Downtown Dorms

One of my favourite sources for architectural news is ArchNewsNow, which collects stories from papers around the world, and also posts some original content. One great recent feature article by Trevor Broddy discusses the unusual urban situation now unfolding in Vancouver, one of North America's most attractive cities. With its dramatic mountain and ocean views and forest of tall condo towers on a small pennisular, some have called it urban paradise.

Paradise, yes, but because of short-sighted urban planning, downtown Vancouver may be becoming a fool's paradise. This is because people are coming to live and play here, but not to work. Director of central area planning Larry Beasley confirmed in a recent interview that no new office tower has started construction or even been proposed by developers for our downtown core in the new century.

How many office buildings can you see in the above photo?

In other words, downtown Vancouver has few office towers to start with (only 15 million SF of class A office space, similar to Jersey City or Pittsburgh) and almost zero potential or desire for office growth. It is becoming a bedroom suburb of, er, the suburbs, which is so confusing that there is no word for it.

It is not surprising that offices are being built in the suburbs and not downtown Vancouver. For a huge number of reasons, lousy downtown quality of life among them, most US cities long ago passed the point where more than 50% of their regional office space was not downtown. What is surprising here is that this change is happening in what is otherwise a super-successful city that has undergone a decade long building boom.

The same trend is happening in a few other popular cities successful -- San Francisco, San Diego, and Miami. Because these cities have attractive urban environments there is rampant condo construction on the order of thousands and thousands of units a year in the downtown cores. However, due to high business taxes, declining roles as head office locations, deliberate planning or all three there are virtually no office buildings under construction. This is not the case in New York or Chicago, where new office buildings are sprouting up alongside, or sometimes under, new condos. Toronto has a problem with office suburbanization -- only a couple new office buildings in the core in the last decade -- but the large base of existing commercial office space and the city's continuing national head-office role mitigate the issue somewhat.

What is going on in Vancouver is definitely the most extreme case of a downtown being exciting, vibrant, diverse, full of retail and entertainment and yet losing its original function as a commercial center. By definition, downtown areas were created because businesses needed to be close to each other and their customers, and organically evolved into districts with high density and high land values. Vancouver still has the density and high values, both the highest in Canada, but diminishing commercial office activity.

What happens to a city when no one works downtown but everyone wants to live there? Is this a failure that will doom the city to become a glorified urban theme park, or a wild success for those who felt that the last fifty years of commerical-oriented downtowns had destroyed traditional cities? Should the Vancouver continue with condomania or should incentives be offered to try and encourage downtown office development? Is there even a problem here?

What would you do if you were mayor?


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