Growingup instead of out

Published on Thu, Nov 24, 2005 by TaraNelson

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Growing up instead of out

By Tara Nelson

Gordon Price, a planning professor at University of British Columbia and former Vancouver City Council member, shared his planning and growth management experience with Blaine residents last week at the Blaine Senior Citizens Center. The event was organized by local realtor Dennis Hill and sponsored by the First American Title Group, Revitalize Blaine Now and West Blaine Business Association.
Hill said he became familiar with Price at a builder’s conference in Bellingham and said he was impressed with Price’s ideas.

“He has a unique perspective,” he said. “His whole philosophy is do what the town wants, not what the developers or the realtors want. Maybe we can use some of his ideas.”

Hill, who has been corresponding with Price about Blaine, asked Price to offer suggestions for Blaine based on what has worked well in other, similar cities.

Price said while he couldn’t offer specific recommendations, he said Vancouver has become a livable city because developers are required to provide public amenities that citizens like, such as public parks, walkways or waterfront views, while they are still allowed to build enough condos to make a profit.

The politics of density
Price, who recently finished his sixth term as a city councilor in Vancouver, said, that if given an option, most cities will tend to sprawl out but a number of natural boundaries forced the city of Vancouver to build up.

Asked if such building strategies would have been politically-feasible if Vancouver did not have those natural boundaries, Price said, “Absolutely not.”

“Vancouver’s never had a choice,” he said. “We’ve been bounded by the natural borders, mountains, the water, and the Fraser River. If you go very far in any direction, you’re going to run into some sort of body of water. There aren’t very many cities like that.”

That, however, does not mean that Price advocates forcing density on unwilling communities or historical districts, such as the one near A Street in Blaine.

For that, Price suggests concentrating development in other areas to preserve those neighborhoods.

“There are some neighborhoods that you just don’t want to change,” he said. “It’s perfectly reasonable to plan a development in one area to preserve another. What does not work, however, is when a community says it’s not interested in change at all.”

He cited San Francisco as an example of which the end result was unaffordable housing.

“It’s not a question of being pro or con on growth,” he said. “It’s about accommodating growth in such a way that you get the benefits.

“There are currently 50 acres of water front property with public access in Vancouver that wasn’t paid for by taxpayer dollars.”

Price said part of the problem is that people tend to think higher buildings are denser than lower ones.

“People in high rises aren’t much different than single family homes, they also want more and more space,” he said.

Hill agreed.

Hill said he would like to see more housing alternatives downtown combined with density of business that would sustain a vibrant downtown economy but is skeptical such ideas will gain popular support.

“There’s a fear people have that we just can’t do that,” Hill said, adding that his timing for bringing up the subject was bad, considering his recent anti-airport campaign. “I think we need to take a good look at this.”

‘New Urbanism’

Price said in order to understand where we are now, we need to understand the thinking that got us here. He added that the underlying concept behind current development practices is based on the idea of an endless supply of petroleum and money to build new roads in addition to maintaining the old ones.

This concept began with the advent of the electric rail car in 1887, a date that Price calls “the most significant breakthrough for the average human being.” Price said this was because this was the first time the average human being was freed from animal power and it allowed people to get to where land was cheap enough to live outside the city, he said.

“Traditionally, it’s been drive until you qualify,” he said. “It’s not necessarily a negative thing, the problem has just been since the second world war, we pretty much designed everything around the car. We have reached the outer limits of designing everything based on the assumption that people drive everywhere.”

Price said this has become a particular problem in recent years with respect to rising energy costs and obesity rates in North America.

“There’s a connection between obesity and urban sprawl,” he said.

He said densification in certain areas could allow for lower cost of infrastructure, transportation and public services as well as increase the walkability of those neighborhoods, reducing the need for driving or parking allocations and increasingly the livability at the same time.

“The automobile is becoming more expensive,” he added. “If people don’t have to have a second car, that’s maybe a $5,000 to $10,000 in savings per year, which might be put toward a higher-end condominium. People are beginning to make those calculations. The problem has been that there hasn’t been enough choices in the housing stock.”

Prior to World War II, Price said cities were built around the streetcar lines that extended from the center of the city. Homeowners built shops in front of their homes to provide residents with day-to-day items. This helped to create a lot of commercial units tightly around the streetcar lines with the residential density to sustain those businesses. Price said the planning style he calls ‘New Urbanism,’ calls for rebuilding the streetcar neighborhood in a contemporary way.

“People love this stuff,” he said. “The only problem is we’ve made it impossible to build because it doesn’t accommodate the car. The challenge is to figure out a way to keep the character of these neighborhoods and do it in a way that makes it work today.”
He used Bellingham’s Fairhaven district as an example.

“It was built next to a shipping terminal and rail lines,” he said. “As a result, commercial opportunities were clustered pretty tightly with residential areas nearby. Whenever you go to a place that is fun and interesting and safe and easy to walk though, you can bet there were rail lines close by.”

Price advised residents and city planners to keeping alternative transportation in mind as Blaine grows up. He said this could be especially important in the future considering the rising cost of oil and made mention of the Burlington Northern Railroad that runs through downtown.

“You can’t use something that doesn’t work any more but you can think about where the future is going to lead you,” he said. “You‘ve got pretty nice fabric there, it’s got real possibilities. But that’s for Blaine to decide. All I’m saying, is that it worked for Vancouver because we didn’t build freeways through downtown.”

Preserving character
Price, however, cautioned city planners to make sure a win-win situation is created for both developers and citizens.

In a 2004 article in the Seattle Daily Journal, Price said that, in the 1950s, planners rezoned downtown Vancouver rather sloppily, and developers blindly demolished the heritage of previous generations.
As a result, public reaction was so negative that it overturned the political establishments, stopped the freeways and basically stunted revitalization efforts for the next two decades.

Price said the market, left to itself, will maximize the individual value, but may not maximize the community value. The irony, however, is by forcing developers to create those public amenities, it often raises the value of the individual development as well.

“It’s sure a lot easier to sell a development overlooking a park,” he said. “That’s what people move to places for. Growth pays for growth. What we tell the developer, you’re going to make provision for non-market (affordable) housing. In return they get to build a lot of condos. But more importantly, what they pay for, that’s what they’re selling. They are selling an amenity and that’s really what people want. Quality justifies the density and the density generates dollars that can fund public benefits.”

To accomplish that in Vancouver, Price said the city council allowed mixed-use compact urban zoning which kept historical storefronts in tact, while allowing taller, newer buildings in the back.

“I wouldn’t start talking about height limits right away,” he said. “I think that’s a distraction. What you really want to talk about is how this is going to feel? How are people interfacing with the street and what views do you want to preserve as well. What do the buildings allow you to see?”

Price said the council also kept lot sizes the same, kept alleyways in tact, and offered amenities that people have traditionally moved to the suburbs for.

Those amenities include greenways, open spaces and safety. He theorized that when this begins to occur, the number of people opting to live in urban areas will increase.

“You create places that people want to live,” he said. “This is not forcing anybody into high density. In fact, the only thing that does seem to work is to give people opportunities that will help them make better choices.”

When asked by Blaine resident Mary Lee Hill what he thinks of the turn of the century theme Blaine has adopted, Price was hesitant to offer his support.

“It has worked for some towns such as Leavenworth and Winthop,” he said. “But my feeling is that it’s not ‘genuine,’” he said. “The thing with those towns is would I visit them once and then never come back because I’ve ‘done it.’

“So, unless you’ve got a large enough market to create a Disneyland effect to keep people coming back, you're likely to only get those first-timers.”

City manager Gary Tomsic attended the event and said he thought many of Price’s ideas were consistent with the vision of city planners.
“There has been a lot of discussion about how and what the vision is for the commercial district and the harbor and it seems to be consistent in many ways with what I’ve heard Gordon say tonight,” he said.
Realtor Mike Kent, however, also attended the event and said Blaine citizens need to come to more of a consensus about growth if they want to secure the amenities Blaine currently offers.

“There’s thousands of cities throughout the country that would give an eye and a tooth to get the waterfront that Blaine has,” he said. “If we don’t keep going forward, people will come in and do what they want with this community. And they will have enough money where we won’t have control over it anymore.”

Price agreed.

“You just cannot go wrong with waterfront,” he said. “You gotta really try to screw that up – particularly when you live in one of the most beautiful places on this whole planet.

“I suspect it’s only a matter of time before you’re dealing with the problems of your own success.

“Sweet, eh?”