Commercial Drive workshop looks at tools to preserve, enhance a treasured high street

 

Grandview-Woodland has many charms, from industrial zones that are a little frayed at the edges to one of the city’s oldest residential districts. But at the heart of the community’s economic and social diversity is Commercial Drive.

That was the subject of the final City of Vancouver sub-area workshop, at the Croatian Cultural Centre on Saturday, March 7. And it started with a challenge to the assumption that no change to existing zoning means there will be no change on the Drive. Right now, the Drive is zoned for four storeys, which has played out with a just a few new half-block developments that locate three storeys of condos above street-level retail. “It’s only because of economics that it hasn’t all developed that way,” said one participant, at the beginning of one small-group discussion. “What mechanisms are there to keep the existing character?”

What character is that? At a couple of tables, the day’s first exercise played out like this. Local shops and services. Buildings owned by the people who run the businesses within them. The traditional home of the left. You can by a fuse for a guitar amp at the hardware store. Socially diverse people. Street performers. The scale of a traditional Vancouver high street. Then there’s the sawtooth character of the business setbacks, created by a change in policy a century ago, when the city decided to widen the street. Fortunately, the street widening was a plan that never came to fruition.

And of course there is the street’s scale, whether development should be discouraged, and how it can be shaped to fit in when it takes place.

Then the planning department’s Jim Bailey stood in for Grandview-Woodland lead planner Andrew Pask, to outlining the planning department’s parameters and some of the history of the Grandview-Woodland planning process. Pask, who is in Ontario due to a family health issue, was widely missed. “We are all really thinking of Andrew,” Bailey said. “Be patient with me, and patient with the staff, because we all don’t have Andrew’s leadership…. He’s put a lot of work into this, and he really respects your input.”

Bailey provided the standard planning overview familiar to most workshop participants, and presaged the room’s preoccupations when he said “Transportation and Public Realm are potentially the most interesting subjects on the Drive.” He added that support for the growth of social services at the Britannia Community Services Centre, the Kettle Friendship Society, and the REACH Community Health Centre is a key objective.

Bailey said the city has proposed to maintain existing zoning except at a few key sites: at East First, where the city proposes allowing six storeys, at Venables, where 12 to 15 storeys has been proposed to allow the Kettle society to build new housing and mental health services in partnership with a private developer, and at some sites towards the Grandview Cut.

After Bailey spoke, some of the 10 Assembly members present at the meeting spoke briefly about their own commitment to the process, and their desire for community input.

 

Protect and extend fine-grained charm, but how?

Participants then reorganized themselves around individual themes. Local Economy was popular. There was the usual chorus of agreement at one of two Local Economy tables that the fine-grained, independent character of the businesses is an asset. “It’s messy, a little bit.”

Encouraging mixed use to creep down the side streets and into the alleys was a common suggestion.

Venables was another target for change. “Saying Venables is light industrial and it’s out of bounds — that doesn’t make any sense,” offered one participant, arguing it’s an opportunity for creative mixed use. A city facilitator noted that the artist live-work spaces so often promoted in such contexts can be problematic. He explained that the work part is difficult to enforce, and low-value industrial zones subversively morph into residential use. Land speculation based on the potential for a change in zoning, others said, is also a concern.

Two members of the group argued for rules that encourage more second-storey office space on the Drive, as a way of animating the local economy and allowing people to work close to home. The facilitator suggested that sometimes incentives for change can upset the balance in a neighbourhood that already thrives.

The conversation also turned to the importance of community-based ownership of buildings, and how zoning policies can encourage acquisition of properties by developers. Restrictions on property assembly and design guidelines were both frequently identified as tools the city should use to mitigate the more unwelcome characteristics of redevelopment.

Some wanted to relax parking requirements to allow owners to redevelop on narrower frontages, which can’t support underground garages.

On height, the group resisted six storeys at East First, but was more accepting of it south of East Fifth. One participant said lots on the block occupied by Café Deux Soleils, previously identified by the city for upzoning, are already being assembled by a developer.

The Astorino’s site at Commercial and Venables, where the city proposed allowing a 12- to 15-storey development in conjunction with Kettle, was predictably a source of contention. “Going to 12 or 14 storeys feels completely in appropriate,” said one. Others said the 12-storey seniors residence across the street makes the location suitable for such consideration. Still others said setbacks are key, or that it’s the thin edge of the proverbial wedge, or that the renewal of the Kettle should be funded by levies on new density spread out more broadly through the community.

The Kettle society, meanwhile, is frustrated that planning delays have made it difficult for it to present the public with its concept for the site, which includes redeveloping a city parking lot, 30 social housing units, and an expanded Kettle day-use facility.

There weren’t many Commercial Drive business and property owners at the meeting, but the Commercial Drive Business Society’s executive director, Nick Pogor, participated. The society this month released a closely held report on its ambitions for the Drive, partly in response to calls from the Assembly members for open access.

The 2012 report, Commercial Drive Business Society: Vision + Design Guidelines, was based on workshops led in part by planner and author Lance Berelowitz, and includes the following key recommendations:

  • Support enhancing cycling infrastructure where practical but not dedicated (separated) bike lanes on Commercial Drive if this means a reduction in on-street parking
  • Wider sidewalks should be a priority over cycling lanes
  • Develop incentives for narrow lot densification without rezoning by significantly reducing or eliminating onsite parking requirements
  • New developments along Commercial Drive should relate to the existing adjacent older buildings in terms of scale, streetwall height, proportions and materials, but allow up to six storeys, with setbacks for the top two storeys, close to the Skytrain

However, it also includes the following: “Limit new building height to six storeys along the Commercial Drive corridor, with the predominant height being four to six storeys.” It advocates for allowing setback fifth and sixth storey additions to heritage buildings, and states that “high-rise towers are not appropriate except at the Broadway and Commercial node,” which it later defines as areas within a five-minute walk from the station.

Despite the widespread affection for the sawtooth character of the Drive’s business frontages, the report supports eliminating the seven-foot building line setback requirement north of East First Avenue. It suggests that the city should consider eliminating rush hour traffic lanes to restore parking and aims to increase private parking for visitors, possibly with a new parking lot or parkade. Cars, the report generally argues, are still a key mode of transportation that deserves careful consideration.

The report also calls for access to storefronts on adjacent side streets, improved lighting, more poster cylinders and garbage receptacles, street furniture, parklets, and corner bulges, as well as safer crosswalks and other public realm improvements, and suggests considering a gateway of some sort.


Everyone agrees: “don’t screw it up”

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After lunch, the tables tackled the issue of building height with one particularly daring result: Two groups called for downzoning Commercial Drive to something less than four storeys, to protect the existing character.

One person said the city should zone for more density near but not right on arterials, and pointed to potential just west of the Drive. Another participant suggested that design guidelines take a page from the Drive’s history book, and encourage the sheet-metal cornices and other details that animate so many of the Drive’s Edwardian buildings. More common opinions included calls to activate laneways, with one group focusing particularly the alley west of Commercial next to the Britannia centre.

When the groups reported out at the end of the afternoon, height was a key concern. The first, a Housing group, said it was polarized, that two participants thought six storeys is OK but three participants didn’t want the city to encourage build-out even at the existing four storeys. The group was also a little shy on extending retail down what they called Lower Commercial Drive (or LoCo) toward Hastings, and wanted a focus on three- or four-storey residential. But where retail exists, they said, keep the floorplates small.

The second, the Health and Community Well-being table, talked about creating connection between the Drive south of Venables and the aboriginal community services on Hastings, by allowing three to four storeys with retail. They wanted to see aboriginal services in the Hastings sub-area included with Kettle, REACH and Britannia as part of the Drive’s priorities, and wanted to draw Aboriginal services onto the Drive.

Opinions varied on the Astorino’s site. Some were OK with allowing 12 storeys, but views of the mountains were a concern. At East First height was six or four, along with a desire to slow traffic to make the street more pleasant. The group accepted six storeys right at the Cut, down to three or four near the Legion and the post office depot at Sixth.

The health group also saw the provision of affordable rental housing in the area as a key planning priority.

The first Local Economy table’s facilitator said everyone wanted roughly the same thing, but opinion varied on how to get there. “The same thing” pretty much amounted to “don’t screw it up,” he said. The group reported mixed opinion on limiting land assembly. On the so-called LoCo north of Adanac, the group said it didn’t want to do anything that would disturb the older, affordable rental stock. On the Kettle site, the city facilitator reported “a definitive not 12 storeys”. The group also felt high tax assessments on retail hurt the local economy. And the group concluded that second-floor commercial and office space should be encouraged, given the generally acknowledged impediments to creating office space in the neighbourhood, because condos are more profitable.

The Heritage/Arts and Culture table wanted an updated heritage register and an expanded definition of what’s heritage, with particular attention to the inclusion of worthy post-1940 buildings. It didn’t want policies that reduce the sawtooth character of the Drive’s business setbacks. It wanted to promote the development of cultural spaces north of Venables.

On height, from Venables to Hastings it wanted four storeys of residential with retail on the street, and protection for views. From Venables to East First it wanted the city to downzone to two storeys to protect existing buildings and building forms. From East First to the Cut it wanted to narrow the street to make it more intimate. It wanted a parklet at East First and East Fifth, and suggested the post office site could become a park.

One of the four Transportation and Public Realm tables generally agreed with the city’s proposals for the street south of East First — dedicated, separated bike lanes, two travel lanes, bulges at the corners — but found Salsbury a problematic extension of the bike route north of First, and encouraged the development of bike lanes on Victoria. The group also wanted better connections between the Drive and Britannia.

On height, the group called for six storeys with mixed use at the Cut, was not compelled by the argument for six storeys at First, and settled on six storeys on the Kettle site, but with some willing to consider eight, 10 or even 12 depending on the deal for social housing and services. The group said it would consider some downzoning.

The other transportation group called for eliminating two travel lanes on the Drive from Gravely to 14th, but debated and wanted consideration for parking impacts on businesses, including a better assessment of how customers actually behave.

There was a call for crosswalk improvements near bus stops, improvements near the Legion and the bowling alley at Sixth to make the area feel safer, and enhanced greenspace through parklets, laneways and at the Café Deux Soleils site. Four storeys was accepted from Fifth to Venables, and then down to Hastings, with retail at grade to draw new Hastings residents up the Drive. At Hastings, opinion varied between four, six and eight storeys. South of East Fifth, the group was divided. Some wanted four storeys, others accepted more height.

Overall, the group wanted design guidelines and land assembly restrictions.

The third of these groups wanted less clutter on sidewalks, activated laneways, street furniture that fosters interaction, closing some street ends, two travel lanes each for bikes and cars from Gravely to 10th, with some discussion of a distant future where there’s a dedicated bus lane.

The group wanted to maintain the sawtooth setbacks, and stepping down from six to four storeys north of the Cut. Office space was desired near the SkyTrain. Six was deemed possible at East First, with a plaza. “There was a desire,” the group’s representative said, to some applause, “to bulldoze Il Mercato.” Density was deemed acceptable at Astorino’s, but a tower not so much. Extending the Drive’s character down toward Hastings was welcome.

The last of the Transportation/Public Realm groups began by saying its views were not much different from the others. It also favoured bike lanes from Broadway to East First, with the proviso that parking issues be considered. The group talked about extending bike lanes as far as 15th, to improve access to Trout Lake. Activating laneways was also desired.

On height, the group favoured six storeys toward the Cut, with one person preferring four, six storeys mixed use at East First, with some favouring four. Six was deemed OK at Venables, with some prepared to go higher if there is a social benefit.

And there was one key additional observation: people were very comfortable with the idea that all development needs to create benefits for the community.

The second Local Economy table called for maintaining the street’s fine grain, second-storey office space, commercial that wraps around the corners, and activation of the laneway at Britannia. The Venables area was discussed as an improvable point of entry to the Drive, there was support for maintaing heritage buildings as such, and a call for better engagement of businesses.

On the Kettle site, there was comfort with eight storeys, with some prepared to consider 12. At East First, four storeys was preferred, as it’s not a great location for residential. While the group looked forward to a potentially car-free future, it acknowledged that today parking remains an issue, and it recommended considering additional parking in some new developments to mitigate other pressures on parking.

One of the two Housing tables began by asserting that existing zoning is not ideal, as the build-out would create “sameness”, and a range of development from two to fours storeys would be preferable. The group considered limiting lot consolidation as a possible disincentive to four-storey redevelopment. It wondered if incentives could help to rid the Drive of Il Mercato. It wanted small-scale retail on the bridge across the Cut.

The last Housing table, and the last of the day to report on its proceedings, also looked at alternative mechanisms to control redevelopment, including possible limits on lot consolidation and limits on redevelopment that would require supportive housing or all rental or just a single storey of condos. Two to four storeys was desired for most of the Drive.

The group wanted retail north of Venables, and would allow six storeys on that stretch. Between Gravely and Venables the group wanted four storeys maximum, with condo redevelopment supressed. From the post office at Sixth and south to the Cut, the group settled on six storeys on the east side and four on the west. On the Astorino’s site, the group considered six storeys the limit, and wanted the city-owned parking lot on the north side of the site redeveloped as a park.

At the end, one participant chipped in with the popular call to arms for “no spot zoning.”

The day closed with a thank-you from Jim Bailey, and another word about Andrew Pask: “It’s hit home now how hard he and his team work.”

The same can be said of the community-minded residents — about 80 at this particular meeting — many of whom have given several Saturdays to a complex process. Now it’s up to the Assembly members to synthesize all they’ve learned and produce its recommendations. That process will include detailed reports from the city on the sub-area workshop results, a public meeting for feedback on all proposed Assembly recommendations in late April, meetings to revise the recommendations based on that input, and submission of a final report to city council in June.

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The Grandview-Woodland Citizens’ Assembly put local residents at the centre of the community planning process. Forty-eight randomly selected local residents and business owners met eleven times over nine months to learn, listen and put forward their recommendations concerning the future of the Grandview-Woodland neighbourhood. Download their final report here.