Opinion: Reclaiming space for the community by giving the 13th floor to the people

Originally published in the Vancouver Sun.

The 13th floor is always the ‘bad luck’ floor.

As long as anyone can remember, residents have not wanted to live on the 13th floor and businesses have not wanted to have their offices on the 13th floor of any building.  Because of this phobia, the numbering of floors often omits the 13th floor, moving simply from the 12th to the 14th floor without any explanation. This superstition might be converted into tomorrow’s opportunity.

In Greater Vancouver, the single most worrisome issue facing local governments is affordability. This has to do with housing costs, not just for low-income people, but now also for what is called the ‘missing middle’. High rents are also pushing out independent retailing, small businesses, start-ups and all those non-profits that a city depends upon like childcare facilities, seniors centres, and offices for cultural groups. The point is that increasing land and building costs are pushing everyone and everything out except for the very rich. No one wants this to happen, not even the very rich. We all know we have to do something about it.

And that brings me back to the 13th floor.  I propose that, from now on, in every new building built anywhere in Metro Vancouver, the 13th floor become the people’s floor – dedicated for public use in perpetuity. This would be an overlay of public space organically integrated everywhere that we are expanding or intensifying our city.

There is a way to do this that works for the people and also works for the developers. As buildings are approved, they would be required to include a publicly-owned 13th floor in the plans. The ownership and control of this floor would be turned over to the local government once the building is built.  To compensate the developer, one extra floor of height over the current height limit would be allowed to take the place of the 13th floor given to the public and one additional floor on top of that would be allowed for the developer to sell to cover the costs of building that 13th floor. So, for the developer these bonus floors would offer a value-neutral proposition.  But, for the public, the publicly-owned floor would be a game-changer with very few impacts – once towers get so tall, it is generally hard to even discern a very modest increase in their height. And this public value would increase over time. This would become a virtuous quid pro quo for everyone.

But, there would be some unsolved implications, so here is what we could do.

First, any building less than six stories would be exempt from the requirement. That way, there would be no impact whatsoever on modestly-scaled areas of the city – which, of course, is most of the city. It would apply only in already dense areas, which are usually near public transit.

Second, any building between seven and 10 stories would be exempt from having to give a floor – after all, the 13th floor would not exist in these buildings.  But, to be fair, they would get the bonus floors and give a cash payment to the local government in lieu of giving the floor. This contribution would be used as an endowment to support the ongoing operating costs of other 13th floors – paying for utilities and the like.

Third, any building resulting between 11 and 15 stories would be required to provide the people’s floor but the developer would be allowed to designate the actual floor to be made public. There is no reason why the people would need the most valuable penthouse floor or even one close to the top.  The community just needs space in every tall building.

Fourth, any building starting at 16 floors and above would be required to give the 13th floor in exchange for the bonus. However, if the extra height would push the building into a view corridor or create dramatic unexpected impacts, then instead of building the extra floors, the developer would be given the value of those floors in bonus density to sell for transfer to another location. An assessment would be done to insure a comfortable fit for neighbours.

Now, some people will say that with all the development going on, this offering is a pittance. It surely could not take the place of all that is already being done to respond to the crisis of affordability. But the fact is that, over time, the additional space will add up. Imagine what we would have in fifty years – thousands of affordable housing units, offices and other work spaces.  Equally importantly, it will be space that is spread everywhere in the city, not pushed into one area.

The people’s floor would have endless uses. In typical residential buildings, it could be used for rental housing for every level of modest and middle-income families. We could even try non-profit home ownership for families just starting out. It could house those in the service sector and offering essential services. In social housing buildings, the people’s floor could be targeted for the homeless. In office buildings, the people’s floor could be used by small start-up businesses or non-profit community services.  In every case, there would need to be careful allocations so that the use of the 13th floor fits comfortably for everyone. Otherwise, it would become unpopular.

Vancouver could be the first great city in the world to take this kind of bold step for affordability. If we get on with it, and every city hall in the region made it a priority, we could start securing the 13th floor in every new building by as early as Easter of next year. The benefits would build month by month and year by year from that moment on.

Let’s turn a liability – the unwanted 13th floor – into an asset : the desperately needed community floor. This would be one very easy, convenient and fair way to insure that, no matter what happens in the future, there will always be some place for all of us in our beloved city.

Larry Beasley is Distinguished Practice Professor of Planning at the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning and Founding Principal of Beasley and Associates Planning Inc.

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