Forever in the Shadows
City Conversation #58: When Vancouver city staff pit low barrier housing against schools and parks, everyone loses.
June 13, 2022—Leading up to the public hearing for a proposed high-rise spot rezoning development at 8th & Arbutus, we look at how the proposal works for its proposed residents, for the adjacent St. Augustine School and the neighbourhood Delamont Park. Spoiler alert—not well!
If the proposal is approved, this shadowed schoolyard at the left is what school kids will arrive to on the longest school day of the year—June 21st at around 9 am—the rest of the school days are worse—all illustrations by Stephen Bohus, BLA, annotations by Brian Palmquist
“1951—that’s old!” My daughter was referring to the date when the first St. Augustine School was opened at Arbutus and West 7th Avenue. I decided it was best not to remind her that was also the year I was born. Out of the mouths of babes…
In any event, a new school was completed and opened on the site in 2015. To be clear, it’s an independent elementary school. Also to be clear, I have no connection to the school. Except it’s the neighbour to a controversial spot rezoning that’s going to public hearing June 28th, a rezoning I’ve been asked to weigh in on because it’s at the extreme western edge of the Broadway Plan.
I attended a Zoom information meeting last night, at which I learned the following—full disclosure, some of this also arises from research I did before and after the Zoom meeting:
The site’s current zoning (RM-4) already allows a maximum 19.9m high building (6 storeys) with a maximum floor space ratio (FSR) of three times the site area—for comparison, the FSR of False Creek North averages 2.75;
The proposal asks for a 50m high building with an FSR of 4.42—that more than 2-1/2 times as high and almost 50% more space than the maximums allowed by the existing zoning;
The building will accommodate 129 singles (no women or kids need apply), each housed in a prefab metal unit, kinda like a 330 square foot shipping container with a bathroom and 190 square feet for all the rest—the units are stacked atop each other in such a way that there is no flexibility for future rearrangement should the clientele change;
The residences will be low barrier—take away the fancy explanations and that means there are no impediments to drug usage or sale, and no background checks;
Nobody at the city or the proponents, BC Housing Management Commission (BCHMC) and the Vancouver Affordable Housing Association (VAHA) will say how many staff will be on duty in the building, but it could be as few as two, neither of whom may be trained in clinical health care;
October 21st—the proposed building shades much of Delamont Park, the space at the top of this photo
I will leave it to others to address the social challenges of this housing mix. Instead I will simply look at the urban design and architectural programming implications of the proposed design. Consider:
The building’s height and massing guarantee that every child will arrive on every school day in shade;
The building’s height and massing guarantee that every child will have most of their morning recess in shade;
The building’s height and massing guarantee that every parent using Delamont Park during the school year in the early to mid afternoon, while they are perhaps awaiting the dismissal of their school age children, will wait mainly in shade and their preschool children will mainly play in shade;
There is virtually no setback from the building to the adjacent sidewalk on the east side of Arbutus—the resulting street edge will make it unsafe to drop off or pick up children (Gee, that never happens!);
June 21st at 9am with a 6-storey building—the schoolyard is at the left of the model
It appears there are decisions that have been forced on the design team that have led to some of this. Interestingly, if the existing RM-4 zoning’s height limit was applied to the site, shadowing issues would be solved—begs the question why the spot rezoning is proposed. We have previously shown that for the entire Broadway Plan area, the proposed addition of 30,000 homes for 50,000 new residents could be accommodated with buildings averaging five storeys.
Without straying into the social implications, I am compelled to add:
The proposed stacked container form of construction, although reportedly cheaper than alternatives, requires more height per floor and redundant (i.e., wasted) structure;
The resulting configuration is completely inflexible for future modification as the needs of the residents evolve—the tin cans for people will always and only be tin cans;
Alternative structure such as CLT/mass timber would be far more environmentally appropriate, less massive and would provide a structure within which future changes for future residents (i.e., women and children) could be much more easily accommodated;
I mentioned these concerns at the Zoom meeting noted above, to which our academic expert concluded: “This design in this place ensures that the building’s residents, its neighbours and the children attending school will be forever in the shadows. None of them deserves this.”
View of the proposed building massing from the schoolyard, October 21st 9am
Calls to Action
It’s not too late now to speak to Council about this spot rezoning—you can sign up starting 8:30am from this Friday the 17th right up until the public hearing starts at 6pm on the 28th —earlier is better and numbers count! You can also email Mayor and Council with your thoughts right up until they finish deliberations—again earlier would be better. It might be worth you mentioning in your presentation or correspondence that one of the 40-something amendments approved for the Broadway Plan that covers this site states that New buildings should minimize shadowing impacts on independent schoolyards, particularly during school hours. Seems pretty clear to me.
Vancouver’s civic election is October 15th of this year. Lots more damage can be done to our city before that date—and it will continue, and worsen, unless TEAM for a Livable Vancouver elects a majority (6 of 10) City Councillors—less than 6 and not much will change. If you are concerned that what you’ve just read is an example of what’s wrong with our city, and want to bring back its livability, join TEAM and work with us to restore Vancouver as a place we can all afford to call home.
Today’s question: Are you in favour of this spot rezoning?
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I am a Vancouver-based architect, building envelope and building code consultant and LEED Accredited Professional (the first green building system). I am semi-retired for the moment, still teaching and writing, so not beholden to any client or city hall. City Conversations mix real discussion with research and observations based on my 40+ year career including the planning, design and construction of almost every type and scale of project. I am the author of the award winning Amazon best seller “An Architect’s Guide to Construction.” I am also a member of TEAM for a livable Vancouver, a new political party dedicated to restoring a livable Vancouver starting with the 2022 civic election. Although I am not a candidate for TEAM or any other civic party, City Conversations are generally congruent with TEAM policy, so if you like the ideas that I’m writing about, please consider joining TEAM.