Soundscape in San Jose

June 22, 2011 at 6:18 pm | In cities, urbanism | 2 Comments

This morning I was walking along South Market Street in San Jose, California. I didn’t see a market on this street in the south end of downtown, but instead a generously laid out linear park, almost the width of a city block, running north for about two blocks from the convention center at its south end. It’s named for Cesar Chavez.

On either side of the park, there are at least two lanes of one-way traffic, northbound on the right, southbound on the left. Paralleling the roads, two walkways run the length of the park, separated from traffic by wide lawns planted with trees. In the middle, there’s another wide swathe of lawn and trees. The walkways are lined with barrier-free benches (meaning: it’s possible to lie down on them).

To the south (where the public toilets are), the benches are populated by men – homeless, sleeping, waiting, listening to radios. In the middle of the park, there’s a ground level water feature consisting of about twenty-two water fountains shooting straight up from the pavement. They create a pleasing, regular (if impermanent) architectural feature. But best of all, they’re a fantastic playground for a growing horde of children on this pleasantly warm day. The parents (mostly mothers) come to the downtown specifically for this, and the park and water feature are clearly a success. Since the fountain is placed in close proximity to the tech museum (which draws school crowds) and the art museum, and is in the middle of a pedestrian thoroughfare, it gets both actual traffic and eyeballs. The latter is very important.

But the reason I really stopped to write about it has to do with ears, not just eyes. San Jose airport is nearby, and the roar of jet engines regularly interrupts the soundscape as low-flying planes descend immediately overhead. Sweetly, the sound of continuously gushing and splashing water provides great aural comfort, and is better than any set of ear plugs.

An ice cream peddler with a pushcart hung with brass bells on its handlebar makes his way to the fountain area. The jingling of his bells is easily heard above the water, children, road and air traffic.

When I pass the fountain again in early afternoon, the peddler is still there, standing under a tree for shade. By now, every social and ethnic group has increased in number: children, adults, skateboarding teens (no anti-skateboarding metal braces on the low walls or steps), tourists, and more people who are homeless, including a few women.

A great public space all around, Cesar Chavez Plaza successfully draws a diverse community together for play and recreation.

How to Save Downtown (Victoria BC)

May 30, 2011 at 8:16 pm | In affordable_housing, architecture, dying_downtown, FOCUS_Magazine, land_use, urbanism, victoria, writing | 2 Comments

Below is the real version of my article, How to Save Downtown (it’s about downtown Victoria BC, but applies to many city centers crushed under the weight of overly needy – and stupid – municipal governments as well as strapped economies…).

I submitted this article to FOCUS Magazine for publication in its June 2011 issue. I was subsequently horrified to see that the publisher truncated the article so severely as to make it nonsensical. After I complained, he put a more-or-less intact version online (at last reading, there was at least one paragraph still missing), but the print version of the article has unfortunately already gone to press. I wish I could have taken back my submission, but I couldn’t. I’m much embarrassed (and angry) to see my name attached to it.

Here’s the article  as it was intended to appear. Readers might notice that it grew out of my previous dying downtown series:

How to Save Downtown

Victoria City Council recently offered the business community an olive branch when it addressed the tax ratio of commercial to residential rates by voting to reduce marginally (very marginally) that ratio by 0.004% in favor of commercial rates. While the Chamber of Commerce responded with tepidly mumbled words of encouragement for council’s decision, the daily newspaper merely reported the other side of the coin: that residential property taxes will rise by 7% compared to 1.1% for businesses.

Anyone who bothers to walk around downtown Victoria can see that many businesses are struggling. Take Fort Street’s Antique Row. Start at Cook, continue to Douglas, and note the number of “for lease” or “going out of business” signs. Too often, though, we ignore the plight of businesses and focus instead on the rise in residential taxes.

I recently posted photos of the many empty Fort Street storefronts to my blog. The comments that came in were instructive. Readers (including business owners) blamed downtown’s desuetude on many things: big box stores; tourism downturns; street people; lack of community support for independent merchants; problems related to overzealous parking commissionaires.

Everyone cited high rents, worsened by excessive property taxes:

“I have been perplexed that while we saw a recession start in 2009 retail rents continued to rise right through it as though there was nothing happening.”

“There is certainly no shortage of eager, creative and motivated entrepreneurs in Victoria. If they can deal with the impossible rents, along with the fact that the City is inherently anti-small business (zoning, permits, etc), they may have a chance.”

Comments repeatedly cited the City of Victoria’s lack of business support, noting that it burdens businesses with adversarial inspectors and bylaws.

Others noted that there is too much emphasis on tourist retail and not enough on incubating innovation for the homegrown market.

And people asked: if so many storefronts are empty, why are rents still so high? Bound to triple-net leases, tenants are typically on the hook for property taxes, and even building improvements. For paying property taxes, the City delivers nothing in services, not even garbage pickup.

In 2005 Greater Victoria had a retail vacancy rate of 3.5%. By 2010, that rate had climbed to 5.9%, and it doesn’t look better for 2011. According to Colliers’s Market Report, “2011 is likely to be a year of ‘status quo’ for Greater Victoria retail.” While the forecast admits that “2010 was a year of uncertainty,” it also posits that “the overall market has remained relatively healthy.” Downtown’s empty storefronts suggest otherwise.

Perhaps macro-analyses of Greater Victoria, which include data points around “secure federal and provincial employer presence” (read: consumers) and Uptown or Westshore shopping mall expansions (read: vendors), don’t speak to what’s going on specifically in our downtown.

I asked Graham Smith, who looks after Greater Victoria retail for Colliers, about lease rates and their responsiveness to the market. Smith pointed out that every property is different, each has its unique qualities. Whether it’s on this or that side of the street or in this or that block affects its lease rates. And just as properties are unique, so are owners. Smith likened it to selling a house: most people are convinced that their property is uniquely valuable, and some owners will insist on getting their price, while others just want it rented.

Why would a property owner let his property stand empty instead of offering struggling tenants a rate reduction? Smith’s market-based answer seemed cruel, albeit realistic: if a business is struggling, there’s something wrong with the business model besides leasing expenses. A 10% rent reduction isn’t going to help that business thrive if there either isn’t really a market for what it’s retailing, or it’s not open when customers want to shop.

However, consider the tax burden imposed on business. Take 789 Fort Street, a property assessed at ~$2 million; its 2010 property tax was $49,130.18. A comparable ~$2 million residential Victoria property (1989 Crescent Rd., for example) is taxed at ~$13,685.00. That’s a difference of nearly $35,000.

Who pays the property tax on commercial buildings? Typically, the triple-net lessee.

According to sources at City Hall, Victoria relies equally (50-50) on residential and commercial property taxes, but commercial property is clearly carrying the brunt. Nor is Victoria alone. 2010 Tax Rates reveal that Victoria taxes businesses the most, but Saanich and Langford are close behind:

Victoria Residential: 3.6581
Victoria Commercial: 13.1471
Ratio: 3.59
Langford Residential: 2.3343
Langford Commercial: 7.3764
Ratio: 3.16
Saanich Residential: 3.2697
Saanich Commercial: 11.6980
Ratio: 3.58
Oak Bay Residential: 2.9305
Oak Bay Commercial: 5.0610
Ratio: 1.73

True, every municipality has a pro-residential bias. After all, residential taxpayers elect the politicians. However, the difference is very much skewed against City of Victoria businesses in absolute terms: a lessee will pay much less property tax for a similar property in Langford since the property has a lower assessed value. This difference can be the make-or-break factor for a business, and partly explains the exodus from downtown. Let’s also not forget that fewer than ten years ago, Victoria’s ratio of commercial to residential taxation was 2.63, while it has now climbed to 3.59. (source [PDF])

An effective way to reduce the currently painful ratio would be to increase the number of residential properties on the City’s tax roll.

Recall my conversation with Graham Smith of Colliers. From his 11th floor CIBC Building boardroom we could see 789 Fort Street, a one-story building with two storefronts. Presently, half the building is rented, while the other languishes.

I pointed out that this building should have rental apartments on top, which would provide both customers and even employees. The newer building next door (at Fort and Blanshard, southwest corner) was built within the last fifteen years. Although newer, it’s also just a single story, with zero residential above the store. It seems we haven’t been adding mixed-use buildings with a view to bringing a diversified demographic into the downtown.

So why don’t we encourage more development that brings residents into the downtown, which would help “spread the pain” of property taxes on mixed-use commercial/residential buildings and would benefit retailers who need steady repeat customers? Consider that downtown Victoria’s population has actually declined since the 1970s when new seismic regulations left buildings vulnerable to unaffordable code upgrades. If you’ve ever wondered why some buildings downtown don’t have people living on the second or third floors, it’s because they didn’t remain “continuously occupied” since new codes came into effect. If a building remained continuously occupied, it’s exempt. If it’s vacated, however, it becomes subject to the new rules, and requires fearsomely cost-prohibitive seismic upgrading.

As for new buildings, condo towers (which target just one small slice of the larger demographic pie) have added some population, but we’re still below 1970s population levels. Newer one-story buildings, as well as older one-story buildings, represent a missed opportunity to diversify the downtown and to bring its residential levels back up to what they used to be.

There is a new proposal that’s heading in the right direction. The Cosmopolitan is a 5-story development for the 600-block of Fort. Currently making its way through City Hall, it includes ground-floor retail, with 4 stories of rental housing above. If the project is approved (it needs a minor height variance), it’s an opportunity to build exactly what Victoria needs: residential over the store. I asked the developer, Jurgen Weyand, how the numbers work when building rental. The short answer: they don’t, really. Compared to building condos, building rental is an investment on his part that may pay off for his grandchildren. But retailers will benefit from having residents that live where they work and shop.

So let’s look out Colliers’ 11th floor boardroom window again. Sometime in the last 15 years, a new building went up at Fort and Blanshard. But it’s just one story and has no apartments above the store. Sometime in the last few years, tenants came and went at 789 Fort Street, but it’s just one story and there are no residents living above the store. There are scores of downtown buildings that have no one living over the store. The Cosmopolitan will hopefully contribute to reversing that trend.

Clearly, we need more development downtown, whether it’s condo towers or five-story walk-ups above ground floor retail. New condo towers may attract retiring empty-nesters who want to shop and re-create in a walkable downtown. Rental apartments above ground-floor retail diversify the demographic, to attract a younger, more mobile tenant who works in those businesses for her day job (and shops there, too), while incubating the next great thing in the creative economy after hours. Win-win.

Bottom line: if we want to save downtown, we need people living there, right over the store. That would provide customers for businesses, as well as defray the property tax burden currently off-loaded via triple-net leases solely on businesses.


Once more, the streets

December 10, 2010 at 11:06 pm | In johnson street bridge, land_use, street_life, transportation, urbanism, victoria | 4 Comments

While I promised myself, for sanity’s sake, to forgo paying attention to city politics, the City of Victoria‘s endorsement last night of a transportation proposal has me back at square one. Meaning what? Meaning I’m scratching my head, wondering what’s in the water around here.

The endorsed plan – proposed by BC Transit – would do a couple of really bizarre things that strike me as undesirable. The plan involves putting either rapid transit trams or rapid transit bus lines along Douglas Street, which is the city’s main north-south street corridor. Douglas Street is actually part of the Trans Canada Highway – further north, outside the city core, it becomes the highway. But in the city itself, it’s also just another main street that runs parallel to Victoria’s two other main north-south arterial roads, Government Street on its west and Blanshard Street on its east. At Douglas Street’s southern terminus you find Beacon Hill Park’s Mile 0 and the Terry Fox Memorial, site of many tourist moments. Before reaching the park, Douglas Street traverses Victoria’s Central Business District. As it provides an artery for the city, Douglas Street has four traffic lanes (two north-bound, two south-bound). There is on-street parking along much of Douglas Street’s downtown stretch, albeit on alternating blocks and sides of the street; and there are several blocks where no parking at all is allowed because bus service is heaviest here.

In the proposed plan, all on-street parking would be eliminated. Traffic lanes would be reduced from four to two, running side-by-side along the street’s western edge. Along the east side of the street, there would be two side-by-side tram or rapid transit bus lanes, one heading north, the other south, again: side by side. In the middle of the street would be a two-lane bike path.

Here’s  a rendering, as it appeared in last night’s (and today’s) Times-Colonist online:


I’m already getting into arguments with friends over this one. Some of my friends applaud the plan and point out that this is not new, and that BC Transit has been working on this since 1995.

To which I say, “it’s still a pretty shitty plan, sorry.”

I’ve never seen a tram arrangement like this, and really can’t understand why (in the case of this illustration) the south-bound tram should be orphaned away from pedestrian access. The only pedestrian access is via the sidewalk, and in this case the south-bound tram is removed from the sidewalk by a north-bound tram lane. I suppose if the trams don’t stop very often, you can build fancy stations to accommodate riders having to cross the tram tracks, etc. But shouldn’t the point downtown be that you have really frequent stops?

Nor do I get the logic of a bike lane down a median. In this scenario the cyclists will have to fight with cars and trams if they want to reach the curb/ retail frontage. That makes no sense. Maybe it makes sense for cyclists who don’t want to stop and are going to keep going until they reach …somewhere. But what if it’s a cyclist who’s hopping from one downtown store or venue to another? I guess he or she will be infringing on the pedestrian’s sidewalk space – and that always has the potential for trouble.

What I really dislike about this plan is how it suggests that if we could only get everyone into their proper slot (into the bike lane in the median, into the tram lanes side by side, into the car lanes side by side, and into the sidewalks – separated by an ocean of other transportation options) – if we could only get everyone to stay in their place, we could “solve” urban transportation issues. I’m not averse to that approach in areas where it’s imperative to clear the path for 50 to 60-kilometer per hour travel, but in a downtown, that’s not where (or how fast) we want to go.

I can’t help but think that rapid transit and cars are doing relatively well in this plan, but that pedestrians and cyclists aren’t. They latter two groups are asked to move like the former two: in straight lines, without stopping in any sort of way that could hold things up, without meandering, without trespassing or “jaywalking” – “jay-riding”? – into the other lanes of traffic. I don’t think that’s very urban. In every real city, pedestrians are constantly taking back their streets through everyday acts of disobedience: dawdling on the sidewalk, hitching bikes to parking meters (oops, I forgot we’re not even going to have parking meters under this new plan!), jaywalking, clustering, gawking, sitting around… Anything and everything in addition to “moving along” in an orderly fashion.

I dislike the extreme tidiness of this plan. There’s no mess here – probably because everyone is in their place. (And heaven help the poor fool who steps out of line…)

It looks suburban.

Finally, a word about the sad fate of the Johnson Street Bridge: those of us who fought to save the bridge suggested that one lane of the three traffic lanes on the current bridge should be given over to “multi-modal” transportation (read: bike lanes etc.). We were told by the rabid pro-replacement councilors around the table at City Hall that it would be impossible to reduce this tiny tiny bridge’s lane capacity from three to two. And yet these same councilors yesterday gave their assent to reducing the city’s main arterial road from four lanes of traffic to two, for a stretch of more than two kilometers. The hypocrisy staggers me.

Addendum: See also my post, Congestion is our friend (on, among other things, Gordon Price‘s talk on Motordom [<–slide deck on SlideShare]). From that slide deck, here’s an image (#26) of what an urban street (Commercial Drive in Vancouver) can look like – note the parked cars and general urban “mess”:

Worse than Katrina? Anti-density bombs over Detroit

September 28, 2010 at 11:25 pm | In cities, futurismo, land_use, politics, scandal, social_critique, urbanism | Comments Off on Worse than Katrina? Anti-density bombs over Detroit

Caught a Sept.23 post by David Byrne today, Don’t Forget the Motor City (found via a tweet by Richard Florida). Byrne writes:

This is a city that still has an infrastructure, or some of it, for 2 million people, and now only 800,000 remain. One rides down majestic boulevards with only a few cars on them, past towering (often empty) skyscrapers. A few weeks ago I watched a documentary called Requiem For Detroit by British director Julian Temple, who used to be associated with the Sex Pistols. It’s a great film, available to watch on YouTube, that gives a context and history for the devastation one sees all around here. This process didn’t happen overnight, as with Katrina, but over many many decades. However the devastation is just as profound, and just as much concentrated on the lower echelons of society. Both disasters were man-made.

That film Byrne references – Requiem for Detroit – occupied a chunk of my evening. It’s truly haunting – unbelievable, except it’s true. (The link Byrne gives goes to Requiem for Detroit in 10-minute segments; the link above goes to the entire 1hr.16min.45sec. film – not sure how that was uploaded to Youtube, but I hope it stays up).

Byrne includes this photo, a google maps overview of a couple of “city blocks” in Detroit today …no density, hardly any houses (most have been razed, the city is trying to “shrink” itself), a sorry accompaniment to the more frightening destruction that has taken place in other areas:


I believe it was in his 1740 essay The Anti-Machiavel that Frederick the Great wrote that the Netherlands, with its small land mass but large population of educated citizens, was far richer than Russia, with its vast but sparsely populated land mass – a population furthermore kept in servitude and ignorance due to a feudal system that enshrined serfdom.

People – engaged, educated, integrated – matter more than machines or raw land. Looks like land use policies (racist) and factory practices (automobile production) came together to make Detroit turn into 18th century Russia instead of Holland.

Dirty Wall Project: slums and cities

September 24, 2010 at 11:59 pm | In cities, guerilla_politics, housing, ideas, innovation, land_use, local_not_global, philanthropy, street_life, urbanism, victoria | Comments Off on Dirty Wall Project: slums and cities

I saw an amazing photograph in the temporary gallery Ryan Kane of the Dirty Wall Project has set up on Fort Street.

The photo is one of many that Kane is selling to raise funds for his venture: it’s a flat, saturated, picture-edge-to-picture-edge frontal view of one small piece of a slum in Saki Naka bordering the rail line. Its complexity makes Where’s Waldo look minimalist.

Monday Magazine published an interview with Kane last month. An excerpt from the introduction:

You’ve heard of guerrilla gardening and guerrilla marketing, but what about guerilla volunteering? The concept to “see a need and fill it” without worrying about paperwork, bureaucracy or religious bias is exactly what 28-year-old Kane Ryan strives to do with his one-person, not-for-profit organization called the Dirty Wall Project. Ryan just recently returned from India where he was working in the slums of Mumbai, organizing health camps, distributing tarps for the monsoon season, funding emergency surgeries and building a school for the children living in the Saki Naka slum community, among other initiatives. All of the money he raises—75 percent of which comes from here in Victoria through fundraising events, private donors and by selling his travel photography—goes directly to the Dirty Wall Project. Ryan pays for his own travel, food and accommodation out of his own pocket by working odd jobs during the months he returns to Victoria. The Dirty Wall Project is proof that one person can indeed make a difference. (source)

If you’re in Victoria, make sure you get to 977A Fort St (formerly Luz Gallery).

I can’t find an online version of the photo that grabbed my attention this afternoon. Here’s a substitute, which hints at the complexity:


Visit Ryan’s site, or check out his photo book, Dirty Wall Project (on Blurb). See a need and fill it, make a donation.

Offering hot yoga and skin care …with garbage on the side?

September 21, 2010 at 9:19 pm | In architecture, style, urbanism | 4 Comments

There’s a storefront about three blocks from my house that has been bugging me for a few years now, and tonight I’m calling it out. The frontage I’m talking about is actually at the back of the building, a narrow 2-story structure that stretches from a frontage on a main street to another (secondary) frontage on a quieter (but still mixed-use residential/ commercial) parallel street. The frontage on the main street is so-so. But the one on the quieter street is a disaster – and has been for a couple of years now.

The building used to house a restaurant. The restaurant closed and the building was subsequently bought and completely renovated to house a hot yoga studio. The main street frontage was supposed to have a spot for a juice bar, which never materialized and so it sits empty (it’s currently for lease). Consequently, the only thing that animates the main street facade is the entry to the yoga studio. As I said, the main street frontage is no great shakes.

But compared to the other frontage, it’s ok – if only because this other frontage is screamingly awful.

The second frontage on the quieter parallel street also has an entry to the yoga studio, as well as another retail space. For a while, that space was taken up by a doctor’s office, then it stood empty. It currently houses a skin care salon. It’s quite dead.

When the building was bought by the people who installed the yoga studio, they hired an architect to design the new “face” for the second frontage, and boy, did she or he blow it, in my opinion.

The architect didn’t take into account that the building needs a space for garbage bins – and consequently, there’s no place for them. Instead, the architect added lots of glazing to this back facade: two glass doors (one for the yoga studio, the other for the retail space), and three (!) windows, two of which are quite large and belong to the retail space.

I guess it all made sense in the abstract, but it sure doesn’t work for this building. The owners have nowhere to put their garbage bins except smack-dab in front of the windows and next to the two doors, and as a result this frontage has the worst feng shui I’ve ever seen.

Normally, I wouldn’t be superstitious, but there’s something downright uncanny about the sense of poverty and lack projected here. The retail space so far hasn’t thrived – it looks forlorn. The entry to the yoga studio looks unwelcoming: who would want their right side to graze the garbage bins on entering, symbolically carrying trash into their yoga practice? As for the retail space: I wouldn’t see a doctor who looks out on a garbage can, and I don’t think I’d want to visit a skin care salon under those conditions, either.

If this were my building and my business, I’d spend the money to take out that window on the far right. I’d install some clerestory windows instead, but I’d make sure that wall is a solid wall for about the first 4 or 5 feet, high enough to store the garbage bins so they’re nowhere near a window. I’d get rid of that useless ugly rock bed, which just screams “dead & sterile!” to the universe and every passer-by. Instead, in that spot I’d build an enclosure for the bins (to hide them), and I’d put a potted tree (or bamboo) right by the drainage pipe – a symbolic uptake (by the plant) of the abundant water that flows down from the roof. Bingo, feng shui fix! Cost? I don’t know – what does it cost to take out a window, replace it with a wall with some clerestory windows on top, and build a “house” for the garbage bins to keep them away from your good house of health and abundance? Whatever it costs, I’m sure it would pay off in the end. Somehow, the way things stand right now, you get the sense everything’s languishing. Those garbage bins are just plain repellent.

Here are two not-so-great pictures I took earlier today. There was a car parked right in front, so my photos don’t show the whole building. But you can see how the garbage bins destroy the facade, and how sad it’s all looking – the paint job was never finished (it has been a couple of years) and the building gets its share of graffiti, too.

This could be so much better…


Philippe Lucas on Victoria’s Public Market: oh the irony

August 13, 2010 at 10:59 pm | In heritage, johnson street bridge, urbanism, victoria | 2 Comments

Last night I attended PechaKucha Night Victoria (Volume 3), where City of Victoria Councillor Philippe Lucas was supposed to give a presentation about efforts underway to get a permanent covered farmers’ market set up in the city.

Lucas’s perky presentation featured a number of holiday snaps taken in exotic locales where people still eat local food. Those photos were augmented by snaps of his child eating …well, local food. The point, presumably, was to show the importance and significance of local food consumption. Perhaps the inference thereby was also on the importance of local food production, although aside from a shot of a vegetable bed recently planted outside City Hall, I don’t recall that Lucas elaborated.

Admittedly, my attention drifted elsewhere, but then – toward the very end – Lucas at last came around to the topic at hand: a local farmers’ market for Victoria.

And that’s when he did it: he showed a photo of the covered public market we used to have.

Oh, the irony

Why irony? Earlier that day (Aug.12) Councillor Lucas voted to tear down the unique Johnson Street Bridge – because it’s too decrepit and we need something new and shiny to take its place.

But that’s exactly what this city did with its existing Public Market building in the 1960s – and the result was the disaster known as Centennial Square. The city tore down the public market for some of the same reasons it’s now tearing down the Johnson Street Bridge: it was said the building wasn’t up to standards and that it wasn’t being used properly anyway, and that economically it was a failure. But the city had also spectacularly mismanaged the enterprise, and failed to maintain the structure, which fell into disrepair. Its offerings were apparently sub-par if not skanky, with vendors mired in red-tape, to boot. (See Ross Crockford’s excellent June 18, 2008 post, Market Forces, which details the very troubled history of Victoria’s Public Market.)

And then the building itself became an eyesore (now there’s a loaded word, one applied by the haters to the Johnson Street Bridge), and everyone knows that once something becomes “ugly,” it’s easier to argue for its destruction. The word “blight” was freely applied to a structure designed by the same architect who built Victoria’s still-standing City Hall. As Ross Crockford’s article shows, the building was once extremely grand, but the City’s very poor management helped bring it down:

John Teague, the architect who created the 1878-built City Hall, also designed the market. It was a grand, two-storey structure of brick and granite, with a 70-metre-long facade of arches facing onto Cormorant Street (today’s Pandora Avenue). Inside, the main hall had room for 60 stalls and a bandstand, and was surrounded by a second-level gallery, all illuminated by a peaked glass roof. With a gala Christmas party, the Victoria Public Market officially opened its doors in December of 1891.

It was a disaster. As historian Jean Estes noted in a detailed 1975 Daily Colonist article, many farmers were already selling their wares directly to retailers, and avoided the bureaucracy of the city-run market, which was governed by a 67-item bylaw. The city ended up renting stalls to a strange assortment of tenants. One visitor in the late 1890s reported that she saw “a portrait painter’s studio, a real estate agent, the Sanitary Inspector, and the most ghastly of all things – the public morgue was an annex of the market.” (source)

The idea took hold that replacing the old Public Market Building with something new and shiny (a “square” built in accordance with the latest – frankly, bad – ideas of urban renewal emanating from 1960s Great Britain) would somehow be the magic wand to cure downtown’s ills. (See in particular my March 2008 FOCUS Magazine article, Victorian Fables; Does Victoria have an urban planning blind spot? [on].)

Well, razing the “blight” didn’t cure downtown. Centennial Square is awful, …and the Public Market Building is gone forever.

Will the Johnson Street Bridge decision be Act II in the drama called “The Destruction of Victoria’s Urban Character”?

And how can Philippe Lucas not see the irony in the juxtaposition of his morning vote to destroy the Johnson Street Bridge, and his evening bromides about local food consumption and farmers’ markets in Victoria…?

Victoria Public Market, front elevation view

In the picture below, you can see the high arch of the Victoria Public Market’s entry, next to the Fire Department engine bays in front.

1920: The Victoria Fire Department arrayed outside the Fire Hall (Public Market is next door)

Cities as contested space(s) of theory

August 3, 2010 at 9:46 pm | In cities, land_use, urbanism | Comments Off on Cities as contested space(s) of theory

Continuing from yesterday’s post about Urban agriculture readings, here’s another interesting FastCompany article about cities: David Harvey’s Urban Manifesto: Down With Suburbia; Down With Bloomberg’s New York. This one deals with what could perhaps be called a kind of reverse urbanization – turning the city into a glossier, less heterogeneous place – one that, shorn of its rough edges, resembles a suburb.

To get a great sense of where David Harvey‘s critique is coming from, watch the animated version of his The Crisis of Capitalism lecture (Harvey’s theory is impeccable, and the animation really drives it home: must see). Concepts like spatial fix will make sense in interesting new ways, and connections between society of the spectacle and great resets will come into sharper focus.

At the same time, I’m not convinced that cleaning cities up has to equate to (bad) gentrification or capitalist pacification of the masses via spectacle. See a couple of my bookmarks – noted here (scroll down to find the remarks by Benjamin Hemric) and here – about gentrification (in particular as excoriated by Sharon Zukin’s recent book Naked City) for alternate takes.

Clearly, though, close reading of the urban landscape is making a comeback (or maybe it never went away). It reminds me of TJ Clark‘s reading of Paris – familiar territory indeed.

Interestingly enough, one of Clark’s arguments about the Parisian banlieues (suburbs) was that they, in the 19th century, were heterogeneous and rough (unfinished) looking, very unlike the city itself, which – as spectacle – was being “finished” (surfaces became all-important) and thus appeared smooth and perfectly enticing (read Baudelaire‘s Eyes of the Poor, eg. – or listen to The Cure‘s How Beautiful You Are, which is based on Baudelaire’s poem).

But are we now saying that the suburbs are homogeneous and smooth, and that their infernal smoothness is displacing the “grittiness” or heterogeneity of the true urban core? …And if so, is heterogeneity getting the “spatial fix treatment,” by being now found only in some mega-slum or shanty town in the so-called third world?

That’s not something I want to believe, not that what I believe makes any difference.

Urban agriculture readings

August 2, 2010 at 10:16 pm | In cities, just_so, land_use, urbanism | 1 Comment

Not sure what to make of this: New Urbanism for the Apocalypse (in FastCompany, a mag perhaps better known for technology and bright & shiny things, not for in-depth urbanism or for agriculture…). Not a new article (published May 2010), but focused on Andrés Duany, a founder of New Urbanism, who is fed up by how New Urbanism has been popularized (as a panacea?), and who (according to the article) now argues that it’s dead.

We should instead be cultivating our gardens. Urban gardens, that is. Turns out that mammals garden, but dinosaurs don’t:

“New Urbanism has been so successful that it has a lot of dinosaur DNA. The honchos are on board — you’ve seen them here. They want us to join them. Do we want to run among the dinosaurs, or among the mammals? I want to be is among the mammals.” (source)

Agriculture – more specifically: FOOD – is at the root of it. The New New Urbanism, it seems, is agrarian urbanism.

I do have a problem with this. My mother grew a lot of our family’s food – not as a hobby, but because we were poor and we needed to eat. There was a certain magic about her version of square-foot-gardening (ok, more like three-square-meters-gardening!), but I also remember that it was a sh*tload of work. I cannot imagine wanting to do that kind of work, day in and day out. Full stop.

So I did a double take reading this:

Duany conceded growing food is hard work, which is why his agrarian communities would still end up hiring Hispanic laborers to do the dirty work. But “you don’t pretend they don’t exist,” he said in a particular utopian moment. “The people who grow the food must be known to the kids. And they’re the ones who actually know what they’re doing — they know how to build buildings and they know how to grow food.” The money to pay for them — and for the farms — already exists in developers’ landscaping budgets. Stop building golf courses and start building farms, in other words. “We have American cheap labor, too,” he said. “Ourselves, except we’re spending it on ornamental bushes.” (source)

…Right …ok… Hispanic laborers? Really? And Uncle Juan and Auntie Juanita will be …what? Sort of like Tom and Jemima?

Given that the article segues seamlessly from here to James Kunstler (who has made a nice living of late lecturing us about the coming apocalypse derived from oil-dependent cars and the possible upcoming need for horse-drawn carriages as he flies around the world in oil-dependent airplanes to make his living lecturing us about… eh, is this getting circular yet?) I left the page grumpy.

I happened also to have been reading about a friend of mine whose father has some ideas of his own about agriculture. Her father’s ideas derive from what looks like a very different ideological starting point, which makes me wonder about how different ends of spectrum can curve and meet. I’m not dissing the importance of agriculture and food – just saying it’s a well-encrusted (ideologically speaking) subject, and maybe, whenever we bring it up, we need to know all the paths that lead to it from the past. Just so we, you know, have an idea of how we’re mapping the paths from it that lead into the future.

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