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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ECODESIGN FOR CITIES AND SUBURBS, a new free internet course offered on edX by the University of British Columbia

Architects, urban planners, real-estate developers, landscape architects, and anyone else who is interested in the future of cities – especially students in all these disciplines, should check out this free, open course, taught by Larry Beasley, the former planning director of Vancouver, who is a Distinguished Professor of Practice at UBC, and Jonathan Barnett, a noted authority on urban design from the University of Pennsylvania.

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The first session of the course will start April 4th. Here is a link to the full course description and the intro video.

Five Trends of Change in Urbanism – by Larry Beasley, C.M.

In my work in Canada, the U.S. and around the world, I am seeing the emergence of new trends that in most cities have not yet hit the urban agenda in a significant way.  While the philosophy and practices of sustainability and green urbanism have enjoyed more and more focus, so other trends may be sneaking up on us that need just as much attention.  Following are five of those trends.  These are not the only surprising shifts to be expected as cities moves forward but they are certainly important ones.

Spontaneous Migrations – destabilization or malaise in some parts of the world

Whether for fear, opportunity or adventure – whether legal or illegal – whether by chance or planned – the people of the world are massively footloose.  Population groups and individuals in vast numbers are moving away from places they don’t want to be to places they do want to be. Target destinations are successful cities in sanctuary societies.  Such cities should expect unusually high growth trends that are sustained.  High demand will not be a bubble, it will be real.

-For Vancouver, this creates vibrant and new economic opportunities that Vancouver’s economy is already starting to be built upon and our city is very dependent on this kind of growth as the traditional resource sector becomes less important.  But, this is already putting sharp pressure on the housing market, creating a crisis of affordability that cannot be solved by conventional means. We will either start to punish those coming in, which will be negative and very short-sighted, affecting our world image, or we will find a way to give locals a leg-up in the market.  We have to start seeing the land and housing market in Vancouver as a two-layered market – the general market and the local market – that must be managed accordingly.  Immigration also puts growth pressures on all public facilities and amenities and, therefore, tax dollars, so alternative funding sources are more important than ever.  The system of Community Amenity Contributions (CACs) from new development that has been so fully realized and exploited in this city should be treasured and protected, not demonized.

Rise of the ‘Share Economy’

The idea is sweeping the world that the conventional reality of ownership or rental of services, property and things is too limiting and that a vast equity is embedded that can be tapped in new ways to the benefit of those who possess them and those who want to use them.  Northern Europe is a hotbed of initiatives to share and barter, thereby stretching resources and bypassing government regulation and taxes.

– The high value of the equities in Vancouver along with our being part of the international network of ideas will set off a similar trend here. We are only now beginning to understand the pros and cons of Uber, Air BNB and similar out-of-the-box market sharing initiatives.  We are already one of the leading car-share cities in North America. We are on the cusp of bike-share. Implications for traditional retail are simply not yet understood.  This is the tip of the iceberg of what we should expect from the share and barter economy – almost every commodity and service will be affected.

Growth and Diversification of Digital Business

Every year consumers worldwide buy more and more of the things that they need and want on-line.  This is setting up a new pattern of product flows and a new constellation of support services and facilities. Commodity trading is digitized with significant goods movement implications. Every year more business is conducted digitally, rather than in face-to-face meetings and events.  Information is accessed and shared instantly.

-In Vancouver, conventional retail has to re-invent itself to compete and the local governments in our region  have to support this process. Not only may local retail growth flatten, but independent retail could be very hard hit unless local business finds the edge to allow them to compete with digital business.  The need for distribution facilities will expand and new patterns of distribution may emerge. Facilities for digital engagement will development and new service businesses will develop around these.

Generational shifts in consumer preferences

Demographic  trends are not working in the predictable ways of the past.  Young people are selecting new and contrasting lifestyles rather than taking up where their parents left off. People are inventing new arrangements and settings for work, shifting commercial real estate trends and the very definitions of land-use.  New kinds of households are forming.  Older people are retiring earlier than expected and accessing their pent-up wealth to re-invent themselves in the last quarter of their lives – setting off unexpected demand profiles.

-Vancouver Downtown, as a diverse, contemporary, healthy and wealthy community, is a crucible for these redefined citizens, their economic activity and alternative culture. As Millennials join the workforce and create new business ventures, demand for traditional offices is flattening while that for alternative workspace flourishes, setting off revitalization in unexpected places.  From both young ‘gig’ workers to retired ‘consultants’, the rise of live/work is challenging our land-use and taxing definitions.  White-collar industry is confounding both the imperatives of organized labour as well as the need for the old industrial land base. Adult living/learning aspirations is already transforming our educational campuses.

The Rise of Autonomous driving

One of the biggest technological changes on the horizon for cities is the evolution of autonomously driven vehicles.  The implications will start to express themselves long before we have complete autonomous driving because every year more aspects of human control of vehicles is being turned over to computers. The implications are so vast and pervasive that almost nothing about cities will remain as we know it today. Cities need to start strategic planning now for these changes and setting up the financial capacities to support what needs to be done.  Is this a 5-year problem or a 20-year problem?  Well, that is the immediate question.

– Vancouver will not escape the tidal wave of impacts and implications that this new transportation invention will spawn. Not only will the automobile infrastructure of our city become obsolete and need to be re-invented but so will our arrangements for movement of goods and delivery of services. The scale of Vancouver streets, the management of the interface of vehicles, pedestrians and other modes, the nature and demand for public transit, taxis and car hires, the amount and location of parking – these will all be fundamentally altered.  The entire industry of human driving and all the jobs associated with it will come apart.