Monday, January 22, 2007
[“Downtown Week,” extended]
Downtown residences! Downtown residences! This is the cry of progressive urban land use policy. To fight sprawl, support city finances, encourage public transportation, and foster communitarianism, cities across the United States are trying to get more housing built downtown.
Which North American city has been the most successful in increasing both the supply of and demand for multi-unit downtown residences? It’s likely Vancouver, that dynamic metropolis on Canada’s West Coast. To walk around downtown Vancouver at 10:30 a.m. on a weekday is unlike the experience in almost any American city at such an hour; with much of the downtown converted into high-rise residences, the city center is bustling with people who live directly above small shops, offices, and restaurants. It feels so … European, perhaps, but also Asian, as the west coast city holds a large and growing Chinese population. It seems like an urbanist’s dream of a modern city in 2100.
But the success of Vancouver’s “living first” policy, adopted in the 1980s, is now having unexpected drawbacks. With so much space devoted to housing, businesses in the booming city are finding it difficult to find enough office space. With firms complaining and threatening to move to suburbs or elsewhere, Vancouver is considering raising height restrictions and is imposing new commercial space requirements on developers who otherwise would be building mostly residences. This is the opposite, of course, of the policies in many residence-thin cities of the United States. Now that Vancouver’s downtown-residence policy has proven to be so successful, the city should consider allowing free-market forces to determine much of downtown land use in the near future.