A view of the Port Place redevelopment from the boat basin
Dan Appell — August 3, 2010
I have some concerns related to the Port Place Mall development and with broader planning issues related to ocean side development, retail development, downtown development and the planning process in general.
I have a lot of concerns.
Its difficult to know where to start.
I decided to start at a point that is somewhat arbitrary, and then proceed in a way that touches on certain issues I believe should be considered in much greater depth.
I’m starting from is a gap in the presentation materials that have been given to us, pertaining to the Port Place Mall redevelopment proposal.
We’ve seen an animation of a car driving through and around the site. We’ve seen some 3d renderings, some elevations, and plans. We’ve seen a drawing that is supposed to represent a view corridor analysis (I didn’t understand that one at all). And we saw a shortened version of a shadow study. What we didn’t see was what this project will look like from the boat basin. I think this view is relevant.
I don’t think any one of us would argue that we have one of the most beautiful harbours in the world. In that most beautiful harbour the boat basin represents a much loved focal point. It remains a vital component of our history, our culture and it is a satisfying reminder that we live in one of the best places in the world.
For many of us the boat basin represents either the beginning or the end of a very satisfying walk along our water front or through our downtown.
It’s also a destination of choice for many well healed tourists who visit Nanaimo by boat.
That view is also important to the people associated with Port Place mall. If the boat basin is attractive enough to bring people to that particular part of the harbour, then it can also be used to attract people to that mall.
Now, we are starting to touch upon my true objective. Keep in mind, that I love that boat basin. I would do anything to protect and preserve its detail, its colour and its charm, but for now, right now, what I want is as many people on the Port Place Mall site as is possible. I believe my objective is shared by owners of the mall and the merchants in the mall.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN DENSITY AND EFFICIENCY
The owners and merchants of Port Place have their own reasons for wanting more people on their site. As an urban planner I have no other purpose, but to argue for the most efficient use of land. I believe that efficiency is the key to achieving sustainable cities. Efficiency would require that more people go to that site.
Some of you have been led to believe that density is the key to sustainability, but in fact, high density cities, that are not efficient, have the same per capita negative impact on the economy, society and the environment as low density cities such as Nanaimo.
As an urban planner, I know that density and efficiency are related. But, in the quest for sustainability, improving the efficiency of urban forms will always lead to real solutions, while the pursuit of density may or may not get you where you want and need to go.
THE WIN-WIN PROPOSITION
So let’s look at this view from the boat basin. And let’s keep in mind that if this view can attract people to the Port Place Mall, then we have created a win-win situation. We’ve made it easier for merchants to sell their goods, we made it easier to leasing agents to lease property and we’ve made it easier for mall management to collect the rent. As it happens, it also makes it easier for us to enjoy the boat basin..
Now I don’t want to go to far down an aesthetic tangent, but I do want to ask; does this view attract you to the site of the mall? Does it repulse you?
If you’re anything like me, then I guess there is nothing here that would inspire you to go shopping. Then again there is nothing here that would cause you to turn away either.
The distance from where this photograph was taken to the edge of the site is about 170 meters as the crow flies. From this location straight to the nearest door is 200 meters. For a lot of us, if all we had to do to go shopping was cross a street, we wouldn’t do it. We would be expecting a lot from a building, if we expected it to inspire us to go shopping from across the boat basin. On the other hand, we base a lot of decisions on where to go shopping on a mental image we have of a shopping location. We might not be anywhere near the boat basin, but we could easily make a decision to go shopping there based on an image we have of this mall from this location. The more positive the image, the more likely we are to make a choice in favour of this mall.
What is your image of this mall? Does this photograph represent the most favorable image you have of this mall?
THE GRACIOUS WELCOME OR A CERTAIN GESTURE?
I’m willing to assert that the declining fortunes of this mall and the many tenants that have come and gone over the years can be explained, to a large extent, by the image this mall presents from the boat basin. I maintain this based on the fact that this is one of the few occasions almost everybody in this city as remained stationary long enough to really look at this mall in its most favorable light. If any image of this mall is going to stick with us long enough to compel us to go shopping here, then it is going to be this one.
Do you feel inspired to go shopping now?
I admit this is representation lacks detail, but I think the massing, location and colour are accurate based on the plans and elevations that where presented to us. Since the developer didn’t supply us with anything better, it is all we have for now.
Again I don’t want to go too far down an aesthetic tangent so I’ll ask, on an emotional level, in your gut, are you attracted to this building, or repulsed?
Keep in mind that this building is part of the impression that visitors make when they first arrive here. These people in their expensive boats will decided to go exploring our city based on what they see here. Also, for the people coming from Gabriola Island this building represents a gateway. Would you say that this represents a gracious welcome to our city. Does it invite you into our community? Does this encourage our visitors to stop and stay a while. Or is this the architectural equivalent of a certain gesture with a finger?
A person can look at this building from a number of angles. The building pretty much looks the same from every one of them, and it will evoke the same emotional response. It is certainly not the emotional response you would want if you’re a merchant in this shopping centre.
People are attracted to buildings for the same reasons they are attracted to anything; they anticipate pleasure, comfort or convenience. They are repulsed by a perception of emotional dissatisfaction such as boredom, a threat to their safety and a perception that an effort will be more trouble then its worth.
I’ve made a number of studies of tall buildings and their effect on human behavior. I’ve been interested on the emotional impact buildings have on individuals. In general, I can say that tall buildings tend to cause us a certain amount of discomfort. It is a discomfort that we can overcome. And in some instances that discomfort can be toyed with. There are people who are attracted to a sense of danger evoked by these buildings. But, over all and for most people, for most of time the effect of tall buildings is negative.
That feeling of discomfort falls off as a person leaves the fall zone. The fall zone is the area we around a building which we believe would be affected if the building fell over. In that area we believe we would be crushed by the collapse of the building. It should be noted that the precieved fall zone is actually about one third larger then the actual fall zone. What I wonder about this building, because this building looks like one building stacked on top of another, will there be an increase in that feeling of discomfort? Nobody would argue the engineering of this building. It will be sturdy, it will not topple over in a stiff wind, but it looks like it will. And that may be problematic.
A SHADOW CAST ACROSS THE BOAT BASIN
A more certain problem with this building has to do with shadow. From the boat basin this building shows facets, that mostly face north. Not only will this building caste a shadow across the boat basin everyday except for three months in the summer, but for most of the day this side of the building will be in shadow everyday of the year. Only in the evening will this side of the building receive a very unflattering raking light. The shadow tends to flatten a building mass, and hide interesting detail. It also makes the building appear more cold and uninviting.
It should be noted: even if the black part of this tower where not built the negatives associated with shadows would still have an effect. Instead of attracting people to this site, this building would tend to push people away.
The other problem is the colour of the building. Again, I don’t want to get into the aesthetics of these choices. The black and white contrast might have some justisifcation on an intellectual level, but, right now, I’m only interested in the emotional effect. Colors have a very persuasive effect on our emotions. If we perceive these colours at a subconscious, emotional level as uninviting and unfriendly we will not choose to go here.
Our emotional reaction to this building is the one that will shape our behavior. This emotional reaction will not change much over the life of this building. How we feel about this building a year after it is built, will be the same feelings evoked in our children a hundred years after this is built.
Knowing what I know about the effect of tall buildings, the effect of shadow on buildings, the effect of colour on our emotions, I can predict with a great deal of accuracy how the retail in the base of this building will preform in the next twenty years. In fact, I can project a fairly complete idea of how the retail at the base of this building will perform over the entire life of this building.
Some of you who are familiar with my projections know that I can be very, very accurate.
The idea that this building will remain for the most part empty on its ground floor, is the greatest concern for me. Nothing is more repulsive then the perception of failure. For the tourist nothing is more dissatisfying then empty storefronts. For the citizen nothing is more counterproductive then whitewashed windows. It shakes our confidence, saps our strength and undermines our best efforts to increase our wealth, diversify our economy and improve our prospects for the future.
OUR PLANNING GOALS AND OBJECTIVES
How is a building built on someone else’s property, built with someone else’s money, with someone else taking all the risk a problem for us. Well, that depends on our goals and our planning objectives.
I think, in general, we want people from other cities to be attracted to our city. We want people to be attracted to our downtown. We want to establish a more urbane, culture oriented lifestyle in our downtown. We want more people living downtown. All these worthy goal are compromised when we allow buildings to be built that are, on an emotional level, a visceral level, repulsive.
If this building does not address objectives that we as a community share, and it is built anyway, then there is a fundamental problem with our planning process.
For now, its alarming that a building like this has been allowed to proceed as far into the planning process as it has. Should this building ever get built, that would be the strongest indication that every planning objective, every planning procedure, and every person involved the planning process would require some considerable review with some radical changes to follow.
Those who know me, know that I never criticize anything until I can devise an alternative that achieves an improved response to the objectives I’ve stated. I believe it is very easy to criticize everything and every effort, but it is not so easy to create an alternative that will work.
What I’m going to show you is kind of a three dimensional sketch. Its a very loosely developed image of a building. Its a test to see if a design solution is possible. The question I want answered is: can we achieve the objectives that I have stated, through planning and design?
The objectives are considerable:
* build a multi-use building (commercial and residential);
* design in a way that compliments the boat basin;
* design so that building provides a welcoming gesture to the community and visitors;
* design to attract people from across the boat basin;
* design to assist the retail component of project
* and design to encourage people to walk through the site and into the downtown.
Keep in mind, I am not saying this is a finished design. It is most certainly, not as finished as the design prepared for the developer. What I am saying is, if we want to adhere to the objectives stated in our planning documents, and if we concern ourselves with the viability of this project, then the building form tends to look more like this, and less like the design proposed by the developer.
Along Front Street:
Instead of designing a building and shoving retail into it. Design the building so that retail has the best chance for success.
Create a varied and interesting living spaces that can define an appealing community.
Another Commercial Street:
Create a street view that is intriguing enough to compel us to explore while we shop; leading us into the rest of the city.
Based on what I have developed here, I believe that a design solution to all the stated objectives can be achieved.
With all due respect, this is not one of the most beautiful harbours in the world, but that’s beside the point. It’s unfortunate that my father is no longer alive, because I’d have him here, describing the deterioration/industrialization of the port of Maracaibo, Venezuela, as Venezuela developed its oil industry. In the early very 1920s, when he first saw it, he considered it to be the most beautiful port in the world, and he’d seen many. But what happened in Maracaibo could certainly serve as an object lesson in “what not to do” in Nanaimo.
*If* the first visual you’ve shown is the one proposed, and particularly if the proposed high-rise building *is* to be solid black, clad in black-tinted glass, for example, (although I think perhaps the solid black is simply for convenience’ sake, since it seems to me few architects are using unbroken black exteriors any more, with the possible exception of Las Vegas casino architecture) we’ll pretty quickly become known as the city with the big black (phallic object). You get my drift.
I think consideration should be given to the fact that many people with considerable money to spend do not moor at the downtown boat basin; they moor at privately-owned marinas along Stewart Avenue. I’ve certainly met the owners of some pretty expensive boats moored at the Yacht Club, for example, because they are members of other yacht clubs, particularly US yacht clubs which have “mutual mooring” agreements with the Nanaimo club.
What view of Nanaimo harbour will these people with considerable money to spend receive as they come through the channel to tie up at the Yacht Club? An unbroken wall of high-rise condos? It seems likely that’s what will happen. Has anyone considered that? A regular visitor to a marina north of the Yacht Club owned a boat big enough to feature an onboard helipad.
People with larger boats moor offshore and come in on smaller launches. One of those, a Nanaimo visitor every year, was John Wayne, aboard his “Wild Goose”. That’s certainly big money.
These people have big bucks to spend, too.
But if things *do* end as I believe they may, someone approaching Nanaimo harbour could say that at one end it was “Condo City”, and at the other, “Condom City”, viewing that tower.
Dan: a good and thoughtful piece. Thanks for posting it. Here’s one thing that stood out:
“The fall zone is the area we around a building which we believe would be affected if the building fell over. In that area we believe we would be crushed by the collapse of the building. It should be noted that the precieved fall zone is actually about one third larger then the actual fall zone”
Can you offer some source reference for this? Otherwise it seems to unnecessarily pad your argument. Many people like living in towers. I’ve not been aware personally of the feeling of discomfort you describe.
Oh poop! this little factoid was from back in my school days, pre-internet. It has been rattling around in my big empty head for so long I thought it was common knowledge. I will endeavour to find the source, but that could take a while. It probably was part of some research to do with Christopher Alexander. I will look.
Also, it should read “up to one third larger then the actual fall zone.” Everyone’s reactions to tall buildings are different. Perhaps I should have run this by my other editor.
Dan, this image–
(from Michael Geller’s blog — http://gellersworldtravel.blogspot.com/2010/08/leixample-and-its-corner-cut-offs.html ) immediately seemed to relate to what you are imagining for the Port Place site.
Michael, who you probably know is a Vancouver architect, planner and developer/consultant is currently in Barcelona.
I also had a chance to visit Barcelona last Fall and I’ll add later some thoughts and pictures from the Eixample area. It seems to me that the urban design concepts of Barcelona give a helpful context to your ideas (?) Controlled heights, “street walls” with a precise build-to line…
Your link to Geller’s blog didn’t work too well, but I did get to his home page. I was very impressed with his images of Barcelona. He really did a great job of capturing the magic of that city.
I’ve never been to Barcelona, but I’m sure I would love the place. Something really fantastic happens when you apply imagination to architecture. Its a pity imagination is so discouraged here.
Best practices elsewhere: this is from streetfilms.org — Copenhagen’s Car-Free Streets & Slow-Speed Zones. An idea we’ll be hearing a lot more about: how well designed public space is conducive to successful urban retail and cafes, etc…
Copenhagen’s Car-free streets & Slow-speed zones from Streetfilms on Vimeo.
Yes, thanks for that link. Those videos really give a great impression of Copenhagen as a beautiful city,
One of things that developed from the model I produced was the possibility of a square spreading across Front Street all the way to the boat basin. This would have some traffic calming features, and it would allow pedestrians much greater access to the mall property from the water, or much greater access to the water from the mall. This square could have an attractive fountain to make it fresh and cool in the summer.
Of course, if the tower was built, this square would be in the shade almost all day. It would end up empty. Just what Nanaimo needs, another empty square. But if the building resembled the one I recommend, this would be another warm and sunny space beside the water. It would, I think be a very nice space to gather.
The slower traffic and the larger crowds would probably help the businesses on the mall property as well.
We were downtown today for a walk and as we walked along the waterfront, we enjoyed the view of the buildings and the shade that some provided. They did not block out the sun entirely but the direct sunlight was eased by the buildings. As we stood at the palm tree artwork across from the entrance to the Port Hotel, we looked towards the three buildings on Cameron Island and noted that they were part of the view and did not take away from our enjoyed walk at all. Continuing along we found that most tall buildings could be blocked by holding up a hand along with one, two or three fingers. Hardly shading the spots almost all day!
That’s funny, George. I’m going to assume that the finger you are holding up does not represent as rude a gesture as the building proposed.
I didn’t want to argue the aesthetics too deeply. Everyone has a different degree of taste. On the other hand the effects of such a building are for the most part universal and are only mitigated in situations that cannot be replicated in Nanaimo.
If you can imagine that we have a choice, would you rather have a building that we need to hide by holding up a finger, or would we rather have a building that is appealing, and attracts people to Nanaimo, to the downtown and to that site?
I find them all appealing in their own unique way. They are part of the view. The holding up of fingers was to illustrate how little of the view they absorb.
When someone comes into Nanaimo Harbour, the Islands, the Mountains and the Buildings together become the view, the image of the City. Boaters or Float Plane customers do not come into the harbour, enter the boat basin, look up and say how ugly the Coast Hotel is. They come into the boat basin and marvel at how the City has made such a beautiful entrance to our City (of course, the City does not deserve all the credit, but the Port sure deserves a fair amount.
I too appreciate the boat basin. I’m there at least once a week all through the year. There are some buildings there that I find rather ugly, but ugly buildings are like ugly wallpaper, you live with them long enough and you don’t even notice them.
Its those first few days that are a little bit difficult. You know, you walk into a room and you think, “Oh my god, did someone vomit all over that wall.” And then you think,” Oh no, its just the wallpaper.” After a few days you don’t notice it at all.
For those of us who have lived here for any length of time, we are quite fine with all the ugly buildings. But for those who are visiting here, that first impression, can be problematic. I’m not saying this happens all the time, but I do know of instances when someone did look up at the Coast Hotel and thought, “What an ugly building.” While it didn’t stop them from visiting Nanaimo, that first impression didn’t encourage them to stay longer, or return.
Most often people don’t ‘think’ that a building is ugly. They just feel something is off, something is wrong. They can’t put their finger on it, but they don’t feel comfortable. Again, its not as if they are going to turn around and go home, its just a little bit harder to get them to find the parts of Nanaimo they’re going to enjoy. It will be that much harder to get them eat at our restaurants and to support our other local business. If you have a choice, why make it harder for people to enjoy this city and what it has to offer?
Again, I am not comfortable with this argument when we breach an aesthetic level. I’m just trying to make an argument for a more efficient design. If we permit a building to be built that due to its size, its shape, its orientation and its location makes us feel (generally and usually) uncomfortable and not welcome, then all those other things we want for our city centre become that much harder to achieve.
But putting all that aside; I think there was a real opportunity here to sit down with the developer and negotiate for a building form that would have made a real improvement to the way all of us use and enjoy our downtown. And I think we missed it.
Looking at the first two images in your original statement here, the first with the highrise only shows less than half of the harbour viewpoint than the second one shows. That manipulation of the images destorts the facts and makes the article unfairly biased based on images displayed.
It is an old tactic of smoke and mirrors.
oops, it is the third and fourth images.
” I’m not saying this happens all the time, but I do know of instances when someone did look up at the Coast Hotel and thought, “What an ugly building.” While it didn’t stop them from visiting Nanaimo, that first impression didn’t encourage them to stay longer, or return. ” SUNNY DAN
When I moved here in 1970 at an impressionable age, I remember after crossing the Pearson Bridge and seeing the Arena thinking this was a nice place, then I saw the Foundry hiding behind Red Carr’s gas station and thought, ” what crap hole have I fallen into? ” But the main thing is that I stayed and did not let one building influence my decision to live here.
If any person found that the Coast was an ugly building and for that reason left and never came back, I am truly sorry that they are that shallow and perhaps it is best that they did leave, before they saw the whole place!
I would agree with you on one point. People who don’t love Nanaimo would probably be better off somewhere else.
When we throw into this discussion considerations of beauty everything gets very confusing.
We could all agree that this Port Place Tower is the most beautiful tower in the world. A shining example of architecture for everyone else. But it still wouldn’t do the things we need this building to do, if we are going to meet our stated planning objectives.
Because this proposal does not reflect our objectives and it went through our planning process, so far, like a hot knife through butter, I have concerns about the way planning is done in this city. Hopefully, by the time this building proceeds through the next phase of the planning process, these concerns will have been addressed.