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  • Losing a city, one bad building at a time

    Gene Miller

    Why don’t developers, at their own initiative and without civic coercion, gift the city with beautiful buildings?


    FRIEND DOUG CURRAN recently sent me a link to a mid-1950’s promotional video (or whatever they called videos back then) highlighting the new line of GM cars. Produced in Hollywood musical style, it featured a song-and-dance number:

    Tomorrow, tomorrow

    Our dreams will come true.

    Together, together

    We’ll make the world new.

    The hope-filled conflation of new-car ownership and happiness is rendered without a shred of marketer’s cynicism, and what makes it jaw-dropping is not its silly consumerism, but its unrestrained and genuine optimism and idealism, even: possibility itself—the “world made new”—as a statement of hope pushed all the way to the horizon; practically a guarantee of happy outcomes and reason for that smile never to leave your face. That was the promise—it hits you that the promise itself was society’s emotional chassis—delivered with every Chevy, as certain as the new-car shine on the hood. 

    I swear, you cannot watch the promo without being clawed by wist, by a rush of longing for so much joy, for so much…upswing.

    The new car, of course, sat in the driveway of a suburban rancher. The whole package pointed away from the miseries and frictions of city-dwelling and social (and racial) churn and toward a frontier without constraints, without a minus symbol at its prow. The whole picture was painted in shades of white. Dad worked. Mom cooked. Billy and Little Suzie behaved themselves. Everyone knew the rules. There were rules back then, not like today’s free-for-all, goddammit!

    All of this followed the wails of a war- and depression-weary generation, an immigrant generation, or the children of immigrants. Life to that point was a battle, every single thing was a battle. Nothing was easy, lubricated. Nothing flowed. 

    You can imagine the joys of something featuring dynaflow—Buick, if my memory holds.

    That ‘fifties promise of flow and future lasted no longer than one of history’s heartbeats and, by steps and lurches too familiar and dispiriting to note here, deposited us in front of the likes of this headline in the October 5 New York Times: “Talk of ‘Civil War’ Is Flaring, Ignited by Mar-a-Lago Search”: 

    “Soon after the F.B.I. searched Donald J. Trump’s home in Florida for classified documents, online researchers zeroed in on a worrying trend.

    “Posts on social media that mentioned 'civil war’ had soared nearly 3,000 percent in just a few hours as Mr. Trump’s supporters blasted the action as a provocation.

    “Polling and studies suggest that a growing number of Americans are anticipating, or even welcoming, the possibility of sustained political violence.”

    Elsewhere, the Times observes: “According to Gallup, 56 percent of Americans disapprove of the job President Biden is doing. Around 80 percent say the country is on the wrong track.”

    It’s not my purpose here to dwell on US todays or tomorrows, or even the milder challenges and dangers here in Canada, but to make the connection between social mood and cultural production and outcomes.

    This is to say that hope is culture and works its way not just into political and economic forms of social practice, but also finds unmistakable expression in the arts, and architecture and urban design in particular. Literature, visual art, dance are somewhat ephemeral; buildings, however, tend to stick around conspicuously, and long after the social barometer has shifted.

    Let me give all of this a local spin. A column ago, I wrote how I wish Victoria mayor Lisa Helps had stood up in front of real estate developers (with a strong echo to architects) and said something like: “You want height and density? Then give the city distinctive and beautiful buildings.” 

    There’s a question lurking inside this: Why should the mayor have had to? Why don’t developers, at their own initiative and without civic coercion, gift the city with beautiful buildings? Why isn’t it a reflex behaviour? Leaving room for the possibility that most developers simply have shitty taste, why aren’t they flooded with idealism and ego: “I’m going to put up something so beautiful that it makes me proud and shames everything else in town!” That kind of thing.

    Speaking practically, part of the answer is that there is no School of Developology with required courses in “building citizenship”—buildings as civic investment. Our society doesn’t ask developers or property owners where are we headed or who we want to be (or it does, and the answer is underwhelming) How, for example, might every new building convey a quality of welcome? How, through our buildings, do we extend social harmony and optimism? How might every new building leave passersby feeling hopeful and good about life? Why doesn’t every new building say: “You’re home, you’re safe here”? These concerns are not really the abstractions they seem. We all pretty much share the same visual instincts; and besides, Victoria is a city filled with architecture critics.

    The Jawls, in an extraordinary and durable collaboration with architect Franc D’Ambrosio (Victoria’s Santiago Calatrava), have, almost by reflex, created distinctive and superior buildings and ex-industrial communities all over Victoria. Ditto Chris LeFevre (LeFevre and Company—Railyards, several Old Town redevelopments). Don Charity and Fraser McColl, partners of Mosaic Properties, have added architectural value and beauty with each project they have undertaken. The list is longer than those few names, but they are the standouts. Their project vision extends beyond the development pro forma and seems, somehow, to embody the understanding that every new building impacts—enriches or impoverishes—the story of this place, the story of us.

    I have a nasty and ungenerous theory about Victoria. The reason there is so much backslapping and eager noise around instances of community is that there is so little community here. Community is not simply adjacency or lifestyle protection, but shared wider purpose and action; sacrifice, sometimes. If there was more of that, we’d clap less. I don’t blame us locals; common purpose is suffering everywhere.

    What is the most regular response, as people comment about Downtown’s new emerging highrise identity? “Now Victoria looks just like every other city.”

    With that comment, no one is longing for the return of “a little bit of Olde England.” Nobody is calling for everything to be half-timbered. No, what people are disturbed about is a loss of character and singularity, and the loss of a connection between person and building.

    I state again, that if developers cannot internalize these values on their own, then the City needs design guidelines that will do it for them. Trust me (and look around you): in spite of municipal conceits, these do not currently exist.

    Where might such guidelines come from? Where might the City find the principles, ideas, poetics, lexicon and phraseology for such brand new design controls?

    Why look farther than the endless writing and presentations of locals like architect/urban designer Chris Gower and architectural historian Martin Segger, both of whom (among others) have for long years been pleading for built-form quality, humanity and originality.

    They may never have been asked how you lose a city, but they would likely answer: “One bad building at a time.”

    Founder of Open Space, founding publisher of Monday Magazine, originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an innovative affordable housing concept, writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological, writing “Houseplex—Density Without Damage,” presenting and editing the website “Shit Sandwich—the Best of the Bad News,” and initiating the Centre for the Design of the Future, a Victoria-based host for social innovation.


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    Gene Miller has once again said what I, and I expect many others are thinking? How did such a great place as Victoria go so architecturally wrong and so quickly?

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    Developers are always trying to construct beautiful buildings in Victoria but City Hall never fails to interfere. For instance, Telus wanted to build an attractive building but our former Mayor and Council insisted that it "Have less glass and more wood". Now it looks like the inside of a 1970s era mobile home.

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    Criticisms for Proposed Building Heights and Vertical Tower Forms
    Attention Mayor Alto, and City of Victoria Councillors Caradonna, Coleman, Dell, Gardiner, Hammond, Kim, Loughton, Thompson

    Your Worship and Victoria Councillors,

    I write to convey my concerns, and to urge for improvements, for the tall vertical forms and unneeded heights of new buildings currently proposed for Victoria’s Downtown Core.
    On one hand I certainly commend wisdom for gathering a concentration of new residential and mixed-use buildings in the underused areas to the east and to the north-east of Victoria’s old downtown – a concept that had been defined as the ’Crosstown Concept’ for Victoria’s Downtown Plan (for which I had acted centrally as Senior Planner – Urban Design). However I advise resolutely against a building type: the tall narrow tower - which is now repeatedly appearing in proposals – which is contrary to our downtown’s inherent character - and which contradicts fifty years of carefully considered urban and community planning, enacted over many decades, with many reiterations, to protect and augment qualities essential for Victoria.
    In no way had these generations of downtown urban planning principles sanctioned ever-taller, vertically expressed narrow point towers. In fact that was precisely the building form that so many cycles of planning in Victoria took care to avoid – just as more recently re-emphasized in the terms of the Downtown Plan of 2011-2022. Indeed careful urban design efforts in that Plan focused on providing requirements for terraced, set-back building forms, multiple fine-scale ‘street-walls’ down-scaling and setting-back higher building blocks of modest height - using a variety of expressions of mid-rise building elements to complement Victoria’s traditionally framed streetscapes – thus to re-express a familiar and well-regarded civic urbanism, that has long been comfortable, and acclaimed, for Victoria’s downtown.
    Keeping to modest-scale, moderate height buildings would not inhibit the capacity for concentrated growth, and for much needed housing in central Victoria - and can readily be achieved with fundamental adjustments to current proposals. Attaining a good quantity and a variety of new housing units downtown are completely legitimate objectives – but equally, crafting the best-suited building forms represents critical care for Victoria’s unique character.
    Take for example the two groups of very vertical tall high-rises proposed along Yates Street by Starlight Developments. These two clusters of towers would each greatly exceed the proposed building height bounds established and confirmed, with in-depth public consultation, through over the ten years of the development and application of the original Downtown Core Area Plan. Proposed heights should summarily be cut back to the bounds earlier set out, while similar building floor areas and housing unit counts can still be achieved by adding shorter mid-rise side-wings to such lowered, terracing towers. Indeed it would be quite a plausible and simple adjustment for such shorter, more amiable upper-level building forms to rest on the lower level parking layouts and structural bays as proposed for these development plans.
    Urban design form is critical for the quality of a city, particularly a town with distinctive signature features such as Victoria. Tall narrow point towers, such as for Yates Street and other current proposals, run counter to long-planned objectives of intricately detailed, terracing buildings – an urban typology intended to carefully frame pedestrian-friendly streets. Terracing setbacks and moderation of building heights help to counter wind downdraft and wind vortexes along streets, provide better open-to-the-sky sidewalk views, diminish the scale and impact of increased building density, and allow for better sunlight access both for citizens and for healthier street trees. World-wide, districts featuring clusters of tall narrow high-rises are so often poorly regarded: for disappointing levels of pedestrian vitality, for weakness of effective retail activity, and for a sense of loss of community identity. In contrast, mid-rise densification, when well executed with good architectural quality, so often receives plaudits and popularity.
    Over the past decade a number of new downtown developments have achieved reasonably sympathetic forms, and diverse architectural expressions - which are modelled to support  welcoming, pedestrian-oriented streetscapes: projects such as ‘The Juliet’, 'The Era', 'The Jukebox’, 'The Mondrian’, ‘The Esher’, ’The Falls’, ‘1400 Quadra’ - each take care to contribute sympathetic qualities to their street enclosures. Fine scale, visual diversity, calibre of materials, set-backs to maintain pedestrian views to the sky, sunlight access and healthy street trees,  and detailed architectural design - are all critical and integral factors in crafting public attractiveness, and pedestrian and retail propulsion along successful streets. A recently approved project, ‘979-983 Pandora Avenue’, also appears to have taken care with varied street frontages and complex set-back massing - which ideally can help support effective street vitality and health. Current up-coming proposals need to be better attuned to these attributes, while at the same time seeking their own individual architectural expression.
    City Council is entrusted to knowlegably seek the best achievable standards of urban and community development for Victoria. Wise evolution of a city is necessarily a continuous interplay of conservation and reuse - with new urban creativity. Gaining much needed new housing - while reinforcing and fostering existing and new places of commerce and culture – all with the most prudent discretion - are the challenges inherent in orchestrating urban progress. Carefully crafted revisions to unsuitable proposed building forms can help to achieve optimal gains for beneficial city life - for generations to come.
    These topics are not new for me – I copy below an article in the Times Colonist from last year, and correspondence with Focus magazine underlining these same concerns.
    I wish Victoria City Council well in seeking the best for a City widely well-loved, by myself, by your public, and by visitors world-wide.
    Sincerely, and always with good hope for Victoria,

    Chris Gower, Architect, Urban Design Planner


     Comment: Victoria, stick to restraint in building height and sympathetic building forms

    A commentary by an architect and urban design planner who has worked for more than 30 years in downtown Victoria.

    Chris Gower                                                                     Apr 4, 2022 12:01 AM - Times Colonist

    Throughout Greater Victoria, more — and more diverse — housing is becoming a collective regional agenda, but care for urban quality and contextual scale should be integral to that quest.

    Continue gathering a healthy concentration of downtown growth, but there is no need for emphasis on excessive vertical tall towers. Keep to moderation, and foster vital streetscapes.

    A chief assignment for me as a former senior planner for urban design in Victoria was to identify criteria for patterns of urban intensification — and building types suited for growth for more than 30 years — for an enlarged, distinctive, yet familiar and welcoming downtown.

    The city centre would face daunting challenges: More than 10,000 new residents, and more than one million square metres of new building floor area, in the precinct bounded by Bay, Superior, and Cook streets. Continuing to the north, the area has potential to accommodate more than half of the city’s anticipated growth for decades ahead.

    How to proceed? How to preserve a vulnerable historic centre? How to integrate new buildings in a downtown celebrated for fine-grained pedestrian scale? How to complement our compact city-centre geography? How to maintain good faith with generations of Victorians decrying abruptly tall buildings? How to safeguard qualities distinctive for Victoria?

    Increases in height and density were inevitable — but how to alleviate height, and to seek compatibly framed streets?

    Four options for urban form were considered: In-Town, Across-Town, Up-Town, Cross-Town. After some years of public consultations Cross-Town was selected as the most coherent strategy – to strictly retain the historic low-scale Harbour, Old Town, and Chinatown districts, while featuring a back-drop of two spines of growth: a dominant corridor between Douglas and Blanshard, pulling development northward, and a more modest secondary corridor centred on Yates Street, filling in the Harris Green neighbourhood.

    Heights were constrained, with a maximum of the 72-metre Hudson project, a commencement of the primary northward corridor. Heights and densities would then diminish, stepping down block by block, toward surrounding neighbourhoods. Height allowances were identified as discretionary maximums, to be fine-tuned within their contexts, with various public advantages to be gained in rezoning negotiations; they were not offered as entitlements.

    A modest skyline was envisioned: a backdrop to our historic downtown, gradually rising from the south and the north, and descending to the east in an undulating contour, reflective of Victoria’s hilly setting, rather than an abrupt vertical thrust, as now characterizes cities like Calgary and Toronto.

    A smaller secondary skyline area was identified for the Songhees hilltop, and a third small-profile skyline south of the harbour — all surrounding a low-scale harbour and historic core, creating the “view basin” of an “urban amphitheatre.”

    General criteria for buildings were established. Respected international urban commentators Jane Jacobs and Jan Gehl have long noted that pedestrian-friendly, retail-successful street-frontages are in the low-rise range of three to five storeys.

    Many urban designers see that combined low-rise and mid-rise (six to 10 storeys) areas of cities are the liveliest and most sustainable. They are typically known for walkability — for good “propinquity,” the condition of amiable interpersonal activity. This is certainly a condition not found in dense high-rise tenement areas like suburban Hong Kong, or the Bronx Projects — and not praised as a virtue of Burnaby’s super-high-rise Metrotown.

    Allowances for floor areas for lower building levels were maximized, limiting higher levels, emphasizing lower and mid-rise building forms, to avoid large bulky high-rises such as View Towers.

    This leads to terraced forms, which reduce the visual impact of set-back taller buildings; counter wind downdraft; and provide more sunlight and sky views — all important factors for attractive, well-used streets, particularly in Victoria’s winter climate. Clearances between buildings were intentionally snug, for an intimate, fine-scale cityscape.

    A 3D study model confirmed that such buildings, within height limits, would readily house the intended count of new residents, with capacity for additional growth. 3D mock-ups of 30-storey towers were glaringly out-of-scale for Victoria.

    So how would great increases in building height allowances, such as currently proposed for several new tower developments (about twice the proscribed height limit for two Yates Street proposals!) improve on planning objectives developed with conscientious public consultation and confirmation through more than 10 years?

    What answer is offered for long-known isolation problems for high-rise family and assisted housing?

    It is intemperate high-profit drivers that propel the form of extremely vertical towers. Legitimately, these projects are proposed for areas well-due increased occupancy — but could be adjusted readily, by removing the top third of proposed point-tower heights, instead arraying expanded adjacent lower floor areas – creating lower, stepped building forms, with a mid-rise emphasis — still achieving intended unit counts.

    All reasonable revisions to achieve sympathetic buildings, to complement Victoria as a unique place, rather than a counterfeit understudy to cities like Calgary and Vancouver.

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