Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Opinion: Are you prepared for a flood or earthquake in Vancouver? Vancouver Courier September 11, 2017

A "Quake Cottage" was set up at city hall in 2015 to allow people to experience what an earthquake might be like. Columnist Michael Geller would like to see an earthquake simulator exhibit set up at a venue such as Science World.

Forest fires and hurricanes highlight importance of disaster planning 

Hurricane Harvey brings catastrophic floods to Houston. Crews battle large wildfire near Peachland. Irma takes aim at U.S. — six million Floridians flee home.  Mexico recovering from deadly 8.1 earthquake.

      Floods, fires, hurricanes, earthquakes. So much misery around the world.  Is this the result of global warming? What if this happened in Vancouver?
While Vancouver may not be prone to hurricanes and forest fires, we are certainly susceptible to flooding and earthquakes.
      A June 2016 story in the Richmond News reported on a review of future flood scenarios by the Fraser Basin Council. It revealed that Richmond and municipalities upstream are extremely vulnerable to flooding as sea levels continue to rise, glacier runoff becomes more pronounced, and the potential for more extreme storms increases.
      Unless a comprehensive flood management plan is put in place, the council estimates a major flood would result in economic losses of $20-30 billion, making it the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history.
      It is not just Richmond and the Fraser Valley that are susceptible to flooding. Rising sea levels could threaten many parts of Vancouver.
      As someone who lives on an island in the Fraser River, I often think about flooding. But since my house was designed and built well above the Flood Construction Level, I don’t expect it to be affected by rising sea levels in my lifetime.
      However, I do foresee a day when I may not be able to get off my island because neighbouring Southlands will be under water.
      Given what has been happening in Houston and Florida, this may be a good time for Vancouver residents to consider Benjamin Franklin’s axiom that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
      A good place to start is the City of Vancouver’s website on how to minimize the dangers of flooding.
      While the danger of flooding is real, so are the consequences of an earthquake.
      I have never been in an earthquake, but in 2007 I experienced one in the Earthquake House exhibit at the Museum of New Zealand in Wellington.
      This display simulates a 6.6-magnitude aftershock from an actual 1987 earthquake. It is frightfully realistic. While you are sitting in a house, it suddenly starts to shake. Pictures start crashing off the walls, furniture tips over, and the sound of breaking glass is deafening.
       When the shaking stops, an urgent news bulletin interrupts regular TV programming. New Zealand’s version of Peter Mansbridge appears on screen to report on what is happening. Live video reveals the devastation around the city, including collapsed buildings, bridges and a pending tsunami.
The exhibit offers visitors a compelling reminder to ‘quake-safe’ their homes. Indeed, when I returned to Vancouver, I removed heavy glass-framed pictures from above our beds and prepared an emergency kit.
      I would urge Vancouver officials to create a similar exhibit in the Vancouver museum or science centre.
      In 2015, a “Quake Cottage” earthquake simulator was set up in a parking lot at Vancouver city hall to mark Emergency Preparedness Week in Canada that year. The Insurance Bureau of Canada partnered with Vancouver and other municipalities to have a California company transport it to Metro Vancouver.
      Watching the recent flood and fire evacuations on TV, I am sure I was not the only one wondering how Vancouver would respond in the event of an emergency.
      Fortunately, Metro Vancouver has undertaken considerable planning in this regard. There is an Emergency Operations Centre (EOC), a fortified bunker-like structure in Hastings-Sunrise. You can read about other emergency preparedness measures here.
      The City of Vancouver also has a website here.
It urges every household to prepare an emergency plan so each family member understands what to do if there is an earthquake or other disaster.
      Households should also have an emergency kit including food, water, and extra clothing, to be self-sufficient for at least 72 hours following a major emergency since city services will be affected.
I would add: put some cash in your emergency kit since ATM machines will probably not be working, check insurance policies now, not later, keep slippers under your bed so you don’t have to step on broken glass, and get in the habit of not letting your gas tank get too empty.
      The recent spate of hurricanes and fires is not the result of climate change. But due to climate change, hurricanes and major floods are expected to increase in magnitude and frequency.  There is a role that community planners must play. But that’s another story for another day.

Opinion: Why housing in Vancouver is so expensive Vancouver Courier August 31, 2017

   Last Friday during a stag dinner at a Yaletown restaurant, a prominent lawyer named Grant asked me a question on the minds of many these days.
“Why is housing so expensive?”
      Since my sable fish in miso arrived just as I was about to answer, rather than let it get cold, I promised to respond in this week’s Courier column. So this is for Grant and everyone else wondering the same thing.
      There are many factors influencing the cost of housing. They include the impact of foreign buyers, taxation programs, lack of supply and inappropriately zoned land. However, it is useful to examine four other cost components: land, construction, soft costs and profit.
      Let’s start with land costs.
      Currently there are few undeveloped multi-family sites in Vancouver where more affordable forms of housing could be built. However, even if we could rezone single-family lots, the cost is going to remain high.
      Currently, a larger East Side single-family lot, on which we can build a house, laneway unit and basement suite, might be worth $1.5 million
      If we were to subdivide this lot in half to allow a duplex, assuming no increase in land value, the cost would be $750,000 for each unit. However, under current zoning, neither basement suites nor laneway houses would be permitted.
      If we were to rezone and subdivide the property to allow three townhouses, the land cost alone would be at least $500,000. When you add in the other costs, this townhouse is going to cost well over $1 million.
      Many years ago, we built small apartment buildings on 50-foot lots. However, even if we could put a 10-suite apartment building on this lot, the land cost for each apartment would be at least $150,000, and probably twice that on the West Side of Vancouver.
      The point is, starting with the value of a single-family lot, even if we can rezone and subdivide to create new housing choices, we cannot create truly affordable housing.
      Then there are construction costs, which have been escalating considerably. They include demolition, site remediation and oftentimes off-site costs, including infrastructure improvements. Construction costs vary by the form of development (e.g. single family, townhouse, apartment); whether the building is woodframe or concrete; the type of parking; the size of the units (the smaller the unit, the higher the cost per square foot); and the quality of finishes. Are there arborite or granite countertops, conventional or frameless shower stalls, etc.?
      Another major cost category is “soft costs.” To start with, there is the expense of consultants (architects, engineers, landscape architect, geotechnical, environmental, building envelope, heritage and code consultants and surveyors whose bills may relate to 6 to 8 per cent of the construction costs.
Other costs include legal, insurance, appraisal, Home Owner Protection, overhead and project management.
      Then there are the municipal fees including permits, development cost levies, community amenity contributions in the case of rezonings, engineering and hookup fees, administration and inspection, damage deposits and property taxes. These costs can vary considerably, but can be more than the consultant fees and other soft costs.
      Another major soft cost is marketing costs and commissions. If the homes are going to be sold through a pre-sale program, these costs can be 2 to 4 per cent of sales revenues. Commissions are another 3 per cent of revenues. When you add this up, it often equates to 15 per cent of the construction cost or more than twice all the consulting fees.
      On top of this there are financing fees and interest costs. Factors influencing these costs are the developer’s reputation, the amount of equity, interest rate, length of time for approvals and project costs.
      Finally, there’s the developer’s profit.
      Banks will generally not finance a project unless the financial proforma demonstrates at least 15 per cent profit on revenues or 17.5 per cent on costs. While some developers with excellent track records can proceed with lower profit margins, most cannot, or will not.
      Many in the development industry are calling upon government to reduce many of its costs. But this raises a key question. Even if costs go down, will prices necessarily go down?
      To my mind the answer is simple. Prices won’t go down unless there is sufficient competition in the marketplace. In other words, we also need to significantly increase supply.
      Grant, does this answer your question?

Friday, August 18, 2017

Georgia Geller's Ride to Conquer Cancer August 26-27 Soon!

My daughter Georgia, now a full-fledged oncologist at the BC Cancer Agency in Victoria, is joining many other caring people in the 9th Annual ride to Conquer Cancer August 26th and 27th. I know that she's too busy to solicit necessary donations and doesn't need anything more to worry about, so I am posting her message in the hope that some visitors to this blog will donate to this most worthwhile cause.

Welcome to Georgia's page

Please Support My Ride
Hello everyone,

Working as an oncologist at the BC Cancer Agency, I get to see some of the amazing improvements we have made in cancer care and yet how much more we still need to discover. I would really appreciate you supporting me for the Ride to Conquer Cancer to raise money for research and better outcomes.
Happy riding!

You can find more details and a donation form at http://www.conquercancer.ca/site/TR/Ride/Vancouver2017?px=4292924&pg=personal&fr_id=1593

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Opinion: City red tape continues to hamper affordability in Vancouver Vancouver Courier August 15, 2017

According to columnist Michael Geller, unless there is a dramatic reduction in the time it takes to obtain development approvals, especially for purpose-built rental projects, and “missing middle” forms of housing such as row houses and stacked townhouses, Vancouver’s housing affordability will be no better than it is today. Photo Dan Toulgoet

I woke up Monday morning facing a dilemma. What should be the topic for this week’s Courier column? 
    Should I write about my recent trip to Victoria where my wife could not help but compare the beautiful planting along street medians and boulevards with the overgrown weeds at the south end of the Burrard Bridge?
     “Why can’t we plant flowers along streets like this?” she asked. “Surely the city can afford it.”
I told her that I didn’t think it was just a question of money, but rather one of attitude. While we want to be the greenest city in the world, many at City Hall regard planting flowers as frivolous and contrary to the principles of sustainability.
     Another topic idea was to follow up on two recent columns.
Taxation issues related to laneway houses shocked many homeowners who had built laneway houses without any thought to income tax consequences.
      In another column, I asked, “When is big too big when it comes to towers?” and alleged the height of taller buildings is often the result of financial considerations rather than good planning principles also attracted considerable attention.
     The story referenced a Global News story in which Vancouver’s chief planner Gil Kelley acknowledged that to secure rental and affordable housing, there need to be trade-offs, often in the form of higher density.
      Kelley went on to say that in Vancouver there are still limits set under a plan and “it’s not cowboy style negotiations. To earn the maximum height allowed under the plan the developer needs to provide a substantial amount of affordable housing and community benefits.”
     While I have found Kelley to be a very genuine and sincere guy, I would suggest he spend time with Metro Vancouver real estate department officials where project-by-project “let’s make a deal” negotiations are the modus operandi.
      Since housing affordability is so topical, I also considered revisiting my August 2016 Courier column about increasing supply and improving building permit times to make housing more affordable.
      The Foreign Buyers Tax had just been introduced and the Empty Home Tax was coming.
I wrote then that a year from now we will have both the Foreign Buyers Tax and the Vacant Dwelling Tax “without a significant change in overall housing affordability.”  Sadly, this prediction has come true. In fact, housing costs are even higher than I anticipated a year ago.
     At the time, I wrote “to truly improve the long-term outlook, we need to both increase housing supply and dramatically improve municipal approval procedures. Until we reduce the uncertainty and unnecessary complexities in our approval system that severely restrict supply, housing in Vancouver will remain extremely unaffordable. The 15 per cent tax is not the answer.”
     This issue had also been addressed in a Fraser Institute report that looked at housing affordability in Toronto and Vancouver.
     It too concluded that “rather than simply focus on constraining demand, we need to look at the long and uncertain approval timelines for building permits, as well as onerous fees and local opposition to new homes… which contribute to the housing supply’s inability to keep up with demand.”
      A year later, the City of Vancouver is talking a lot about improving the development and building permit approval system. In March, senior officials made a presentation to Council in which they proposed various initiatives, including a program akin to the Nexus Lane.
     However, since then, the city has proposed a “housing reset” offering a dramatic increase in the supply of affordable housing and new initiatives to encourage retention of character houses in single family neighbourhoods.
These will place even greater demands on staff time. So, I will say it again.

Unless there is a dramatic reduction in the time it takes to obtain development approvals a year from now, especially for purpose-built rental projects, and “missing middle” forms of housing such as row houses and stacked townhouses, Vancouver’s housing affordability will be no better than it is today.
Now you know the topic for my latest Courier column.

© 2017 Vancouver Courier

Opinion: When is big too big when it comes to towers? Vancouver Courier August 1, 2017

    Someone once asked, “When you are sitting in the bathtub with the hot water running, how do you know when to shout?”
     This quotation came to mind last week when Vancouver city council approved a rezoning application at Nelson and Burrard.
     The development includes 331 market strata units in a 57-storey tower, 61 units of social housing, seismic upgrades and restoration of a church, and expanded facilities and program space for the church and surrounding community. It will be the third tallest tower in the city, for the time being.
     The development is a partnership between the First Baptist Church of Vancouver and Westbank Project Corp — a company I greatly admire for working with top notch architects and a commitment to design excellence. This architecturally striking tower, intended to resemble a pair of organ pipes, was designed by the late Bing Thom.
     When a CBC reporter asked me what I thought of the design, I told her I thought it was very innovative and would appeal to those wanting to see more variety in Vancouver architecture.  But I agreed with those who thought it was too big for the site and neighbourhood context.
     She said she was surprised by my response. But she shouldn’t have been.
     While I have often sought approvals for taller and higher density developments, in recent years I have become increasingly concerned with the size of some new Vancouver developments. In my opinion, they are simply too big. 
     However, city staff and politicians justify higher densities and heights noting the developments offer promises of greater housing affordability, community amenities and sustainability.
In supporting this development, Mayor Gregor Robertson repeatedly told reporters it would provide much needed social housing units at a time when federal and provincial subsidies were not available. He is correct.
     While council rightly rejected Chinatown’s 105 Keefer St. development, other developments have been approved at greater heights and densities than many planners considered appropriate since they offered public amenities, housing affordability and Community Amenity Contributions (CACs).
They include the Independent at Kingsway and Broadway, and 508 Helmcken, which, at a floor space ratio (FSR) of 17.4, is approximately 10 times the density of a typical Kerrisdale highrise. These buildings are now under construction and time will tell if my concerns were valid.
     The famous American architect Louis Sullivan once said that building form should follow function. In the case of these projects, form follows finance.
     I acknowledge that there are architects, planners and developers who disagree with my concerns. They question whether it really matters if a building is 30 storeys, 40 storeys or 50 storeys. What matters more to them is how the building is designed at the street level. They believe FSR is a blunt instrument that should not be used to assess the likely success of a design.
     I understand and appreciate this point of view. However, it was not that long ago that six FSR was as high as the city would allow for residential development. Today double-digit FSR residential projects, like the Burrard and Nelson development, are becoming commonplace.
     The debate over when is big too big reminds me of a radio interview with the late Arthur Erickson many years ago. In describing his design philosophy, he said it was important for new developments to relate to their surroundings. When the interviewer pointed out that over time surroundings will change, Erickson agreed. But he added that future buildings should relate to his building designs, and so on. 
     As I look around Vancouver and other parts of Metro Vancouver, there is no doubt that many new developments no longer relate to their surroundings. Their designs are formed by the significant density bonuses offered in return for amenities, affordable housing and cold hard cash. 
Each year Metro municipalities are now receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from developers in return for extra height and density. Many will say this is a good thing; it means property taxes will not have to go up so much.
However, I worry that if we continue to allow housing affordability and CAC payments to drive project densities, heights and massing, we may ultimately compromise the quality of the built environment that has made Vancouver the envy of planners from around the world.


© 2017 Vancouver Courier