Thursday, February 11, 2010

Vancouver: Being Responsible Adults, Mostly

The type of attention and investment that comes with winning a bid to host the Olympics, is often enough to make somebody insane. See: Beijing.

In fact, if I was to think of three cities that would act the most recklessly with the planning, design, and infrastructural investments for a one-time event like the Olympics rather than how it might transition into the future (well, they tried, but it worked about as well as this new city from scratch), I would probably guess Vegas, Dubai, and somewhere in China. Fortunately, things have come crashing back down to Earth in time before Dubai gets really brazen and applies for an Olympics. The winter Olympics.

Just kidding. They really are considering a bid for 2020. Shouldn't be too hot. Maybe the IOC will develop some livability or morally responsibility standards for future sites.

Of course, with all of that said, that still isn't exactly meant as an apology for the financing of the Olympic Village, which was expected to be funded through the advance purchase of the condo units after the Olympics were over. Well, you can imagine how that worked out: to finish the construction on time, the City had to put the taxpayers on the hook for $1 billion large.

If anything, at least they have been much more responsible for how to leverage the Olympics to benefit the City in the long-term, which could potentially bring a return to that taxpayer investment. Hopefully. I would hope that measures have been taken so that the bailout is paid off by the eventual purchase of the Olympic condo units, which would make this a bit of a public house showing for all $750 million left worth of condos. If they remain to be worth that much.

The biggest issue from an urban morphological standpoint is that the village is a massive development delivering units to match the demand of two things: thousands of Olympic athletes for two weeks and the phony demand of a housing bubble. The question remains, how long will it take to absorb the surplus, at what value will the market pay for them, and if it's not at the expected value, who covers the difference?

Those are the things we won't be seeing over the next two weeks, unless it's by those who just want to hate on the goals for urbanism and sustainability. That it was financed by the same mechanisms and engines fueling the housing bubble (it was an asploded hedge fund responsible) shouldn't take away from the lessons, but they should temper other cities that might eschew incrementalism.

Here is the interview at DesignObserver, conducted by Nate Berg of Planetizen, of the Vancouver planning director who replaced Larry Beasley. Excerpts for the most relevant points:
From a policymaker’s perspective, we have a legacy of new attitudes and standards and policies that have fundamentally changed business as usual for Vancouver. Almost everything we learned in the development of Athletes Village has been translated into new approaches in our citywide zoning, citywide policies and guidelines, or just new attitudes.
You have to remember that the second most important moment in Vancouver’s city building history was Expo ‘86. That event changed the way we do things as city builders and really sparked what is now called the Vancouver model. I say the second most important moment because the first most important moment was the refusal to put freeways in Vancouver, particularly through our downtown.
There has been some concern that Vancouver hasn’t been ambitious enough in its new facilities and particularly its architecture. When you’re being compared against the most recent Summer Olympics in Beijing, with the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube — well, fiscally responsible cities could kill themselves trying to compete with that kind of expenditure.
What defines Vancouver is a strong ethic of sustainability, inclusivity, consultation, and hopefully social and environmental responsibility. So we didn’t set out to wow the world with starchitects and world-class architecture that we may or may not be able to use in the future.
All of our facilities are readily convertible into civic and community uses. We know how our facilities are going to be used the day after the Olympics are done, essentially. And they’re all part of making our livable city even more livable. As a city that set out to make the greenest and most inclusive Olympics, not the most architecturally exuberant Olympics, our results go a long way to meet our goals. Are we sustainable and inclusive enough? People will debate that for years.