the potential to slow down the pace at which our climate is changing, but is highly unlikely to prevent it.

It’s kind of ironic that people refer to “destruction of the planet” as the result of our untamed use of energy and resources to feed our voracious consumption habit. Let’s be clear about one thing: the planet will be fine. The planet has been around for 4.5 billion years and has assembled and disassembled its continental masses, submerged itself in oceans before belching up new mountain ranges, covered itself in ice sheets for 4 or 5 times, created habitat for all kinds of species imaginable, then got tired of each of those and nurtured something new.

The planet is really good at rearranging its furniture and maybe even enjoys the process. It’s all of us who live here, humans and animals and plants, who are in trouble. In a hundred or a thousand years, it’s likely that the planet will just be thoroughly fed up, and we won’t be welcome here any more.

In recent weeks, I’ve started to think about what it really will mean to anticipate climate change while we’re waiting for extinction. Sustainable design is good, but we need to make a fundamental shift to adaptive design. Real changes will affect the ways that humans will have to adapt our lifestyles and our buildings in order to survive. A recent article in GreenSource has an excellent summary of some of the building design strategies that we can use now in order to prepare for the future:

  • Incorporate passive survivability into buildings by designing buildings that will maintain livable conditions in the event of power outages.
  • Raise the cooling design temperature when modeling buildings and sizing mechanical equipment.
  • Reduce solar gain and therefore reliance on mechanical cooling mechanisms.
  • Design buildings for storm resistance.
  • Build on higher ground to resist flood damage.
  • Increase stormwater capacity using strategies such as constructed wetlands rather than elaborate civil works.
  • Specify materials that can survive wetting and resist mold growth.
  • Avoid development in the driest areas.
  • Plumb buildings for graywater separation.
  • Plant drought-resistant native plants.
  • Avoid development in fire-prone areas, which are expanding.
  • Follow fire-safe design and construction practices.

To GreenSource’s list I would add the following in terms of lifestyle:

  • Grow your own food if possible, or buy from farmers in your community
  • Nurture compact communities that reduce the need to travel long distances to meet basic needs
  • Treat resources as precious – water, energy, raw materials
  • Get creative in making things for yourself – food, clothing, shelter
  • Conserve the embodied energy in things we already have
  • Generate your own power if feasible, or live in an area where locally produced district energy is available
  • Unplug yourself from consumerism

It’s certainly possible that those who dispute the idea of global warming might be correct, but then again they might not be. If these strategies could help us survive just a little longer, then why not adopt them?

Monday News Roundup

Apr 19, 2010

Every Monday, we post links to articles and blogs that you may have missed from last week. Enjoy!
 
10 Weirdest Urban Ecosystems On Earth (io9)
Cities are havens for weirdness. From communities built around garbage to dogs that ride the subway, urban environments have fostered all manner of weird patterns. Here are the 10 freakiest urban ecosystems on the planet.

Planning a Post-Carbon World (Terrain.org)
Interesting article on sustainability planning for North Vancouver by Patrick Condon

It Isn’t Easy Building Green (NYTimes)
Michelle Kaufmann on the rise and fall of her green pre-fab housing business – and the future of environmentally responsible housing.

Saving shrinking cities in Germany (GOOD)
Parts of former East Germany have been shrinking, Detroit-style, for many years now. And consequently, Germany has a jump on the States in figuring out how to adjust when a city naturally needs to downsize.

Vancouver’s 1975 Transit Plan (Regarding Place)
In 1975, the Bureau of Transit Services prepared a transit service plan for downtown Vancouver. Now that 35 years have passed, it’s time to look at what actually got built.

Tri-Met in motion (The Overhead Wire)
This is a really cool simulation of bus and train movements in Portland from the Walk Score Page

Light Form: Gorgeous Wood Wall Panels Flip Up to Reveal Light(Inhabitat)

The Perfect Neighborhood  (GOOD)
What makes a model neighborhood? GOOD Magazine devotes an issue to the topic, beginning with a list of traits that make a neighborhood great.

Cool Website: Sustainable Cities 
“Provides knowledge on sustainable urban planning and best practice cases from cities all over the world.

by Matt Roewe, aka Dr. Density, aka VIA’s Director of Mixed Use + Major Projects

 Capitol Hill Housing sponsored a spirited panel discussion April 14th on what to do with land above and around the new Capitol Hill underground light rail station. The residual lands around the station are the result of a massive excavation to build a concrete station box 65’ underground which also connects to the surface with three head house entrances. The result is the demolition of one and half city blocks in the most authentic, fine grained and densely populated urban neighborhoods in the northwest. As one can imagine, in the heart of Seattle’s most bohemic community, all eyes are focused on the development potential here and how it will fit aesthetically, culturally, socially and ecologically.

150 people attended this event which was held in The Erickson Black Box Theater on Harvard Avenue. I was asked to be a panel member along with several other well known civic and community leaders:

  • Dow Constantine, King County Executive, Sound Transit Board Member
  • Cathy Hillenbrand, Co-Chair, Capitol Hill TOD Champions
  • Grace Kim, Architect, Schemata Workshop
  • Michael Malone, Developer, founder, Hunters Capital
  • Alex Steffens, Author, founder and executive editor, worldchanging.com

An extensive series of public meetings has been ongoing for about three years, including design charrettes, Sound Transit briefings, and city sponsored station area planning. A long list of aspirations and expectations have been developed by the stakeholders including a “woonerf” type lane (in the alley) to host a weekly farmers market, a community center, affordable housing, wider sidewalks, subsidized small/local retailers, public plazas, arts facilities and more. The stakeholders want the developer to pay for all of this.

Sound Transit will need to sell the properties prior to the 2016 station opening. They plan on issuing a request for proposal to development teams, which means those teams would have to offer money, as well as basic design concepts to win the right to develop the project. What is unknown is how many strings will be attached to the sale, such as providing some of the desired community amenities.

County Council Executive Dow Constantine is a voting member of Sound Transit’s board. He noted that laws and funding requirements for the project require the residual land be sold at fair market value, so they can’t reduce the price to enable the public benefit features. However, the City may be able to help out by entitling the project with greater capacity or height with incentives.

Much of the panel discussion was centered around the public amenities and uses at street level. Everyone agreed that the project must be exemplary in quality, as a green sustainable project and as a context-responsive solution. The panel disagreed on the scale of individual parcels. Developer Mike Malone suggested that the larger parcel be divided up into 5,000 SF lots that would incrementally be built in the manner of the rest of Broadway. Grace Kim argued that that was unrealistic as the economics of each parcel having stairs/elevators/utility meters/parking would be extremely inefficient.

Another part of the discussion centered around the massing and height limits which are 65’ along Broadway and 40’ along 10th Avenue. Recent developments along Broadway were a concern as a monotony of “bread loaf” buildings may be the result. Portland’s Pearl District prototypes were sourced as good precedents, which include historic preservation, midrise and high-rise building forms, with generous block-wide open spaces and pocket parks.

In my alter ego as Dr. Density, my approach was to swing for the fence and boldly propose that a stellar, 200’ or taller iconic residential tower be place on this site as a graceful and stunning beacon of light signifying this new nexus location. I framed this as just one lone skinny tower with a 30’ to 40’ tall podium at the base. One of the benefits of this approach would be the added value of a high end tower with more capacity traded for building public amenities desired by the neighborhood. By doubling the value or more, some portion of the profit could be directed by the private sector to help fund the public plaza, community center, subsidized local retail, wider sidewalks and of course, affordable housing. That will be an interesting equation that won’t fund everything, but will certainly help justify the upzone.

Instead of throwing stones and shooting arrows, the majority of the audience surprisingly loved the iconic tower idea. Even the panelists liked it, after initially not thinking it was the direction to go. Thus, the most vibrant and engaged community in the region may boldly support a responsible and well crafted development that is catalyzed by a significant tower that breaks all the zoning rules. Maybe we need a radical process to envision a solution that fully meets the community’s aspirations.

To watch video of the panel, click here.

Monday News Roundup

Apr 12, 2010

Every Monday, we post links to articles and blogs that you may have missed from last week. Enjoy!

Architectural Activism (Archinect)
Campaign to save Kreuzberg Tower gets results!

City gardening policy in action (Vancouver Courier)
I recommend chard.

Green and Affordable Homes, Out of the Box (The Tyee)
The first of a three part report on everyone’s favourite ironic mashup of globalism and affordable housing: the shipping container.

Slideshow: Solar power, shaped up (MIT)
3-D shapes covered in solar cells could produce more power than flat panels, MIT researchers find.

Bonn to Cancun (Grist)
Negotiators agree to continue efforts on international global warming

China Is Eager to Bring High-Speed Rail Expertise to the U.S. (NY Times) 
Nearly 150 years after American railroads brought in thousands of Chinese laborers to build rail lines across the West, China is poised once again to play a role in American rail construction. 

Different Projects to check out  (Icon Magazine)

Being a Bright Neighbor (Good) 
Could the threat of a peaking oil supply lead to a hyperlocal revolution? A group of Portlanders thinks so.

Cycling city leaders (Seattle PI) 
More and more officials opt for two wheels over four

Notes from Seattle’s Carbon Neutral Unconference (World Changing)
Carbon neutrality is a simple idea with complicated details: it’s hard to define and far-reaching in its implications.

USA=New Hampshire (GOOD) 
There are about 300 Million people in the US, spread out over 3,794,101 sq miles — but what if we wanted to all fit into one state comfortably, what state would we all fit into?

guest post by Jake Tobin Garrett (Beyond Robson)

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from VIA Architecture’s post-Olympic discussion. Like many in the city, I have reached an Olympic saturation point—meaning that discussion, debate, and musing on the Olympics seems to be all I have been doing. Basically: I’m full. But with the Olympics being such a huge event that took years of planning and practically held the city hostage (physically and mentally) for months, it’s kind of difficult to let it slip past.

VIA brought together an interesting and complimentary set of speakers, three of whom spoke from a professional background, and one of whom, a torchbearer, spoke from a more personal background. On the professional side, there was Matthew Roddis, an urban designer with the City of Vancouver; Matt Craig, senior transportation planner and Olympic transportation at TransLink; and Annette O’Shea, the executive director of the Yaletown Business Improvement Association (BIA). On the personal side, was torchbearer Mark Hoag, an accountant who landed the position through a lottery system prior to the games.

I was most interested to hear what Matthew Roddis and Matt Craig had to say, as the planning that both the city and TransLink went through before the Olympics seems to me a monstrous task that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies. The pressure to design and facilitate a smoothly run performance in their respective fields was, I’m sure, immense and complex.

Mr. Roddis spoke mostly of how the city performed during the Olympics, as opposed to the planning leading up to the event. As he pointed out, the city shone its brightest during those 17 days. I was surprised to walk (shuffle?) along Granville to Robson Square and see the place teeming with people, lights, and music. The city rarely comes out like it did during those days, and I hope that some of that activity carries on into the future as it makes the downtown core a more lively place.

Mr. Roddis also brought up Vancouver’s lack of a real central public gathering spot. Robson Square, although recently revamped, has proved over the years insufficient as a real collective spot—probably because it is mainly underground, or hidden from street view. Mr. Roddis asked a question that I wondered about frequently over the years: Is Vancouver a city that lives around its edges—mainly the beaches and seawall?

I would have definitely said yes before the Olympics, but, as Mr. Roddis also said, the Olympic activity showed that Vancouverites have a real longing for a core area, a central spot in the city to gather and celebrate. Is it possible that the Olympics introduced the centre of the city as the place to be for many people? As the slogan for Robson Square put it: You gotta be here. Can this sustain afterwards?

Mr. Craig spoke of TransLink’s push to reduce vehicle traffic into the downtown core by 30%, a number that, while in the lead up to the games looked impossible, was reported to have been achieved. Although the system was in its highest use ever, I never had to wait too long for a train or a bus, and the apocalyptic traffic jams that were prophesied never came to pass. I rode my bike most days into the downtown core from Commercial Drive and enjoyed smooth sailing along the cleared Olympic Lanes on Broadway that gave priority to buses, bikes and Olympic vehicles.

Mr. Craig outlined how TransLink worked with many businesses in the downtown area on how they could reduce traffic by arranging carpooling for their employees, pointing out that just two people sharing a car to work cuts that vehicle use by 50%. Most interestingly was TransLink’s development of a flexible system of transit; this I believe was the biggest feat of Olympic transportation and one of the main reasons why it ran so smoothly. TransLink didn’t release “Olympic schedules” but instead monitored routes closely and added buses or trains when they were needed, rather than when they were scheduled. As he said, most people want their bus or train to be there when they need it, not necessarily when it is scheduled.

There were times when the station I use, Broadway and Commercial, was filled with people, and yet a train had just left, one was already pulling up, and I could see another behind it. It proved TransLink had the ability to provide for higher capacity use—something that I’m sure more people crammed onto trains at rush hour the rest of the year would like to see outside of the Olympics.

Annette O’Shea spoke at length of the Yaletown BIA’s drive and push to create Yaletown as a destination for Olympic activity, rather than simply a conduit from one event to another. They provided hundreds of free acts of entertainment, kept the streets clean of garbage, lobbied for new lighting (which they got), as well as encouraged the many, often out of reach pricewise, restaurants of Yaletown to provide economical street food. I was mostly impressed with the planning and dedication of the BIA, as I assumed that much of the things I saw in Yaletown during the Olympics were planned by the city. As Ms. O’Shea pointed out, it is events and planning like this that will help Vancouver shed its moniker of no fun city.

Graham McGarva, a Founding Principal of VIA holding the torch

Finally, Mark Hoag spoke about his experience as a torchbearer—something I was already a bit familiar with since a friend of mine (a former UBC hockey player) also ran with the torch. He related his feelings of exuberance, pride and historical connection, while carrying the most famous flame in the world. While I myself feel no real bond with the Olympic flame (I did see it go by my house from my living room window), I can understand the immense feeling associated with taking part in an event that links with so many other nations and time periods.

What was conspicuously absent from the discussion, however, was any mention of anti-Olympic protestors and their concerns, or any planning decisions that related to these. The only mention of this was by Ms. O’Shea when she mentioned they had volunteers out there removing anti-Olympic signs and graffiti from Yaletown. Anti-Olympic and poverty activists were quite visible in the run-up and during the Olympics and so I would have enjoyed hearing a bit more about how these alternate views and concerns were addressed in the planning process.

Place + Placelessness

Apr 02, 2010

by Kate Howe, Urban Planner for VIA Architecture

We planners like to use the term sense of place as shorthand. “Place-making” is an everyday verb where I work. But it’s really a complex term, and what does “place” really mean anyways!? I thought I would write some thoughts on it to help me approach our new planning project work on Seattle’s East Side.

The term, “a sense of place” evolved from the work of Canadian geographer Edward Relph in his classic phenomenological study Place and Placelessness. The book, written in the post modern mid-seventies, explores the value that local human behavior, practice, and lived experience have on the formation of our built environment.

Relph wrote that a “sense of place” has to do with the interchange between three essentials — location, landscape, and personal involvement; but that each by itself is insufficient. He recognized that how we design our communities is more than all else, a battle of identity. And place shapes who we are and what we will become.

For example, Seattle as a geographically bounded “place” relies on any number of historic events that defined interaction with our unique ecology: the Ballard locks and fisherman’s terminal, the cherry trees on Lake Washington Blvd, craftsman houses, or the relentless march of our rectilinear grid from the shoreline to the hills. Relph wrote that a “sense of place” has to do with the interchange between three essentials—location, landscape, and personal involvement; but that each by itself is insufficient. He recognized that how we design our communities is more than all else, a battle of identity. And place shapes who we are and what we will become.

As practicing architects and urban planners, we are asked to craft our designs in recognition -even reverence- to this intangible, but also very real “sense of place.” But often enough, particularly outside of the well-defined community, the primary goal seems to be to invent a sense of place itself; thus the title “place-maker.” Well intentioned designers push back against the insidious “no place” of strip suburbia. But I find this to be somewhat treacherous territory, and the balance depends very much on the heavy handedness of its application. We all know that an idea when entirely too crafted (Celebration Florida anyone?) doesn’t feel genuine either. Why do some of the newly invented “neighborhoods” we’ve all seen, be they greenfield or brownfield developments work as “places,” while others don’t?

Relph wrote,

“Authenticity is above all that of being inside and belonging to your place both as an individual and a member of the community, and to know this without reflecting on it. We strive for a sense of insideness—or the idea that the more strongly an environment generates a sense of belonging, the more strongly does that environment becomes a place.”

while,

“Placelessness arises from kitsch–an uncritical acceptance of mass values, or technique–the overriding concern with efficiency as an end in itself. The overall impact of these two forces, which manifest through such processes as mass communication, mass culture, and central authority, is the “undermining of place for both individuals and cultures, and the casual replacement of the diverse and significant places of the world with anonymous spaces and exchangeable environments.”

Returning America’s “geographies of nowhere” to livable communities is a heavy task. We need lots of collaboration and civic engagement to do it, in particular to circumvent the tangle of codes, ordinances and standards that seem to default even the best of intentions to homogeneity, a default to avoid the complexity involved in making our own fragmented decisions about place.

I think as we move towards rebuilding, and redefining neighborhoods, a real question for us will be how to “plan for” both the adaptability and flexibility required for place, while leaving accessible the predictability needed for capital investment.

A precarious balance, which continues to evolve as we redefine American ideas of self reliance, and individuality, within the natural constraints of community.

Monday News Roundup

Mar 29, 2010

by Kate Howe, Urban Planner for VIA Architecture

In the Pacific Northwest, Tacoma struggles somewhat from its brand as a post-industrial place. But, I and many, many others HEART Tacoma for its deeply layered and intense urban infrastructure; it holds a similarity for rust belt and east coast cities we keep hearing about, like revitalizing Pittsburgh (see the link for a New York Times article), Youngstown and Providence. Because these communities are still scarred by economic loss, they appreciate that without the ability to adapt, experiment and elevate the cultural attributes of their existing place, the free flow of unencumbered capital $ will do just that, keep on flowing right out of town.

While its situation is drastically different from a growing Pacific Northwest, I am particularly impressed by Youngstown OH, which is making a name for itself as one of the most experimental planning cities in the US, with its shrinking city concept. It is led by the country’s youngest mayor (elected at the tender age of 33). Now in his second term, his city is making headlines as one of the best places in the country to start a business.

Tacoma is hard at work at its own structural re-invention. Over the past year, they have adopted a new downtown strategic plan, a new downtown comprehensive plan, and development studies for some of its key neighborhoods.

 
For the Brewery District, a group of stakeholders, including the Hillside Development Council, the University of Washington (their new campus is just next door), the city, the arts community, business and land owners, recently came together to talk about what they would like to be. There is a lot of optimism surrounding the future of the District; in nearly every meeting, someone would mention wanting to be more like Granville Island, Vancouver. The Brewery District has decided on a Tacoma-driven, south sound, flavor – a diverse and activated place of production.

 Granville Island, Vancouver

“Production” instead of “industry” underlies a progressive diversification of meaning. We are moving away from location-specific industry; and “production” suggests an evolution, signifying technological innovation and adaptation such as the need for robustness, resilience and environmental sustainability.

The actions suggested by the Brewery District groups and documented in a new Study due out soon includes:

  • Adaptive re-use of a former carriage house into a public market/incubator space;
  • The introduction of a gathering place and bike/ped path on a decommissioned BNSF rail line;
  • Potential for an art school, live-work lofts or more activated public use in the Nisqually Power Station (now owned by Tacoma’s most famous glass artist Chihuly); 
  • A new arts complex for a variety of performance managed by the School of the Arts just up the street;
  • Reintroducing the original brick on Holgate Avenue to slow traffic and take back the public realm as a shared space.

These ideas are not brought from the outside, but from those who have lived and worked in Tacoma. To succeed, it will need to be a grassroots driven process, building off these lifetimes of investment and local talent. The Brewery District is already in proximity to some of Tacoma’s best assets, close to the campus, the waterfront, to LRT transit. Its remaining Brick Breweries are aching for a reinvention. I can’t wait to see what will happen next.

This is an early peek at some of the ideas the VIA team produced as part of our exploration: