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COVID-19 Pandemic

Navigating through pandemonium

Informed Comment








Development and architecture









Everything posted by Gene Miller

  1. Posted August 19, 2020 Photo: Park visitors discuss the tents in Beacon Hill Park The vast resources invested in Victoria’s homeless—without apparent success—provide incentive and the means to fashion a new narrative about this city. Go to story
  2. The vast resources invested in Victoria’s homeless—without apparent success—provide incentive and the means to fashion a new narrative about this city. All these beauties will already be familiar to the visitor, who has seen them also in other cities. But the special quality of this city for the man who arrives there on a September evening, when the days are growing shorter, is that he feels envy toward those who now believe they have once before lived an evening identical to this and who think they were happy, that time. —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities I BEGIN WITH THIS CALVINO FANCY to remind myself and you, reading, that when any of us says “I love Victoria” or “I love Beacon Hill Park,” we are declaring a romantic connection; and that in such a declaration we are committing ourselves to care, which is love’s great task, and to stewardship, which is necessary citizen-work. I’ll pick up this thread a bit later. We’re two-thirds of the way through 2020, The Year of No Summer. The Year of Maybe. Witnesses to world history, we appear to have our toes resting on the close of one of humanity’s chapters and searching, half-blind, for the currently uncertified dawning of another. History, like atmosphere, is everywhere, all at once, and not an easy candidate for framing; we don’t get to stand outside and gain perspective. Snapshots (and claims) are approximate, tentative, matters not of fact but opinion. Still, there seems to be no missing that COVID-19 is Nature’s latest experimental attempt to cull the herd and send a last, prefigurative, cracks-of-doom warning about the impacts and consequences of looming climate change. (No, wrong, Gene, it’s God’s way of giving Donald The Healer Trump yet another opportunity to demonstrate his caring leadership skills and qualifications for a second presidential term.) Given such Wagnerian conditions, it’s no surprise that the “physics” of current history is this: a large, menacing near-future is hurtling toward our communities and global society; we feel uneasy, edgy, want to move out of the way, but lack the internal social poise to make, and the tools to execute, a Plan B. And besides, where the hell do we go? There’s no Planet B (apart from this one without us). Maybe we could, uh, alter human behaviour and get right with life? Nah, don’t be silly! I read recently about French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard who defines postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives,” by which he means ideologies that “totalize all knowledge and experience.” I haven’t done much totalizing lately, but I get that postmodernism is characterized by “sensitivity to the [claims] of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.” I would add “or maintaining social and cultural dominance.” Lyotard, had he had a gift for the vernacular, might have said that we’re in an age when we have all been shot out of cannons and are wandering or lost on the landscape. But to leave such maundering and thread-pulling behind and firmly establish local relevance and scale, consider: what is, or was, Victoria’s metanarrative? “A little bit of Olde England.” Always an illusion at the deepest levels, but a credible and intact public belief when I arrived here in 1970, that cultural metanarrative—that way of explaining and understanding this place, its propriety, its boredom, its safety and social tone—has evaporated; and these days, for better or worse, we’re more “a little bit of West End Vancouver” than of Dedham, Essex. I’d like to swap out “metanarrative” for the more digestible and modestly scaled “purpose” or “story” and suggest that places (including this one) don’t have stories anymore, or are losing their stories, meta or otherwise. There’s something in the nature of modernity (or postmodernity), something in its trends and forces, that leaves story behind, consigns story to “back then.” Blame any or all of globalization and the loss of locational distinction; the spread of Walmart and Costco retail monoculture; the socio-cultural and existential shift or drift from “us” (the human group) to “me” (the individual); the disembodied “connectivity” of cellular and internet; the transformational impacts of AI, robotics and “smart” processes and systems; an evolutionary shift in human consciousness. Increasingly, this puts all of us in a strangely fictional relationship to place: where’s home without visual or distinguishing cultural cues, without boundaries and a behavioural map? Humanity is becoming something different, and fluid times make cultural compass-work, community identity, challenging. Shoshana Zuboff writes about this in the opening chapter of her ominous book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: “We can choose [home’s] form and location, but not its meaning. Home is where we know and where we are known, where we love and are beloved. Home is mastery, voice, relationship, and sanctuary.” Zubroff continues, “The sense of home slipping away provokes an unbearable yearning. Now, the disruptions of the 21st century have turned these exquisite anxieties and longings of dislocation into a universal story that engulfs each one of us.” “Where we know and are known”…Isn’t that a definition of community? You have to look no further than the conspicuous homeless camping in Beacon Hill Park to realize that just such monumental, symbolic concerns are raging right here in Victoria’s home and, by legend, its front yard. A petition protesting the camping use of the park, the visual and physical appropriation, the loss of appeal of Victoria’s outstanding natural asset, has attracted an extraordinary 25,000-plus signers. To be generous, the City, perhaps overwhelmed by other exigencies and out of additional bandwidth, has done a poor job of acknowledging that tents scattered throughout Beacon Hill Park exert a profound change on the place and on peoples’ feelings about the park, and somehow damage the fragile bonds that make this place an “us.” Tents in Beaconhill Park So, Beacon Hill Park is the skirmish line in an urban and social sorting out of values and practices—none lacking in complexity, nuance or counter-argument. With some regret, I wonder if, in our de-institutionalized times, conditions (and socially successful outcomes) don’t require higher levels of direct community engagement, intervention and management—more citizens. I write “regret” because the call for more social investment, more citizenship and participation, can seem annoying and retrograde. Many people argue that they give and invest enough, through tax dollars and volunteering and contributions, and so on. But in abstracted times like our own, it may not be a matter, or just a matter, of enough, but of what, and how, and by what social means, resources are directed and delivered. On the subject of enough, let me pose this windy question: if you took all of the “homeless industry” cash and the calculable human budget including the people, the program delivery efforts, the buildings, the offices, the direct cash allowances and subsidies, donations and contributions, senior government investment, the costly and reactive responses by police, other security, health emergency and social safety professionals, costs from theft and property crime, insurance costs, and the consultants and policy design costs, and the political time, and the reporting and data-gathering, and community social fabric damage that may not have a price tag, but certainly has a price, and divided all of that by the number of homeless—a “universe” of about 1,500 in our region—what might the real per capita cost or social investment be? Might better service and housing delivery protocols and models be found? I mean, please, provide me with some novel explanation, something I haven’t yet considered, to help me to understand how, even with all of these targeted resources, a vast, socially damaging problem coalesces and endures? All of that investment, and it isn’t working better; isn’t—even putting wider social impacts and other considerations to the side—doing a better job of protecting the homeless themselves from a host of adversities and isn’t, at a minimum, housing them? Such an initiative—the successful care and protection of all—might be the start of, and part of, a new social story for this city that waved goodbye to Olde England some time ago, and has lacked a compelling, binding story, some firmly held and widely shared self-definition, something aspirational, ever since. (Sorry, “We tend our own gardens,” good try though it is, doesn’t qualify.) Like it or not, times have changed and social risk—both its atmosphere and its particulars—has intensified. It’s impossible to shut your eyes to this. Well, not impossible, but foolish. And saturated as our society is by communications, it’s still hard for us as a community to have a real conversation about social risk and possible responses—to identify our options, resources and social capabilities. Hard, outside the formalities of occasional municipal elections, for a community to say to itself: “Let’s go thataway!” By way of setting an urgent context for this idea of broad social narrative and its significance, I can offer this excerpt from a recent New York Times column moist with shock and sorrow, entitled “Sadness and Disbelief From a World Missing American Leadership.” Commentator Katrin Bennhold writes: “The pandemic sweeping the globe [and the incompetence of the fumble-fingered US response] is shaking fundamental assumptions about American exceptionalism. The United States should take an urgent warning from a long line of empires that rose and fell. It’s a very familiar story in world history that after a certain amount of time a power declines. You accumulate problems, and you can carry these for a long time. Until something happens and you can’t anymore.” True for great nations and true, in its way and at scale, even for this small city with its special genius for inertia. 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, and writing Futurecide, a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological.
  3. Posted August 11, 2020 Image: Bay Centre Food Court in September 2019, before the pandemic arrived. It’s only when normal takes a holiday that we get an intuitive glimpse of the vast, unseen social and environmental forces that sustain normal. Go to story
  4. It’s only when normal takes a holiday that we get an intuitive glimpse of the vast, unseen social and environmental forces that sustain normal. THANK GOD, things are getting back to normal! You remember normal, don’t you? You can see signs of its return all around: more people on the streets, more shops with “open” signs, more job-resumed rush hour traffic. Why, the way things are going, it shouldn’t be too long before you’re back complaining about how nothing exciting or out of the ordinary ever happens here. But below that, closer to the bone, how to explain the feeling that things aren’t normal, that you’re struggling with memory—Was it like this? Was it like that?—and can’t entirely shake the sense that normal is never coming back, that this virus gave the entire sno-globe a shake and things won’t settle quite the same way as before? Pre-pandemic normalcy at the Bay Centre Food Court Suddenly, you have the novel insight (who ever had to think about this stuff before now?) that normal is not just social practice and a certain degree of things just sitting still—predictability, in other words—but also something qualitative, a state of mind; and that discontinuity and interruption damage the experience of normal and leave a scar. We’re operating—or trying to operate, as best we can—in a state of emergency, and panic places demands on behaviour and sensibility that normal does not. This has been a fact of life for every society that has experienced a geophysical cataclysm, a military invasion, a cultural or religious transformation, a social revolution, social oppression (a social revolution-in- the-waiting), extermination or ethnic cleansing, an economic upheaval: maybe you survive, but you don’t survive intact. History, someone observed, consists of all the places where the corners didn’t meet. Long years ago, I was in a relationship where the mutuality of love was assumed: “I love you.” “And I love you.” And once, in such an exchange, Michelle said “I don’t love you.” She wasn’t joking in that moment, and it passed…she re-loved me. But nothing after that declaration was ever the same. Normal was never normal again. Seems to me we’re all in one of those moments, where meaning itself—that pyramid of assumptions with us celebrating on top—judders. These are not perfect words for what I’m trying to frame, but in my defence, who ever needed a precise vocabulary before now to describe such an experience? Someone, last week, attempting to illuminate the way things now feel, called it “feathers on a cow.” Normal, or its absence, raises interesting questions about ideology, the entire body of theoretical positions about human purpose and social practice, those vast idealizations of how our happier, better, more constructive life together might be undertaken. Much in the way that an earth tremor challenges the idea of solid, this virus invites provocative questions about the difference between should and is; and you think: “The hell with the perfected life. I’d settle without a complaint if each of my footfalls just met the ground, and I could shake this sense of uncertainty and danger.” Isn’t that just what our neighbours in the US are going through at the moment: a shit sandwich filled with the terrors of COVID-19 infection and death; the eruption of long-simmering racial angers; challenges to conventional police culture and the prescriptions of authority; broad-based and, for many, almost apocalyptic economic anxiety; and horrible damage to the country’s identity and national purpose, its social momentum—much of it authored or aggravated by that emotionally damaged boy in a man-suit in the White House? Actually, normal took a powder when the 2016 US presidential election outcome gave the world “a creature” whose “instinct is base and animalistic, survival-centered, without core conviction of a prevailing character,” in New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s nearly Shakespearean imagery. (Oh, and memo to all of us up here: the idea that “what happens in the US stays in the US” is a fantasy. If the US blows, we will quickly learn the meaning of the phrase “porous border.”) Tie a string around all of this and ask if the itchy feeling, this movie you’re powerless to stop watching, isn’t exactly what you would expect or imagine in End Times—Eschaton, the biblical climax of world events. At its heart, normal’s vanishing act asks you to consider just how history happens, and whether history is a progress line on a growth chart, or just mud, sadness and cyclicality. I’m advised that Sweden might beg to differ, but I’m toying with the idea of placing large, conspicuous signs at all of our city’s entry points: “Welcome to Victoria: The Last Rational Place.” In my defence is Tom Edsell’s recent New York Times column, “The Whole of Liberal Democracy Is in Grave Danger at This Moment.” Edsell writes: “In the continuing debate over whether liberals or conservatives are more open-minded, whether those on the left or the right are more rigid in their thinking, a team of four Canadian psychologists studied patterns of ‘cognitive reflection’ among Americans. They found that a willingness to change one’s convictions in the face of new evidence ‘was robustly associated with political liberalism, the rejection of traditional moral values, the acceptance of science, and skepticism about religious, paranormal, and conspiratorial claims.’” I mean, sure, you had to order your sashimi through a sheet of plastic; and true enough, a blue face mask went with nothing in your wardrobe; and the endlessly-relocated homeless folks playing musical campsites in Beacon Hill Park forgot occasionally to say “have a nice day;” and the noticeably, shockingly merchandise-thin shelves and racks at Winners were a foretaste of retail apocalypse; and if you had to brake to a stop one more time to allow a dozen peacocks or unpredictable and nervous deer to slowly and meanderingly cross Dallas Road, you were going to lose it and lean on the horn. But, on balance, what a gift Fate has given this place. The gift? Just check the municipal or regional stats on identified local COVID-19 infections, recoveries, deaths to-date, while the rest of the world heaves and groans, braced against the downdraft at the edge of the void. According to Wiktionary, “normal” as a noun means “the usual, average, or typical state or condition.” And it’s only when normal takes a holiday that we get an intuitive glimpse of the vast, unseen social and environmental forces that sustain normal. How does the song go? But now that you left me Good lord, good lord, how I cried You don’t miss your water, you don’t miss your water ‘Til your well runs dry. Still, normal as a social definition gets little respect. Said Carl Jung: “Normality is a fine ideal for those who have no imagination.” And online, you can find a lot of noise and graffiti asserting that normal is boring and the opposite of creative and original. Nowhere have I encountered the helpful insight that normal is the condition that permits the exceptional, the platform, so to speak, on which the statue sits. Poor, uncelebrated normal: the very clockwork of the universe, but, still, can’t get no respect. In a recent review of Frank Wilderson III’s Afropessimism, Vinson Cunningham highlights the book’s insistence that “the spectacle of Black death is essential to the mental health of the world.” Cunningham continues: “For Wilderson, the state of slavery, for Black people, is permanent: every Black person is always a slave and, therefore, a perpetual corpse, buried beneath the world and stinking it up.” It’s roughly in this sense, I believe, that most people form an opinion about normal, not very different from the way they think of gravity: something to hate (culturally if not personally) and fight against, something to escape, something which, if un-conquered, will remain an enemy of accomplishment and release—as if gravity had, or embodied, a will of its own. And in our collective imagination, the society that perfected normal, turned regularity into cultural expression, into a folksy, nutty art form (care for a yodel?), has lent its name to something approaching a curse or a joke: “Swiss.” “Scriabin’s music,” Donald Garvelmann comments in some CD liner notes, “embraces the past and the future, formality and freedom.” That’s what we ask of normal: just enough leash, just enough play. All of this raises a locally relevant question: Will Victoria forever be “a little bit of Olde England?” Would we be that even if we demolished the Empress Hotel and put up a cluster of shitty, copycat condo towers in its place? (What do you think: “Empress Place” or “Harbour Landing?”) Or if we de-cute-ified and de-sweet shoppe-ed Government Street? Or is it more culturally-pervasive, more normal and embedded, than a few bits of architecture? Is it the please-and-thank-you reek of the place, rising from every proper residential street and trimmed lawn? Do we need to replace nice with hard and rude to be more contemporary, more exceptional, less English, less…normal? 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, and writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological.
  5. June 30, 2020 The ideas embedded in our civic architecture say a lot about the state of our civic citizenship. WITH INCREASING FREQUENCY THESE DAYS, I start watching a movie online or crack open a book only to be prodded, ten minutes or ten pages in, by the realization that it’s the second time around: I’ve seen it or read it before. “Huh, will you think of that!” I say to myself and then walk into the bathroom to make myself a sandwich. But enough about you. The occasional mutter from readers reaches me about how this column is so negative and pessimistic, and how I can’t seem to find anything to celebrate. Well, duh. Maybe that’s because we’re all gonna die by 2040, but hey, don’t let that take the shine off your weekend plans. Academics and other finger-templers love to contend that civilization is in a “transition phase” when in fact culture, context, story and purpose have been subordinated in favour of the dehumanizing values and murky agendas of global finance, borderless corporations, and ever-more-invasive AI which itself is readying a post-human future. Some transition. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly accelerated and intensified, but is not itself the author of, widespread social dislocation. Why do you think so many countries are now led, or soon will be led, by the Donald Trumps of the world—merciless, narcissistic, empathy-devoid sociopaths who increasingly set global terms and mood, and make groundless national promises to a culturally rootless, economically insecure and reactive, frantic populace about the return of everything that’s been lost? How else do you explain the surfacing in more and more places of “the dark lust that lurks within us to destroy, not only things but human beings, especially when we suffer from collective humiliation,” as journalist and theologian Chris Hedges puts it? (A bit more of Hedges later.) In my view, Americans, confusing personality and presidency, selected the most conspicuously lonely, needy, empty man to lead them: Mr Please Look At Me, Mr Pay Attention To Me, Me, Me. This horribly indicts the man and the electorate in equal measure. I have US friends and colleagues who anticipate some near-future civil war in their country. They notice the capacity to productively negotiate and operate within social bounds—to run a society, to see common cause, to honour the principle of mutual benefit—is steadily diminishing, drowning further in the cult of The Leader, the country’s purpose reduced to a game-show slogan. Trouble’s on a boil everywhere and I worry with all my heart for this city, so la-la when it should be alert and responsive to history’s current and emergent risks. Instead, almost by reflex, when the going gets tough, Victoria holds a workshop. When I go on, as I do in this column, about the importance of and need for beautiful and distinctive architecture and urban design, I’m not principally mounting an argument for beauty; though it is that, too. It’s really a plea about sustaining cultural identity and individuality, consciousness and selfhood…a kind of civic competence and character; the continuation of the Victoria story; and grounds for social connection instead of the sleepwalker’s inability to read nuance or form judgment. In his recent book, America: The Farewell Tour, Hedges cites Natasha Dow Schüll’s book about casinos, Addicted By Design: “Pleasure. To get what you want. What you want is to escape into a flow, to be taken away. We see this in the political domain a lot—in the rallies, in the surging of feelings, the distraction; the same design logic of disorientation and trying to sweep people away from themselves, away from rationality, away from a position where they have clear lines of sight and can act as decision-making subjects. You see that on the floors of casinos. You see it in political rhetoric today.” Canada to-date, and Victoria specifically, have resisted the more overt and destructive expressions of these trends (and their alarming political directions). But please, don’t for a moment imagine that such cultural sensibilities are absent here. Victoria’s “oh, we’re nothing like that” is no more than puffery, a dangerous conceit, a willing blindness to the fragility of the cultural story that supports this wonderful, remarkable place. Trends and their causes—how they develop, why they endure—must be understood, must (ideally) be part of the civic conversation, an intentional feature of citizenship. Citizen and resident are not the same thing. Citizen is your credentialed behaviour in a civic society; resident is your postal code; and the latter doesn’t ensure belonging, only taxpaying. What do you imagine: that the “homeless problem” is the problem of the homeless? I could be wrong, but I doubt they’re troubled by sociological abstractions. The homeless problem is not a visibility problem or a cosmetic problem. It’s a social problem. Social, by the way, doesn’t mean “somebody should do something about it;” social means “us.” Oh, you’re too busy for all that? Really? Doing what? Let’s acknowledge that we often fail at solving our own problems (not limited to Victoria) because culturally, like casino gamblers, we’re trapped in the Age of Distraction. We’re at risk of misplacing the story and the social syntax of community, this community. And if we lose that, guess what? There’s a heavy price to pay. Some part of that price can be seen in the physical expression of the rapidly proliferating fortress towers rising throughout Downtown. Give yourself time for a thoughtful, open-eyed walk-around so you can feel the buildings, take in their existential message, as conveyed by their skin and materiality, the meaning of their shape, what their atmospheric and emotional contribution is to the adjacent public realm, and what all of that says about life, community, social connection, you. I mean, you see or visit an Italian hill-town and your heart breaks. That’s the stuff I’m getting at here. Are attractive buildings and public works by themselves the antidote to or protection against any of this? Of course not. But they are in some small way grounds for reversal, and also some daily visible reminder that distinctive civic identity—an us—is sustained only by continuous social re-investment and consciousness. Happily, Victoria still has “good bones,” as they say, a fairly healthy inventory of such features; it’s just that there’s no such thing as too much of it. Here are a few buildings and public spaces—either new, new/old hybrids, or reinventions—that seem to me to be standouts, exemplary proof that we can renew our city and add to its quality (sorry about my crappy photography). All below—some modest, some grand—share originality and design thinking.... More, many more, please. Miller’s Standouts: Miller's standouts.m4v Miller's standouts.m4v
  6. May 28, 2020 View Towers illustrates how civic inattention can lead to unintended consequences. VIEW TOWERS. It sat there, like a spaceship in a cow pasture, between Quadra and Vancouver, Fort and View Streets, a 19-storey heartbreaker silently announcing to everyone who walked or drove by: “Beauty is tricksome and fleeting, and Death awaits thee.” A description in the Islandist states: “The building, completed in 1968, has been locally notorious for much of its 50 year existence, having been the site of several murders, suicides, fatal overdoses, destructive fires, countless violent assaults and several hundred 9-11 calls besides. Its unflattering nickname of ‘Crack Towers’ has persisted since the 1990s.” (Crack’s so passé, don’t you think?) The building radiates that history out through its mercy-free concrete skin. If buildings convey messages and operate as narratives about human worth and destiny, View Towers is our Statue of Misery. The property owner/developer, George Mulek, had intentions, as I understand it, to put up a second, presumably twin or similar building, along the Fort Street frontage of his property, but was prohibited by a shocked and rueful city that curtailed his property development entitlements after the first building went up. Mulek, anecdote has it, left Victoria angry and frustrated and built nothing more here. Mulek is dead (I wish I could report that, in an attempt to restore moral equilibrium, he jumped; but no) and Edmonton-based family members now own View Towers, Orchard House (in James Bay) and numerous residential towers in Vancouver. I don’t know how the property acquired its original development entitlements; that is, why anyone thought twin 19-storey buildings in that location would enhance or benefit Victoria. Clearly, there are few enlightening lessons to be taken from the hard mind of the developer, but many from the effort to understand why people in the City of Victoria’s political and administrative circles thought such land use entitlements were a good idea in the first place. Progress? Need? Someone’s careless idea? Stupid season? Remember: Everything bearing on land use expression is someone’s idea, conceived to respond to an apparent need or exploit some opportunity or produce some beneficial social outcome. Of course, what often happens in the process is best described by a single word: “Oops.” Each individual land use outcome can be labelled a microscopic event in the city’s overall life, and we all want to believe the city is large and elastic enough to forgive and endure its mis-calls, but it doesn’t take too many ill-considered choices before a place becomes this instead of remaining or becoming that. All of which has special relevance now as Victoria slowly but surely, building by building, at Victoria scale, turns, either by design or accident, into this (both images Vancouver): And this: So, what’s so bad about that, you ask? After all, you go to Vancouver and it’s people just like us, not zombies or faceless automatons, right? And Vancouver’s dynamic, exciting, important! And this is the point at which you and I need to take a two-directional excursion into the recent past and near future, developing some ideas about current social evolution and how Victoria fits with all of that. ACROSS THE WORLD, politics and political structure as a system of social management, as a social vocabulary, as a way of apportioning individual and social power, as a way of getting at human aspiration, is either failing or waning. It lacks the tools to respond to the complexities of a global civilization anaged electronically—something that never existed before in human history—a civilization rendered geographically global by economic interactivity and the abstractions of finance and digital technology. We are, if I can resort to cliché, being ruled by money, by financial flows. Rulership, leadership, governance is passing from the various historical arrangements of political power to the power of capital and those who run its systems. People everywhere, in every nation and culture, are feeling a growing bewilderment and powerlessness, losing social meaning; and this may conceivably presage the dissolution of the nation-state, the national ‘tribe’—the current retreat from globalism, assertive nervous boundary conditions and national drum-beating attitudes notwithstanding. Today’s terrifying lurch to the right and the rise of the autocratic, authoritarian personality—the US under Trump, Brazil with Bolsanaro, Hungary with Orban and so on—itself implies a near-future bereft of citizenship as we currently understand it. Remember: the modern administrative state as a social model and a guarantor of rights and freedoms didn’t always exist or come with assurances. It’s a relatively new and still-evolving experimental tool for social management. Consider that a mere dozen generations ago, society was a largely familial proposition run by kings and queens. Politicians no longer dream of changing (improving) the world, daunted by the sheer chaos of its contemporary design. All political leaders can do is cosmetically manage the thinly veiled control that financial services, tech, and energy companies exert over all of us, while offering narratives of good and evil, or of limitless possibility, that seem increasingly vapid and hollow. All of these forces and trends are producing a mounting, spreading state of unreality in social life and significantly weakening the foundations beneath a number of social institutions. Privacy, for example, has practically evaporated and given way to surveillance and commodifiable transparency; and with that, a certain kind of selfhood or autonomy is vanishing. (You can tell privacy is going when you receive so many assurances that your privacy is being respected.) We are facing the central question of how to (and who or what intellectual regime should) manage a post-political future, and what is the shape, what are the goals, of human culture in such a future. (Structuralists might add that the arrival speed of such a future will determine if humanity can even endure such change.) This is human and social evolution—not progress necessarily, but change. Our protocols and culture, structures and institutions are still based in political sensibility, in ideology, and the rhetoric of social improvement. But all of this, argue contemporary thinkers including sociologist and social theorist Ulrich Beck, is a remnant condition simply caught in a final moment of poise, and steadily hollowing out in favour of economic management—management by finance—and the information flows such management requires. Ideological ideas about social management decreasingly define this emergent human condition. It’s all being washed aside, like the Age of Royalty before it. Ironic and telling, isn’t it, the accumulating social commentary about our new “financial aristocracy.” All of this connects to a local point, if I may circle back to built form, by which I really mean the scope and degree of consciousness that a community brings to built-form decisions. The point is that there really is a connection between physical form and social empowerment, that feeling of being a stakeholder in a community, of being a citizen. Yes, this stuff is abstract and resists measurement, but it isn’t imaginary. (This, by the way, is something Victoria’s regional amalgamation, bigger-is-cheaper advocates seem not to get. Bigger isn’t cheaper; it’s just bigger and it generates other less quantifiable costs.) NIMBY, for its part, gets half, but only half—the “I want to protect and preserve what I have”—of the social equation right. What it gets wrong is that you can’t simply say “No!” Active citizenship requires that you conceive and implement affirmative (and inevitably compromissory) ways to say, “Yes!” You have to build and reinforce and re-strengthen democratic civic practice every day. You have to solve problems and produce outcomes through your own direct engagement, and not with a taxpayer’s delegation sensibility: “we have people who look after that.” You have, in other words, to re-engage and re-earn your rights every day. The current culture trap makes active citizenship of this kind seems antiquated and almost silly, a waste of mental and physical time in the face of other social priorities. But I will tell you with certainty that social passivity is spreading, and that it is increasingly reinforced by electronic infrastructure and online culture that between them mediate ever more reality for us; and that our doom lies in that direction: a likely combination of the evaporation of authentic democratic protocols, ecological ruin and AI domination. Set within such concerns is an explanation of Victoria’s appeal. Our urban character and traditional architecture—the planning and land use principles they express—convey the social message that Victoria is a place in which traditional, comprehensible human arrangements are still alive and well, where community and its social transactions and political opportunities are still valid. Visitors ooh! and ahh! when they come here, and use words like “charming” and “cute,” but they are actually conveying their own deep yearning and a deep loss, or fear of loss, elsewhere. With every ooh! they mean “your city is a rock in a world adrift.” Imagine yourself a visitor to Victoria: say, a walk along Dallas Road; a walk through Beacon Hill Park; then funky, relaxed, still sort-of heritage-y Downtown and intriguing, memory-rich LoJo and Fisgard/Chinatown; other reasonably well-ordered, mixed-form neighbourhoods. The nature/culture balance, the proportion, success and human safety of it all…the containment! Visitors may never articulate this to their hosts or even themselves, but don’t imagine for a second that they aren’t aware of it, taking it in through their skin and senses. The world is not a relaxed place. It is terrifying; and order, safety, are—well, not illusions, exactly, so much as a set of islanded conditions exposed to the roil of history. Do such places, like our city, come with a forever, a guarantee? You know the answer. Everyone knows the answer. While in the short term they may appear to be the gifts that keep on giving, their perpetuity should never be taken for granted, but met with humility and citizenly reinvestment. There, quite bluntly, is the case for engaged citizenship. However understandable and forgiveable, our failure to eradicate homelessness and associated social risk and outsider-ness; our failue to conceive innovative built forms and the appropriate policies to deliver urban density without social damage; or to achieve high (or higher) levels of urban and architectural design in public and private settings; to serve as a model and a beacon of ecological practice; and to invent new public ritual around all such achievements (“Ritual,” states social critic Richard Sennett, “is an emotional unity achieved through drama.”)—in summary, to engage and innovate—are the challenges that confront our civic community. They never go away. View Towers still stands to remind us of the costs of inattention; and high above it is this message written in the ether: stick with the hard work of citizenship because disregard carries the greater cost. 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, and writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological.
  7. May 13, 2020 The Jawls provide us with examples of how buildings can reflect and build a rational, respectful social vision. I HAVE THIS WAKING FANTASY…Mayor Lisa Helps, just after the start of her first term, back in 2014, is invited by UDI, the property developers’ organization, to be the luncheon speaker. Understandably, the membership wants to get a sense of the priorities, policy directions and “body English” of this new mayor. There are about a 140 attendees, seated at round tables, munching rubber chicken. Finally, lunch eaten and announcements announced, it’s showtime. The mayor is introduced, steps to the rostrum to warm applause, utters the usual pleased to’s and thank you’s, then says: With niceties out of the way, let’s get to the meat: If you have any intention of undertaking development in or near Downtown, and especially if you are considering a high-rise, do not—I repeat, do not—show up at the planning counter with anything less than a beautiful building design. You want to do a Vancouver building? Go to Vancouver. You want to put up some soulless piece of crap that’s going to reduce the special and unique character, the true value, of Downtown and the city? You want to do cold and inelegant, when Victoria needs warm, appealing, detailed? Uh-uh. Not here. Goodbye. You now have a mayor who will do everything possible to stymie such buildings and frustrate their approval at least until Oblivion. You don’t know what beautiful and graceful and distinguished and character-filled means? You don’t understand those words? “Like, what does she mean, beautiful and graceful?” Maybe you should choose another profession. Or maybe you’re professionally under-educated. Margins are thin and the market won’t support what I’m asking for? You can’t make money if you do a beautiful building? Please, before you utter those words, warn me and give me time to step away, so I don’t get hit by lightning when God strikes you dead for lying. Guys, I know how to read a development pro forma, I know market conditions, and I know you’re doing just fine. Your responsibility is to your bottom line, your lender, your investors? My responsibility is to the character, history, singular identity, destiny—the social, cultural and even spiritual future—of this city. You think your proposal really is beautiful and maybe I just can’t see it because our ideas of beautiful are different? Are you that debased? Look, this is Victoria, named for a powerful queen, not Dystopia, named for the end of the world. But I tell you what: you bring us a beautiful building, and the City will process your application at light speed. Any questions? Well, thank you so much for this speaking opportunity! Poof! Now, back to the real Downtown, overtaken, mid-makeover, by an increasing number of ice-cold towers. The city is about to wake up from this Downtown “facial,” when the building boom ends in five or so years, take one look in the mirror, and start screaming. It is being ruined by developers who operate in a moral vacuum that excludes any interest in, or awareness or understanding of, Victoria’s singularity, and by a City that doesn’t have the courage to announce: “We will only survive this hard age if we keep our soul intact.” History, in case you hadn’t noticed, is manufacturing great risks to social order and is producing everywhere a collapsing public realm. Victoria’s mission to redeem the future has never faced challenges like those now materializing. The problem is either caused or aggravated (maybe both) by ever-spreading cultural bankruptcy: a loss of civic story. If Mayor Helps told developers that their real project client was the city’s soul and future, they would think she was out on a day-pass. In a potent December, 2019 essay, “The 2010’s Were the End of Normal,” former NY Times chief book critic Michiko Kakutani wrote: “Apocalypse is not yet upon our world as the 2010s draw to an end, but there are portents of disorder. The hopes nourished during the opening years of the decade—hopes that [the world] was on a progressive path toward growing equality and freedom, hopes that technology held answers to some of our most pressing problems—have given way, with what feels like head-swiveling speed, to a dark and divisive new era.” If any of this mood-painting carries meaning for you and stirs your own worries, I urge you, for reasons of counterpoint and the restoration of emotional equilibrium, to journey out to Selkirk Waterfront Project, the Jawl family-owned and managed development on the Gorge. Other Jawl projects—Mattick’s Farm, Sayward Hill, the emerging Capital Park in James Bay, 1515 Douglas/750 Pandora, across the street from city hall, the Atrium at Yates and Blanshard—all share with the 25-acre Selkirk Waterfront Project a “signature,” a subtle but recognizable message about proportion and “enough-ness”; and none presents a sociopathic, chin-first challenge to destiny. Given the emergent crop of Trump Towers in Downtown Victoria, this is saying something. The Selkirk Waterfront Project as seen from the trestle across Selkirk Water (click to enlarge) Your mind registers the nomenclature: waterfront, farm, hill, park, atrium—the suggestion that by intention, where possible, buildings and projects are named as objects in a familiar experiential landscape and, even in their naming, take on responsibility to promote connection and continuity. (Interestingly, “1515 Douglas” is their least successful essay.) Walk, bike or drive around the Selkirk Project’s curving boulevards, study its buildings, their architectural variety, range and intermix of purpose, their respect for each other as objects or sites of human endeavour, their restraint and rationality. It’s this rationality, the elusive presence of design thinking, that I wish most to consider. I want you to imagine the Jawl family, to flow in and occupy and study the Jawl mind, a mind that seems by intention to promote composure about land use planning and architecture and, by extension, a framework of composed thought about how the world-at-large should be ordered, at least in the ways that land use speaks to human arrangements and possibilities. Remember: every idea and decision about form and architectural character, about shape, massing and height, colour and texture, building proximity, juxtaposition of uses and location/choice of external amenities, adjacencies—building citizenship, in other words—is informed by a social vision. Sure, by economics, but more essentially by a vision of how the human project should be shaped and should unfold, what consequences it should produce. In many developments around town you can read self-absorption, a trivial love of trend or novelty, synthetic drama, risk-taking, and the not-so-hidden violence of opportunity capture—fragile, adolescent ego, children playing grownups, in other words. And in many other projects it’s easy to detect a passionless actuarial sensibility in which physical results express only an economic calculus and communicate complete aesthetic, moral and cultural abdication. However, you can read in the Jawl property portfolio a rare and important calm, a long or at least longer view, a rationality and patience, an investment in something—some outcome—beyond the real estate. I’m suggesting that Jawl Properties somehow projects, through a set of architectural behaviours and choices, or design problem resolutions, a profound belief in rational human governance and social equilibrium. Jawl's various projects, in an almost mystical process, embody and advance the purpose and essential social promise of Victoria itself: Safety. You understand, of course, Victoria was conceived to be Heaven on Earth. Can’t you read that in its DNA, in its various parts and pieces? Did you think “a little bit of Old England” was just or only a joke? Victoria ever strives to meet its promise. You must have some sense of the stakes, the risks, facing any transcendental social experiment, especially in crippled human chapters like our own: the challenge of keeping chaos from ruining what we have built. This is why every architectural miscall, every bad building, diminishes the place, reduces its value. There is some quality of human blueprint, of a larger, longer purpose, still (if waningly) evident in our current Victoria—a sense of mission, and clear proof that cities are ideas about, and expressions of, human intention. In a world now catching fire this is a calm place, “fixt like a beacon-tower above the waves of Tempest,” as Tennyson wrote. Victoria’s job was to project the message, and its art form remains to deepen the protocols, of successful social collaboration in a world of fraying partnerships. Darran Anderson, in his remarkable Imaginary Cities, notes that the Egyptian hieroglyph for city also means “mother.” He considers this a rare and significant historical admission “that cities were founded according to nurturing and social environs and not the heroism of mythic individuals, often enshrined to justify dynastic rulers.” Safety, not danger. As civilization readies the terms of some next vast spasm, consider the contribution the Jawls, as social artists, have made to defining Victoria as a world capital of safety. It’s a big job and they can’t have too much company. 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, and writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological.
  8. March 2020 Scenes of homelessness challenge any illusion that our city is well-ordered—and call for a new blueprint for community. I DON’T WANT TO BREAK A SWEAT attempting to conflate hope and home, but it’s hard not to notice that they share three-quarters of their architecture. I know: you’re sorely tempted to note, so do hole, hone, hose and hove. Remember when you had that stupid idea to create dinner-flavoured ice cream (I recall you said pork chops and Brussels sprouts would “go monster”)? I kept my mouth clamped shut, even when everybody suggested you might, for a change, want to start receiving your mail on Planet Earth. So, like, work with me now, okay? Hope, home. Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog made the news down here this past December suggesting that for some of the street population—the mentally ill and the thoroughly (I won’t write “hopelessly”) addicted—housing was less the appropriate response than institutionalization and some updated package of professional health management. Predictably, he caught shit for this from the handwringer contingent that, in its opposition, invoked horrific, Dickensian images of turreted insane asylums and the baying of the hounds. Me? I dunno. I’ve been around too long to have much faith that the rhetoric of perfect solutions bears any relationship to our (diminishing) ability to successfully manage social outcomes. The reasons for my doubts follow later in this column. But, despite those doubts, I cannot heap enough praise on everyone associated with Our Place and other places of protection who, daily, practice hope/home in every way possible. I recall a recent 5am coffee run to McDonalds at Pandora and Vancouver. En route, I spotted a lump—a garbage or duffel bag—on the far sidewalk, across Pandora from the restaurant. As I made the turn, the image resolved in my headlights: a man, hunched over into the smallest possible volume, his bare toes, knees and forehead in contact with the cold pavement, a crutch or cane beside him. He remained there, still as sculpture. He might have been lost in the intensities of Islamic prayer; he could have been dead. Homeless man on Pandora Avenue Victoria, we are producing—not allowing or enabling, but authoring—a new normal: the every night/overnight tent city in front of Our Place on Pandora, the ever-proliferating camperati in Beacon Hill and other city parks, the Downtown doorway crashers, the cardboard real estate everywhere, the tarp-covered shopping cart third-world-ification of the city’s sidewalks. I’m less interested in individual whats and whys than I am concerned about the social messaging and emotional impacts on the community-at-large, whose failure to more constructively manage this entire human tragedy is reinforced daily, as we disappear ever further into our individual electronic privacies. If you hit the right street at the worst time, the scene effortlessly conveys the atmospherics of one of sci-fi author William Gibson’s terrifying and apocalyptic futurologies. Welcome to Downtown Victoria 2020—real scenes that challenge any illusion that our community is well-ordered, socially coherent, or a place of practiced comfort and safety. When you have a public that effectively says “they’re homeless, so fuck ’em,” you court—no, you may count on—overall “fuck it” city life; and, owing to some strange social alchemy, all of us rendered separate human atoms, outsiders. Headlines gathered from the December 30, 2019 Times Colonist front page: “Police release video of stabbing attack;” “Man being sought by Victoria police after attempted kidnapping;” “Police look for men who broke into Oak Bay liquor store;” “Security guard stabbed after confronting suspected shoplifter.” And with bright promise for the new year, the January 3rd paper added, “One man arrested after fight with weapons in Centennial Square.” Just what brought and keeps you here, yes? Community, to the extent the word speaks to public life, realm, and assets, is not an afterthought and it cannot, beyond a certain point, be offloaded to City departments. Community begins with co: together, shared, us, everybody, mutuality, reciprocity. And big shock: community takes work, time, purpose and structure. Community has to be behaviour, about something; otherwise, it’s not community, only a cultural conceit, social lipstick, starry-eyed blab, an artifact. Columnist Nicholas Kristof and colleague Sheryl WuDunn recently penned a painful-to-read New York Times piece entitled “Who Killed the Knapp Family?” It chronicles five adult Knapp siblings, born and raised in rural Yamhill, southwest of Portland, Oregon, all but one of whom died from drugs, alcohol and similar misadventures and excesses (the surviving fifth served a long jail term). As Kristof and WuDunn make all too clear, the Knapps were victims of social and economic despair. Yamhill, the writers assert, is everywhere now—a condition incorporating addiction, lack of work, lack of a social safety net, lack of purpose, lack of exit. Suicides, note the authors, “are at their highest rate since World War II; one child in seven is living with a parent suffering from substance abuse; a baby is born every 15 minutes after prenatal exposure to opioids.” “We have deep structural problems half a century in the making,” they finish. Build the wall, Justin!—but no, too late: the same conditions that increasingly colour the American social and political landscape easily penetrate the Canadian membrane. While we do social management better here (health care, notably), we still have our own fish to fry, and our own talent for us-and-them identity politics. Don Evans, recently retired CEO of Our Place, has written of his own shock at the scale of the homeless. He cites poverty and its consequences as an obvious factor, but worriedly notes other constituencies that “we never imagined would end up on the street: neglected youth, injured workers, abused women, and people suffering from brain injuries and mental health issues that can strike anyone, at any income level, at any time.” We’re living in bad-dream times, a spreading hallucinatory condition that intrudes on the everyday, the customary, with ever-greater presence, a revolution not just of perception, but meaning and connection. With surprising suddenness, it’s a challenge to stand firm, to identify fixed points, to know exactly where the solid ground and the corners are. Take away even some of the “common”—shared experience, practice, sense of purpose and reinforcing protocols—and you no longer have community, just people shuffling around the same postal code. Look, “resilient” was only ever “fragile-with-prayer.” Things are breaking— conventional social behaviour, the terms of safety and security. Various economic and cultural certainties are diminishing, wobbling, and life is soon to be more…well, different. And when AI /robotics take all the jobs…? Imagine, however novelistically, a spooky, not-too-distant future Downtown filled with half-empty apartment towers and long stretches of shuttered shops, victims of online commerce, unsupportable costs, and vanished shopper appetite; the streets witness to an increasing Calcutta of shopping-cart homeless, bolstered by untold numbers living in their parked cars—not because the wife threw them out, but because life threw them out. Lots of car-campers here now, by the way, if you know where to look besides Dallas Road. History—our two- maybe three-generation experience of comfort and certainty—is rolling up, suicidally jumping into some dark void, trailingly calling bye-bye. Terrifying! You don’t like that idea? You don’t like any of this? What are you going to do about it? Not a taunt, but an honest question: what are you going to do about it? You want to understand Victoria’s continuing and remaining appeal—so precious, so rare, and so at risk? It’s not that the city is still “cute” or “charming” (the recent and continuing rash of tombstone high-rises has put paid to that), but that the social messaging conveyed by still-orderly residential streets in the close-in neighbourhoods, and a few isolated islands Downtown (LoJo for example) suggest Victoria still offers social redemption and is not (yet) a zombie stage set like many other overtaken places. There are in Victoria still places of beauty, proportion and memory, places of comprehensible social narrative—streets, blocks, neighbourhoods—that calm the soul and that promise protection and continuity. These places are community’s physical expression: they project connection, and silently rebuke us for the wider social inheritance we’ve squandered or misplaced. The message—hell, it’s a shout—to our still-reasonably-healthy, still-promising city society, better equipped than most to survive (the worst of) the future, is that these are times for the hard work of community renewal. Indifference and passivity have revealed their limits and generated predictable consequences, including the tragic streetscape of the homeless. Now it’s time for a movement, a new activist programme, a new blueprint for community, to reconnect the city to—to re-express the city as—the all of us. The hopeful news? Again, social alchemy. Merely convening to restore community creates new community. Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept.
  9. July 2019 Parsing the promo material for a new development near the Esquimalt Lagoon. HERE'S A RULE OF THUMB: when, or wherever, you see the word “nestled” in real estate advertising copy, make the sign of the cross and run at top speed in the other direction. You need nestling? Go to your partner, or the park, to your therapist, guru or support group, your pet corgi; hell, your pet rock. I urge this in behalf of the last remnant shred of authentic human emotion. That was emotion, not emoticon. The torn genius employed by Rennie Marketing—a Vancouver-based company engaged by various real estate developers to find a route to your dreams (and your credit limit) via any orifice that can be pried open and penetrated—has advanced to Hell by at least six damnations for seduction in behalf of a new townhouse/condo project, Two Waters, that has in its crosshairs a large, verdant, ocean-side ex-paradise in Colwood bracketed by nearby standard-issue suburbs and, if Lagoon Road project signs can be trusted, other quick-sprouting projects for neighbours. Two Waters' online promotional material There’s a whole lotta nestling going on these days in real estate promotion. Presumably, “nestled” will be claiming overtime pay because “Hidden gem!”, “Opportunity knocks!”, “Dreams do come true!” and “Was that an eagle calling to its young, or star-song passing over an angel’s wing?” all have exhaustion breaks and time off for good behaviour. The language in the promotional copy is skillful, self-aware and coy—if those terms don’t overly contradict each other—and loaded with manufactured longing in roughly the same way that all us young guys used to protest, “No, I’m saying you’re beautiful and I love you because you’re beautiful and I love you, not because I want to get into your pants. Why do you always have to think I wantsomething?” Consider the totemic name of this Colwood project: Two Waters. My instincts tell me this has nothing to do with “hot” and “cold” (though “still” and “sparkling” bear further study). The project moniker pole-vaults over the likes of Meadowview Acres (never a meadow in view) or Marlene Estates (developer’s girlfriend). No, this is all “one with the land,” along with a conspicuous cultural and linguistic mortgage in favour of First Nations culture. Online promotional copy for this master-planned development states, in part: “We respect the land and each other. We carry the responsibility of stewardship. We share resources and nature.” Definitely that “nestled” guy, finally off the crystal meth but now clearly high on grass and kumbayah. The heraldic logo for the project, which floats at the edges of a full-page newspaper ad and a promotional mailer, both of which now sit in front of me, features two sets of wavy lines drawn at right angles to each other, encircled by “Two Waters In Balance.” Balance. What is balance? Sounds like a good thing, like something you need and from which you would benefit. Ironists might claim “balance” should never be caught un-tethered from “bank;” but, then, that kind of cynicism is just heartbreak’s porch door. In today’s world of multiplying angers and rising dangers, and trapped, as we are, in a global community whose last shred of equipoise could vanish in a risky heartbeat, “balance” is powerful cultural code. The word invokes a mountain of Zen-inflected ooga-booga and is, of course, enshrined in the Victoria Charter of Rights, Vibes and Gimmes. It has enormous market heft because it all but claims parentage from some holy book. Remember the good old days (I’m casting back to the ’70s and ’80s) wearing your “truth face” to advertise your rarified spiritual credentials, and to get laid? Kind of like that. “Balance,” in other words, is a t-shirt, a bumper sticker, the adult option, I suppose, to “Paint With Rainbows.” “A new vision of community begins with a bird’s eye view,” warbles the full-page ad. And there, just beside the aerial photograph of the property, and within reach of the gag-worthy banner “It will take a village” (I swear I’m not making this up), is a picture of a heron in profile—clearly on the payroll for now, but soon to be served with a scram notice when the ‘dozers start to rumble. Is that a heartbroken, prefigurative tear rolling from its eye down its long beak? Can’t quite tell. But wait: the copywriter moves way past all this manipulative child’s play with a statement in the mail-piece so mystical, ambiguous, recondite, code-loaded and indivisible that you might easily conclude its various claims had been annealed in Heaven’s smithy: “Today, progressive living is as much about thoughtful architecture and design as it is about sustainable practice.” …There’s a tricksome little smile on your face. You’ve just pulled the cork on a very decent white; the hints-of-brown-sugar sockeye and your secret-spiced mustard greens will be ready soon; the killer Caesar salad’s already on the candlelit table; and once again you have perfectly timed the cork pop with the punch line of your by-now-patented ski adventure story about being chased by and outrunning, actually out-skiing, ha-ha, a mini-avalanche rumbling down the slope mere feet behind you. Your brother and his new (second) wife are over; so are neighbours Ben and Elissa from the next building (you’ve bonded over herbicide-free landscaping). You hope tonight you can shoulder-check your brother if, a glass or two in him, he starts in again with that anti-bike-lane rant. Besides, you have an important announcement to make about the Canada/Mexico inter-cultural project that you’ve been working on for two years…. Ahhh, progressive living! I’ll attempt a less novelistic deconstruction. “Progressive living” is code for a lucky life—the life you want for yourself—filled with self-celebration, apotheosis, the happy marriage of intelligence, education and good taste, all of it validated and made worry-free by a terrific income and a gilt-edged investment portfolio. “Living the dream” is a passable colloquial synonym. As for the rest of that Two Waters promotional meta-poetry above, consider: how could you possibly see anything in your mind’s eye but those two cha-cha-ing pixies of “thoughtful architecture and design” (to be fair, the project is designed by brilliant architectural practitioner Paul Merrick) and “sustainable practice?” On closer inspection, those pixies appear not just to be dancing, but copulating, for God’s sake! Wal-Mart, by the way, if blunter and slightly less iambic, is no less aspirational: “Save Money, Live Better.” Real estate has always been about better tomorrows, a projection of some hidden you yearning for release and expression. The text, the written thesis, of Two Waters hypothesizes and then beckons to a you still capable of emotional sunrise, innocence, hope for the future and strong skills of bad-news management; that is, insulation from today’s abrasive social noise and all those worrying headlines. Honestly, what is a home if it can’t keep risk at bay? René Girard, French philosopher of social science, developed a theory of mimetic desire. That is, we borrow our desires from others. Far from being autonomous, our desire for a certain object or experience is always provoked by the desire of another person—the model—for this same object. This means that the relationship between the subject and the object is not direct: there is always a triangular relationship of subject, model, and object. In the case of Two Waters, the voice or persona of the promotional material itself has skillfully appropriated the model role. So, you’ve made up your mind? You’re going to buy in Two Waters beside the Esquimalt Lagoon? Best to give a read first to David Wallace-Wells’ new book, The Uninhabitable Earth—Life After Warming, just so you have a good feel for the melting speed of the Arctic Ice Sheet and its likely impact on sea rise. After all, you don’t want to buy near-waterfront only to discover you’re the chagrined owner of a float-home. Also, news junkie that you are, you will have noticed that demagoguery and autocracy, not democracy, is a growing global political trend led, and cheer-led, by that orange-haired sociopath south of us. Frankly, given mounting prospects for international fisticuffs anywhere, at any scale, Two Waters might do well appealing to our need for safety as well as lifestyle: “Today, progressive living is as much about an assured berth in Two Water’s fully stocked underground bomb shelter as it is about the cornucopian food-and-medicine survival kit included with every home…and an added thoughtful touch: a ‘surrender’ flag in every front hall closet.” I know, doesn’t quite have that ring. Those two poor pixies, backs now bent in defeat and sorrow. But trust me: when slogans like “Make America Great Again” are working, it’s a sign that little else is. Oh, if I may indelicately remind you: Trump is a property developer. Two Waters whispers a solemn promise to return you to a lost paradise when nature was your friend and partner, and was the source of material and spiritual bounty. Two Waters pledges to restore some utterly lost harmony. Crippled nature, unfortunately, has retreated, its very essence jeopardized by human intervention. Retreated, but not utterly or permanently—Genesis 3:19 (King James Version): “…for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” The ultimate real estate advertising headline, if you think about it. Founder of Open Space and Monday Magazine, Gene Miller once ran an advertising agency in Victoria (Broughton Communications Group).
  10. March 2019 Will new Downtown buildings help our resiliency and community in the face of social upheaval? LEONARD BERNSTEIN ANNOUNCED his retirement from conducting on October 9, 1990, and five days later died of a heart attack at his Manhattan apartment in The Dakota. At his funeral procession through the streets of Manhattan, construction workers removed their hats and waved, calling out “Goodbye, Lenny.” A city family big enough to have heroes and small enough to weep at their passing. A place, not an anywhere. Cities, communities of people, need identity and are bound by story; they need to be a who, and need as an urban culture to share that story, to feel like participants in its abstractions, its history and practices—things that can be seen and felt. I’m so glad I live in “a little bit of old England,” a city where everywhere you turn, you’re presented with remind—what, that’s gone, too?! The Jukebox under construction on View Street Victoria’s current Empire State Building frenzy of Downtown highrise development should abate in the early 2020s, the market (temporarily) exhausted, the last cement truck off to its Bay Street home. Then, we may witness our works. It is certain that Downtown’s visual identity, personality and place-mood—its qualities, to use that old-fashioned word—will have been transformed; and clear that the city missed (or forewent) the opportunity to try to understand the why, the secret sauce, of this (fadingly) singular place, to figure out how to re-fashion Downtown’s best qualities within some new urban and social design expression. Ever visited someone who lives on the upper floors of one of Victoria’s Downtown-area highrises or, for that matter, driven or walked to the top of Beacon Hill? It’s the breathtaking views, baby! The vista! At even a modest elevation, our surrounding land- and waterscape become legible. You part the living room curtains, you crest the park hill, your eye takes it in, your spirit lights up. The panorama offers perspective, permits context and clarity; you know where you are. Lucky you! As an upper-storey highrise resident, even if you have not yourself become a god, you mingle with the gods. View confers both social and spiritual status. View delivers something humanly important. You need only consult the imagery and symbolism of Medieval and Renaissance religious art to be fully exposed to the meaning and value of such elevation. Higher is liberating. Higher implies supervisory status. In a symbolic act whose meanings can hardly be missed, royalty sits on a throne: authority, author, self-maker, creator. Higher magnifies and places one closer to the energetic source—at a guess, the timeless, essential influence of the sun working on human consciousness, rituals, social protocols…and real estate pricing! The human roil is, by contrast, in the opposite direction, grounded. Hell is the hard game of the sidewalk. Consider that Christ was down with the people, a real mingler, before God bumped him upstairs. (Miracle explained! You’re welcome.) Enough exegesis; it’s my point that highrise and lowrise embody different webs of meaning, different human expressions—the one individuating, self-spotlighting, isolating; the other democratic, compromissory, socially binding, messy. It isn’t that Victoria skipped on the opportunity to stand athwart the Highway to The Future, stern arms held out straight to reject the furies of the highrises as they marched into town. Rather, it skipped on the opportunity to initiate strategies to neutralize and even convert their fortifying and privatizing tendencies and impacts. The defensive materiality of each new building, palpably projecting a guarded, gated, securitized response to unspecified forms of stranger danger, the impermeability—glass, metal, concrete, gating—of these buildings tells you much: not architectural welcome or community, but defense, privacy, protection, isolation. And the visual poverty, the shab and physical disrepair, the indifference and lack of aesthetic programming, of the adjacent public realm wordlessly articulates a perverse and unhealthy public/private partnership: public dangerous/private safe, the very opposite of a blueprint for human connection and successful city-making. In some small way, I cite the absence of social literacy amongst developers. This is not a crowd that sits up nights reading history and philosophy. They don’t teach Utopian Urbanism 101 at the School of Developology. The largest responsibility, though, falls to civic leadership, both elected and managerial, and equally with us so-called citizens who, increasingly bemused by public life and alienated from its meanings, find interaction much beyond the coffee shop patio unsanitary and risky. I understand: cultures lose sensibility or, to be generous, swap old aptitudes (and attitudes) for new, voluntarily discarding and forgetting the old, in the relentless push for currency. But novelty, which we reflexively celebrate, also disguises or embodies cultural dislocation—a turn too sharp to navigate, a gap too wide to comfortably jump. It takes time (if time’s even the cure) for a culture to make meaning of and to integrate various forms and expressions of novelty, to test them for truth and utility…and consequences—the “oracular and critical potencies of the commonplace,” as Mike Davis puts it in his book of essays, Dead Cities. Nothing will substitute for a community-wide dialogue, however faltering and argumentative at the start, about the idea of urbanity here, and the various possibilities of its physical expression in buildings and the public realm. If a community, through its municipal structure, can’t or won’t tell public realm designers and city budgeters about its values and priorities, and tell Downtown newcomer buildings how to behave, nothing else will. Developers are risk managers, not social rhapsodists. The gleam in their eye is profit and return on investment, not some vision of a better world. Actually, I correct myself: I can think of at least four industry philosophers and/or visual poets in Victoria. First, Max Tomaszewski and partner David Price, (Essencia Verde in Cook Street Village, and the former Medical Arts Building, Cook and Pandora, now re-branded The Wade). Next, mad artist Don Charity (Mosaic, Jukebox). Third, Chris LeFevre (Railyards, and numerous Downtown heritage renewals). Last, Bijan and Faramir Neyestani, responsible for the Aria, the Paul Merrick-designed masterpiece on Humboldt Street. Glimpse, imaginatively, a more empowering and citizen-esque Downtown Victoria furnished with useful or whimsical public realm features (including soapboxes), and buildings that meet the street generously in an aesthetic and social partnership; people (including yourself) acting more publicly connected, more owners of the public realm, their behaviour more extroverted, engaging, less wary, estranged and carapace-like. In his intermittently wise book Twelve Rules For Life, Jordan Peterson observes: “Before the Twin Towers fell—that was order. Chaos manifested itself afterward. Everyone felt it. The very air became uncertain. What exactly was it that fell? Wrong question. What exactly remained standing?” Peterson’s clever phrasing begs for local application: “There are compelling economic and land use arguments in support of all the new Downtown residential highrises. Are the buildings generating a new story about Victoria? Wrong question. What’s the message?” Please, don’t leave this column thinking I’m just being fussy about “frosting” or decorative trivialities Downtown. There are other, deeper reasons to foster powerful public community Downtown. Cities concentrate human potential in all its physical and cultural expressions. But remember: with grace comes gravity. Inherent in this, in any, urban concentration, however rich in promise, is an anarchic, explosive, counter-social impulse (people who don’t want to play) whose mildest expressions are inertia, social disaffection and petty crime, and most powerful, widespread anomie and serious damage to the urban fabric. (“Violence is a quest for identity. The less identity, the more violence,” noted Marshall McLuhan.) Believing these are normal times, we take normal steps to define and patrol social boundaries and identity, and in so doing we take as faith the durability of an invisible, shared public code that transmits and stabilizes the personality and the culture of the city. But social codes wane, lose their potency and relevance, and no amount of authority—or repressive propriety—will compensate for their decline. It’s hardly alarmist to describe these times as a corner-point, a civilizational moment. National politics is in many places shattered and, concurrently, life’s becoming a risky technological tomorrowland. Ever the crucible, the US is home to increasing social absenteeism. In American social critic James Kunstler’s words: “we can’t construct a coherent consensus about what is happening to us, and therefore we can’t make any coherent plans about what to do.” Can we in Victoria remain or re-become an identifiable and coherent urban community, not simply a crowd of people to whom the future happens? Healthy urban culture must be authored and constantly renewed. And land use, urban form and urban design—what goes where, and why, and with what consequences—is central to that process. Such concerns address social resilience and the almost painterly conditions required to sustain it. (A powerfully enhanced advisory design process couldn’t hurt.) History’s knocking hard everywhere, right now—a moment astutely decoded by architecture critic and writer Nathaniel Popkin: “Ours is an age of loss disguised as plenty.” Despite all urgency, in this vast fog-state of paradox we’re lost and immobilized, amorphous, not focused, stupid about history, stupid about the future. Time to be smart, fellow citizens...before the page turns. Jason McLennan, founder and chair of the board of the International Living Future Institute and Cascadia Green Bulding Council will be giving a talk about “The Livable City” on Wednesday, March 20 at 7pm, at the McPherson Theatre. Seats are free. Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept.
  11. January 2019 Downtown has 1000s of new units, yet it feels unwelcoming to many. MCDONALD'S, OPEN 24/7 at the corner of Douglas and View Streets, is an overnight hellhole and theatre of the absurd. If you can put the prefix dys in front of almost any hapless adjective, or un as in -hinged, -housed, -healthy, -happy, it describes the street-side atmosphere around the place. Really, you should visit some Friday or Saturday around 3am. It screams “major tourist attraction.” It struck me, south-bound on Douglas after a suburban mall run (the Devil never runs out of seductions), into the increasingly compressive maw of the City centre, that Downtown overall feels…well, hard, unsmiling. I had imagined that, as all of those newly sprouted high-rises filled up with new-minted citizens, the social tone on the streets would become happier, life more public and at least quietly, appropriately joyful. It hasn’t happened yet, to my senses, unless there’s a vast, conspiratorial joke being played on me: “Attention, 700-block Fort Street, Doomer Miller approaching. Everybody frown and look miserable, alienated and a bit psychotic.” What's not to like about all those new units of progress? Maybe I picked the wrong season. The storm clouds this December morning are looming about 40 feet off the ground, and even the peacocks in Beacon Hill Park (I’m now parked within sight of the petting zoo, nursing a large, two creams, two sugars) are clumsily attempting suicide by jumping out of trees. I initiated and organized the Downtown 2020 conference several years ago to study and attempt to plan for the rosy and singular future of this place. The confected vision, you won’t be surprised to learn, was of thousands of residential newcomers, walking arm-in-arm on gorgeous boulevards, admiring the clever and provocative public art and beautiful, generous landscaping; shopping, and leaving the friendly and appreciative merchants successful and happy; they’d be sitting at tables outside their favourite konditorei, the very picture and essence of gemütlichkeit, animatedly discussing (in, say, a Prague-inflected English—think Viktor Laszlo in Casablanca) the Victoria Art Gallery’s massive Klimt retrospective, the just-released new Don deLillo novel, trip-planning to Spain, and other choice pickings from that conversational buffet. The thesis was so simple, logical, commonsense: lots of new Downtown buildings filled with lots of new Downtowners conducting their lives in Downtown’s public realm, making everything safe, socially fizzy, successful—essentially, the theoretically sound (but never actually materializing) 2+2=4 of Downtown land use planning and social design (and swooning romantic idealism). Instead, we witness a work-in-progress of isolation, alienation, fortification; a streetscape of by-and-large desultory urban dormitories, hard and unwelcoming monuments to risk management, when what we need is buoyant, arms-open architectural expressions of the ever-perfecting human project. If we decorated our birthday cakes the way we decorate our buildings, all of us would blow our brains, not the candles, out. So, wha hoppen? Oh, a little thing known as the near-total shift of human values, social meanings and practices, consciousness, sensibilities, behaviours. The 21st century, that’s wha hoppen. Times have changed, to put it witlessly. “But, but, this is Vienn—I mean, Victoria,” you sputter, “the Land that Time Forgot!” Not a chance, sonny or honey. I mean, you must have some idea of what’s going on. Two little words: civilizational tectonics. Look, we steer, or try to steer, by icons, symbols, social signals, corner points (real or seeming) in our restless progress: home, family, opportunity, future, job, faith, politics, and a clutch of others. What made them valid doesn’t necessarily sustain their validity in this time of shortening forevers. Often as not, this produces cultural dislocation leading to hollow language, words that may still have some symbolic heft, but that no longer manage the emotional traffic, no longer truly tell us who we are, or how to behave, or how to order our values or shape and manage experience. In some circles, this is called cultural relativism; in others, the end of the effing world. If you add together all of the brand-new, recently or just-completed Downtown and shoulder-area residential projects, and those under various stages of construction, plus all of the development rumours, where property is being quietly offered for sale, or has been acquired, plans being drawn up, and where approvals will soon be given and ground broken—roughly, north to Capital Iron (whose entire property is currently for sale), south to the Empress (including that hollow yesteryear hulk of a Customs House building beside the Causeway, its memorable shell now held in place by a girder system), northeast a few blocks past Wellburn’s at Cook and Pandora (also sold, I believe), east of Cook a block or two up the Fort/Yates/ Johnson/Pandora shoulder—we are talking about at least 40 projects with a guesstimated average unit count of 100, and perhaps 1.5 residents average per dwelling. That’s a likely 6,000 newcomers calling Downtown home, now and soon…and Downtown physically, commercially, socially transformed. In three to four years—no time at all, in terms of Downtown’s evolution—you will barely recognize Downtown, barely be able to reconcile your earlier mental picture of Downtown’s quaint and pokey feel and ground-hugging scale with the quickly emerging physical reality. The memory-to-modernity balance will have shifted, making what remains of the old Downtown feel more I-remember-when, more museological, and less the defining qualitative centrepiece of the Victoria identity. Downtown will be vastly more populous, but how will the streets feel? Will Downtown present a more compelling case for frequent visits by all of us out-of-Downtowners, or will it seem unrecognizable to a lot of us, a candidate for the kind of dismissal directed at most North American Downtowns (including Vancouver’s): “I don’t go down there unless I have to”? Perhaps you recall a short letter, an omnibus complaint, from a Jim Gibson in the November 4, 2018 Times Colonist titled “Council leads the way into the abyss.” Here is a worried and slightly phrumphy excerpt from Gibson’s Scripture-toned note, which lacks only for a “yea” and an “unto”: “To those working in unison with Mayor Lisa Helps: Which one of you has the courage to allow the merchants on Fort Street to exhale by taking down the barriers to entry you have built? Who among you has the courage to fix the bike-lane fiasco? Who among you will allow Fort Street its rightful place as a three-lane artery? Who among you has the courage to stand up for a city you have already put on the precipice for decline by fast-tracking anti-business, anti-commuting and anti-tourist policies with the arrogant self-entitlement bias you continue to display? Will you let Victoria breathe again, or will you point fingers at those of us who want civilized progress?” I’m particularly taken with the florid, almost Shakespearean “Who among you will allow Fort Street its rightful place as a three-lane artery?” Alas, poor Fort Street, I knew it well. (I note Fort Street is still a three-lane artery, it’s just that one of the lanes is a bike lane.) Be patient, Mr Gibson. Downtown’s a work-in-progress. I fantasize some kind of social epiphany, thousands of Downtowners, arms linked—a glorious amalgam of Gilbert and Sullivan operetta and Paul Goodman-esque post-war 1950s/60s egalitarian optimism, housing the homeless, uptrodding the downtrodden, restoring human dignity, advancing social possibility. Said Goodman (author of Growing Up Absurd and many more): “I might seem to have a number of divergent interests—community planning, psychotherapy, education, politics—but they are all one concern: how to make it possible to grow up as a human being into a culture without losing nature. I simply refuse to acknowledge that a sensible and honorable community does not exist.” Our City could do worse at this moment than to embrace Goodman’s dogged and hopeful vision (a vision that runs so counter to present social practice) and string conspicuous but tasteful banners across all of the City’s key entry points: “Victoria waives the rules. Welcome to Paradise.” (God forgive me.) How to get there from here? How to break the dismal pattern of reticence and strangerhood and turn the public realm into an outdoor living room, something socially and visually operatic, a beautiful, generous, richly furnished, hopeful arrival-point from dormitory isolation and privacy to the public warmth and comfort of the human family? It’s time for a series of urban design charrettes: critical, analytical study sessions structured (and strictured) to force coitus on “extra” and “ordinary.” Oh, and a vast amount of funding. I’m sorry City councillors didn’t impose a development cost charge of $5,000 per new Downtown door four years ago. They, we, would now have a Downtown public realm amenity kitty approaching $20,000,000. “Civilized progress,” letter-writer Gibson requested. I don’t share his anxieties about Fort Street, but civilized progress sounds just peachy. Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept.
  12. October 2018 We know what we have to do. The only thing holding us back is… THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A PROBLEM WITHOUT A SOLUTION. It’s the nature, the “job,” even, of problems to have solutions, a structural requirement; just like there’s no such thing as a one-sided door, or a here without a there. So it is with the homeless “problem.” It has a solution; possibly several. One would be for all of us to be homeless (goodbye problem, hello trend or new normal); but, of course, that’s foolish to imagine, given current social and political stability, coupled to rosy global prospects. The homeless problem…oh, you want me to start by defining the homeless problem? Well, the homeless are a problem for themselves: they don’t have homes. And we are the homeless’s problem because we won’t house them, or do so by miserly and unsuccessful increments. And, of course, what do our crossing-the-street avoidance and averted gaze mean, if not that the homeless are a problem, a problem for us, like some design flaw in the otherwise promising human project. Everybody knows it, nobody says it. Instead, we speak in a kind of code. With wan conviction, we say we want “housing to be provided in appropriate locations,” etc. Translated into English, that means we want them to disappear. And ask yourself how well all of that’s working. Ron Rice, executive director of the Victoria Native Friendship Centre, claimed in early October: “There are over 2,000 homeless people in the city. Although the Goldstream tenters have become sort of the spotlight on the crisis we’re experiencing as a city, there’s a lot of homeless people in the city.” Over two thousand homeless? Jesus! That’s roughly one in two hundred over the entire regional population. Maybe it won’t be too long before the number is 3,000. You never know about the tricky and changeable future. I mean, if you do a casual inventory of your near-future expectations for society and hopes for security, isn’t economic risk and its consequences at or near the top? Well. I’d love to be wrong, but I sense that the pendulum is swinging toward risk, which may well yank the broomstick props from under a significant number of the just-hanging-on. (There are currently a surprising number of folks living in their cars in Victoria. Does that qualify as homeless? I don’t know.) So, now we all share a clear picture of the homeless problem? Good. Here is my coarse-grained solution to the homeless problem: we create places that can house 500 or more in clusters or “communities” of individual suites and present like a residential version of Uptown Shopping Centre (walk its internal “boulevard” to get what I mean). House and feed them, look after their physical and mental health needs. Provide calming wallpaper and nutrition breaks, counselling and life skills training and education. Lots of efficiently delivered services (society is spending a fortune now, anyway). Show movies every night. Deliver support cheques. Provide needed transportation. Consolidate all the usual homeless services, provide social and recreational spaces, make sure to include coffee joints. Give such places cozy monikers…is The Uplands taken? Resist the temptation to place these facilities out on the flatlands of the Saanich Peninsula, or out past Stewieville on the way to Sooke. There’s plenty of available land in both directions, but the isolation sends a horrible message. Victoria already knows what it needs to do: more structures like Rock Bay Landing (l) and Our Place More logically, identify available sites closer to the city centre. I just drove past a vacant square block—a whole block!—east side of Douglas, immediately north of Mayfair Mall, right at the Victoria/Saanich border. Or make deals with one or several of the car dealerships on Douglas, between Mayfair and Uptown. Their surface parking areas are enormous and, in some cases, contiguous. Purchase the air rights, leave the car dealership surface parking as-is, and build up and over. Toss in property tax breaks in perpetuity. My guess is that the owners would jump at the opportunity, considering that, courtesy of increasingly non-negotiable demands of the climate change agenda, the private automobile has 10 to 15 years left. After that, it’s all going to be non-private-car-owning Moto, share-car, car-on-demand and cleverly engineered new bicycles built for two or more. But, you exclaim, the costs of all that housing and services! The costs! Society is paying now—not just financially, but also through social wounds that are real if hard to price. And I say: a small price to pay for a job well done. The reason the homeless represent such a potent threat is that we know deep down those protective walls around the human project are not solid, but just images, membrane-thin, projected on shifting, filmy surfaces, like cloud. We understand exactly who and what we are, one layer below the surface, and what lurks in us, individually and together: darkness, danger, deconstruction, and all the violence that brings. Please, don’t scoff; this is just Nature 101. It’s a jungle in there! You would no sooner want “the homeless” living next to you than you would anything else that carries risk of infection—or the power to depress the resale value of your home. Border Crossings, the Winnipeg-based quarterly, in an interview piece about filmmaker David Lynch, quotes Lynch: the mind “is a big beautiful place, but it is also pitch-dark.” Pitch-dark. These are especially hard times. The drumbeat has been quickening, the skies greying, for a while, and at present you can feel social climax in the air; not in, or just in, Victoria, but everywhere. Civilization has an itch, and is beginning to scratch; not for the first time on the long voyage. If your sensitivities are appropriately tuned and your knowledge of history sufficiently well-informed, you must wake up gasping these days. It’s scary. Uncertainty, the sense of risk, is spreading over the entire landscape, challenging normalcy, the very structure of the everyday, on every front. You can put it all on Trump and the burgeoning extreme right if you want, but that still leaves the unanswered question: why did our, uh, cousins elect a demonstrably crazy narcissist psychopath criminal sonofabitch? In your heart, you know there were years of prelude in which social irritation was building...everywhere, not just America. Germany, for example, is gearing up for the return of heady “Sieg Heil!” days. The reason? Turkish and other immigrants polluting the ra—oh, sorry, taking German jobs. Operating under laws and corner-points of existence too mysterious for me to figure out, it seems that just when we’re lost in orgies of self-congratulation for our social, political, and economic accomplishments, that’s when the next valley, the next sorrow, forms and grows. You recall, in Voltaire’s Candide, the protagonists echo each other in bursts of lunatic Leibnizian optimism: “This is the best of all possible worlds!” Friends, history really does happen—not elsewhere, or elsewhen, but in front of us, right now. Did you imagine that “end of the liberal order” was just editorial page punditry? History is ever-poised to turn into…foreground. History loves headlines. Spend a candid moment with your own state of mind, not your the-city-should-undertake-longer-range-infrastructure-cost-planning upstanding citizen mind, but the in-the-bathroom-staring-at-your-spreading-middle/between jobs/trying-to-make-sense-of-life’s-changes one. Now, let your imagination drift. Be homeless. Work it. Follow your thoughts, minute by minute. Dinner? The discarded pizza crusts in somebody’s garbage can. Beer and soda can empties for income, wherever you can find them, maybe the same garbage can; or panhandling on the Causeway. Where are you going to sleep? After you lost the house, you slept in the car; then, you couldn’t pay car insurance; now, you crash in a doorway. How many days before you can pick up your next government cheque? Pills to straighten that roller coaster in your head. Somebody boosted your pack the other day? Aw! Need a new prescription? Tough shit. And now that you’re in the mood, reflect on those homeless activists screaming for housing, lifting the corner-flap so high you can see revolution and social anger and anarchy on a red boil. Meanwhile, back at the garden, “This place, Victoria, is so charming.” “Quite a tech hub you’re developing here.” “Omigod, you pay such a lifestyle premium shopping at Thrifty’s!” Folks are moving here by the planeload. Companies and businesses are locating or relocating here. “Welcome to Victoria. Net Worth Statement, Please.” So, why, given our social talents, expertise and worldliness, don’t we successfully house the homeless? Why do we remain poised—paralyzed, actually—between terror, resentment, anger, sympathy (at a proper remove) and understanding? Given the levels of human talent in this place, can’t we design a new solution to this old problem? By my roughest of estimates, we could eliminate regional homelessness for about $120 million in capital costs—roughly the cost of the new bridge. And much of the dough is already in place in the $90-million housing fund of the CRD, Province and Feds. I know, I know, you’re tired and you just want the world to work. Still, work’s never done, and we disregard those discordant notes beneath the community’s happy song at our peril. Finally, you ask: “And if we do this, actually succeed in providing reasonable housing and support services, do you promise that nothing else bad will happen and things will settle down? I promise, unconditionally. Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept.
  13. May 2017 As waves of newcomers arrive, opportunity and peril loom over our urban identity. FROM New York Times movie critic Stephen Holden’s review of director Alexandr Sokurov’s 2002 film, Russian Ark: “This ultimate display of wealth and privilege in the movie is so heady it would be easy to infer that Mr. Sokurov…harbors a lingering nostalgia for the pre-revolutionary era of czars and serfs. But this extraordinary sequence—courtly social life set within the Hermitage Palace in St. Petersburg—even more powerfully evokes the historical blindness of an entitled elite blissfully oblivious to the fact that it is standing in quicksand that is about to give.” It was 1971 and I was a newly-minted Victorian, having arrived here the year before from New York City via Prince Rupert (the story of that long rail journey some other time). I had just founded Open Space, the warehouse cultural centre on lower Fort Street that still bears my name (I swear, a letter showed up one day addressed: Open Space, 510 Fort Street, Victoria, BC and began: Dear Mr. Space…). I could barely conjure the next month’s rent, let alone funds for programming and physical plant improvements to sustain the cavernous, cruddy warehouse. “Go see Pam Ellis. She’s a patron of the arts,” said knowing friends over beers at the Churchill. They filled my head with tales of fabulous wealth earned, via her husband, Geoffrey, from the One-Hour Martinizing chain and, if I remember correctly, an English beer fortune thrown in. I made an appointment through Mrs. Ellis’ factotum, and on the day arrived a bit early at her 30-room bungalow on Runnymede Avenue. (Years before, God had thoughtfully created South Oak Bay around her home to provide a windbreak from the rude ocean breezes.) Mrs. Ellis was closeted improbably with Princess Chirinsky-Chikhmatoff (formerly Jennie Ross of Ross/Butchart Gardens fame, and wife, for a while, of dashing but impoverished Russian aristocrat Prince André Chirinsky-Chikhmatoff—a name evoking fairy-tale royalty, onion-domed castles, Glinka mazurkas, satin window swags, and flattering candlelight). So I waited in an anteroom, sipping flavourless tea, almost within earshot of their animated repartee. Eventually, the princess departed, and I was shown in. Awkward, bumptious, full of myself and my life-changing cultural vision, I launched, after introductions, into some unscripted and feverish explanation of Open Space and its cultural mission, hoping to convey the idea that, eclipsed only by the domestication of wild herds, the invention of the steam engine, and one or two other equally significant human milestones, Open Space was inarguably the most important cultural advance on the planet. All of this was larded with the worst eyewash and mangled promises of an ovation in this life and sainthood in the next for any benefactor whose dough might be leveraged to make this precious dream come true. I had to stop mid-peroration to catch my breath, which gave Mrs. Ellis an opportunity to interject an incongruous, loopy soliloquy about dieting. On and on she melodiously maundered about her efforts to reduce, gesticulating and patting her plump arms and generous middle. I adopted the glazed look of the fascinated listener: a treacly, sickeningly interested grin that in a more just cosmos would have been removed by a lightning bolt. To look at my face, you would think she was rattling off long swatches of flawless Tennyson verbatim. During this weird monologue about her weight-loss efforts, Mrs. Ellis spoke energetically to the middle distance above my head, as if to some balcony audience. Then, winding down, she turned straight toward me, her eyes penetrating deep within my shabby soul. The notes of caprice and gossipy self-absorption never left her voice as she said, “You know, Mr. Miller, its so hard being fat in a skinny world.” THOSE WERE THE DAYS. The wealthy could express metaphor and refinement (however synthetic); the aspiring rest of us had the sufferings to which we were fairly accustomed (apologies to Auden). And if there were reason to grumble about the rich, at least it was a microscopic consolation that they followed socially-approved protocols for cultural largesse via carefully-managed endowments. (God, listen to me! Where’s Tevye, from Fiddler, singing “If I Were a Rich Man,” when you need him?) Also, there was a faint sense that such plutocrats, less outright crooks than clever and aggressive opportunists, had at least made their fortunes by tapping legitimate and tangible market veins like beer and dry cleaning, and not asset-backed securities, derivatives, credit default swaps, leveraging, money bundling, or other dark and suspect financial arts. You may also accurately conclude that Victoria, while not immune to the winds of change, was “a little bit of Olde Inertia” those forty-five years ago, and still under the frosty and disorder-averse social influence of proper and vaguely British (roll your r, please) Oak Bay social aristocracy. Then, as now, provincial government was present, but a world apart from the city’s daily life. The Hudson’s Bay stood stolidly, massively, at the north end of Douglas, forbiddingly vending yesteryear’s styles, while a slightly less un-welcoming and “with it” Eaton’s at View and Douglas jumped Broad Street with an elevated pedestrian bridge. I have a possibly imagination-inflamed memory of busty, heavyset sales matrons in both stores, disapproving lifers whose body English and angry punching of the cash register keys proclaimed that spending money on frivolities like clothing was near to biblical sin. Murchie’s on Government Street, back then, likely sold more Earl Grey than coffee. You understand, these reminiscences send us back to the pre-Starbucks Pleistocene! Honestly, can you even imagine a time before lattes? There was a Downtown residential population of sorts, but more of a single- room-occupancy crowd, as longstanding citizen and City councillor Pam Madoff notes. You “commuted” home to the James Bay, Fairfield, and Fernwood suburbs from a day at the office or shop, and journeyed to the double-wide-strewn hillbilly hinterland of Langford and Colwood only for banjo lessons or to blast at small, furry animals. But all of these memories—truth and legend alike—are about to be swamped by something new. As I’ve noted in previous writing, Downtown is in the middle of a transformation: Residential growth which, if unabridged by any near-term economic hiccups, will, in under a decade, swell the population to between ten and fifteen thousand, contained within a tiny, forty-block area—roughly Broughton to Herald, Cook to Wharf, with some further help from expanding residential colonies in Songhees and Vic West. Disorienting change: Former McCall Brothers Funeral Home has a new life as a sales office for the new condo across the street. Those numbers may seem fantastic, but you have no idea what’s coming. Look past the visible hoardings, excavations and construction cranes to many other candidate properties or property assemblies—yes, including one whole city block—either acquired or in play for new development. Why here, why now, what’s driving it? Who knows? Does the current boom have legs, or will some market plunge leave many Downtown sites as holes in the ground and half-completed works for a generation? We’ll see (I assume the inevitable). Importantly, who are these newcomers steadily swelling the Downtown residential population? Can these newcomers be Victorianized, harmonized with the city’s culture, or will they redefine that culture? Will the physical structures housing this human flood result in some dismal, isolating West End of tombstone high-rises and irreparable damage to Downtown character, or in an economic, social, cultural and energetic renaissance? Pointedly, are you ready for six-hour breakfast lineups outside Jam on Herald? But what most interests me is cultural transmission: the challenge to all of us, to the city, to successfully convey story. Not history, exactly, but the singularity and character of this place, so newcomers are welcomed by a context and continuity. Discussing W.G. Sebald’s last novel, Austerlitz, Colin Dickey remarks that buildings and the entire urban fabric are human acts, projecting not just a functional message, but also a cultural one: ideas, values, preferences, importances. “No historical [condition or monument] arrives ex nihilo. Patterns are laid out decades in advance, in plain sight. They draw attention to themselves, even if we have no desire [and little skill] to recognize them.” (You need look no farther than the hundreds of now-a-generation-old cracker-box apartment buildings visually littering the Victoria landscape to appreciate Dickey’s potent thought.) Of course, so as not to get too lost in rhapsody, it’s helpful to add social critic James Kunstler’s theory of history: “Things happen because they seem like a good idea at the time.” In other words, opportunity and peril loom over urban identity. Newcomers will change, but also need to be changed by, the city’s identity, and by its public realm, cultural aspirations and accomplishments…in aid of which, we might even prevail upon Open Space to put up two plaques on its lower Fort Street exterior: one a bas-relief likeness of Pam Ellis with her thoughts about being fat in a skinny world, the other of Mr. Space. Co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller has, with partner Rob Abbott, launched the website FutureTense: Robotics, AI and the Future of Work.
  14. January 2017 Douglas Street, once fully invested with life and social purpose, now seems diminished. QUICK, THINK OF A WORD that rhymes with “colostomy.” Infrastructure. Good for you! That profane stew of surveying and shoveling, blueprints, backhoes, migraine-coloured diversion tape, and hellfire-tinted traffic cones. Surfaces shattered, guts and filth exposed, society’s shitty undies pulled down, all niceties abandoned. Invasive urban surgery: mud, crud and blood. Eeeuuwww! Watched a two-month-long project near my home recently: realignment of an innocent, unoffending T-intersection minding its own business and doing pretty much the job you want a T-intersection to do. Suddenly, barricades, signage, lights, flaggers, equipment, trucks, detours, trenches, Everests of excavated wet earth and gravel, new drainage pipes, new curbs, light poles and paving; tax dollars and resources enlisted to improve the good enough. Now, finally, post-surgical results: a new skin of raked, seeded topsoil and curing cement. The patient survived. So did I, thank you. If infrastructure suggests all of this, the linguistic doorway to the apocalypse is crumbling infrastructure: a Doomer movie of decay, social collapse and the return of an ever-nesting, never-resting Dark Age (consider the Trump-era recrudescence of the American neo-Nazi White Right)—against which extraordinary public resources are directed to sustain the hope (some would say illusion) that the civic enterprise is still on the rails…that the human project continues. By the way, Crumbling Infrastructure, if not quite as good as Dying Fetus or Deicide (both already taken), would be a terrific name for a death-metal band. Writing about urban evolution reminds me that in many cases human settlements emerged as cities (the oldest a recent 5000 years ago) on a thought: “Oh, this hill has a good view.” “This slope is sunny.” “We can tie up our boat here.” “Lots of game and fresh water.” “We can defend this place.” The entire kit of contemporary urban parts is just decorative icing over elemental states like appetite, convenience, visions of triumph, plans for rest and safety, dreams of opportunity, or the point at which exhausted pack animals or slave porters gave up the ghost. Admittedly, cities are also hopes for order. Listening, a moment ago, to violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Samuel Sanders perform Edward Elgar’s “La Capricieuse,” I was taken by how the structure of musical thought springs from an innate architecture in our heads, a sense of system and form, which we apply to music, storytelling, and city-building, too. Local writer Janis Ringuette cites historian Richard Mackie and other sources to uncover the intentions upon which Victoria was founded: “James Douglas was instructed [by the English] to organize the new Colony of Vancouver Island: ‘The object...should be...to transfer to the new country whatever is most valuable and most approved in the institutions of the old, so that Society may, as far as possible, consist of the same classes, united together by the same ties…Conditions for the...disposal of lands...will have the effect...of preventing the ingress of squatters, paupers and land Speculators.’” That land Speculator ingress prevention thing worked out well, don’t you think? Like entire cities, neighbourhoods, too, are ideas. Look at city property maps and note the proliferation of orderly double-rows of rectangles serviced by die-straight streets on all sides, as if the straight line and right angle themselves might be tools of successful governance. The impulse for social management started long before and endured long past the days of Douglas’ colonial governance, simply re-expressing itself in ever-smaller property increments. The dreaming, imperial finger of the explorer withered; the founder class subdivided its holdings; planning bureaucrats and bylaw-enforcers—the property cops—took over. Almost every city, big or small, has a square reserved for ceremony and patriotic re-enactments, designed to mark the city’s connection to its founding or some other historical event. Such places, hyperbolically constructed to convey significance, elicit awed respect and reinforce the importance of memory. All feature statuary, plinths, obelisks, fountains, noble words and antediluvian dates in stone, cannons, and too much lawn; and they endure—serious and un-visited, grass ritually cut and edged—long after ceremony has hollowed out as a form of social expression and the energy of their founding story has waned. It’s hard to proclaim “We, The People!” when everybody’s off shopping the sales or glued to the next episode of “Game of Thrones.” Hierarchy, nature’s system for arranging the meek and the mighty, is also built into urban ordering. Almost every city has a main street (often imaginatively called “Main Street”) traditionally dedicated to shopping, mercantile pursuits, and financial or professional services, and established in the pre-suburban heyday of business centrality, but now, in an era of social and economic dispersal and online shopping and services, threatened by disinvestment and in need of “re-purposing.” Such streets resemble museum dioramas portraying a life when social functions were more delineated, the public realm was more polite and convivial, banks were filled with actual cash, and majestic retailers, cornerstones of national identity, slugged it out across the street from each other. Nostalgia really is ghostly. Study the archival image of Douglas Street in the late 1940s below. Note the relaxed co-existence of pre-war cars, trolleys, well-dressed pedestrians. You can feel the street’s energy and social health, the coherence and common purpose. (And catch the red car making a right turn around the money temple up a two-way Yates Street.) Like, what happened? Well, bookshelves of explanation abound, but in short and simple terms modernity took hold, a kind of atomization in which ‘we’ gave way to ‘me.’ I’ve heard it explained as diffusion and de-authorization—that is, an institutional, cultural, social and geographic deconstruction or reordering (take your pick)—allowing a more subjective, voluntary and perhaps authentic allegiance to social rules and norms. (Remember, it has also been a human rights revolution.) In no more than a two-generational eye blink, the idea that father knows best became preposterous, and the Heavenly Father, like the divine right of kings, was permanently re-assigned to the make-believe section. Vrooom! Douglas Street, Chatham to Belleville, our ten-block stretch of yesterday, is unloved, energy-deficient, crappy-looking, edgy and slightly threatening. It is preparing now for the next stage in its economic and social devolution: from Main Street to Mean Street. A recent KPMG technology report claims that street-front banks will be gone in 20 years. Which means five. Douglas, home to the big, central branches of most of our financial institutions, has drawn another short straw in the game of urban change. As the image makes clear, Douglas was once fully invested with life and social purpose. Now, civility seems diminished. Folks’ offshore limits feel wider, more defensive, and the public air has a more guarded tang. Douglas, a street of gradually evanescing purpose, is turning down-market. Ironically, Douglas Street was the most expensive property in the 1982 version of Canadian Monopoly. Let’s briefly journey from Douglas Street to the cosmos: According to the big bang theory—our best explanation for why space is expanding—everything exploded from nothing about 13.8 billion years ago. Cosmologists have been able to wind things back to within a tiny fraction of a second of this moment, but now they’re stuck. Acknowledging that science cannot explain the fact of everything from nothing, leave alone conjure a pre-nothing, Carlos Contaldi at Imperial College London suggests: “The rules we have simply don’t work in that regime.” Mystery permeates every corner, and is the heart, of existence. I’m not being glib and I mean this quite seriously. To the cliché, “lost in space,” I would add “lost in time,” “lost in story,” “lost in purpose,” and, I suppose, “lost in Victoria.” Rule-making and rule-following reflect our understandable hunger for continuity, structure and order. But order is challenged at its essence because mystery—the chaotic and tumbling-dice unpredictability of flow—is baked into existence. Nothing comes with a guarantee, or a warranty. Where’d the Douglas Street of recent memory go? Really, where did it go? What happened? Accepting the inevitability, inescapability and speed of flow, how do you re-purpose a main street? What plan or intention—and I don’t mean the synthetic promise of an architect’s gauzy, four-colour depiction—will pay off? Who leads? Commercial interests and the property-owning market? Shoppers and the public? The city government? A team of futurologists? How and when does the city go about determining if some new civic narrative on Douglas Street is plausible to a significant majority of its citizens, and worth a major civic and private investment? What signs are required? Collapsing commercial rental rates, proliferating tents in darkened doorways, or when Burger King pulls up stakes ‘cause it can’t make a buck? In the taut TV drama “Berlin Station” the CIA station chief, referencing some imminent ISIS-type terrorist threat, says to the head of German security: “Do you want to get ahead of it, or find out after it happens?” In Douglas Street terms, do we take initiative in response to a clearly darkening tracery of worry lines (growing signs of “locational obsolescence,” in planner-ese), or wait for full implosion? Don’t give me an immediate answer. Take your time. Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept and, with partner Rob Abbott, has launched the website FUTURETENSE: Robotics, AI, and the Future of Work.
  15. September 2015 A city's urban character and authenticity are never to be taken for granted. IF YOU NEED FURTHER EVIDENCE purposeful forces govern the universe, there was Victoria City Councillor Pam Madoff at a June meeting hosted by the Fairfield-Gonzales Community Association in its space just uphill from Sir James Douglas School, near the corner of Fairfield Road and Moss Street. Fix that intersection in your mind: the school on one corner, Fairfield United Church on another, and a bit of retail/commercial fungus on the other two. The flyer attracting Fairfield people to the meeting was portentously captioned: What is happening to our Village? The village in question, however, was not the crossroads described above, but nearby Cook Street Village, whose welcome banner reads: “Cappuccino and a ricotta-quince brioche while we finish blessing your yoga mat?” The association had invited two of the city’s senior planners—one with responsibility for the Official Community Plan (OCP), the other a planner for Fairfield. It was the usual interspecies encounter: vernacular but heartfelt questions and concerns from citizens, volumes of professional, well-intentioned explication from the planners. More or less at the heart of the discussion was that evocative and elusive term village, defined by Wikipedia as “a group of houses and associated buildings, larger than a hamlet and smaller than a town, situated in a rural area.” Omigod, village alert! Strike up the crumhorns! Violas da gamba, over here, please! Dancing milkmaids and blacksmiths, enter left! Village, to the planners, unsurprisingly, appears to be part of an extensive urban nomenclature, somewhere mid-point on the scale between pasture and megalopolis. In the alphabetical glossary of terms in Victoria’s Official Community Plan, though, things jump village-lessly from “Urban Form” to “Visitor Accommodation.” Still, on page 47, the Official Community Plan captions the street view and perspective illustrated as a “Large Urban Village.” Some folks, looking at the visuals, might argue they were looking not at a village but at a highly compressive Downtown setting—Douglas Street at Fort, say—and ask: “If that’s a Large Urban Village, what’s Cook Street?” People! I don’t by my tone mean to charge the planners at the meeting with ill will or disinterest. Quite the opposite. They were attentive listeners and their answers were generous. But, it struck me that the visions or sensibilities of the planners and those of the community attendees sailed past each other with barely a wave. It’s really important to talk about why. To understand the discussion in that small Fairfield meeting space, it was less important to listen to the voices of the planners or the residents than to look at the large shadows moving on the wall. Two great and opposing forces were battling that evening: put glibly, the Past against the Future; more evocatively, the “nostalgic” appeal of community with its heady promise of relationship, human scale and social sanity against the rational system of professional urban planning practice—the one, by its nature, approximate, subjective and, unfortunately, generally on the defensive; the other imposed, formalistic, simulated. I can’t overstate the importance, the meaningfulness, of this urban design tussle and its outcome. On the surface, it appears to ask minute questions about land use; beneath, it asks what kind of world do we want. Let’s step back for a moment and note a strange fictional quality to our post-modern and hyper-pluralistic life right now. It spices the air and none of us is missing it. Normally guided by our cultural memory and customs—our stories—we find current times delivering anything but the familiar. Instead, it’s a non-stop rush of chartless change and rapidly shifting cultural narratives. Disconcertingly, everything feels familiar, yet far away. It gives life a dreamlike edge. We just can’t get our feet under us, and can’t believe with certainty that our values and choices are anchored to social bedrock any longer. We’re being run all around a surreal economic and social landscape like a pack of panting hounds. Yes, the times have also been emancipating, but it’s hard to know exactly what has been set free. Technology and automation are killing work, we’re killing the planet, the rich are grabbing all the marbles, and geopolitically it feels increasingly like Cold War II with a garnish of Middle East Dark Age. Are these the valid new stories, the new road maps? Oh-oh! Social critic James Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency, who spoke in Victoria in 2006 at the first Gaining Ground Conference, calls our neighbour to the south “a nation of places not worth caring about...a tragic landscape of highway fast-food strips, parking lots, housing tracts, mega-malls, junked cities.” In other writing, he extends this vision of cultural bankruptcy with fabulous if ominous hyperbole: “Most sickeningly you see it in a population of formerly earnest, hard-working, basically-educated people with hopes and dreams transformed into a hopeless moiling underclass of tattooed savages dressed in baby clothes devoting their leisure hours (i.e. all their time) to drug-seeking and the erasure of sexual boundaries.” Victoria has, so far, kept that ripe doom at bay (or Bay, more relevantly), but threats to structure are always looming. People here would never invoke Kunstler’s imagery (this is Canada, this is Victoria), but social trends are airborne and some abstracted strain of what he writes about is, I think, the concern that residents at the Fairfield/Gonzalez meeting were trying to articulate to the planners. Let’s make practically everybody angry with this observation: Believe it or not, Victoria isn’t only that thin, protective rind of wonderfulness—let’s call it what it is, a coastal crescent of trendy cultural liberalism and pricey real estate—running, notionally, from Esquimalt’s Saxe Point in the west, through Songhees and Vic West to downtown and the funky neighbourhoods that surround it, then following the coast through James Bay/Fairfield/Gonzales, taking in Oak Bay, and out to Ten-Mile Point and Queenswood. Urbanized regional Victoria north of, let’s be generous, Paul’s Restaurant on Douglas, just a long spit past downtown, is mostly a vast, undifferentiated suburbs, a car-dominated Shitsville that could be Prince George, or Red Deer, or Timmins, or a thousand other places. If all you want to do is dream-spin about community gardens, cool, fair-trade coffee shops, artisanal bakeries, heartbreakingly lovely, treed residential streets, buildings that foster social engagement, neighbourhoods with a strong sense of place, and village-scale good vibrations, that kind of “special” stops well south of Bay Street; and if you want to study reality for, at a guess, 75 percent of the regional population and a vast percentage of the developed regional land mass, plant yourself for a couple of sobering hours at Tillicum Mall, or Millstream Road at the Costco turnoff, or the Hillside/Shelbourne nexus. This column began with a reference to Councillor Madoff, because if any local community leader’s spirit hovers over this entire battlefield, it is Pam Madoff’s. She has had an extraordinary public career spent in informed defense of Victoria’s urban character. She draws mutters of frustration from the development industry for her interventions and, for a fact, she hasn’t batted a thousand, but she’s a careful thinker, an enemy of the bad, not the new, and a champion of good urban form and character. She personifies the axiom that you lose a city’s character and identity one bad building, one bad land use decision, at a time. Offhandedly, we all say we’re here in Victoria for the lifestyle, the quality of life. Buried far beneath that banality are the complexities of sustaining and steering a civic society and retaining and replenishing civic identity. The blessings of a good location, good urban bones, strong civic culture—such assets always hang in the balance. Cities are social experiments: human arrangements, really, expressed as built environments. Their nature is fragile, and urban character and authenticity are never to be taken for granted. Actually, I’m waiting for Victoria’s new mayor, Lisa Helps, to season enough to tackle the city’s Official Community Plan, which, in my opinion, needs a completely fresh strategy for “gentle density” in the neighbourhoods and appealing, area-wide residential intensification throughout Downtown to salvage (and transform) the commercial core—somewhat at risk, if shop vacancies and proliferating “for lease” signs are any indication (you might want to add industry buzzword “overstored” to your vocabulary). Helps is a master of intelligent listening, a getter of both (or all) sides, and a profound thinker on her own terms. She may be the one mayor who can braid these challenges into a promising new vision; and given such complex demands, the voters should commend themselves for executing a brilliant hire in the last election. Considering the concerns of this column, I’m drawn, in a complete non sequitur, to the content of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical and its memorable quote: “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” Columnist David Brooks, in a NY Times piece entitled “Fracking and the Franciscans”, faults Pope Francis for not being a “moral realist,” and adds remarkably: “Francis doesn’t seem to have practical strategies for a fallen world.” And lost on the landscape, the rest of us ask: “Who does?” Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
  16. January 2015 If we're going to invest in a pricey new McKenzie Avenue intersection, let's charge commuters for stop-reduced driving. TO PUT YOU IN THE MOOD, I’d like to unload some overwrought consumer trivia about the price of English muffins. On Saturday, last November 29, a bag of six Dempster’s English muffins at Thrifty’s was $4.19, or 70 cents each. At Oxford Foods on Cook Street, a bag of six (a competitive brand of equal quality) was $1.88, or 31 cents apiece. A jumbo-pak of 24 at Costco was $6.49, or 27 cents the muffin. A 12-pack at the Wholesale Club on Viewfield Road in Esquimalt (a find in every way, if you haven’t visited before) was $1.97, or 16.4 cents per. To flip this around, had you bought 24 muffins at each store, you would have paid, respectively, $16.76, $7.52, $6.49 and $3.94. And it’s not like the Thrifty’s muffins were produced to the sound of Pan-pipes with south-slope-grown, artisan-milled, first-pressing, cruelty-free wheat. Same damned English muffins. And from teaching days, a lifetime ago, I remember an intellectually gifted student, Jeffrey, who, at 14, was endomorphically chubby, had an egg-shaped head, and wore thick glasses with one unhinged earpiece tenuously Scotch-taped to the lens frame. His nose ran constantly, and a bubbly archipelago of spittle sat perpetually at the corner of his mouth. He would laugh in noisy, otherworldly gulps at his own esoteric jokes. Classic bully bait, but the other kids loved him. What set him apart was not just these physical qualities, but also his tendency toward startlingly original expression. In his presence, you felt yourself a witness to the actual physical assembly, the coalescing architecture, of his thought. With no preamble, or any clue as to how long it had been in the making, or the why of it, out might come: “What if the bird in your hand is a sparrow, but the two in the bush are peacocks?” Such thoughts emerged from some tunnelling maze-work; were expressed with a precocious complexity; and, for a 14-year-old, bordered on the profound. It seemed an open question whether he would, in his adult life, go on to create the Z-Bomb or cure cancer. Keeping Jeffrey and English muffin value-shopping in but at the edge of the frame, let’s ponder the notorious congestion at the Trans-Canada/McKenzie Avenue intersection and its alleviation. The Times-Colonist’s Jack Knox acidly opened a November column: “It took 35 minutes to drive a 10-kilometre stretch of the Colwood Crawl on Wednesday morning.” Which, incongruously, reminds me of the definition of a “kilomater”—five-eighths of a mom. To call it the Colwood Crawl may evocatively title but mis-describe it—akin to calling a different collection of human behaviours “teen pregnancy” or “domestic violence.” That is, let’s not give the event a label without highlighting the choices—residential, lifestyle, mobility—of the people who are driving the many thousands of vehicles that actually cause the Colwood Crawl during each morning and evening commute. Presently, the Trans-Canada/McKenzie intersection is the whipping boy, but if we spend something on the order of $80-100 million (provincial Transportation Minister Todd Stone’s numbers) for a fix, only to move the bottleneck a half-mile south to the next traffic light at busy Douglas and Saanich Road beside Uptown, what then? Let’s look at some creative responses other than big-dollar infrastructure spending. For example, people could quit their government jobs and take up organic farming in their Langford front yards. Or stay home and telecommute. Or government commuters (a significant percentage of the on-road total) could work 2 pm to midnight and drive counter-flow. Or we could take the view that it’s only a problem if you call it a problem. We don’t call gravity a problem, just a fact of life. What’s wrong with people having to devote 20-30 minutes of their day inching along in bumper-to-bumper traffic, not as some form of moral shaming (nothing wrong with that, of course), but as a simple expression of how choices have consequences? I mean, if you move to the middle of the desert and then petition the government to deliver water, expensively, to your door, no one shows any sympathy. Everyone thinks you’re crazy and selfish. Remember the old-style car-wash through which your vehicle advanced on a creeping chain of casters? Maybe those could be installed in a one-mile stretch of the highway roadbed, north and south of the McKenzie intersection, thus providing a distraction from the crawl and freeing drivers’ minds and hands for texting, cell phone games, the crossword puzzle, masturbation, knitting, computer work, or reading Focus cover-to-cover. Alternatively, if we’re going to invest in pricey infrastructure, let’s charge commuters for the pleasure of a stop-reduced driving experience. Every car has unique DNA—a license plate—and I assume some road-embedded plate-reader or other programmable whiz-bang technology exists. Buck a trip, one way. Half the cost of a Tim Horton’s coffee. $10/week times 50 weeks times 50,000 vehicles (80-90,000 is the current count, including non-commuters) comes to $25,000,000/year. Your gas isn’t free, daily parking isn’t free, even the air in your tires isn’t free anymore; why should your trip be free? We don’t think of other car-related expenses as punishment or sin taxes, but simply the costs of driving. So, why distinguish? Revenue could be used first to repay the interchange construction cost and after payout be re-directed toward eliminating regional homelessness, which it would do in jig time. I’m getting excited about this idea! Here we are, possibly the luckiest people on Earth, in count-your-blessings Victoria. Via this revenue plan, we could produce a funding structure for thousands of the most needy and least employable people in the region, allowing them to survive less off unpredictable community good will, state largesse, and the limited and uncertain income flow from refundable beverage containers, and more off the income generated through such a program of—dare I call it—wealth redistribution? The provincial Liberals would be all over this ideologically. It’s their kind of thing. But if we go for pricey highway infrastructure upgrades, we have to discuss unintended consequences. A decade ago, you could quip about Victoria’s “rush minute” as cars streamed in and out of town during the commute. No longer true. Jim Hindson, a now-local semi-retired transportation and infrastructure professional who spent almost 30 years as traffic engineer and systems department head for the Hamilton region, has explained to me that while Ground Zero may appear to be the Trans-Canada/McKenzie nexus, under the same pressure is a much larger and highly stressed road “eco-system” featuring Saanich/Boleskine Road, Tillicum Road, Admirals Road/McKenzie Avenue, West Burnside/Interurban, Carey Road, Craigflower Road, and more. This whole system of roads is choked because in the morning people are coming from one road and, seeking shortcuts, going to many. And in the afternoon coming from many and going to one: the Trans-Canada Highway itself. I learned the phrase “lane envy” from Hindson. He explains that if a road includes an underused transit/car pool lane, folks in the adjacent clogged lanes can barely control their frustration. They experience “lane envy” and they lane-hop, replacing morality with exigency—rules be damned and no mind the signage or the white painted diamonds. The empty transit lane takes on the persona of tone-deaf Marie Antoinette who, informed that the peasants have no bread, says, “Let them eat cake!” Now, can we in essence package lane envy—that hatred of gridlock and love of the open road—and exploit and charge for it if we create expensive new infrastructure at the Trans-Canada/ McKenzie intersection? As you consider appropriate infrastructure responses, bear in mind that the daily problem at the intersection is really two 90-minute one-way problems, morning and evening. At all other times, the existing road capacity and traffic signalling is adequate to meet traffic needs. So, is there a three hour/five weekday solution? Would an Admirals/McKenzie overpass with ramps down to and up from the Trans-Canada in appropriate places make enough of a difference? Might there be an elevated reverse-direction two-laner running above the median of the Trans-Canada with ramps as needed that could, with signalling, allow inbound morning and outbound evening thru-traffic to utilize the same two lanes to cruise over the McKenzie intersection? How about we add extra lanes on grade? As Easterners can tell us, that works extremely well on Toronto’s 401 and many other highways where traffic volume quickly expands to exceed the added road capacity. Oh, and as the spaghetti interchange “postcard” included with this column suggests, you could get really jiggy with an infrastructure response and bankrupt the region. I close by acknowledging I’m not a transportation professional, so I can’t competently answer these questions. But Minister Stone, as you study and weigh various scenarios, I implore you to keep the masturbation option on the table. Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
  17. May 2014 Our newest tourist attraction may be one of the Seven Blunders of the World. More of the same are in the works. LONG YEARS AGO, I experienced a recurring kid’s fantasy of being in an elevator whose cable snapped, sending the cab on a clattering rendezvous with destiny 20 storeys below. Just as the plummeting cab was about to hit bottom, I flexed and jumped in the air at the exact same speed as the dropping cage; and when, a split-second later, the cab finally stopped in a roar of torn metal, I landed cloudlike on the ruined deck, my feet crossed gracefully at the ankles (think Fred Astaire or Bruce Lee), and walked out completely unharmed. Such reveries are the training wheels for adult magical thinking, like the sober belief that you’re gorgeous, a near-genius, unique, talented, sexually important, powerful, and headed for great things; and on a cultural level, how, when you flush the toilet or discard plastic in the garbage, a fairy carries the waste to faraway Planet Cesspoolia, or how your car alone emits not carbon-laced exhaust but orange-cranberry-scented oxygen with vitamin D to help grow strong bones. Topping any list of magical ideas should be the one euphemistically named “Ironitis.” Having nothing to do with irony, it’s a social pathology common to engineers, project managers, consultants, ambitious bureaucrats and their corporate or political enablers, and characterized by the delusion that so long as the dough can be light-fingered out of abstracted taxpayers’ wallets, there can never be too many new bridges, highway overpasses, or other big infrastructure projects. For the so afflicted, hardware addresses all needs, solves all problems and sustains the entire project of modernity whose gleaming endpoint, where the horizon meets the dawn, is some sci-fi future filled with inter-galactic on-ramps. Ironitis is social pathology because it shares with the sociopath a grandiosity; a conviction of rightness; the ability to experience counter-argument or doubt simply as Luddite noise; a belief in one’s own powers and abilities; the incapacity to experience remorse or guilt; great skill at transferring blame and responsibility, or rendering them ambiguous; and my two favourites: criminal or entrepreneurial versatility and a barely hidden desire to rule the world—in all, a form of hubris that co-indicts many of us because it’s made possible by our willing cooperation. To mangle a folk aphorism: If you’re an engineer, everything looks like a bridge. And what do we do? We encourage the bastards! I know: Why complain? Look, I get this is the good life, even with its cracks and flaws, and I don’t have problems with state authority—well, okay, some, but I’m not holed up in an East Sooke double-wide crammed with patriot-rage brochures, 200 cans of tuna fish, and an arsenal that would make the cops chitter with envy. I just look at some of this infrastructure, think about the limits of nature to absorb the human project, and wonder: What problems are we trying to solve? Yes, like the airport turnoff. Traffic coming north from Victoria to the airport was occasionally stacking up along the left-turn lane of the Pat Bay Highway, creating a potential hazard for adjacent through-lane traffic. Fine. Problem stated. So, why not extend the duration of the left-turn green signal so another 30 cars could get through, or add a pressure-activated sensor under the left-turn lane to automatically change the lights if waiting cars back up past a certain point, and/or lengthen the left-turn lane, or convert that turn lane into a simple overpass crossing above the southbound lanes of the Pat Bay and dropping airport traffic onto the perfectly serviceable existing McTavish Road? Cost of any of these responses? A buck and two box-tops, not $24 million—an amount large enough to bring about world peace. But no, it was crucial to fulfill the Airport Authority manager’s masturbation fantasy while—bonus!—creating the world’s stupidest overpass and roundabout system. Stunning only is that no one has exploited the tourist attraction potential with big signs: “One Of The Seven Blunders Of The World!” These engineering grandiosities need now to be seen as artifacts of a rapidly closing era of cheap oil and energy. Soon, society will not be able to dedicate shrinking economic resources to highway extravagances when energy supplies dwindle, price shocks hit, and some fundamental choices are forced upon us. I hope the post-apocalyptic mob remembers to hang a few politicians and some Urban Systems execs from the railing when gas hits $7/litre and the only things using the overpass are bicyclists and deer—both probably chased by zombies. You might want to believe that no one staring the future in the eye, cold sober, could come to the rational conclusion that $24 million for a glorified overpass was a good use of resources. But big-ticket expenditures like this take place in a state of culturally induced sleepwalking, and are simply pieces in a dreamscape of ever-expanding abundance and ever-continuing well-being. As a recent Huffington Post/YouGov poll learned, Americans feel that climate change will have extreme consequences, but just not in their lifetime. Really, where could you possibly place prudence on that game board? The same $24 million invested in developing an improved system for local growing, production and marketing of food, say, would generate a liberating miracle for the Capital Region. Aw, doesn’t have the sex appeal of a highway overpass? Sorry. It’s no mystery how such incredibly stupid, bad, ill-considered project ideas take on legitimacy and heft, and go the distance. These things are managed by a political ecology as self-regenerating and adaptive as anything you will find in nature. Inquiries and introductions are made. Exploratory ideas are floated. The airport dude talks with business dudes who talk with the MP dude and/or the MLA dude. Word snakes along invisible political conduits that “frosting” would be useful in the riding. Some money gets tossed in the pot. The consultants rev up. Reports are commissioned, confirming need and feasibility. At some point there’s a federal and/or provincial infrastructure funding incentive program and then the ready-made miracle is pulled out of a hat, and there’s an official announcement and maybe a speech or two, the whole thing reported by the media with a fanfare better reserved for the Second Coming. Utterly lost by then is the humble fact that three times a week, half a dozen cars hung out at the back of a left-turn lane on the Pat Bay Highway at McTavish. In an interview, filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky comments about his unmade film of the Frank Herbert book, Dune, and describes his design vision for the castle of the ruling bad guy, Baron Harkonnen: “The castle itself, a symbol of intemperance, exploitation, aggression and brutality, with a magical aura which has a negative effect on all the inhabitants.” The castle is a metaphysical expression of the control of crazed and foolish leaders: the head, with its magical (synthetic) authority over the body politic, pushing that citizen-body into negativity and a life of submissive consumption (anger and depression, transmuted locally into pickups and Costco). Which takes us to Langford, where so many of these themes converge. Back in the good old days, you could tell you were on the Langford side of the View Royal border from the mountains of rusting car bodies, their windows blown out by shotgun blasts; the dysgenic, one-eyed shufflers looking like living embodiments from Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Persecutors of Christ,” spit-roasting squirrel or tearing at the haunch of a hapless Irish Setter whisked the night before from dewy Uplands lawns; hollow-eyed citizens with names like Tim-Bob and Duane, Raeneese and Suelene, all munching on doughnuts and packing lots of heat; recreationally fire-bombed bus shelters; t-shirts with the arrow aiming straight north, and the words in 300-point balloon type: “I’m With Stupid.” But then two or three developers, over morning coffee at some local Grill ‘n’ Skillet, a dozen years ago, had a business idea and called it Langford. Now look at the place: ruined and character-less—from the hinterlands authenticity of “Dueling Banjos” to an invented landscape of “Picket Fences” in a decade. I was there last week, stopped a local and asked “Hey, where can I buy a pound of weed and place a bet for a cash-purse cage fight?” “I beg your pardon?” said the Langford stalwart, removing two tasteful Schonbek lamps from the deck of his 4x4 and sounding about as twee as anyone you might accost buying pain rustique at the Pure Vanilla Bakery in Oak Bay. It’s a tale of cheap dirt, easy approvals and production housing, not the calculation of hidden energy consumption costs, or social costs, or regional dislocations, or impacts on other municipalities. It’s political ecology on a very grand scale. But hey, what’s another overpass between friends? Elevator going down? All together now: flex your knees and shout: “Fred Astaire, Fred Astaire, Fred Astaire.” Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
  18. March 2014 Good design helps make good citizens. DID YOU KNOW that in the City of Victoria, six of every ten dwellings are rental units and a rumoured seven of every ten people—especially in and around the city core—are renters? Look over there, 10 o’clock. For God’s sake, don’t look right at them! Yes, yes, right there: renters! Humanity’s wiring diagram may have its mysteries, but there is no missing that property ownership (“a piece of the rock,” we say) is a desired status and an elevated form of tenure. It confers gravitas, true citizenship that reduces renters to a ghost-class—folks “just passing through.” Actually, my interest in this has nothing to do with class issues; and jokes aside, I want to be careful not to convey the false idea that renting means a diminished engagement in community life. No, my interest is on the urban design side and begins with the premise that every bad building in Victoria diminishes both the city and its people; that is, reduces citizen expression. People are citizens—active, engaged members of the public life—only to the extent that a place is worth caring about; and this requires an emotional stakehold—in a building, a neighbourhood, a civic community. If buildings isolate or alienate people, file and forget them, we shouldn’t be surprised if the atmosphere in the public realm starts to feel strange. Allow me a calculated digression: the level of amenity at Victoria bus stops. The architecture of bus stop shelters—where shelters are even present—is a case of unambiguous Dickensian social messaging: “Public transit users, you are human refuse meant to suffer. However cold and wet it is here half the year, you don’t deserve protection, warmth or dignity. You don’t deserve the niceties of design. You are lumpen and powerless and deserve only a bench, not seating that would individuate you. Yours is a future of frustrated hopes and groundless expectation. Welcome to your shitty little life on the ‘loser cruiser.’” When I was a kid, my parents and I and their friends Joe and Anne Braunstein were out one evening for dinner at Katz’s Delicatessen in Lower Manhattan. We were next up in the cafeteria-style sandwich line, and a slightly abstracted Anne was having trouble making up her mind. Joe, his eye on the impatient counterman, elaborately waved for the people standing behind us to go ahead. Anne apparently took this as criticism and disloyalty, and she fumed throughout a ruined dinner, complaining loudly to Joe, “That was an act of deliberate intent!” Joe kept denying it, claiming with theatrical innocence that he was just being polite to the couple behind, since Anne obviously needed more time to decide. The conflict was electric, and threw open the doors of adult disharmony—scandalous and thrilling to this nine-year-old: “acts of deliberate intent!” Now, 60 years later, like Anne Braunstein, I see “acts of deliberate intent” in the design deficiencies of public transit amenities and in the barracks-like, soul-crushing presence of hundreds of both rental and owner-occupied apartment buildings in and around Victoria’s central area, regardless how their developers, architects, and the City’s urban land use policy folks may try to justify them. There is no School of Developology. In a world where you can hardly make dinner without a professional credential, developers are un-obliged to demonstrate they understand what it takes to create buildings that people will enjoy being in and around. No formal part of a developer’s education bears on knowledge of a building’s impact on the human psyche, or its contribution to the city’s appearance and character. This is a special irony in Victoria—a soul-stirring city whose entire reputation is built on the charm of its preserved architectural heritage—yesteryear’s sensibilities, really—and the accident of a fabulous physical setting. No one says to visitors: “Ah, I have to show you Bay and Blanshard, run you past the apartment blocks on Cook Street, and finish the tour at View Towers!” Victoria’s reputation hangs almost entirely on good urban character, too much of it inherited from earlier generations, too little of it created now. I’m tempted to describe developers as the innocents (two words that normally repel each other like same-pole magnets). They create what policy tells them they may, or must. The City of Victoria’s rules and design guidelines are mute on the subjective and borderless topic of creating dramatic, handsome, surprising, warm and welcoming buildings, but endlessly chatty about view corridors, build-to lines, ground-floor commercial, shadowing, and other “measurables.” Here’s an energy theory: Exhaustion is built into policy and regulation. Policy requires policing, and with every erg of planning department energy dedicated to applying the rules, there is almost none left over to insist on and negotiate for fabulous buildings (deserved applause here to Victoria Councillor Pam Madoff who has made this concern her mission). No preamble in the City’s land use manual warns developers they don’t have the right to produce bad or nondescript buildings. Nothing in the approval process solemnly reminds them that buildings are public statements, and that bad ones diminish both occupants’ lives and Victoria’s soul and good looks. Still, not every building is a “fail,” and there is room for praise. After all, developers are not vandals, and urban planners are not Sovietized. Leaving many unsung, I single out just-retired Heritage Planner Steve Barber (congratulations, Steve!) and Chris Gower, senior urban design planner, as two who, freed from workplace prohibitions, would likely deliver blistering reproach when presented with spiritless, utility-grade building designs. On the market side, a well-earned shout-out to developer and tortured artist Don Charity and co-developer Fraser McColl, responsible for the Mosaic on Fort Street, the adjacent Jigsaw, the Reef in James Bay (across from David Butterfield’s iconic Shoal Point) and their imminent project, Jukebox, near Vancouver and View. Charity shares with all developers a love of opportunity and profit, but his imagination is fired by grand design visions, starting right at the front door. Don’t you want developers to have design ego, fighting to outdo each other in producing distinctive, beautiful, livable buildings? The Jawls have done this with every project they have undertaken. Ian Gillespie (The Falls, Shutters, etc) clearly loves making flamboyant statements. Fred Rohanni and Bijan Neyestani have given us the graceful Aria and now the clever and referential Mondrian. Gordon and Chris Denford did wonders with the new Cherry Bank on Rupert Terrace and McClure Street. Chris LeFevre continues to expand his remarkable Railyards in Victoria West. David Price has produced the beautifully scaled Swallows Landing buildings on the Esquimalt waterfront, framing and facing the Inner Harbour. Ric Illich has painstakingly resurrected the empty Hudson’s Bay building, now The Hudson, and is building new residential at the rear. Pioneering Dave Chard at several downtown locations and Ken Mariash on the ridge above Songhees both have added quality to the Victoria skyline. Given some good developers and successful projects, then, what brings fresh urgency to this matter? You mean, you haven’t heard of the “silver tsunami?” That’s downtown pub owner Matt MacNeil’s phrase for it. MacNeil believes there is an enormous wave of new retirees from Toronto and other eastern urban centres who are “tired of the cold, tired of shovelling” who will be moving here very soon. He contends that they’re urban, well-heeled, and don’t want the burbs or Oak Bay monoculture; they want stylish condo and apartment living close to Downtown with its shopping, services, amenities, good dining, cool coffee joints and energy. He tosses out the number 10,000 and envisions a “beltline” of buildings loosely ringing Downtown. It doesn’t take much imagination to appreciate the economic and social transformation such numbers would bring to the core. The math is this: 10,000 people would represent another 75 to 100 fairly hefty buildings shouldering the downtown core. That’s a lot of buildings! Few downtown streetscapes would remain unchanged; and promising though it might be economically and culturally, can you imagine the consequences and impacts to Victoria’s visual and social identity of getting the architecture and urbanism wrong? Can you sense the potential for our laggard city (with the best of intentions, of course) to be locked into “my mouth says yes, but my eyes say no” mode, insanely policing the bonus density rules and regulations, when it needs instead to be setting the design terms and conditions for all these buildings, and planning and executing extensive public realm improvements? Good as it would be to have so many new people calling Downtown their home, we must ensure that these newcomers are given not only Downtown living opportunities, but also legitimate grounds and an authentic social framework that will connect them to both the pleasures and responsibilities of city life here. These concerns may seem hand-wringy and abstract, but it took a televised conversation last month between celebrated journalist and commentator Bill Moyers and David Simon, creator of The Wire and Treme, to help me to work out the human calculus. Said Simon, acidly reflecting on the state of the commons in these winner-take-all times, “There is no society; there’s just you.” At its best, Victoria is a place where society and common cause still prevail. People often read Victoria’s social cues simply as charming architectural heritage coupled to a dozy lifestyle; but society, as Simon means the word, is actually our “secret sauce.” Making the case for great buildings, I finish by invoking poetics: We can lose the charm of our city a building at a time, and insidiously lose its character in an even smaller increment: a citizen at a time. Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
  19. December 2013 Can Victoria move forward into the past and leave the past behind, all at the same time? Maybe. YESTERDAY MORNING, some street guy beat up my car. I was leaving the Pandora Street McDonald’s with a large, three creams/two sugars. He was crossing south on Mason Street, heading obliquely toward McDonald’s. We kind of made eye contact. I steered a slow, wide, respectful, you-too-sit-on-a-branch-in-the-tree-of-life turn around him toward Vancouver Street, and then he spun, lurched back into the intersection and beat on the hood and windshield with his fists, yelling something incomprehensible. WTF? Surprising and disturbing, but not consequential—for me, my car or, I suspect, the street guy...unless he was using his fists to drum a message about the sheer human outrage of unequally distributed opportunity in this crapshoot life, his disappointment with US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s announcement that Quantitative Easing would continue because of the still-weak American economy, and the immediate imperative that I practice personal import replacement by making local economic investments (shoe leather, I guess) instead of supporting the German automotive economy. Mind, he was headed straight for McDonald’s. What a hypocrite! Okay, just the evening before (October 1) I had attended a presentation by Michael Shuman, the enormously smart and entertaining economist/lawyer who is a champion of the local economy/import substitution movement. In fact, he is, along with Bainbridge Island-based David Korten (When Corporations Rule the World, The Great Turning) a founding director of the important and influential US-based grassroots organization BALLE—the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. The room at the Victoria Event Centre on Broad Street was packed with market lefties like me—good folks, “progressives,” people I love to talk, party and do good works with, though not the gang likely to join me for java at the Great Satan McDonald’s. As I drove home with my coffee, the question I should have asked Shuman flashed into my adrenaline-quickened mind: “Michael (he’s one of those people with whom you are immediately on a first-name basis), it’s fine for you to give this pitch to the already converted and the ideologically susceptible, but what impact does your message have on the red meat crowd in business suits? Do they take you seriously? Do they find your arguments convincing?” Clearly, Cameron A. Plommer, a reader who, on Amazon, gives Shuman’s Going Local: Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age only two stars out of five, doesn’t. Plommer writes: “Economies of scale, comparative advantage, specialization? Shuman ignores all these things. There are gains from specialization and trade that most people can’t conceptualize, so they resort to fuzzy feeling concepts like sustainable commu- nities. Going Local is going backwards.” Wow! This is what you invite when you start your presentations or books by noting that the dominant economic system is in decline. Shuman, in advocating local economic development based on the concept of import substitution—local stores and services, not chains or mega-stores; local investment through the choice of local banks and credit unions; promotion of the principle of greater community (or city) self-sufficiency in food, energy, job- and wealth-generation; and so on—is definitely pushing against the conventions we have all been fed as economic gospel, and have grown up taking for granted. Cherry tomatoes in January? Yum! Who cares where they come from, or the shipping costs? Oroweat Oatnut bread 3 for $9.50 at Costco? Gimme dat! In describing the “false economy” promulgated and dominated by big-box and category-killer stores like Walmart, Costco, Chapters and the rest, Shuman explains that money directed to local spending means more local income, wealth and jobs, and that roughly three times more dough—wages, owner income, business profits, business spending on services—stays and re-circulates in the local economy. He reminds his audience that local businesses—he dubs them a “relationship-driven economy”—significantly outperform nationals and multinationals in local job-creation and retention. Every analysis and statistical study undertaken has confirmed these facts. He tells an interesting story: “A hundred years ago, when you spent a dollar on food at the market, something like 40¢ went to the farmer. But now, when you spend a dollar, 7¢ cents goes to the farmer and 71¢ goes to marketing (refrigeration, advertising, middle people, packaging, warehousing, shipping and distribution). Even if you allow for really inefficient local farming so that the farmer’s share rises, say, to 14¢, if you get rid of much of those costs associated with a global food system, you can deliver cheaper food.” Shuman, author, as well, of The Small-Mart Revolution, adds that we bring the sensibilities of big-box consumers not just to our daily purchases but also in our municipal and regional behaviour. He argues that the blind, roving quest and the laydown policy accommodations and de facto bribes (oh, sorry, I mean incentives) by economic development offices hoping to lure major corporations to come to town and set up shop is another example of utter misdirection. He invokes the poor record of corporate performance in producing lasting local economic generation, and reminds us of the fickle loyalties of multinationals when Korea, China or other Asian entrepots come whistling. Remarkably, two evenings later, life was whistling harmony with Shuman—a timely downstroke to his ideas—when ThisIsVIC took over the lobby of the Atrium on Yates and Blanshard. A glorified business mixer and nosh-fest with lots of young person accou- trements (music, pulsing lights and a high ambient noise level), ThisIsVIC aimed to expunge Victoria’s “expired vision” as a somnolent, newly wed/nearly dead town. While many believe that the “little bit of Olde Inertia” thing is fading, others sense that a dead hand still holds things at half-throttle; and Victoria continues to carry a reputation as “a place bright ideas come to die,” and as a hard place to “get to yes.” (One of my scallywag friends thinks a “Welcome to Victoria. The answer is NO” sign would be an informative addition to the Centennial Square landscape.) At a guess, 200 attended ThisIsVIC, and conning the room you might well have asked yourself: “This is VIC?” It was a young, casual crowd, sprinkled with a business suit here and there. No Canadian flag in the corner, no framed photograph of the Queen on the wall. No sit-down. No wallflowers. No mayoral wand-waving. No long speeches. And a dance party starting at 10 featuring DJ Murge. WTF? Walter Wheeler, interviewed many years ago in his home north of Burlington, Vermont on the occasion of his 100th birthday, was asked whether he thought there was more sex now than when he was a young man. Walter responded: “No-o-o-o, I think it’s about the same, but there’s definitely a different crowd doing it.” There was a different crowd doing it (and doing it differently) at ThisIsVIC, driving another nail into the coffin of proper Victoria. Business cards, email addresses, Facebook and Twitter handles were being swapped in a frenzy of happy noise. Roaming, I heard restaurant ideas, tech ideas, small-business startup ideas, food truck ideas, online game ideas, local food production and farming ideas, funding and capital formation ideas, green business ideas. Who knows how much of this will see daylight, but that’s not the point of a fizzy, collaborative brainstorm like ThisIsVIC which, in an information card, describes itself not as an event but a “movement,” and notes, perkily “We are super lucky to have some amazing people in the room with us tonight—including yourself!” I’m a super-amazing old bastard who came to Victoria in 1970, aged 27 and believing, as I took the measure of the place, that me against everybody else was a fair fight. With that perspective, I took heart from Michael Shuman’s hopeful news that economic localism is undergoing a groundswell resurgence, and from a visceral demonstration of that truth as I looked across a sea of 27-year-old faces at ThisIsVIC. Leaves me with a hopeful feeling that now in Victoria the answer is MAYBE. Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
  20. November 2013 Despite some foot-dragging, trends are pointing to a revitalized Downtown. WHEN I DROVE BY on a mid-September Saturday morning, the crane truck was lifting the word “PUBLIC” into place above a steel-frame marquee at The Hudson, Townline Development’s residentially and commercially re-purposed Hudson’s Bay store. The next day, it had been flanked by the words “VICTORIA” and “MARKET.” That Monday, the market opened formally to congratulatory speeches before a large, enthusiastic crowd of merchants and well-wishers. The opening followed years of speculation about the flickering possibility that a supermarket might occupy the cavernous ground-floor space (names like Thrifty’s, or a Market On Yates clone, and even Whole Foods had swirled through the Downtown rumour mill); and what made any of this gossip interesting was not only who the candidate would be, finally, but open questions about how and whether any full-scale supermarket could make the numbers work in such a location on the northern fringe of our small and far-from-populous Downtown. Supermarkets vote with their cash registers and require, if my information is current, about six thousand shoppers in their “capture zone.” Six thousand. I guess the north end of Downtown isn’t near that number yet, but in a possible foretaste of the future for this area, including the 18-square-block Rock Bay bowl immediately to the north, the individually-owned shops that have opened up at the Public Market are light on dishwasher detergent and toilet paper, heavy on gluten-free baking, a global selection of olive oils, spices, cheese, charcuterie, seafood, pies, cakes, fresh produce, Indian food, Mexican food, tea and gelato, with more to come. You know what that foretells: young urban professionals. Circle the wagons! Millennials and Cultural Creatives on the ridge! The “wagons,” I suppose, are the industrially-disposed stakeholders—businesses and property owners—in Rock Bay whose activity is supported by current industrial zoning and by popular sentiment. Consider: Who’s not for “real” industrial land use as opposed to opportunistic developers building condos for yuppies? The City has its own reasons for foot-dragging—not just the political whiplash, but that it may have to put scarce taxpayer dollars (giant sucking sound coming from the Blue Bridge, Bay Street Bridge, firehall, Crystal Pool, etc) into new amenities, upgraded streets and subsurface infrastructure to replace ancient pipes and sewers if the Rock Bay area is redeveloped. Also, it’s a mixed bag for landowners who know that Rock Bay has a long history of dirty industry which has in some key places left a toxic legacy—that is, their properties may be laced with costly-to-remove contaminants from the industrial bad old days, and this will require expensive mitigation and will impact property values and/or development costs if new land uses are contemplated. Industry gossip says that the landowner is spending something approaching $90 million to clean up the glow-in-the-dark mess behind that curtained ex-BC Hydro super-block on Government at Chatham. I’ve written before about a possible future for Rock Bay in which lots of residential and new streetfront retail/commercial gradually fills up Rock Bay’s vacant lots and replaces some of the light industrial and service uses that operate, in many cases, out of one-storey structures surrounded by wide aprons of surface parking. But before you go to your corner on the (in some circles) touchy subject of land use in Rock Bay, it would pay you to actually walk the Rock Bay area—Chatham to the south side of Bay Street, Store Street to the west side of Blanshard—to take in the current realities of land use. A lot of folks assume the area is exclusively industrial, presumably because that’s an easy handle for this generally un-groomed frontier that most of us drive through, not to, with its still-operating asphalt plant at Store and Pembroke and a hodge-podge of service, commercial and light industrial uses, with a strong emphasis on automotive services and freight handling. Remember though, that such uses share the neighbourhood, even now, with a dog-minding/walking service, Paul’s Restaurant and Motel, the White Spot, Capital Iron, Discovery Coffee, Club Phoenix fitness centre, H&R Block, a children’s gymnastics studio, Jordan’s Furniture, an Apple service store, and Cascadia Bakery and Sager’s Furniture a half-block south on Government Street. Up the side streets on Princess and Pembroke between Douglas and Blanshard there is even a small cluster of humble, occupied houses, some with modest heritage chops. The one chimney in the area, part of the ancient and long-disused BC Hydro power plant near Store Street and Pembroke, hasn’t smoked for a lifetime and is now worthy artifact, not working flue. The neighbourhood, you might say, is half service/commercial Rock Bay, half proto-Herald Street. Worry does emanate from the heavy industrial operators along Bay Street who are involved in sand, gravel and cement production. Understandably, they have a variant of the “there goes the neighbourhood” fear that encroaching residential and retail uses will pressure them and crowd them out. But construction material activities are crucial to the city and will stay there as long as they are viable. That co-existence is possible is clearly demonstrated by Granville Island, home of a major cement production facility a thousand feet from “festival retail,” galleries, theatres and a toney boutique hotel. When I first arrived in Victoria in 1970, Yates and Douglas was our city’s Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Classy stores (Miss Frith’s, Ingledew’s and Standard Furniture anyone?) and stolid banks framed the intersection and the 700-block of Yates. The old Carnegie Library at Yates and Blanshard (at whose footworn steps I was deposited the first day I came to town) was a busy place. People shopped Downtown, circuiting between the original Bay and the original Eaton’s, unless they were intent on stranded rural purposes like buying a dressed side of moose. Once things slid Downtown, though, they stayed slidden; and to this day, through the cycle of a whole generation, the immediate locale of the Yates/Douglas intersection feels lost and cheesy, less epicentric than epidemic, a fallen angel of commerce looking for a fresh mission. A short block south (avert thine eyes from McDonald’s), things pick up nicely at the Bay Centre, and the blocks south of Fort have been progressively redeemed by new residential towers. Out-of-town developers—Townline’s Rick Illich, Bayview’s Ken and Patty Mariash, Westbank’s Ian Gillespie, Dave Chard of Chard Developments, Reliance Properties’ Jon Stovell, David Podmore of Concert Properties jump to mind—and a large number of locals, too, have sniffed the wind and caught the scent of Downtown/central area rebirth. To the north, after hopscotching Douglas Street’s still-poisoned blocks from Yates to Fisgard (even that will start to change when the Jawls put up a sister building to the Atrium), The Hudson, and now a second Townline tower going up behind it, plus a surprising number of newly minted and emerging residential buildings (the Janion, the Union on Fisgard, 601 Herald, and many more), or venerable older buildings revitalized for residential and commercial uses are improving not just the feel (and real estate values) of Downtown’s north end but also Rock Bay’s prospects, and may, in not too many years, leave Whole Foods regretting a missed opportunity. Mind, this isn’t unique to Victoria. Cities almost everywhere in North America are, to varying degrees, experiencing the same trends and rosy impacts. Jeff Speck, formerly a planner with DPZ (Duany Plater-Zyberk, the legendary Miami-based architectural firm) and co-author of Suburban Nation, notes in his 2012 book Walkable Cities that so-called millennials, cultural creatives, tech nerds and others in the younger generations are trading cars for shoe leather, and the ‘burbs for the urbs. He observes: “It turns out that since the late ’90s, the share of automobile miles driven by Americans in their twenties has dropped from 20.8 percent to just 13.7 percent. The number of 19-year-olds who have opted out of earning driver’s licenses has almost tripled since the late ’70s, from 8 percent to 23 percent. This trend is seen as cultural, not economic, and fully 77 percent of college-educated millennials plan to live in America’s urban cores.” Speck also notes that front-wave boomers, their commuter, child raising and backyard barbecue years behind them, are abandoning big, expensive-to-run, socially-isolating suburban homes for livable central areas that are more walkable, social and, frankly, more fun. Victoria, then, is part of a larger trend: a North America-wide shift back to urban places. It’s something of an ironic confirmation of this shift that even suburban places are trying (unconvincingly, in my opinion) to become or appear more urban, to give identity, character and a borrowed authenticity to essentially placeless places. Go study the wannabe design of the Uptown shopping centre or Langford’s town centre on Goldstream Avenue. Both feel synthetic: vehicular destinations trying so hard to be what they’re not. Cast your mind forward and imagine a vibrant and vigourous Downtown Victoria with a living population of 10-15,000—four times its current population, say. Imagine the street tone with pedestrians everywhere. Consider the financial health of Downtown businesses. Envision the size of the cultural audience. Picture the employment levels. Speculate with me about how many fig-and-herb-infused pork roasts the charcuterie at the Victoria Public Market would go through in a day. Hey, leave some for me! Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
  21. September 2013 Victoria just needs to turn itself inside-out to be ready for a great future. I TURN—likely turned, by the time you read this—70 on August 2nd. Let me assure you, in this era of wishful and delusional thinking about graceful aging, that 70 is the new 70. Everything hurts or misfires a bit. Whatever noble or sexualized fantasies of remaining good looks I concoct as I strike poses at the bathroom mirror evaporate on the street when everyone under 40 walks by me like I’m wallpaper. I survive off my pension, refunds from deposit containers, petty crime in the bulk food aisle at Thrifty’s, surreptitious and profitable fast-change capers when the Sunday church donation plate comes by. Whatever its outrages, aging offers one consolation: the conquest of shame. Look for me next at Denny’s publicly taking out my dentures so I can gum a full stack. An already porous memory is becoming more so. There are frequent moments in the day when “You know, the guy who also wrote that other book about, uh…” stands in for crystalline recall. I have an increasingly fictional relationship to my own past. Halfway through anecdotes, I think: Did this really happen, or am I making it up? I find I repeat myself more often. I find I repeat myself more often. “Senior” meant some abstracted, white-haired, little old gent haltingly driving a 1950s Buick Roadmaster up Fort Street at 12 kph, braking at green lights. Not any more. And what’s the hurry? When I got to Victoria in 1970 from New York via Prince Rupert (a manly summer at the Nelson Bros. salmon cannery), my head was buzzing with the rumour that Victoria was still “a little bit of Olde England.” I was not disappointed; this place was, in fact, thunderous with propriety. Queen Elizabeth would visit monthly, a gourd-like, liveried carriage sweeping her from the Royal Yacht in the harbour to Government House on Rockland Avenue. We would cheer and throw rose petals in her path, thrilled that our city was a jewel, if not the very centre-stone, in the Imperial crown. Back then, the help behaved themselves and didn’t court dreams of “doing their own thing.” We wore white gloves to dinner at the Empress Hotel. Salad was served after the Palm Court Orchestra played, and we sang, a rousing “Rule, Britannia!” When Britain first, at Heaven’s command Arose from out the azure main; This was the charter of the land, And Guardian angels sang this strain: “Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!” Gone, all gone. The Imperium is ruined, lying on history’s scrapheap, and this place now sits, chinless and stupid, listening to its own fading echoes. Glory’s over, the lights are flickering. All that’s left is residue: a fortressed, waspish propriety led by the house-proud, thumbing local reno-porn and fussing with their 1912-ers. Now, Victoria is post-historical, post-contextual, contemporary…like everywhere else, but with coastline and aging street trees. The story it tells itself (I mean here an agreed-to narrative, a commonly held sense of identity and purpose) and its brand are—I could be nice and say tarnished, but I mean—broken. City of Gardens? Appropriately, Victoria’s current image references a vegetative condition. Someone tours me past a restyled house in Fairfield sporting a clever and tasteful second-storey side-deck that projects from the sloping roofline. I’m informed that “Fairfield now has a rule against such decks” because they enable intrusive overlook into neighbours’ rear yards. Amazing that second-storey windows aren’t verboten. Decorum our most important product, intrusion our greatest sin. Front page news in the daily? “Dog recovering from chilly night in car trunk,” or somesuch. The place has gone hyper-local, thuddingly dull, ditzy, Swiss—one of the last stages in a (once-important) city’s life cycle. Victoria behaves like cartoonist Saul Steinberg’s two duelists on the tongue of a crocodile. The crocodile, by the way, is The Future, pulling in at Platform 3, any minute now. Leaving macroeconomic, macropolitical, macrosocial trends and their local implications to the side for just a moment, it is so obvious that in the next few years, job-killing technology, work-at-home software, job-theft by the Westshore or capture by centrifugal Vancouver, outright provincial job-slashing in aid of a balanced budget—linked to a thinly veneered all-party hatred of this place (Victoria’s favourite wine? “We weren’t consulted!”)—will significantly chip away at the presence and sheer numbers of the civil service in Victoria’s central area, emptying out whole office buildings that will be a challenge to repurpose. Vertical mushroom farms, maybe. Or crash pads with elevator service for the shopping cart set. A June conversation with Sage Baker, the city’s brand new economic development director, quickly (and understandably) turns from an enumeration of opportunity areas and initiatives (she had been on the job only about two weeks when we talked) to her views about the need to change the internal culture and to discover ways to make Victoria City Hall more responsive and helpful (read: less obdurate, obstructive and hostile) to enterprise interests, and less micromanagerial. You’re a quick study, Sage! I wish Baker the best of luck (she is absolutely programmed for success, and if anyone can succeed, she will) but I’m not sure she appreciates, at the start of her two-year mandate, how long Victoria has been perfecting the Zen of dynamic inaction—something like a real-life version of the Vogons in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (described as “not actually evil, but bad tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous”). I’m reminded, when I talk with Baker, of the droll cartoon of a ballet master addressing a large stone: “Jeté!” In an effort to help Baker, let’s be open-eyed and analytical about the City of Victoria’s strong suit. Also, let’s be modern—futuristic, even—in our thinking about where economies are headed. Things are roiling, ecologically and economically, in case you hadn’t noticed. Maybe instead of moaning about the economic drift to Westshore, we should realize that soon-to-explode energy costs will paralyze Arcadian stalags like Westhills and Bear Mountain, and should be asking ourselves: What does the world need that plays to Victoria’s assets and capabilities? When I answer my own question, I think: If we must be Swiss, let’s at least be the green Geneva. Greeneva! We could be the world-leading green innovation capital—if only somebody with vision, entrepreneurial ambition and resources would see the remarkable business potential (David Black, say, with his compass reset from Kitimat oil refineries to something morally useful). Imagine Victoria’s future as an entrepot filled not with vapid visitor experiences but a green (in its broadest meanings) hub with consultants, world-class environmental expertise, research, workshops, discovery, invention, congresses, conferences, demonstration projects, global teaching and crucial green data services and information products. The key, I think, is not to ask the stone to jump but to exploit creative, money-making expressions of what we so brilliantly are right now: our fuddle, our genius for inertia, our indecision and motion-tabling skills, our local-ness, our passion for and protective love of nature and environment, our hand-wringy-ness, our predilection for healing therapies, our yoga-ness, our alternative-ness, our squishiness and sensitivity, our insatiable intellectual appetite, our committee-ness, our love of talk, talk, talk over action, our idealism. Perversely, it’s all so ecological! I have this revelation: it’s not that we have chosen removal from the wider streams of commerce but that we have failed to play to our own strengths. Maybe we just need to turn ourselves inside out. Old Town property dabbler Michael Williams, in what I assume was a misdirected quest for immortality (promised him, I don’t doubt, by the insidious Martin Segger, UVic secret agent posing, years back, as a Victoria City Councillor and heritage building buff), bequeathed his large clutch of downtown heritage buildings to the university upon his death. For starters, in a wider strategy of repatriation of regional assets, I say raze the entire existing university campus tomorrow. Bulldozers, forward! Reduce it to rubble. Relocate the entire university downtown to occupy not just its own ill-gotten properties, but every other vacant square foot of downtown space. Convert its current campus into a site for regional wastewater treatment, garbage sorting and recycling. Or move the airport there. What’s the urgency, you think? Trust me, this is not a time for folks to steeple their fingers and maunder about the long game. Go see World War Z (do it for Brad if you won’t do it for me). I’m sorry to remind you so often that zombie movies are an ominous, ecological metaphor whose message is we’re headed toward major self-harm and catastrophe. You can feel it. Media is seething with it. Global civilization simply cannot take this high level of environmental, economic and social stress. Victoria, you have an important destiny in these latter times. Seize it. “Jeté!” This is a feeble, old man’s request, and I’ll continue to voice it as long as my brains still work. As long as my brains still work. Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
  22. June 2013 Why do we penalize those who are trying to densify the city core? I’M TEMPTED TO DEVOTE THIS ENTIRE COLUMN to the news that while the McDonald’s on Pandora Avenue and Vancouver Street charges four cents less for a large coffee, the McDonald’s on Esquimalt Road near Esquimalt’s Archie Browning Recreation Centre is a masterpiece of tasteful, intimate restaurant decor, especially the leather armchairs and the booth seating. Yes, leather armchairs, booth seating. The Pandora McDonald’s is straight out of the prison cafeteria riot school of interior design (the “lockdown” look), and evokes Agent Smith’s disgust in The Matrix when he describes humans as a disease, a virus. The beautifully furnished and finished Esquimalt restaurant, however, communicates trust, love of people, belief in the goodness of the human community, faith that someday we will overcome our differences and all be as— Okay, sorry about that. But if you saw the place in Esquimalt you would rhapsodize, too. I’m trying to get my arms around something elusive and chimerical this month: air and space—though these words may be just markers for the real subject: value. I referenced a few months back the City of Victoria’s roughly two-year-old policy that allows developers in selected downtown areas to buy additional project density from the City. Density, you’ll remember, is the ratio of building square footage to site square footage. Under this latest formulation, the developer gets added density above 3:1 to a cap of 6:1 and the City gets money. As near as I can determine, the City’s case for this bonus density charge is that the City, in permitting densities of up to 6:1, is bestowing an unpaid-for benefit upon the developer (“bonus” says worlds about the City’s mindset); and in doing so, the City has the right to collect money because it functions like a secondary property owner—not of the “dirt,” but of a volume of space, up in the air. This renders the City the notional “owner” of a purely conceptual spatial volume and, in selling this development entitlement, the practitioner of an alchemy that the rest of us can only dream of: commodifying thin air. If the value of land is determined by what you can build on it, then this makes the City’s ownership of a spatial volume, as expressed in its land use policies, a fascinating subject—legally, business-wise, and philosophically. If you don’t mind some smudges on your clothing, come on down the rabbit hole with me. Cities evolved from simple crossroads origins to become towns and city-states ruled by an aristocracy and, in time, rough-cut administrative units run at first by powerful bosses and mayors. Eventually, a more democratically constrained elected leadership emerged. (The phrase “You can’t fight city hall” is believed to have originated in the US in the mid-1800s.) Cities exist to frame and manage the very complex living arrangements of a human community occupying a tightly-bounded geography; to foster opportunity; be the promoters of urban well-being; and behave as stewards of the future. In such pursuits, cities make budgetary and policy decisions based either on common sense; or support for the community’s mood and values; or the ghost-lit pursuit of some civic intention or aspiration. Here are some examples of each: Management of a water supply or charging for downtown parking or installing traffic controls at intersections are common sense. Detaining public troublemakers and preserving public parkland reflect community values. Licensing cats or charging for downtown density over 3:1 are batshit nutty. Oh, sorry, I’m breaking the writer’s omerta by not saving the crazy for later. So, here’s the thought: Why doesn’t the City zone everything 1:1 and charge for all additional density? Why not zone residential neighbourhoods one-storey and charge for the second storey on two-level homes? And you say: “Those are the silliest and most preposterous things I ever heard!” Oh, and charging for density above 3:1 is what? Solomonic? 3:1 says to developers “You can build three times your site area.” 6:1 says to developers “You can build six times your site area.” 6:1 with a density bonus charge says “Please, don’t build in Victoria.” Presumably, logic and desire led the City to say okay in the first place to greater densities. In other words, somebody thought it was a good idea for some reason, just as other somebodies thought 3:1 was a good idea at previous times. Though right here might be a good place to remind ourselves that there are a number of pension-age downtown buildings—the Central Building, 612 View, Belmont Building, Dogwood Building, Sayward Building and the Yarrow Building, for example—with densities approaching and in some cases exceeding 6:1, all of which were put up umpteen years ago without bonus density charges, and all of which were seen in their day to be making a positive contribution to the downtown. In spite of these historic precedents, wise heads in today’s Victoria believe that a density of 6:1 is a developer’s windfall, and that the City is entitled to capture most of it. What it says as social subtext is that developers are sociopathic and criminally insane and must be punished for their ambitions. Let’s turn to an obvious but as-yet-unasked question: Why did the City raise the density cap to 6:1 in the first place? Surely, the City concluded that higher density buildings might result in more people working and living in and around downtown—a good thing. If this was the City’s principal motivation, why aren’t those presumed beneficial economic and social outcomes (and downstream property tax revenue) quid pro quo enough? And why wouldn’t the City turn a blind eye to a developer windfall (more theoretical than real, anyway) to get developer juices flowing? The City was for several years getting a strong message from the development industry that given downtown Victoria’s high land costs, densities greater than 3:1 would enhance project viability. The City was also aware that many developers of downtown projects were using the cumbersome rezoning process to achieve densities in the range of 5:1; and that downtown area property owners were pricing their property on the assumption that 5:1 was a slam-dunk via rezoning. Old expectations of value die hard, of course, and even with the City’s new bonus density policy, property owners have hardly backed off their earlier asking prices. So, when the City stacks bonus density charges on top of a property owner’s price expectations, the essential rationale for greater density falls apart and turns into an invitation principally to take on the greater risks of attempting to sell or lease bigger buildings. And last, there is an argument floating around out there that the City needs to charge this bonus simply as a “gimme” because it needs new Downtown amenities; and our underground infrastructure is old and at capacity; and greater density puts more pressure on infrastructure, so developers should make a contribution to improving/increasing that capacity. Leaving aside the mind-bending circularity of that thinking, why then wouldn’t the City make any and every new development pay a bonus, regardless of density, since every development adds pressure; and further, isn’t infrastructure-upgrading precisely what the City is supposed to be doing within its franchise, with its normal tax revenues through the annual budgeting process? In consideration of all of these circumstances, what exactly explains the City mordida from new projects seeking densities greater than 3:1? Well, first, the present bonus density payment program is meant to rationalize a previous horse-trading system in which developers exchanged affordable housing units, public art or contributions to the City’s affordable housing fund for greater density. Folks thought that system lacked transparency and was open to developer abuse. (Can you believe that?) Second, other cities do it—justifying such charges against high civic processing costs, when in fact it’s just the City saying to developers: “Hey, if you’re trying to max your building density, we must be doing something right, so share.” Third, the City needs the dough, and it’s cheaper for the industry to pay than take the City to court. Of course, this is Victoria, so there are also “dark side” explanations for the bonus density policy: first, that it picks up on strong anti-density/anti-height sentiment in Victoria and by “punishing” developers with a surcharge tosses a bone to the folks who believe those higher densities threaten Victoria’s character and really should not be permitted under any circumstances; second, that by imposing bonus density costs, the City plays to the values of the single-family house-owning “urban aristocracies” of James Bay, Fairfield and elsewhere. Such values—call it the “Victoria lifestyle premium”—percolate into City land use policy and drive up property and housing costs in the core. Funny how Victoria’s land use policies are trapped in this murk of living contradiction, a dreamscape, a social mystery in which the amenities and nostalgic charm of an intransigent past and the needs and imperatives of an urgent present battle for validation. Maybe we should modify the old axiom to give it local relevance: “You can’t comprehend city hall.” Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
  23. May 2013 White and curvaceous, Shutters flaunts Victoria's unwritten cultural code. SHUTTERS, THE IMPROBABLY-WHITE and unexpectedly-sinuous condominium building in Songhees, is not so much a building as a sculpture people live in. Proper buildings, after all, are squared up and have right angles. Everyone knows that. And they’re brick-y red, not wedding-cake white. So, let’s study this one-off that flaunts all of Victoria’s unwritten cultural code regarding colour and shape of buildings, and that seems not so much to have been built as to have landed. I was led to consider Shutters after I sat in one of the city’s coffee shops frequented by the double latte crowd, and overheard an artist/philosopher-in-residence explaining to the tattooed bunny at his table that white was not a colour but a concept, an idea. White an artifice? My view is, if you can buy a can of it in a paint store, it’s a colour. I typed “Is white a colour?” into Google, hoping for Wikipedia solidarity, like: “Hey, stupid, do fish swim?” No such luck. I was immediately swept up into light theory, pigmentation theory, molecular theory. In a tactical retreat I plodded to the basement and dragged out the voluminous Benjamin Moore Designer’s Kit—the “Good Book” of colour. A whole fan of colour chips was labelled “Whites.” I rest my case. But not in Victoria, architecturally. We may be mostly a white-people city, but not a white-building city. We’re much more in the shrubby palette: pomes, mustards, duns, beiges, greys, yam skin maroons…proper, serious, rooted colours. White buildings here stand out like college pranks involving lots of toilet paper. White’s about an endless faith in blue skies, and such faith is in short supply here on the raincoast. White’s sybaritic, Mediterranean—not Scottish, disapproving and hellfire. Hold on: white is also an aspirational colour, and it inspires the same meanings in many cultures. Think of how germs flee before a white starched nurse’s uniform, or how a tunnel of bright white light guides us to the afterlife, or how the good witch wears white. If you take white to this level of metaphor, Shutters is the one Victoria residential building that forces us to think about what white means expressively. Shutters was undertaken by Ian Gillespie’s Westbank Developments in Songhees, and designed by Vancouver architect James Cheng. It is the most architecturally flamboyant building in Victoria, all nerve, curve, brazen performance and exhibitionism. Shutters is entirely sun-loving, carefree and sea-cruise, and has taken its cues from Miami Beach, cribbing some of its design pedigree from architect Morris Lapidus’ Fountainbleu Hotel. I take slight liberties in describing it as a mismatched pair of single-loaded (units extend fully across the building) punctuation marks—a nine-storey comma and a six-storey parenthesis—on a roughly two-acre site in Songhees—to date, the only building “over there” to suggest that it might actually be fun to live at the edge of the ocean. The buildings share in common a resort-size pool that sits almost invisibly on an elevated patio space. Overall, the project scandalizes its grumpy, beige-painted or red shingle-hatted neighbours, and colour and shape-wise in Songhees comes off like a unicorn picking its way through a chivvying herd of hippos. It’s an impossibly jazzy and sexy development, as dazzling, distracting and disconcerting as Marilyn Monroe captured by Cecil Beaton’s camera in gauzy white petticoats, or Marilyn standing on a windy grate, her white dress billowing sculpturally in the updraft—and enjoying it! Shutters’ two building curves have been set on axes roughly at right angles to each other, and as you walk around the site, more of one building is revealed as the curve of the other recedes—a photographer’s dream and an urban aesthete’s delight. It’s interesting that in a city whose developers and builders will swear that every angle, jut-out, and deviation from the geometry of four straight walls spells financial ruin for the project, Shutters is nothing but circumference. The building is called Shutters because of a repeated design motif of quartets of white-painted louvered shutters that have been staggered from one floor to the next on the exterior walkways of each storey. Funny, actually, to have named so glassy and transparent a building after an object intended for opacity and privacy. Shutters wears all of its circulation systems on the outside: Glass columns enclose its numerous elevators and stairs; and its wide exterior entrance corridor makes occupants visible when they leave their front doors. The slightly hypnotic and spacey effect as people pop out of their homes, walk the corridors and visibly descend in glass-walled elevators is a bit like watching something from Second Life or a video animation. A friend who lives in the building informs me that short bridges cross a narrow void between the elevators and the curving walkways that lead to front doors. He suggests that the act of crossing over is a profound and dramatic event, akin to stepping across the gangway between dock and cruise ship: You leave one world behind and step into a new one. With room to burn, the building sports a graceful and remarkably spacious lobby filled with designer-istically geometric, furniture showroom-like white-and-chrome seating and table arrangements, bathed in a faint aqua glow from its glass walls. I note this because so many of our recent buildings, facing both cost and security concerns, seem to have opted for a penitentiary aesthetic featuring miserly lobby spaces and the lockdown look. On its lower south-facing side, Shutters rises glassily out of a low cliff of raw Songhees rock, emphasizing its crystalline grace. The landscape designer has lopsidedly dropped in a copse of white birches to one side of the main building entrance. Nice! In its totality the building must leave occupants happily confused about whether life’s a bummer or a vacation, and humming along with Tony Bennett, “Where am I? I’m a stranger in Paradise.” In that vein, Victoria’s countless thousands of urban critics habitually bemoan how ego and idiosyncrasy invariably get boiled out of major developments because in the development field flamboyance is equated with cost and risk, if not outright mental imbalance. Westbank is a major developer, yet Ian Gillespie, the company’s president, presumably with his banker’s and investor’s approbation, has installed something eccentric and unexpected in virtually every one of Westbank’s buildings, often with great success—notably, the beautifully controlled The Falls on Douglas Street and his many projects in Vancouver including the Flatiron Building-like Woodwards tower in Gastown, the Fairmont Pacific Hotel and condominium tower near the new harbourfront convention centre, and the planned Beach and Howe Tower by BIG (the very hot Dutch architects Bjarke Ingles Group), a completely insane architectural tour-de-force that will rise between some of the Granville Street Bridge on-ramps and that looks in renderings, unnervingly, like it will fall over in a strong breeze or a tremor. While the Bay building re-purposed as The Hudson stands in creamy, off-white splendour, and smaller white buildings, homes and such, dot the Victoria landscape, Shutters and the tower portion of the eponymously named The 834 at 834 Johnson Street remain the city’s two major residential studies in white. Not enough to nudge our city toward Mediterranean bliss. We may have to wait for the full-on local effects of global warming (tropical palms, a hot sun, blondes in bathing suits) before we shake off Edinburgh and embrace Miami. Can Shutters be faulted for not respecting its context? Probably not. Ex-industrial Songhees itself has been a-historical—Victoria’s “wild west” where almost anything goes (and has gone). No reminders of our civic history excepting the nearby railroad roundhouse, car barns, assorted stores buildings and rusting railyard tracks remain to be offended. Can it be faulted for being capricious, or overly self-congratulatory about its daring curves and good looks? These are hard questions to answer without tumbling down the rabbit hole into a swamp of architectural semiotics. Last time I tried, I broke my leg and almost drowned. What I sense—without knowing the mind of its developer—is that Shutters and Gillespie’s other clever and playful projects are not at all synthetic, Las Vegas products (Egyptian pyramids, castles, faux villas, etc.) but serious attempts to express a new architectural language—a mix of technical daring and design brio intended to bring character to large and tall buildings, and not just the iconic skyscrapers, but all. Last, can Shutters be faulted for being too curvaceous, provocative and white in a city of well-behaved, soberly coloured cubes? Hey, do fish walk? Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
  24. April 2013 The City of Victoria is robbing the future to pay for today. I WANT TO ENLIST YOUR HELP in fleshing out an idea for the City of Victoria and in designing a strategy for its implementation. I’m proposing that together we generate some innovative thinking directed at our downtown and, by extension, the city’s problematic economy. In doing this we’ll not only open new ground in citizen innovation and city/citizen collaboration, but assist the city we love—a place that has clearly found itself overwhelmed and temporarily out of ideas. We can do this on the pages of Focus (send in your thoughts as letters or emails); or around a table in a coffee shop (call or write me); maybe it wants to be a small conference or workshop. Possibly all. As framing, let me quickly invoke Paul Krugman, economist and New York Times columnist, who in the context of the current US recession debate recalls the “utter impenetrability of the elite [Bush-era] pro-Iraq-war consensus”: Now, as then, this consensus has seemed impenetrable to counterarguments, and its leaders regarded as credible even though they’ve been wrong about everything, while critics of the consensus are regarded as foolish hippies even though all their predictions — about interest rates, about inflation, about the dire effects of austerity — have come true. My local take-away from Krugman is this: the current mis-ordering of importances by our political leadership and civic management is driving this city to its knees financially. Believe me: right at the very borders of calamity, these folks are perpetuating a ruinous and fatal approach to the city’s economic strategy. Here in Victoria, Council and key staff have for months been wrestling with a budget so tight that the effort to boil a mere $1.6 million out of it (less than 1 percent) has produced major brain damage in city hall and bizarre, funny-if-they-weren’t-so-tragic proposals like switching from annuals to perennials in some of the city’s flower beds. And all of this Herculean effort is in aid of tabling a budget for the following three years not with a zero increase, but one that will continue to increase by 3.25 percent a year—an 11 percent cumulative jump, presumably with further rises likely beyond that. No portrait of Victoria’s present political and administrative leadership will be complete or accurate without making this simple fact clear: the city is robbing the future to pay for today. The blue bridge—a subject exhaustively discussed on the pages of Focus Magazine—is a lucid illustration of stealing from the future. In the city’s deal with the devil to keep the replacement bridge ‘within budget,’ the structure’s engineering standards have been relaxed, shaving not just amenities but two-and-a-half decades (25 percent) off its functional 100-year life—a clear case of the city essentially crapping in tomorrowland. It’s not just the bridge, it’s a pattern: the city is under-allocating incoming revenue to its capital account (the money needed to repair, upgrade, replace or add infrastructure), in favour of its operating account (what it spends today). As an example of city duress, the city recently required Chard Developments (and others, I imagine) to build wastewater holding tanks into its recent condo project at 834 Johnson Street to facilitate overnight, lower-volume discharge: the sewers are so old they lack the capacity to handle a growing downtown. None of this is sustainable and it’s going to get us into even more trouble down the road. Ask yourself: How do these things happen, how did it come to this? The answer is that, as with personal behaviour, institutional behaviour follows the laws of circumstance and consequences—essentially, an ecological principle. Smoke for thirty years, you get cancer or lung disease. Leach the soil of nutrients season after season, eventually the crops fail. Spew a lot of carbon into the atmosphere for a half-century, the glaciers melt and the global weather roils. In this vein, the city’s current budget dilemma didn’t come out of nowhere. It has been years in the making and is best understood as a long-brewing, slowly evolving set of political and managerial miscalculations and missteps moving us toward the inevitability of consequences. Some of those consequences are here now; others are quickly approaching. The miscalculations span successive mayoral leaderships, beginning somewhere in the political dry gulch of the post-Pollen years, and speak to the ever-expanding fuddle culture at the city. The current challenge of boiling $1.6 million or so out of the budget? Believe me, just a symptom and not the disease. Honestly, if you really imagine the solution to Victoria’s economic problems lies in switching from annuals to perennials in city flower beds, automating payment at the city’s five parkades, freezing a few pay packages here and there, and eliminating free egg salad sandwiches at committee meetings, you should stop reading this piece now. Consider leaky boat syndrome: Water’s coming in through a dozen holes! You can’t bail fast enough! The boat is getting heavier and less maneuverable! The tide’s pushing you away from the shore! Big, swamping waves are approaching! Oh-oh! As things deteriorate, all options are compromised. The city is trying desperately to reduce the budget (essentially, a 4.25 percent increase) by a mere 1 percent and clearly not having an easy time of it. But much bigger rollers are just offshore, and the city is under-equipped for an economic event-horizon likely to feature: • a regional sewage treatment levy imposed on taxpayers; • the growing drag of three-quarter-billion dollars in unfunded city infrastructure projects including underground systems, streets, parks, facilities and community amenities; • potential cost overruns (in any event) on that embarrassment of a blue bridge replacement, coupled to the prospect of a legal challenge of the city for betraying the terms of the spending referendum approved by voters; • continued softening of the real estate market with drops in assessments and the need for compensatory mill rate increases (a bigger bite into home and commercial property owner equity value); • relentless commercial predation from the ‘burbs and accelerated erosion of downtown retail and service/office assets, prompting all kinds of bad consequences; • financial challenges to the sustainability/viability of various city recreational and cultural assets; • an emptying piggy bank, hampering the city’s ability to mount new initiatives, exploit emergent opportunities, respond to rainy-day conditions, or compete aggressively in the face of regional economic challenges in the far-from-rosy near-future. These prospects point to an enfeebled city less and less able to invest in its own well-being. Our well-being. Here’s something that happened in the last two years that brings a fine point to understanding the city’s dilemma. Under its new land use policies, the city telegraphed that it was prepared to allow densities of up to 6:1 (total building square footage six times the site square footage) in certain areas in and around the core. With guidance from an out-of-town consultant who demonstrated little intuitive understanding of either the competitive regional economic condition or local business culture, the city came up with a bonus density policy that said to developers: “Okay, you can build up to 6:1, but we’re going to charge you a ‘density bonus’ for every square foot over 3:1.” In other words: “No problem, we acknowledge that you can build at densities up to 6:1, but we’re going to punish you with a significant financial disincentive if you try.” As business messaging, this is perverse and anti-market, contradictory and un-partnerlike. It builds neither trust nor confidence within industry. It doesn’t say to industry: “Let’s build this city together!” Why this push-pull insanity? It’s three-pronged. The simple answer is that the city desperately needs the dough. Driven by that need, it literally cannot afford the costs of acting more entrepreneurially. Next answer, there is an extremely murky social and political mindset in Victoria—sniffy, contemptuous and distrusting of business and enterprise, neurasthenic and carry-over colonial, second-rate in its business skills and energies. Final answer: The city doesn’t see itself as a partner in or facilitator of successful business outcomes, just as an administrator and regulator. And here, I believe, is where the invitation to crowd-source needs to come in. As a citizen and taxpayer, I don’t like seeing my city and my downtown at risk. And as an investor in real estate—essentially, my home—I don’t like chilly reminders that no law prevents Victoria real estate values from tumbling if this place loses its lustre. Addicted to the hoped- (and prayed-) for constancy of provincial civil service presence in and around downtown (a crapshoot), and the sugar-high of seasonal tourism, Victoria coupon-clips as if these conditions were ordained, or written in fire. As downtown retail vacancy and the city’s budget challenges demonstrate, they’re not. I’ve noted in a recent column (“Heart Warming,” January 2013), that if all the central area condos and rental units under construction or somewhere in the pipeline come on to the market in the coming years, it will add to the central area about 2,000 additional residential units trolling for roughly three thousand occupants. Take my word for it: Three thousand additional residents living and shopping and, with luck and effort, working in and near downtown would profoundly improve the economy and the street tone of the city. However, downtown commercial rental vacancies are gradually rising, nudging 8 percent. Suburban retail is eating downtown’s lunch; and under current circumstances and trends, a lot more downtown retail is at risk of falling below the threshold of business viability—with all due respect to comic book shops, tattoo joints and specialty tea stores, which are great but not exactly cornerstone enterprises in today’s urban economy. To the extent that it’s possible to divine city thinking on the subject, the only city strategy operating right now is to try to woo suburban shoppers downtown by dangling the ‘specialness’ of the place: fizzy bribes like parades, festivals, fireworks, unique ‘character,’ and so on. This will not work to any appreciable degree. Car culture finds its own level and trust me, the Market On Millstream makes the Market On Yates (though profitable, I’m sure) look like a lemonade stand. My guess is that the downtown public realm—streets and other public spaces—probably needs a serious $20 million fluff-up. And a mobility strategy designed to whisk people (and their shopping dollars) downtown cost-free from James Bay, Fairfield, Fernwood, Gorge-Burnside and Vic West hasn’t even been conceived, leave alone priced. Not surprisingly, a downtown jobs/living paradigm hasn’t been formulated either. Not by anyone. The vision of an emerging downtown, as expressed in planning documents and policies, as articulated and ratified by mayor and council, is un-dreaming, unsure, underwhelming, un-strategic. In fact, with the exception of the usual high-minded flapdoodle on the preamble pages of the new Downtown Plan, there isn’t any ‘how’ there at all. Meanwhile, too many of the city’s condominium projects—from the towers in Humboldt Valley to those in Songhees—are not living buildings but dark-windowed, tombstone investments by prairie folk planning to ‘sunset’ in Victoria. Years and years of inattention and neglect—the result of hubris, complacency, budgetary botch and mis-investment—have taken us to this place. It really is time for a local political revolution, which is to say it’s time for public (voter) outrage and action. It’s also time for a new crop of political hopefuls who can articulate vision, intention, substance and a detailed plan—before this city goes smelly with rot. That said, changing the multifarious habits—the culture, really—of this place is going to be exhausting and nearly thankless. It starts with the need to replace conceits about how downtown is the “centre of it all” for the region with a muscular plan to actually re-make the centre as the centre—on its own terms. The only shopping carts I see in and around downtown are filled with beer and wine empties and the scant possessions of the marginal, not food or merchandise. By contrast, Greater Victoria’s suburbs are almost totally self-sufficient—economically, culturally, recreationally, socially; so the continuing effort to invite suburbanites to live their economic lives downtown must be acknowledged as an ever-more-thready and pointless undertaking. Instead, how to ensure that an eventual 10,000-15,000 new residents are able to live, work and function south of Bay Street, west of Cook is, in my view, the city’s job #1. Our job as citizens and voters is to send the city that message, as quickly as possible. Funny, but obscured by our dewy love of the old Victoria—mostly, the buildings downhill of Government Street—is the realization that they were shoulder-to-shoulder commercial structures created largely by a bumptious merchant class—people who were confident about the city’s economic future and their opportunity to make dough. The buildings weren’t an earlier generation’s idea of a legacy heritage project. The structures—and the merchant dreams that founded them—are at their centenary. Frankly, I can’t think of a better way to celebrate old bricks than with new plans for economic regeneration. Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
  25. March 2013 Is there an app for zapping bad buildings? TWENTY YEARS OR SO AGO, I was for a while a development consultant or, as I called myself in private moments of searing candour, a “developer’s finger puppet.” I was paid on a performance basis (“employed by the outcome,” was my trippingly elegant phrase for it), and was of course highly motivated to succeed. As I made the rounds door-knocking in various neighbourhoods and attending countless public meetings, I would listen to a predictable and repetitious litany of neighbours’ concerns: too high, too big, too dense, too close, too much traffic, too much shadowing, loss of privacy, and my favourite change-up: “I support density, just not here.” I knew this repertoire was code for something else, something much more emotionally raw and elemental, like: “I don’t want that monstrosity, that death star, anywhere near me! If it goes up, I’m going to hate my life every day!” Things could be otherwise. For a clue as to why they are not, type into Google any of these: “Creating beautiful apartment buildings,” “The art of multifamily buildings,” “Designing beautiful apartment buildings,” and be prepared to learn about “The art of thermal mass modelling for multifamily,” or “Miami apartment buildings for sale,” or “Multi-family millions: how anyone can reposition for big profits.” In other words, join me in the stunning discovery that creating beautiful apartment buildings is not as compelling an online topic as, say, the colour of Anne Hathaway’s undies. I blame Cook Street. Why exactly do apartment buildings belong on arterial streets, which is where we seem to like to stick ‘em? Everyone gets the cultural message, which is: “If you live in a multifamily building, you deserve traffic noise, alienating architecture and a place-less environment when you come out of the building.” If you ask planners you’ll get a flat-footed retreat into professional-ese like “concentrating density” or “improving the car/street interface” or “clustering” or “neighbourhood hierarchy” or “choosing density-appropriate locations and preserving neighbourhood integrity.” (The last of these has at least a whiff of covert honesty.) Streets like Cook and other so-called “arterials” make it easy for planners to rationalize density, while everyone else (including developers) instinctively understands that it’s simply a green light for creating human storage lockers. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I made a risky pledge at the end of last month’s column to lay out some ideas that would assist apartment buildings to look and function not like human warehousing but homes, and not like vacuums or black holes in the streetscape but places of energetic human presence and/or visual delight. First, this note: By “apartment building” I mean “multifamily”—that is, the building form, not the tenure; so, while respecting the Scriptural principle that renters are scum, house-dwellers are the Lord’s Chosen, and condo owners could go either way, this writing considers rental and condominium buildings interchangeably. Apartment buildings are not large houses any more than buses are large cars. While they may share a neighbourhood, houses and apartment buildings have different social identities, emotional resonances, positions in the community hierarchy, and principles of social governance. It’s not unlike the grazing protocols of animals in the wild. And as with lions, elephants, water buffalo, and zebras on the African veldt, it’s also useful in housing to acknowledge uneasy relationships, territoriality, uncomfortable adjacencies and the certainty of chivvying. (For fun, check if any, or how many, of the members of your community association’s land use committee live in apartments.) Multi-family buildings don’t get any sympathy. In the complex and nuanced world of land use, they are the predator, not the predatee; the wicked witch, not the good fairy. People, including the occupants (considered culturally as either aspiring or lapsed house-owners), lend them no more feeling than we give to rental cars. Something about multi-family buildings deeply threatens the core values and elemental beliefs of single-family residents. Barring deep cultural study, I’m not sure why, but the prospect of a multifamily building next door, or down the block, or in the neighbourhood saddens, threatens, frightens and angers single-family house-owners. It’s not exactly a class issue, but you can’t miss the reek of threat—something that exposes the ideal of “home” to the roiling imperfections of the living human mass. For purposes of discovery, then, let’s think of multifamily buildings not only as physical structures, but also as social messaging. That’s the only way to get to a whole-system understanding of these buildings, and to propose some changes that might result in a more salubrious outcome. From the perspective of social messaging, appearances suggest that as long as apartment buildings meet building code standards, nobody cares beyond that. There is nothing aspirational or warm-blooded about the design results. They rarely project developer ego, for the most part read as “product,” and in a hundred subtle ways convey more about the project’s pro forma and return on investment than about designing for successful human community. To get away from this, you have first to believe, as a form of casus belli, that building design and site use strongly impact the resident’s sense of community belonging. In other words, bad buildings foster bad citizenship. It’s nearly pointless simply to want better buildings from developers. You also have to be a keen student of the building code, of the actual intentions of policy and the contents of zoning bylaws, of development costs, and even of strata laws and property management culture. You have to be able to make the economic case for more creative site use, improved design and the singularity of buildings. In its recently approved Official Community Plan, the planning professionals advanced only an anodyne response by green-lighting multifamily anywhere along the city’s arterials and in very tightly defined “village centres.” Better than nothing, but still redlining and setting the stage for more crud. Here are some additional specific proposals. Apartment buildings in earlier years were better integrated within single-family areas and built generally on corners—not, I suspect because of the zoning of the day, but because community-makers intuited that corner locations would allow multifamily buildings to push up to the two sidewalk property lines and farther away from adjacent single-family houses on either street or from contiguous rear yards. If you take some time to nose around the core neighbourhoods, including Fairfield and James Bay, I think you will agree that generally it’s not a bad fit and that the city could almost universally apply a corner lot zone, maybe with a two-lot maximum to ensure protection of the neighbourhood scale. The city would also benefit from a formal study (with design and development industry professionals) of architect Eric Barker’s two deconstructions at 948 North Park and 22-24 Songhees Road. Both offer nourishing food for thought about alternatives to the conventional apartment block plunked in the middle of its site and disconnected entirely from the larger neighbourhood context. There need to be rewards for even modestly inspired architecture. In a perfect world, these would come from a discriminating market rejecting bad buildings. Realistically, community associations and advisory design panels have to pound the message home that design and appearance matter; that people and neighbourhoods require idiosyncracy, individuation, character; and that these examples should be treated with some form of regulatory lenience or tax generosity. Multiple entrances served by multiple elevators would help to de-anonymize buildings. Consider: a single elevator, opening front and rear can, in a four-storey building, serve up to 32 apartment doors—four forward, four back. Instead of long penitentiary corridors which carry financial (building efficiency) and social costs, such elevators could open on small, somewhat individuated vestibules serving up to four apartment doors and improving the sense of place within a large building. Walk Southgate Street between Vancouver and Cook Streets, paying particular and careful attention to the house-like structures. Count mailboxes (prepare to be stunned, in some cases) and then ask yourself if there might not be potential for an innovative form of new-built, house-like apartment building designed to fit on single lots almost anywhere in the city. To their credit, Victorians are conscionable about the need for density, inclusion, and affordability. Communities continue to wrestle with the challenge and, in my view, remain open to ideas and models that will encourage the benefits of density while keeping negative impacts at a minimum. Surely, policy, design and pricing innovation is the way around the siege-and-fortress dynamic that currently describes land use events in Victoria. So, maybe it’s time for the city, industry and the community associations to co-host some form of creative workshop. This developer’s finger puppet will gladly spring for the refreshments. Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
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