In Praise of Height And Density

Sun Tower. Photo: Tom Hudock

Despite it’s sleepy reputation, Vancouver has always been a brash city of big dreams and rough ambition, a noisy, sprawling brat of a frontier town. It’s fitting we mark noon every day with the triumphal blast of a ship’s horn, and sound the “all’s well” at nine ‘o-clock with the blast of a colonial cannon.

In keeping with that rash optimism, some of the tallest buildings in the British Empire were built right here in Vancouver: The Sun Tower and Dominion Building at the beginning of the last century, and just fifty years ago the Electra building, from which that raucous noontime horn first sounded.

More recently, our pedestal-style towers have revolutionized urban design around the globe, garnering our city international awards and acclaim for our revitalized downtown core.

Despite worldwide acclaim, however, Vancouver’s penchant for going vertical has inspired local opprobrium, and a rash of ad-hoc, poorly-vetted spot rezonings – the Mayor’s ill-planned STIR initiative in particular – has undermined support for new towers right across the city.

I’ve lived in towers more than half of my life, ever since I first moved to the West End in the late 70s, and I’ve always enjoyed that more urban way of living.

More recently I spent twenty years in Manhattan. Living on that island, with all it implies can be daunting. But Sex and the City notwithstanding, true New Yorkers don’t really live in New York as much as they live in one of the dozens of smaller neighbourhoods that dot the city, each as different in their own way as the five boroughs surrounding the city.

View west from our NYC apartment. Photo: Tom Hudock

We were lucky enough to spend seventeen of those years in Yorkville, living at the Claridge House at 87th Street and 3rd Avenue. We used to call it suburban Manhattan, there were so many moms with double strollers on the sidewalks, and everything seemed so clean and tidy after some of the neighbourhoods we’d lived in.

Generally speaking, neighbours in east side buildings go to great lengths to ignore each other, a way of maintaining privacy in tight proximity. But community still existed inside the building with the staff, who became a kind of second family. On a recent visit back, four years after leaving, we stopped by to say hi and ended up sharing emotional hugs and tears, all of us surprised by the staying power and intensity of the connections we’d made.

Outside the building, within a four block radius, our sense of community was very strong. My dry-cleaner, Jean, knew my voice so well I never had to introduce myself on the phone. Our wine store – Mr. Wright’s – would deliver anything we needed on account, trusting us to stop and settle up the next time we walked by.

We had a tiny Italian deli 2 blocks up the street with as good a selection of olive oil as Whole Foods but at half the price. The local chinese – Chef Ho’s – knew us by name and all our favourites, as did any of a dozen other local merchants. Six of our closest friends lived within blocks of us. That strong sense of local community and having access to the best of the city so close at hand gave us the benefits of small-town living with all the convenience of a big city.

Paris Place in Tinseltown

The beauty of that tower lifestyle was that everything we needed was within four blocks of our home. As a result, we didn’t own a car and never needed one in more than two decades there.

Here in Vancouver, we live in Paris Place, the very first condo tower built in Tinseltown more than fifteen years ago. By contrast, Paris Place has a very strong sense of internal community. Neighbours know each other, help each other out, and come out for all of the events we put on.

Our Christmas party was remarkable this year, with a huge spread of food donated by local merchants – thanks T&T! It was packed with many different nationalities, languages, ages, religions and races all happily breaking bread together and toasting the New Year in a kind of multicultural melange representative of the very best this city can be.

Paris Place Christmas Party

Our residents love Paris Place.

And we’re thrilled that another tower, the Woodwards building, has helped bring our community alive, making it possible for area residents to attend major cultural events, go to university and take care of their banking locally for the very first time, all while providing homes for 250 people who used to live on the street.

The last tower to be completed in our neighbourhood has just gone up right next to Paris Place. It’s one of twelve new social housing developments made possible by Mayor Sam Sullivan’s innovative partnership with the Province, magically transforming what was once an open-air latrine and shooting gallery into a new residence for single mothers.

I will readily concede that towers are not appropriate everywhere. Parts of Burnaby stand mute witness to that tragic fact.

But married to our transit infrastructure and embedded where density already exists, towers provide homes for the homeless and affordable housing for families that can’t afford $1,000,000 lots. At the same time, towers bring services within walking distance and help build community where once only chaos thrived.

Sunset from Paris Place. Photo: Tom Hudock

Towers are an important part of urban vitality and help ensure sufficient population density so that schools don’t have to close, library hours don’t have to be curtailed and three-year-olds don’t have to pay user fees at the park. And condo towers help reduce local taxes by sharing costs with more residents per acre.

In fact, if we actually had enough towers in our city’s core we might even be able to afford a recital and concert hall downtown, just like every other city in North America half our size.

Perhaps most importantly, tower living creates the smallest ecological footprint per resident of any type of housing. For all of these reasons, towers have played an important role in Vancouver’s history and will continue to have a rightful place in our city’s future planning.

If those eager to preserve the character of existing neighborhoods, a concern I share, would consider transit-based density as an approach that would see future development aligned with our transit infrastructure  – on the borders of, rather than piecemeal dotted-throughout-and-destroying-the-character-of, existing neighborhoods – we could forge a new citywide plan for our 125th birthday this year that all could celebrate.

This approach would end the spot re-zonings that have raised so many hackles, while allowing well-planned development that is necessary to accommodate the thousands of new residents who continue to move to our spectacular city.

Vancouver has an extraordinary future as the western world’s gateway to the east. Our architecture and our dreams should reflect the audaciousness of that promise. Let that noonday horn roar and our downtown towers soar!

Woodwards Tower. Photo: Tom Hudock

9 thoughts on “In Praise of Height And Density

  1. An excellent piece, Sean. I share your love for NYC. It’s the capital of the western world for good reason. Adding up all the visits, I have actually ‘lived’ there for about two years, and every occasion has been a wonder.

    NYC long ago reached a critical mass in the context of arts. They enjoy the numbers, the density, the architecture and the ambition to make of New York an arts capital. They also have the attitude. They WANT to support art. They know what a clean and enterprising industry it is, and how essential to a civil and learned community. They know that the arts define a people.

    Vancouver isn’t there yet. We don’t have enough density in our buildings, but too much in our politicians. Please keep fighting.

    • Thanks! I loved the comment about density in the wrong places, i.e. elected reps! 🙂
      Like you I believe the arts unleashed could help catalyse Vancouver’s economy. We’ll keep making that case!

  2. Sean – your love letter to vertical living is inspiring. While New York rules, there is no better city to experience this phenomenon than Hong Kong, where I lived for a brief, spellbinding interval. A 4 block radius there provided every possible service, restaurants, a street factory or two, perhaps a school – indeed nothing but dynamism and life. Vancouver offers just glimpses of the benefits of density..more to come, I hope.

    • Hi, thanks so much for sharing the insight re Hong Kong. We spent a week there on a longer trip to mainland China in the year before transition. Fascinating!. All of that life and energy and culture!

  3. A well-versed way of looking at height and density in urban life Sean. This is somewhat of a foreign concept in Los Angeles, where I live (except for the Wilshire corridor in mid-city/west side, likely because those folks can afford the unusually high premium of their earthquake insurance). I’ve previously admired Douglas Coupland’s POV on the ‘City of Glass”, however your perspective adds dimension and texture to the richness Vancouver has to offer in self-sustaining neighborhoods. I was especially impressed with the homes provided for those previously living on the street, and those provided for single mother’s. Of note, you have some impressive photography of beautiful city scapes on here to compliment your blog quite beautifully. Fingers crossed on the downtown recital and concert hall.

    • Hi Diane, I was thinking about Copland’s City of Glass you got us when I wrote this. It was such a thoughtful gift and an elegiac re-introduction to our city. He’s certainly more poetic, but i truly share his passionate love of this city.

  4. Sean what a lovely post and I am all for more tower density in YVR if it means we can afford a new recital and concert hall downtown!

    So what do you hear about this post on Mike Geller’s FB Page? – “Don MacLachlan Hmmm. I thought that site was reserved for a whole new arts-and-culture complex, including art gallery, theatre, and more.”

    Thanks for sharing your NYC experience; when I lived near the Island of Manhattan, across the bridge in Park Slope, Brooklyn – boy was that a great neighbourhood!!

    • Hi Susan! Park Slopes is the hottest place to live in the city now practically! Strong, distinct neighbourhoods are key to everything good. You’ve inspired me to write the next post on the importance of neighbourhoods!

  5. Hey Sean, glad to inspire anytime and I loved Park Slope – ran into Joan Sutherland at the local book store a few times and we shared a high tea or two around the corner!

    Park Slope in the 90’s was a great intro for me to NYC – walking down and back up to Flatbush passing by BAM to get the train in/out of Manhattan was sometimes engaging, but, I made friends who walked with the Canuck gal!!!

    Got into Monday night football at the local PUB and they had a sing along with opera folk on Wednesday night once a month. That was long before Opera on Tap hit this area – and OOT is a hit now too!

    Just maybe the City of Vancouver can expand their horizon a bit more to include a recital concert hall combo on the land they are proposing for the VAG. At the very least, think about a super outdoor classical music facility for summer concerts and recitals. I know just the company that specializes in portable/semi fixed facilities!

    I know for sure this company will be interested in leasing 35K comfortable seats that will be available at the end of 2011…..

    I look forward to your next post on the importance of neighbourhoods!

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