London and Vancouver raise similar issues about towers

I am writing from London, U.K., where many local stories parallel stories in Vancouver.

Over the past two weeks, affordable housing and high-rise buildings have been in the news in both cities.

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In Vancouver, the high-rise story was 105 Keefer, a contentious 12-storey development proposal for a vacant lot in Chinatown. My colleague Mike Howell has written extensively on council’s somewhat surprising and unusual 8-3 vote defeating the project.

While I generally support 12-storey building designs and developers willing to create mixed-income buildings, I was pleased to see the project defeated. Why? Because the city’s zoning allowing nine-storey buildings to rise to 12 storeys in return for public benefits was so very wrong.

In 2011, when the city first proposed highrises in Chinatown, I expressed my opposition because I worried they would negatively impact the area’s historic architectural character.

Former director of planning Brent Toderian recently disclosed to his Twitter followers that planning staff were also opposed to Chinatown height increases. Sadly, council ignored the staff recommendation and sided with misguided Chinatown merchants who thought highrises would bring more people and “body-heat” into the community.


I do feel sorry for the developer who spent many years and a lot of money doing precisely what staff and council encouraged him to do, only to be turned down. While I hope a future revised Chinatown zoning policy will restrict building heights to something in the order of 70 feet, if Beedie Development Group wants to proceed with a nine-storey proposal for this site, this should be permitted. They have been punished enough.

While many regarded the rejection of the 105 Keefer project and loss of 25 affordable housing units to be a tragedy, it was nothing compared to London’s recent tower tragedy. Much has been reported about the Grenfell Tower inferno; however, much more discussion and investigation is warranted.

Over the past week, many U.K. columnists and pundits have argued this disaster vividly highlights why highrises should not be built for lower-income households. They are wrong. Suitably designed high-rise buildings can most definitely provide suitable accommodation for lower-income households.

This disastrous fire resulted in part because a contractor inappropriately covered a 24-storey building with a non-fire resistant exterior cladding intended for buildings up to three storeys. I should add that Canadian fire codes would prevent a similar product from being installed on a Canadian highrise.

There’s another aspect to this story that is somewhat relevant to British Columbia.

While most residents impacted by this horrendous fire were low-income, the building was not restricted to low-income households. Like most English Council flat developments, over the years, apartments had been sold off or leased at market rates to higher-income households.

In B.C., the government has also been selling off public housing to private sector and non-profit companies. In principle, I support broader income mixing in these projects. However, as future B.C. provincial governments contemplate the sale of additional public housing, it may be wise to carefully analyze the U.K. experience.

While the Grenfell fire dominated U.K. news, another major U.K. story had eerie similarities to B.C. I write, of course, about its recent election, which resulted in no clear winner, and many questions about how long a coalition government might last.

Thanks (or no thanks) to the Internet, it is difficult to avoid what’s happening in Vancouver when travelling abroad. While I was reading about Mayor Gregor Robertson’s recent Big Conversation event on the future of housing in Vancouver, I couldn’t avoid posters inviting Londoners to join London Mayor Sadiq Khan for his June 29 State of London Debate: New London Living Rent Homes — More Help for our Homeless — What’s next for Housing in London? Hashtag #SpeaktoSadiq.

While Robertson hopes his Empty Home Tax will encourage owners of empty condos to lease them to needy renters, England’s Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is calling for Kensington and Chelsea homes left empty by millionaires to be used by victims of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

This won’t happen, of course. But when it comes to affordable housing, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic seem most willing to say and do whatever they think it takes to attract future votes.

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