Opinion: Geller’s Affordable Housing Solutions #3 – Better Use of Industrial Land

The following article is an extract from the audio transcript of "Twelve More Affordable Housing Ideas" – a presentation by local architect and planner Michael Geller to a sold-out audience at SFU's downtown campus on April 6, 2016, and reproduced here with his permission. The lecture was the second of his SFU presentations on the topic, and more of Geller's ideas from the first talk can be found in "Related" below.
Michael Geller
June 1, 2016

When you fly over this city, you see a lot of blue, and a lot of green. But I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about the grey – and especially the industrial lands.

I know some of you want to say, “Geller, Geller, I have to stop you right now – in Metro Vancouver it’s very important that we protect our industrial lands, because we’ve created an absurd situation already. We’ve tried to have people living close to where they work, but now they’re living in the city and working in Langley. We must stop this.”

I agree.

Also, you’ll say, “If you’re going to talk about building housing on industrial land, you’re just going to force up the price of industrial land, to the point where we’ll no longer be able to afford to have industry on it – or housing.”

But that’s simply not true.

So this brings me to my next point – let’s start mixing housing and industry. A lot of this industrial land is not being used for the industry of 50 or 100 years ago. A lot of it is light industry.

And so my point is, let’s do what we used to do, in the 1970s and early 80s. Believe it or not, there was a time when, if you wanted to build housing in Vancouver, you had to build more offices. We had a system called Four-Plus-One-Plus-One . The outright zoning for commercial was four storeys, but if you built another floor of commercial, you could build a floor of residential. So you look at these buildings downtown, and you see these 12-storey buildings with two storeys of residential on top.

I say let’s do the same thing. Let’s say you can build two industrial floors instead of one, and once you build two industrial, then you can build some residential.

Now, you won’t do it everywhere – you’re not going to do it in places where the residents are going to be very disturbed by the noise of the industry, trucks moving at night, and so forth. But I recently slept at Moscow airport, and I didn’t hear a thing, because we can build housing with soundproof windows.

So we can start to add housing to existing industrial buildings, and we can build new industrial buildings that are more intensive and contain housing.

Before you say, “Geller, this is a bit of a dream because, realistically, who wants to live above industry?” – well, all the people that are buying into the new development by Wall Financial on the 900 block of East Hastings [pictured above]. This has an industrial ground floor with residential above it.

And I think that’s a model for mixed-use buildings that could be built on many, many industrial sites. Not all industrial sites, but many.

Next time: Better use of the space above us

Michael Geller
Michael is an architect, planner, real estate consultant and developer with more than four decades of experience in the public, private and institutional sectors. Some of his notable projects include the redevelopment of the South Shore False Creek, Bayshore in Coal Harbour and UniverCity at SFU. He is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University and is an affiliate of the UBC Masters in Urban Design program. Michael is a well-known commentator on real estate and housing and an adviser to the City of Vancouver's Affordable Housing Task Force. He is also a past president of UDI Pacific and UDI Canada, and has been honoured as a Fellow of the Canadian Institute of Planners and a Life Member of the Architectural Institute of BC.