Vancouver in the spotlight

Downtown Vancouver made the covers of _Governing_ and _Urban Land_ in July, not long after CNU gave a Charter Award to Larry Beasley in recognition of the 1991 Living First plan. Indeed, Alan Ehrenhalt writes in his Governing piece:

bq. If one event can be said to mark the beginning of the downtown revival that is moving across North America, it is the rezoning in Vancouver.

Since the new downtown residents pay high taxes and cost little to service municipally — they rarely have children and have private services like health clubs that relieve the strain on parks, libraries, etc. — their fiscal impact has been mostly positive to date. However, _Governing_ zooms in on the city’s looming shortage of commercial land, raising the specter that the city will become merely a resort town.

Personally, I think such fears are a bit overblown: the condo wave, like all others, will eventually pass; Vancouver’s east side is both adequately transit served and has plentiful vacant industrial land for expansion; and opportunities for further densification do exist on the downtown peninsula, perhaps by refilling low-rise areas with mid-rises or inserting taller point towers on sites identified for high-rises. Current mayor Sam Sullivan has launched “the Vancouver EcoDensity Initiative”: in an attempt to get a conversation going about further densification (framing such as the path to a more sustainable city); many looking at the new downtown overlook the fact that upzoning downtown was part of a grand 1980s political tradeoff that also resulted in downzoning most of the city’s single-family residential neighborhoods.

However, part of the goal of planning is to balance future needs against current opportunities, and given Vancouver’s global desirability, it needs to ensure that future economic development has a place in the city. Similarly, I wonder whether new residential development in the very near West Loop is a good thing, given that the area may be better suited to offices.

More broadly, what are all these jobs being created out in the suburbs and why do they do go there? Holding the commute constant, many employees (especially younger ones) prefer the convenience and choice that a downtown location bring — and those concentrations of human capital (particularly as certain dense cities pull well ahead in education) should result in “Jane Jacobs externalities” of innovation and creative destruction. Trophy towers in the CBD may not appeal to the next generation of job creators, but not all urban spaces are that fussy and expensive. What kinds of buildings (and neighborhoods and regulations and ideas) _should_ planners and developers be concocting to house today’s entrepreneurs? During the dot-com boom, the obvious answer was the lofty flex space or maybe the biotech lab (as seen in office parks in Palo Alto and around MIT’s campus alike), but those were extenuating circumstances. Yet today, many of the surviving technology giants (Microsoft, Apple, Google, Sun) have large suburban corporate campuses, while others (like Adobe, in San Jose, San Francisco, and Seattle) fit into urban towers.

An even bigger question: how can cities foster organic, entrepreneurial economic development within neighborhoods? After all, small businesses create more jobs than big ones, but only big business is capable of snagging big tax breaks in the name of “job retention.” The “Center for an Urban Future”: consistently advocates such an approach (“a five borough economic development plan”) in place of corporate subsidies in NYC; closer to home, it’s interesting to see how the public-private “Midtown Community Works Partnership”: uses microfinance, cooperative marketing, local hiring agreements, infrastructure investments (like an enclosed public market, light rail, and a rail-to-trail), and public finance (much through EZ grants) to help start and sustain small businesses.
Kuttner “high wage america”: but libertarian project even denies the eexistence of a society or a public good, much less a social contract

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