Even real estate consultants hate condo towers: Eco-density discussion in Grandview

If you think an urban planning professor hates condo towers, wait 'til you hear the professional real estate consultant. Patrick Condon and Richard Wozny lay a compelling case against Vancouver's condo tower craze.

Richard Wozny knows real estate development, and he doesn't approve of condo towers.

Well, that was unexpected

We were expecting a public debate on the virtues of the condo tower between an urban planning professor and, well, a guy who helps build condo towers. Classic throwdown. Instead, they double-teamed the notion of the condo tower; one slapping it in the face, the other kicking it right in the... podium.

The event description read in part: “In Vancouver, the potential ecological benefits of higher density has become a key justification for many new condo developments. However, the unintended consequences of increased density have the potential to dramatically scale up an urban region's ecological footprint. [...] Are Downtown Vancouver and Manhattan the template for a sustainable future? Or are higher towers doing little more than letting us live closer to an atmosphere filled with increasing amounts of CO2?”

Discussing the issue are Patrick Condon and Richard Wozny. Condon is a former city planner who now chairs the urban design department at UBC. Wozny is a real estate development consultant who has worked with some of the biggest players in the region, from crown corporations to mega-condo developers.

Patrick Condon: How to do density

The debate was hosted by Conrad Schmidt, a social activist, founder of the World Naked Bike Ride, and guy who showed us a little too much browser history.

Condon got started: "I'm a believer to some extent –– or maybe to a large extent–– in the d-word; that is, density. However, I take exception to the way density has been described or defined in this community lately, and in how there only seems to be one model for density, and that's the tower."

Patrick Condon: Urban designer and UBC professor
Patrick Condon

In quickly recapping his Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities, Condon suggested a return to Vancouver's original streetcar grid, with transit arteries lined by low-rise buildings mixing residential and business. Ideally, said Condon, transit stops, commercial services, and schools would be within a five-minute walk from your building's front door. "Density doesn't necessitate a high-rise," argued Condon, "but the market and the political forces that be [sic], whoever, think that the high-rise is the way to go."

Despite those tourism-board photos showing the shiny, shiny faces of Yaletown and Coal Harbour, Condon said, "we know that this is really a low-rise city." Meanwhile, he adds, the average family size has dropped from six in the 1920s to less than two today. This means rethinking a city centre full of single-family homes, but not giving in to the false promise of the condo tower. Indeed, the 2050 Plan for a Sustainable Vancouver does not focus on high-rises, but instead on evenly-distributed low-rise structures; while radically reducing the city's environmental footprint. "It's amazing what you can do when you have 25 students who are working 45 hours per week for no pay."

Broadway Corridor: A circular argument

Condon asserted that the City's push for the Broadway Corridor subway line is being used to justify high-rise condo development. "The Broadway subway is being touted as the transportation answer for our city, and in the same breath they're saying that it requires incredible additional density in order for it to make sense."

So the development of high-rises along the Broadway Corridor is used not only as a rationale for such an expensive transit project (i.e. if we're spending $3,000,000,000 on this, we better make damned sure that it's serving as many people as possible), but also under the hopes that some of the CACs offered might make their way back towards paying for the project itself.

"The tie-in between the towers question and the transit question is intimate," said Condon, "and not too many people are really recognizing that."

For the same $3 billion that we'd spend on that Broadway Corridor line, Condon said, we could network the whole city with light rail, going back to that streetcar network we once had.

Sensitive Urban Infill Project: Surrey
Low-rise density: image via Sensitive urban Infill Project

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