Monthly Archives: August 2016

Vancouver Uncoupled

The defacement of the city provided high-cost observatories of concrete from which to observe an extraordinary landscape.

— Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

For thirty years the Twin Towers were dominant features of the New York skyline, unmistakable from afar, rearing up in gaps between buildings or gleaming at the end of 6th avenue at dusk. Their blunt profiles marked their place on lower Manhattan as surely as darts on a map. But because they were a pair, they positioned the viewer, too: remove all else, and their abstract, shifting forms marked your spot on the city grid by their relative positions and the shadows they cast.

You moved, they moved. Driving south on the BQE, the space between the towers widened and narrowed and at a sharp bend in the highway they grew taller and merged; looking back at the city from Red Hook, the two towers appeared as one. Proust relates a similar kinesthetic experience at the end of Combray when he speaks of the two spires of Martinville “appearing to change position with the motion of our carriage and the windings of the road,” then, as he left them behind, seeming to “press against one another, slip behind one another, now forming … no more than a single black shape.”*

Proust’s moving steeples came to mind this month as the new Trump Tower in Vancouver approached its grand opening date. Standing on a promontory with unobstructed views of the sea and the North Shore mountains, the Trump, at 584 feet tall, is a close second to the city’s tallest building, and with its luxury rival located right across the street the two form a distinct pair on the city skyline: the Shangri-La, all glass and stabbing angles, and the Trump, vaguely organic, torqued, tubular, “a new twist on luxury,” as the ads have it.

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Under wraps: the Trump Tower Vancouver

Last December, when the presidential hopeful called for a ban on Muslims entering the US, Vancouver’s mayor asked the developers of the Trump Tower to drop the man’s offending name from the building. “Trump’s name and brand have no more place on Vancouver’s skyline than his ignorant ideas have in the modern world,” the mayor boldly declared. A city planner echoed the mayor’s concerns: “our brand,” he said, “… is almost the diametric opposite to what Mr. Trump is saying.” The city planner’s use of the word “almost” was oddly scrupulous; the audience was left to ponder what it means to “almost” oppose violent bigotry and ignorance. His conflation of “brand” and “values” was confusing too — though his stumbling grammar implied that the former, in fact, was his main concern: “our brand, our values as a city and as a country, is [sic] almost the diametric opposite…”. Even the mayor’s bold statement, on closer inspection, seems to hedge its bets: saying that Trump’s name has “no more place” in Vancouver than elsewhere fudges the simpler, plainer message that it has no place here at all.

The protests came to nothing, predictably enough, and the gold-plated name on the building will stand. Fittingly, the tower is most noticeable from Vancouver’s wealthiest neighborhoods; at sunset, looking back at the city skyline from the beachfronts or headlands of West Vancouver and Point Grey, a long bright gash of reflected light slices across the building, impossible to ignore. But there are places in Vancouver where the Trump Tower can’t offend the eye, where the viewer, like Proust with his steeples, can set one building behind the other, hiding the Trump behind the Shangri-La. In these places, maybe, Vancouver still remains one of the world’s “most beautiful cities” — second only to Paris, according to a recent Forbes rating.  For the happy few of Fairview, Cambie Village and Riley Park, it’s as if the Tower didn’t exist.

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Our tour of these neighborhoods aims south by southeast, following the cone of an umbra, to borrow the language of astronomy, the long shadow cast by an architectural eclipse.

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At 6th and Heather Streets, a four-story apartment building clad in faux-brick tarpaper is a lone reminder of the Fairview neighborhood’s industrial past. The building stands at the western edge of the cone of eclipse. From the front of the building, a narrow sliver of the Trump Tower can be seen to the left of the Shangri-La, but at the back of the building the view is more secure. The bay windows at the northeast corner look out on an alleyway, an empty lot, a defunct railroad spur, and, above the waterfront condominiums, the city skyline, topped by the blue shard of the Shangri-La.

We may have blotted the Trump tower from view, but the picture of the city from 6th and Heather speaks eloquently of Trump’s “brand”: social dishesion, gaping inequality, political cronyism and real estate profiteering. Plainly visible from here, the penthouse atop the Shangri-La was recently listed at $15 million and sold for an undisclosed amount. Meanwhile, one block away is the Olympic Village subway station, and rising above it, the neighborhood of condos bearing the same name, legacies of the 2010 winter games. Protests during the lead-up to the Vancouver games brought attention to the risks of rising rents and social displacement, and what the the protesters feared came true. The Olympic media blitz hyped Vancouver as a global tourist and luxury destination, and realtors and developers reaped a windfall: the cost of rent and real estate spiked dramatically after the games, while City Hall reneged on promises of affordable housing at Olympic Village. The apartment building at 6th and Heather is the kind of structure the City prefers to have replaced with more expensive, high-density condominium towers. But given that the vacancy rate for rentals in Vancouver now stands at 0.6 percent, and the cost of rent has increased twice as fast as incomes in the post-Olympic period, eviction from a place like 6th and Heather often means banishment from the city itself.

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Broadway Plaza, at the corner of Broadway and Ash, is a relic of the age of civic modernism. With its suspended concrete walkways and terraces, its open access from multiple levels, and a spiral staircase that affords wide views of the city and the sea, the Plaza is a kinesthetic playground and an eloquent lesson in spatial democracy. As you climb the outdoor staircase the Shangri-La stands prominently on the skyline, but from either side of the spiral the Trump remains invisible, nor can it be seen from any of the Plaza’s bridges or terraces. This beneficent eclipse seems to confirm the Plaza’s spatial ethos and midcentury optimism.

Broadway Plaza exemplifies the open urban form that has been inverted to such dramatic effect by postmodern malls and hotel atriums the world over, such as Los Angeles’ famed Bonaventure Hotel, whose bunker-like structure encloses a city in miniature within a privatized concrete microcosm. Forty years ago Fredric Jameson scorned the faux populism that masked the Bonaventure’s paranoid sociopathy.** That sociopathic attitude is now incarnated in the man Donald Trump, while the real estate magnate’s architectural populism takes the form of a spectacular edifice nominally open to all, but firmly exclusive in its higher privileges. Broadway Plaza, in contrast, seems almost quaint in its urban generosity; there is even a working public pay phone by the seating area at the foot of the spiral stairs.

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Diagonally across the busy street from Broadway Plaza stands a modest apartment building with wooden plank siding and cedar shingles painted barn red, its false roofline evocative of a western frontier town. One wouldn’t guess it, but the apartments at Broadway and Ash are a mere three blocks from Vancouver City Hall and only two blocks from the city’s all-important Office of Development and Building. Few major cities can boast such jarring contradictions, and the contrast is instructive: the gleaming global city of high-end condos, luxury mansions and Lamborghinis has arrived in Vancouver with whiplash suddenness. But history can be stubborn, too; from the upstairs windows at the corner of Broadway and Ash you can view a cityscape seemingly from the past, because the Trump Tower is nowhere in sight.

Four blocks south of Broadway houses start to appear among the larger buildings. A lone Victorian stands among a group of neglected homes on 16th avenue, a tall Douglas fir like a giant gangly weed at the property line. 16th avenue is zoned for higher-density construction, so the houses here are in real estate limbo. When the time comes, they are unlikely to be renovated or moved elsewhere. The city of Vancouver issues almost 1,000 permits every year for home demolitions, and even in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes, an older house that changes hands is likely to fall to the bulldozer. In the absence of heritage protection, rising land values render houses increasingly disposable, a process documented with grim persistence by the authors of Vancouver Vanishes and the affiliated Facebook group. The current rate of demolitions is so high that at any given time the average residential street in Vancouver has vacant lots between the homes, holes awaiting construction, like gap teeth in a face that is repeatedly punched.

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But the Victorian on 16th has a view unmarred by the Trump Tower, as it lies securely within the cone of eclipse. In a sense the house is doubly fortunate; the view of the Shangri-La itself is obscured by the imposing form of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church across the street, and even if one climbed up to the Victorian’s peaked roof, the view of the city’s tallest building would be blocked by the church’s high golden dome. Residents living on the upper floors of an apartment building on this site may not be so lucky.

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Our itinerary crosses Cambie Street near 21st Avenue, running at an obtuse angle to Cambie’s North-South axis and tending slightly east on a long southerly diagonal across the city. Due to our eastward creep we are gradually approaching the next major North-South thoroughfare, Main Street, the traditional dividing-line between the wealthier West and poorer East sides of Metro Vancouver. But like an asymptotic line, geometry’s equivalent to frustration, our path won’t intersect with Main Street, neither will we cross it to enter East Van’s more diverse, affordable and bohemian neighborhoods. Instead, our diagonal will make a near tangent to Main before plunging into the Fraser River and leaving the city. This failure to cross Main Street seems symbolic of our quest, as the traditional East/West division, what urban planner Andy Yan calls “the $1 Million Line,” no longer exists today. Pointing to his research that maps the eastward encroachment of high real estate prices over the past 10 years, Yan says that the East-West dividing line has “utterly disappeared,” because neighborhoods of $1 million homes now extend well beyond Main Street, reaching right to the eastern boundary of the city.

Vancouverites will tell you that real estate in the city has always been expensive. Like realtors, they are quick to cite the so-called market “fundamentals,” including limited land area, temperate climate, natural beauty and political stability. But the price of housing has lately come “uncoupled” from the local economy; real estate values no longer reflect local supply and demand but are driven at the upper end by an international market of rich migrants and investors, with costly knock-on effects across the city. In this one word, “uncoupled,” lies a world of hurt for people of average or modest incomes in the Vancouver area. As a measure of the ratio of local wages to cost of housing, Vancouver is second only to Hong Kong on the world’s list of most expensive cities. This situation is neither natural nor unavoidable; favorable tax rates for offshore investment, immigration laws that favor rich migrants, lack of regulation of the real estate industry and weak heritage protections all promote the destabilizing influence of foreign money on land values. But the consensus in Canadian politics favors globalization, while Vancouver City Hall has consistently promoted developers’ and realtors’ interests. The result today is a city hollowed out from within, mansions sprouting next to modest family homes, “zombie” houses that remain empty year-round, and a climate of anxiety, suspicion and fear.

These changes are more than an inconvenience for renters and people of average incomes. The widening gap between labor wages and unearned income from property is reshaping Vancouver’s entire demographic makeup and liberal culture. The main finding of Thomas Piketty’s landmark Capital in the Twenty-First Century is precisely this kind of increasing disparity, and the economist’s prognosis is dispiriting. If current trends continue, Piketty warns, “inherited wealth will dominate wealth amassed from a lifetime’s labor by a wide margin, and the concentration of capital will attain extremely high levels – levels potentially incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles of social justice fundamental to modern democratic societies.”*** No wonder the population of young people in Vancouver is declining: millennials are leaving the city because wages saved for the future can’t keep pace with the faster rate of profit others will have gained meantime from their past investments; these young people don’t accept a situation in which, as Piketty puts it, “the past devours the future” (571). A new genre has lately emerged in the local media: the “dear John” letter to Vancouver by a young person who has decided to leave the city for good.

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A pair of houses at West 29th Avenue and Yukon Street encapsulates the quiet violence of Vancouver’s “uncoupled” economy. Next to a modest mid-century house stands a new two-storey mansion faced in limestone. The mansion’s grandiose colonnaded entryway contrasts with the simple wooden arbor by the little house’s front door, and the unassuming hospitality of the latter’s unfenced open lawn is negated by the new arrival’s granite wall, iron gate and spiked fence. The mansion appears unrelated to its surroundings, and though it flaunts its bulky materiality it seems airlifted from elsewhere, a symbol of the abstracting, delocalizing force of unfettered capital. But from the mansion and the single-storey home the city view is the same: the Shangri-La completely masks the Trump Tower from sight.

Across the street the sloping lawns of Queen Elizabeth Park rise up toward the summit of Little Mountain, one of Vancouver’s most popular viewpoints. City Hall calls the park the highest point in Vancouver, but at 500 feet above sea level it’s in fact significantly lower than the penthouse and upper-level luxury suites of the Shangri-La. This turns out to be an advantage for the visitors at Little Mountain, though: by an odd coincidence, the summit is fully within the Shangri-La’s zone of eclipse. From here the blue building in the distance seems to stand alone amid the shorter towers of downtown Vancouver.

A city without the Trump Tower: the panoramic view from Little Mountain answers the mayor’s righteous call for a ban on Trump’s name and brand from the city. But that would be to deny what the city of Vancouver amply shares with the ethos of the man Donald Trump, real estate magnate and global luxury brand. Visitors may not know it, but for older residents of the neighborhood, “Little Mountain” can’t fail to evoke the social housing development by that name, formerly located just adjacent to Queen Elizabeth Park and a stone’s throw from the viewpoint. Built in 1954, the complex of 37 buildings housed 7oo lower-income residents until the tenants were evicted and the structures razed to the ground in 2009. Last month, after years of delays and public outcry, City Hall announced the rezoning plan for the former Little Mountain site. The plan calls for a slight increase of social housing units — 282 for the original 224 — but the project, in sum, amounts to a land grab for private capital, as there will be four and a half times as many condominiums as social housing units on the property. The developer of the Little Mountain site is none other than Holborn Holdings Limited, owner of Vancouver’s Trump Tower.

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                                                                      *                                                                      2016 may turn out to be the breaking point for Vancouver real estate. Last spring home prices vaulted an additional 30% over the previous year’s sky-high values before the scandal of “shadow flipping” prompted a tightening of real estate regulations. Then, following years of stonewalling, the province and the city finally lifted their ban on the release of statistics on foreign property ownership, and in the wake of the findings the first modest reforms were made to address the affordability crisis. As of August 2nd, foreigners face a presumably discouraging 15% tax on Vancouver home purchases. But the city and the province may be playing a double game; the new tax was announced in Victoria the day before City Hall approved the developer’s plans for Little Mountain.

As you continue southward down the hill, the summit of Little Mountain rises up behind you. Holborn’s development site can be seen to the left, an L-shaped patch of bare earth awaiting construction. The sky beyond the Fraser River is often more sunny when Vancouver lies under a cloud cover. Today the southern horizon is socked in. No matter. By the time you reach the bottom of the slope the view north is totally blocked by Little Mountain, and with it, not only the offending tower, but the city of Vancouver as a whole.

 


* Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, Lydia Davis, trans. (New York: Penguin, 2003), pp. 184, 186.

** See Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” in The Cultural Turn (London: Verso, 1998), 1-20.

*** Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Arthur Goldhammer, trans. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2014), 26.

 

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