No kids on the block
Thursday, July 07, 2005
VANCOUVER, B.C. -- Vancouver is experiencing a downtown traffic jam its city planners never anticipated.
Baby strollers -- hundreds of them.
The Canadian city has led North America's urban renaissance, doubling its downtown population to 80,000 in just 15 years. But as new urban dwellers have flocked to fill the city's famously thin, glass high-rises, the strollers crowding the streets below hail another boom -- babies.
Portland's experience in its new urban neighborhoods -- the Pearl, River and South Waterfront districts -- has been different. Along with other so-called "cool cities" such as San Francisco, Seattle and San Diego, Portland has built thousands of new downtown condos and apartments, luring empty nesters and young professionals to city life. But few children are among them.
With nearly every major tract of empty downtown land under redevelopment, opportunities to make the central city both urban and child-friendly are dwindling. By contrast, Vancouver made children a top priority in its planning decisions, a route that surprisingly satisfied both families and developers -- and could suggest solutions for Portland's situation.
The numbers are startling. During the past 10 years Portland has built about 6,400 units of new housing in the Pearl District. But school district demographers say only 25 school-age children live there, and fewer than 20 babies are expected a year. As 6,300 condos went up in downtown San Diego since 2000, 27 percent of its inner-city students left as new towers replaced the lower-rent apartments where families lived.
By contrast, in inner-city Vancouver births are running 50 to 90 a month; health officials expect 1,000 in the coming year. And since 1990, Vancouver has built 27,000 inner-city housing units while more than tripling its child population to more than 4,000.
Long a magnet for immigrants, Vancouver has high percentages of Asians and Europeans accustomed to raising kids in dense cities. But city planners, social service workers and, most of all, parents say the Vancouver's new baby boom is directly the result of planning and design.
In 1992, the city adopted mandates for new parks, community centers and day-care facilities along with minimum requirements for the number of two-bedroom units in every new building, all with the goal of making downtown Vancouver more family-friendly.
"Our mantra was to build complete neighborhoods," says Larry Beasley, director of Vancouver's central area planning. "They had to have schools and day care, be safe and have things for kids to do. We wanted an adult to be able to look around and say, 'Hey, I could raise a family here.' "
Although cities such as Portland, Seattle and San Francisco rate high as new-economy creative hubs, some urban theorists are increasingly concerned about their growing childlessness.
"Cities without children are just Disneylands for adults," observes Joel Kotkin, author of "The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution is Reshaping the American Landscape." "Lose kids and you lose what, throughout history, has anchored the management class and the most industrious immigrants."
Vancouver appears to have built a hybrid city, attractive to new-economy professionals such as software designers and film producers who are also parents.
As Portland develops its last swaths of empty urban land in the River District, South Waterfront and, eventually, the 14-acre central U.S. Post Office site adjacent to Union Station -- Vancouver provides one model for attracting families with children to the city.
Day care with night life
Vancouver's child-friendly city planning is best exemplified by the Roundhouse Community Centre. For the second phase of a 200-acre waterfront development known as False Creek North, the city required the developer, Concord Pacific, to renovate a 19th-century railroad roundhouse and fill it with a theater, art gallery, classrooms and a day-care center.
Early morning to late evening, every available room of the Roundhouse is filled with everything from fashion shows, art classes and music performances to "singing in Spanish" classes for 3- to 5-year-olds. Steps away is Dorothy Lam Elementary School and David Lam Park, the latter equipped with swings and play structures. The Roundhouse sits at the center of a new 166-acre neighborhood of 7,800 condos, town houses and apartments, 1,380 of them "social housing" -- for lower-income residents -- all abutting 42 acres of waterfront parks.
"I can walk to work and to day care," says Dean Olynyk, a 31-year-old software consultant, as his daughter, Paige, swings at David Lam Park. "Plus my wife and I have a night life."
The city of Vancouver required Concord Pacific to build the parks, the Roundhouse and three day-care centers. With roads and infrastructure, that amounts to about $18 for every square foot of development, according to David Negrin, Concord Pacific's senior vice president of development.
All new housing developments must have play areas (1,400 square feet or larger) and common rooms for indoor play. A minimum 25 percent of the units must be two bedrooms or larger and located to overlook the play areas. On mega-projects such as False Creek North, Vancouver requires that developers set aside land for affordable housing. At least 50 percent of those units must be two bedrooms but routinely include much larger apartments.
"I always make sure we have at least one 5-bedroom unit in our projects," says Pat Screaton, director of Red Door Housing Society, and affordable housing developer. "We have a lot of immigrant families. Especially when they have teenagers, they need to be able to get away from each other."
The city also offers subtle incentives for larger units by exempting 40 square feet of storage and enclosed outdoor decks from being counted under zoning rules -- space planners and architects quietly acknowledge many families use them for bedrooms. For Beasley, community centers, day-care facilities and larger units are "as basic to a complete neighborhood as pipes and streets."
"It's about probabilities," he says. "If we fill 15 percent of those units with families, I'm elated."
Developer Negrin has worked on False Creek North from its start 18 years ago. He still chafes at what he calls the city's "gun-to-the-head" negotiating style.
"But in hindsight, what they demanded was instrumental in creating the family-oriented neighborhoods," he adds. "Did it work out for us? I have to say, it worked fantastically."
Indeed, more than 1,700 children are on waiting lists for the 500 slots of licensed downtown child care.
"Nobody envisioned the sheer numbers of families who would move downtown," says Sandra Menzer, director of the Vancouver Society of Children's Centres, which oversees day care throughout Vancouver. "We built it, and they have come -- but maybe a few too many."
Choices lead to childlessness
Apples-to-apples comparisons between Vancouver and Portland urban developments are difficult. Vancouver's urban housing boom has been far more intense. Landowners must negotiate development rights, so regulation-wielding city officials have had the upper hand. Bankrolled early on by Hong Kong real estate magnate Li Ka-Shing, Vancouver's largest developer, Concord Pacific, had the deep pockets to meet the city's upfront demands.
In Portland, the urban housing market started out more tentatively. Developers can build whatever the zoning allows. Amenities such as parks are built with urban renewal bonds floated on future increases in tax revenues. To shape large-scale developments, the city must use more incentives and trades.
In the River District, the 100 acres of former railroad lands north of Northwest Irving Street, the result was an elaborate development deal with the major property owner. The city traded a $55 million streetcar and three parks for the promise of greater densities and affordable housing from developers. At the time some critics argued for units with more bedrooms and land for a future community center. But Hoyt Street Properties, then led by Homer Williams, argued that it needed maximum "flexibility" to respond to the market.
"It will happen, but the market has to desire it," Williams says of families coming to the city. "Eventually you will see people combining units. The streetcar line will become the neighborhood -- with the library, museum, PSU and even South Waterfront being the amenities."
But according Sam Gailbraith, former Portland Development Commission housing director, officials and developers have made choices that have led to the River District's childlessness. As far back as the mid- '80s, a PDC market study showed pent-up demand for downtown family housing, particularly for downtown workers and single women with children. The 1992 city policy for the neighborhood, the "River District Vision," states that the 15,000 residents expected for the area should reflect the makeup the city as a whole. But implementation, Gailbrath points out, has focused narrowly on the mix of income levels rather than family demographics.
"The problem is, going all the way back to the '70s, we've had a Portland-opic view that nobody with a family wants to live in the city," Gailbraith says.
Changes may be in the air, but they remain years off. And amenities Vancouver urbanites say have been key to their decisions to move and/or stay downtown -- day care and a community center -- are not even in the concept stages.
The Portland Bureau of Planning recently adopted developer bonuses and potential tax abatements for "family-size" units and children's play areas in new residential projects. Next year, Portland Bureau of Parks & Recreation will begin planning a neighborhood park for the northern end of the River District with play facilities. The Portland Development Commission is doing a new marketing study to determine demand for family-sized units. Central City Concern recently received a grant from the Enterprise Foundation to design an affordable family housing project it hopes to build near the border of Old Town and the Pearl District.
On its remaining land, Hoyt Street Properties is negotiating for new zoning for taller, bigger buildings. According to Gil Kelley, director of the Portland Bureau of Planning, the city is "encouraging" the developer to consider redrawing the planned street grid to build a charter school/family housing combination.
"In Vancouver, they can say, 'We're going to regulate, and it will be good for you' ," Kelley says. "But the political situation here is not quite like that."
"The few and the proud"
Meantime, Portland's young families face hard choices.
As Pearl District parents, Sarah and Steven Schwartz call themselves "the few and the proud." They've had two children since buying a roomy one-bedroom condo in 1998, but are pondering a move out of downtown. The two attorneys upgraded to a two-bedroom unit, but limited storage and a poor layout are a concern. More space can only be found in town houses and penthouses that cost more than $1 million. Plus, there's the continued lack of outdoor play space and a community center and, most of all, Sarah Schwartz emphasizes, other children.
"The Pearl is a wonderful learning environment for kids," Schwartz says. "But it's also a really hard place."
Downtown Vancouver parents voice similar concerns about space, expense and the future. But with close-in single-family houses now cresting the $1 million mark and suburban commutes running more than an hour, young parents say they are happy to exchange the dream house and yard for time and convenience, their sacrifices eased by the city's amenities.
"I've thought about leaving," says Barry Petkau, a 37-year-old Hallmark salesman, as his toddler son plays in a waterfront park playground. "But in the 'burbs, you live in your car. Here, everything we need is in walking distance."
Randy Gragg: 503-221-8575; firstname.lastname@example.org