Mahler's necktie (part 2)

By Gene Miller, March 2013

Is there an app for zapping bad buildings?

Twenty or so years ago, I was for a while a development consultant or, as I called myself in private moments of searing candour, a “developer’s finger puppet.” I was paid on a performance basis (“employed by the outcome,” was my trippingly elegant phrase for it), and was of course highly motivated to succeed. As I made the rounds door-knocking in various neighbourhoods and attending countless public meetings, I would listen to a predictable and repetitious litany of neighbours’ concerns: too high, too big, too dense, too close, too much traffic, too much shadowing, loss of privacy, and my favourite change-up: “I support density, just not here.” I knew this repertoire was code for something else, something much more emotionally raw and elemental, like: “I don’t want that monstrosity, that death star, anywhere near me! If it goes up, I’m going to hate my life every day!” 

Things could be otherwise. For a clue as to why they are not, type into Google any of these: “Creating beautiful apartment buildings,” “The art of multifamily buildings,” “Designing beautiful apartment buildings,” and be prepared to learn about “The art of thermal mass modelling for multifamily,” or “Miami apartment buildings for sale,” or “Multi-family millions: how anyone can reposition for big profits.” In other words, join me in the stunning discovery that creating beautiful apartment buildings is not as compelling an online topic as, say, the colour of Anne Hathaway’s undies. 

I blame Cook Street. 

Why exactly do apartment buildings belong on arterial streets, which is where we seem to like to stick ‘em? Everyone gets the cultural message, which is: “If you live in a multifamily building, you deserve traffic noise, alienating architecture and a place-less environment when you come out of the building.” If you ask planners you’ll get a flat-footed retreat into professional-ese like “concentrating density” or “improving the car/street interface” or “clustering” or “neighbourhood hierarchy” or “choosing density-appropriate locations and preserving neighbourhood integrity.” (The last of these has at least a whiff of covert honesty.) Streets like Cook and other so-called “arterials” make it easy for planners to rationalize density, while everyone else (including developers) instinctively understands that it’s simply a green light for creating human storage lockers.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

I made a risky pledge at the end of last month’s column to lay out some ideas that would assist apartment buildings to look and function not like human warehousing but homes, and not like vacuums or black holes in the streetscape but places of energetic human presence and/or visual delight.

First, this note: By “apartment building” I mean “multifamily”—that is, the building form, not the tenure; so, while respecting the Scriptural principle that renters are scum, house-dwellers are the Lord’s Chosen, and condo owners could go either way, this writing considers rental and condominium buildings interchangeably.

Apartment buildings are not large houses any more than buses are large cars. While they may share a neighbourhood, houses and apartment buildings have different social identities, emotional resonances, positions in the community hierarchy, and principles of social governance. It’s not unlike the grazing protocols of animals in the wild. And as with lions, elephants, water buffalo, and zebras on the African veldt, it’s also useful in housing to acknowledge uneasy relationships, territoriality, uncomfortable adjacencies and the certainty of chivvying. (For fun, check if any, or how many, of the members of your community association’s land use committee live in apartments.)

Multi-family buildings don’t get any sympathy. In the complex and nuanced world of land use, they are the predator, not the predatee; the wicked witch, not the good fairy. People, including the occupants (considered culturally as either aspiring or lapsed house-owners), lend them no more feeling than we give to rental cars. Something about multi-family buildings deeply threatens the core values and elemental beliefs of single-family residents. Barring deep cultural study, I’m not sure why, but the prospect of a multifamily building next door, or down the block, or in the neighbourhood saddens, threatens, frightens and angers single-family house-owners. It’s not exactly a class issue, but you can’t miss the reek of threat—something that exposes the ideal of “home” to the roiling imperfections of the living human mass.

For purposes of discovery, then, let’s think of multifamily buildings not only as physical structures, but also as social messaging. That’s the only way to get to a whole-system understanding of these buildings, and to propose some changes that might result in a more salubrious outcome.

From the perspective of social messaging, appearances suggest that as long as apartment buildings meet building code standards, nobody cares beyond that. There is nothing aspirational or warm-blooded about the design results. They rarely project developer ego, for the most part read as “product,” and in a hundred subtle ways convey more about the project’s pro forma and return on investment than about designing for successful human community.

To get away from this, you have first to believe, as a form of casus belli, that building design and site use strongly impact the resident’s sense of community belonging. In other words, bad buildings foster bad citizenship. It’s nearly pointless simply to want better buildings from developers. You also have to be a keen student of the building code, of the actual intentions of policy and the contents of zoning bylaws, of development costs, and even of strata laws and property management culture. You have to be able to make the economic case for more creative site use, improved design and the singularity of buildings.

In its recently approved Official Community Plan, the planning professionals advanced only an anodyne response by green-lighting multifamily anywhere along the city’s arterials and in very tightly defined “village centres.” Better than nothing, but still redlining and setting the stage for more crud. Here are some additional specific proposals.

Apartment buildings in earlier years were better integrated within single-family areas and built generally on corners—not, I suspect because of the zoning of the day, but because community-makers intuited that corner locations would allow multifamily buildings to push up to the two sidewalk property lines and farther away from adjacent single-family houses on either street or from contiguous rear yards. If you take some time to nose around the core neighbourhoods, including Fairfield and James Bay, I think you will agree that generally it’s not a bad fit and that the city could almost universally apply a corner lot zone, maybe with a two-lot maximum to ensure protection of the neighbourhood scale.

The city would also benefit from a formal study (with design and development industry professionals) of architect Eric Barker’s two deconstructions at 948 North Park and 22-24 Songhees Road. Both offer nourishing food for thought about alternatives to the conventional apartment block plunked in the middle of its site and disconnected entirely from the larger neighbourhood context.

There need to be rewards for even modestly inspired architecture. In a perfect world, these would come from a discriminating market rejecting bad buildings. Realistically, community associations and advisory design panels have to pound the message home that design and appearance matter; that people and neighbourhoods require idiosyncracy, individuation, character; and that these examples should be treated with some form of regulatory lenience or tax generosity.

Multiple entrances served by multiple elevators would help to de-anonymize buildings. Consider: a single elevator, opening front and rear can, in a four-storey building, serve up to 32 apartment doors—four forward, four back. Instead of long penitentiary corridors which carry financial (building efficiency) and social costs, such elevators could open on small, somewhat individuated vestibules serving up to four apartment doors and improving the sense of place within a large building.

Walk Southgate Street between Vancouver and Cook Streets, paying particular and careful attention to the house-like structures. Count mailboxes (prepare to be stunned, in some cases) and then ask yourself if there might not be potential for an innovative form of new-built, house-like apartment building designed to fit on single lots almost anywhere in the city.

To their credit, Victorians are conscionable about the need for density, inclusion, and affordability. Communities continue to wrestle with the challenge and, in my view, remain open to ideas and models that will encourage the benefits of density while keeping negative impacts at a minimum. Surely, policy, design and pricing innovation is the way around the siege-and-fortress dynamic that currently describes land use events in Victoria. So, maybe it’s time for the city, industry and the community associations to co-host some form of creative workshop. This developer’s finger puppet will gladly spring for the refreshments.

Gene Miller, founder of Open Space Cultural Centre, Monday Magazine and the Gaining Ground Conferences, is currently writing Massive Collaboration: Stories That Divide Us, Stories That Bind Us and The Hundred-Mile Economy: Preparing For Local Life.