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.

An overview

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.

Terraced living:

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.

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