“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”
This was something a planning professor of mine once told me which I never really thought much about … that is until I moved to Vancouver.
Hi, let me introduce myself formally, my name is Ian Robertson, and I occasionally show up in these woods with ‘Items from Ian’. I did my Architecture Undergraduate in ‘merica, worked for a while in the Netherlands, MArch in Australia, worked for a while in Vienna, and finished my degree right around the time that the world called an architectural timeout for a while, and I found myself in Vancouver.
What links my experience in these other places is that they all involved looking forward. The aforementioned quote from my planning professor, masterplanning cities and countries while in the Netherlands (itself a product of what must be the most comprehensive masterplan anywhere in the world), then Sydney Australia – where I was first exposed to the kind of 2030 vision which Vancouver also now espouses (except in Sydney’s case, it actually backed up by a Master Plan to give it institutional heft), and finally Vienna, which has a uniform building fabric and density which puts most cities to shame, and which turned the old Hapsburg Stables into a technology and culture and startup hub which exists only in Vancouver’s dreams.
This week I will be under the broad category of ‘Ideas from Elsewhere’ (‘Ian’s Items from Elsewhere’ if I wanted to keep the branding alive) … frankly I am always amazed that there is such a strong desire here to reinvent the wheel instead of looking for what works (and what doesn’t) elsewhere (transit referendums, city planning, existance of a master plan, regional transit, fare gates, bike path design, foreign investment, affordable housing, sea level rise planning, etc… are all examples of issues where in either trying to be unique, or in willfully ignoring precedent, Vancouver/BC is certainly ‘planning to fail’).
So, with that lengthy introduction, I give you my first post, written for a recent architecture criticism competition requiring one to talk about a Library of one’s choice. As you will see, the Library wasn’t really my topic of interest
Many thanks for Ken and Michael, and all the rest filling in … and most of all to Gordon Price, for his care in establishing this great platform from which to view the world deliberately and with consideration.
(Longread) Nov 2015, Criticism of the Mount Pleasant Library (Longread)
It is not often that a library erupts from an intersection like the prow of an ocean liner cutting through the neighborhood, but when completed in 2010, the Mount Pleasant Library did just that. Immediately it was the tallest building in the neighborhood, and it represented the starting gun for a race to redevelop much of the surrounding neighborhood.
Height is an unusual quality for a Library, as the Dewey decimal system is an inherently horizontal concept. The library’s apparent mass is the result of the nine stories of affordable housing stacked on top, as well as child care, retail, and a community center beside1 — a configuration resulting from the unique desire to place all its civic infrastructure in one basket.
The building, designed by what is now Perkins+Will, is additionally unusual because it was developed by the City of Vancouver itself as a mixed-use structure, combining older, insufficient and inconvenient infrastructure into one centralized location, as well as provide additional affordable rental to address the city’s almost zero-percent rental vacancy, and rapidly increasing rents. The mixed-use aspect is itself not that unusual for a rapidly urbanizing city, what is unusual is that the developer was the City of Vancouver, and Vancouver does not often place itself in the development game — much of the Vancouver’s recent civic infrastructure has been created by leveraging the ‘Community Amenity Contributions’ (CACs) of developers.
Vancouver’s urban infrastructure, such as this library, is dictated by a unique set of influences which directly affect the manner in which Vancouver builds its libraries, and other public amenities.
Infrastructure, being a public amenity, is typically funded through a city’s tax revenues. In Vancouver, CACs are not a tax, but rather are “are in-kind or cash contributions provided by property developers.”2 These contributions take place to facilitate a rezoning application, the value of which is arrived at in closed negotiation and which is agreed to before the rezoning takes place. As each redevelopment application is negotiated independently, the resulting spot zoning creates a patchwork of zones-within-zones, which suggests that zones are more of a guideline to be negotiated, than a rule to be followed. In many cities, this kind of spot zoning is unusual, discouraged or illegal.3
The Mount Pleasant Library was not funded directly through CACs, but as these payments totaled about $250 million, out of a roughly $1.25 billion budget,<sup>4</sup> it is not much of a stretch of accounting to consider that this building was also financed in part by CAC funds. Why does this matter? It matters because a city which relies on development to fund civic amenity can easily become reliant on these funds, and the developers who provide those funds and with it bring a potential to influence city decisions.5
The first major influence, then, in the discussion of the Mount Pleasant Library, is whether or not Vancouver’s civic infrastructure follows the rule of money – is it a Plutocracy? Contributions made to universities carry with them a growing set of questions concerning purchased influence,6 so too must CACs.
Vancouver has an unusual ability to create spot zones because it is incorporated under the Vancouver Charter, not the British Columbia’s Municipalities Act, which means that the city is not required to create an overall Comprehensive Plan for development. A community plan was issued for the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, but it was passed by Council after the Library was already open.7
The second influence affecting the discussion of Vancouver – whether it is an Inconditopolis8 – a city run without a plan. If there is no openly approved plan, what is there to guide decisions? How is it possible to negotiate CACs when they exist apart from the typical planning process, and when there is no Comprehensive Plan to act as a long term guide? It has been said that these CACs are ‘Corrupting Vancouver’s Soul,’9 if that is the case, then so too are they corrupting the City’s civic infrastructure, and the creation of this library.
In Vancouver, where much of the new civic infrastructure is tied to new private development, there is an apparent incentive for developers to propose large projects, which have both the potential for more profit, and which might have more likely development approval because the larger project would yield the City the enticement of larger CACs, and therefore a means of financing otherwise-unfunded infrastructure. Opposing such new development projects, often in equal and opposite reaction to the scale of the development itself, are those who belong to the neighborhood. There is no cost premium to those in a neighborhood in keeping their neighborhood exactly the way it is, and whereas a proposal by the City to simply build a Library would likely be met with open arms, a neighborhood’s reaction is understandably different if that Library is instead a part, for example, of a ten story tall tower, when the existing context is otherwise no taller than two or three story retail.
This is the final influence affecting Vancouver and the Library – the neighborhood NIMBarchy [Rule by ‘Not In My Backyard’]. When Public Goods, such as a library, are tied to private gains in a transactional manner, the concept of an intrinsic ‘Public Good’ is called into question. If a neighborhood fights development, it implicitly fights the provision of civic infrastructure, and it becomes easier for the City to forgo building this infrastructure in the future, because it can point to the opposition faced by that infrastructure elsewhere in the City as ‘proof’ that such civic amenity is unwanted.
The risks in reliance on CAC and spot-zoning lie in the creation of deserts of civic investment – neighborhoods which are successful in keeping their character but receive little/no investment – and in the creation of neighborhoods which undergo extensive development. This unplanned and potentially ad-hoc feast-or-famine of civic development follows easily from a politically expedient decision to not raise taxes to fund the public realm and the absence of a Comprehensive Plan.
Andrew Carnegie once said that “a library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.” The Library is one of the few truly democratic spaces where status and qualification is irrelevant. The act of combining the Library with housing, and retail development presents a risk, as the presence of the most private of space colours the activity which is considered acceptable – the space becomes implicitly privatized also, and its public function made precarious, and it loses its ability to be agnostic to individual interest and risks becoming another commodity to streamline, or make redundant.
This essay is not so much a specific criticism of the Mount Pleasant Library – although in truth it is a bit small, quite cramped, and overall is rather insufficient to serve the neighborhood whose development boom is quickly outpacing the Library’s planned capacity – as much as it is a criticism of the City that has largely stopped building civic infrastructure, does not have a cohesive plan to guide its development, and ties the creation of civic infrastructure to large developments, risking the character of the very neighborhoods which are to benefit from the city’s growth.