Sunday, October 19, 2014

Some final observations from Santiago

During my week in Santiago I came across a number of things that intrigued me and pleased me. I wrote about some of them in my Courier column, and previous blogs. But before leaving Santiago for Europe, here are a few final observations!
Maria Elena and Elke, the two very dedicated and lovely ladies who made my week in Santiago so very special...Thank you!
I liked the fact that architects were much more celebrated...and always put their name on their buildings
I was surprised to see that diesel fuel was significantly less expensive than regular gas...this is not a typical situation
Many of the roads are privately built and managed, and this is how they are paid for...
I'm sure a lot of people would hate this....but I didn't
Shoe shine stands are everywhere...and at less than a dollar to have your shoes shined...
People take a lot of pride in having their shoes shined
Here's an idea for the Flag Shop!
As I began to think that just about everything we wore was made in China, I came across this sign in a department store
In many parts of the city, the sidewalk is a market. I couldn't figure out what was legal and what wasn't but it certainly resulted in much livelier streets
There is a lot of creativity in the city...just look at this automotive garage
There is a very high standard of design and construction evident in many of the new buildings

Friday, October 17, 2014

Opinion: Housing, density and activist architects: Vancouver Courier October 15, 2014

                                                                     4 level stacked townhouses like this Vancouver development often have a higher density than some highrises. 
Last week the Architectural Institute of British Columbia held its annual conference. The theme was Shifting Perspectives but you did not have to be an architect to be interested in many of the sessions being offered.

One addressed post-disaster building safety evaluations. While we may not like to think about an earthquake hitting our city, seismologists believe it is not a question of if, but when. Many Vancouver buildings will be affected, including older rental apartments, few of which are being upgraded since landlords are reluctant to evict tenants.
Another session explored building design and energy performance. It is a pity some COPE and Green Party politicians who have been telling voters that highrises are the least energy efficient building form had not been in attendance. They would have learned that new highrises are more energy efficient than most single-family dwellings. That is because apartment suites only have one or two surfaces exposed to the outside, whereas a single family dwelling has six.

Another session examined the future of market and non-market housing on city-owned land along the south shore of False Creek. Developed in the 1970s, these projects have less than 25 years remaining on their land leases. As a result, it is difficult for condominium owners to sell and non-profits to operate. The situation is becoming critical for those non-profits who have been providing housing for both low and moderate income households at rates significantly below market, since they have not put money away for repairs.

One of the panelists, the principal of a major Vancouver architectural firm, has been living in his subsidized cooperative for more than 30 years. His current monthly payment is about half of what the market rent would be.  In addition, three and four bedroom family homes in his development are occupied by one or two person senior households who refuse to move out.

Many in the audience were struck by the sense of entitlement expressed by the panelists. Given the urgent need for three and four bedroom family units, it would seem appropriate for singles and couples to relocate to smaller homes, or possibly share homes.

Given the need to fund repairs, higher income residents should be making larger monthly payments.
As for the future, there is an opportunity to significantly increase density through infill housing and redevelopment. This was the topic of another popular conference session.

Mixed use developments like this Kitsilano project have a floor space ratio of between 2.5 and 3.0 which is comparable to highrise projects found around Metro Vancouver
Titled “DenCity,” it explored different perspectives on density as viewed through the eyes of urban planners, developers, community activists, architects and ordinary citizens. The objective was to offer a better understanding of how density is defined and how it influences and shapes urban environments.

As one of the panelists, I noted that in some jurisdictions, density is measured in terms of people per acre. In others, the measure is housing units per acre. In Vancouver, we tend to measure density in terms of Floor Space Index (FSR) or Floor Area Index (FAR) which is the ratio of building area to land area. However, these measures can be misleading since it is often not clear whether the FSR is calculated over the entire land area including roads and parks (gross density) or just on the development site area (net density).
The session revealed that the public often confuses density and building height. In fact, it is possible to achieve much higher densities in four storey buildings than in the 12 storey buildings found in Kerrisdale.

A fellow panelist, Green Party city council candidate Pete Fry, spoke eloquently about how citizens are often given little opportunity to provide their input into community plans, both in terms of density and height. He urged the architects in the room to join the citizen activists as architect activists, and help communities to understand density and how best to plan their neighbourhoods.

I agree.

Architects and planners need to become more actively involved in neighbourhood planning, even if it means having to criticize the city administration. While this could affect their ability to obtain approvals for future projects, their contribution could be invaluable.

© Vancouver Courier
The density of street oriented townhouses such as these Toronto units can be surprisingly high, while providing a much desired form of housing

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Opinion: What Vancouver can learn from Santiago: Vancouver Courier October 8, 2014

“Where are you from?” the bartender asked me.
“Vancouver,” I replied.
“Did you know it was voted most livable city in the world in 2004?” he asked.
I was impressed he might know this, although wondered if it was true in 2004.
“But we’re no longer number one,” I told him. “I think it’s now Vienna or Zurich. Have you been there?”
“No, but one day I hope to move there,” he told me as he went off to get my pisco sour.

I was in Providencia, one of Santiago Chile’s upscale neighbourhoods. I had been invited there by Ciudad Viva, a local NGO researching what makes certain urban spaces attractive and popular.
In collaboration with the School of Architecture at the Catholic University, they had been studying three well-known retail areas including La Vega, the city’s sprawling wholesale and retail public market.

The study team wanted me, along with a professor of architecture from Barcelona, to provide international perspectives on their initial findings.
I shared with them an idea I first heard from a West Vancouver resident who had been participating in a neighbourhood planning study.

Sometimes a place has to change if it wants to stay the same. However, planners and designers must be careful not to alter the character and qualities that brought people there in the first place. I thought this might be particularly true for their aging La Vega market.
I shared with the study team the challenges facing the Granville Island public market. For many years it had been a favourite place for Vancouver residents to shop. However, over the years, the market attracted so many tourists, local residents were increasingly discouraged from shopping there.
The situation was exacerbated by new supermarket designs. When the Granville Island public market first opened, there was no Urban Fare, Nesters or Choices. Today these supermarkets offer many of the qualities and amenities of a public market and are forcing Granville Island’s administration to rebrand its facility to bring back the local shoppers who made it so popular in the first place.
While Santiago could learn from Vancouver, we could also learn from Santiago. During my one week stay, I observed a number of ideas that might be transferred to our city. As many visitors and Chileans now living here well know, Santiago has a lot of taxis, reportedly more than New York City.
But it also has serious traffic congestion problems that it has been trying to address by building new roads and freeways under the city.  It has also been making some effective improvements to its public transit system, especially the buses.
One of the things I noticed is the buses quickly pick up and drop off passengers through front, middle and back doors. They can do this since at busy bus stops, passengers pay at the platform before getting on the bus, by tapping their electronic transit cards. Other South American cities employ a similar approach. Hopefully Vancouver’s transit system will too, one day.
I enjoyed Santiago’s busy Metro subway system. It is surprisingly clean and many of the stations are very beautiful. I sometimes got off at stops just to see the creative station designs and artwork. I never do this in Vancouver.

I was also delighted by the city’s wide sidewalks. I was told in some instances roads had been narrowed to make the sidewalks wider and in turn accommodate outdoor restaurant seating and licensed and “informal” street vendors.
Throughout Santiago there is an abundance of public art. Fascinating pieces of sculpture can be seen along streets and in parks. There are also murals everywhere. While some are little more than elaborate graffiti, others are quite extraordinary and form part of a business and restaurant design.
While Santiago is struggling to accommodate an increasing number of cyclists, many of whom ride on the sidewalks, I often saw large secure bike storage facilities near Metro stations and shopping areas.

More taxis, better bus loading, wider sidewalks, more public art and secure bike storage: these are just a few of the things, along with pisco sours, that Vancouver should emulate from this fascinating South American city.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A trip around Santiago

Whenever I go to a city, I try to take a narrated hop-on and hop-off bus tour to explore the sites. While it was not necessary in Santiago since I had wonderful guides from the Catholic University, I had a couple of free hours one afternoon and decided to explore the city on the Turistik bus. I think it was one of the best narrated tours I have taken, and I have been on dozens over the years.(Istanbul and Athens were two of the worst!)

I realized this tour might be special when I was provided with a bracelet to wear throughout the day. While I was disappointed it wasn't good for 24 hours (which is often the case in other cities), the bracelet was a very professional approach compared to the fragile tickets one usually receives. Here are some of the stops on the tour.

Plaza de Armas-the historic centre of the city- was the first stop. According to the guide program, when the Spaniards established cities they used the main square as the centre of the planning axis. While some of the significant nearby public buildings are undergoing renovation,
I was surprised other privately owned commercial buildings near the square had been allowed to become quite rundown. I was told this was the result of new office and retail developments moving away from the downtown.

Sadly, many of Santiago's significant older buildings have been destroyed by earthquakes and fires over the years. However, one remaining 18th century structure is Casa Colorada, which today  houses the Santiago museum. I went inside only to discover it is closed for renovations.
However, I was disappointed to see a large overbearing structure had been built next door, dominating the central space.
I must say I was often disappointed by the juxtaposition of old and new developments around the older part of the city. The architects had obviously never heard the Arthur Erickson speech about the importance of relating new buildings to their surroundings, even if their surroundings are going to change.
The immediate area includes a network of vibrant pedestrian streets that were full of people. Based on what has happened in other cities, I predict that in years to come, this area will regain some of the glamor and glory it had centuries ago.
The Mercado Central building has had an interesting history. It was initially planned as an exhibit hall for artists but subsequently converted to a public market. Like many markets around the world, today it contains more tourist oriented activities and restaurants, since the main market is across the river at La Vega.
Plaza de la Constitucion is home to the 18th century Moneda Palace, the presidential headquarters, and other important government building.
Santa Lucia hill is a most significant historic location in the city.  My guides from the School of Architecture Karin and Marie Jose took me there on my first day, where I sampled a most unusual local drink featuring a whole apricot.
It was quite a climb up, but offered an interesting view of city skyline dominated by what looked like 70's apartment and office towers. I was told many were newer....they just looked older. A better view is provided by a funicular that unfortunately has been out of service for some time.

Providencia is the upscale neighbourhood where I stayed. Its origins are tied to Canada since the sisters of the Divine Providence arrived in Chile from Canada at the mid 19th century. Apparently they had initially set out for Portland Oregon, but that's another story.

Sanhattan  (the name mixes Santiago and Manhattan) is the city's impressive new financial and hotel district. It has been developing since the 1990's in a location that's closer to the city's east side where the business executives who live. There is also a golf course nearby.

Parque Arauco is considered Chile's most important mall, although MallPlaza is the largest developer of mall properties in the country. Like many of the city's shopping malls, it features a high level of recreational activities including theatres, bowling, ice-skating, etc.

Patio Bellavista is located in Bellavista, a very lively part of the city. Here one finds the zoo, the funicular, and a number of museums, theatres, restaurants and pubs. I was impressed with the number of museums around the city. Compare that with Vancouver.

I previously had lunch at Patio Bellavista which at one time was going to be a couple of highrise buildings. However, some local community acitivists (one of whom came from Toronto and with whom I had dinner) opposed it and it is now a lively mix of 90 restaurants, shops, hotel, and bars.

I found it interesting that Santiago's mall developers have not yet discovered what Vancouver developers have recently discovered, namely that retail malls are a great location for higher density housing. But this too will come.

While there is much Santiago can learn from Vancouver, there is much Vancouver can learn from this South American city. I wrote about some of these things in a Vancouver Courier column, which will be reprinted in a subsequent post.