Olympic Village is dense and green, but human scale?

Vancouver builds a glassy neighborhood where modernism is combined with advanced environmental techniques.

After innumerable design reviews, worrisome cost overruns, and the bailing out of its developer, the Olympics athletes village in Vancouver, British Columbia, opened in February to a burst of public praise. “The Olympic Village is a serious urban accomplishment,” declared Lisa Rochon, architecture critic of The Globe and Mail, a leading Canadian newspaper.

Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s planning director, was ecstatic that the village — built on former industrial land two miles from downtown — had come to fruition and was displaying its modernist version of green urbanism to a worldwide audience. The village consists of 1,100 apartments plus ground-floor shops and services, a community center, public gathering spaces, and residential courtyards.

Filling 18 acres in a redevelopment area known as Southeast False Creek, the village abounds with environmentally-oriented features. At the top of all 15 residential buildings are green roofs where residents can cultivate flower gardens, grow herbs and vegetables, or simply enjoy looking out across the city. Altogether, plantings will cover 57 percent of the roof area, or 3.5 acres.

 Condo buyers and apartment renters will start moving into the $1 billion-plus complex in May, after the conclusion of the Olympics and the Paralympics. The community will then be marketed as “Millennium Water” — a name that salutes the developer, Millennium Group, and the location along an inlet of English Bay. Prior to the Olympics, condos under construction were fetching $750 to more than $1,000 (Canadian) per square foot. The Canadian dollar is worth about 95 US cents.

 Rather than rely on conventional sources of power, the village is served by a “neighborhood energy utility”: the False Creek Energy Center. The Center, most of it below ground, but with vent stacks punctuating the skyline, employs two different technologies — high-efficiency natural gas boilers and recovery of waste heat from sewer pipes. Thanks partly to those sources, the village is expected to generate less than half the carbon emissions that a community of this size would ordinarily produce.

 Deep overhangs and other passive solar design techniques are augmented by solar panels positioned on three of the roofs. One building, a 64-unit block of affordable rental housing for the elderly, is touted as a “net zero” structure, meaning that it’s projected to consume no more energy than it produces. Rainwater falling on the village’s roofs will be collected in cisterns and then used to irrigate plantings and flush the buildings’ toilets.

 The net-zero building and the community center were designed to LEED Platinum standards, and all the other residential buildings were designed for LEED Gold, making this the largest collection of LEED-certified buildings in North America. The entire village, combined with the broader redevelopment area, is only the second project to achieve LEED-ND Platinum certification at the plan level (the other being Dockside Green in Victoria, BC).

Narrowed streets
The goal of Vancouver planners was to incorporate green techniques in a distinctly urban format — one that would offer an intimate street network, convenient access to mass transit, a mixture of uses, and varied income levels. Planners extended the city’s grid into the redevelopment area, but made the streets narrower than has been customary in Vancouver.

Most of the village’s street rights-of-way are 18 meters (59 feet). One, Walter Hardwick Avenue, has a width of just 12 meters (39.4 feet). Hardwick is surfaced with pavers running all the way from building façade to building façade — with few curbs (see photo on page 01). Bollards separate the pedestrian from the vehicular realm. Water drains into the center of the street and then into a wetland in a park.
The high ratio of building height to street width has caused observers to describe the village as having a European feel. Most of the buildings are five to nine stories, and the tallest reach 12 or 13 stories.  
The Olympic Plaza, Toderian says, may be the best public space in the city, thanks to its proportions, the activation of edges with retail and restaurants, its flow into the seawall — the city’s acclaimed linear public space — and open views to the North Shore Mountains across the water.

Four of the residential buildings have ground-floor space for commercial tenants, including restaurants and a food store. Vancouver has long tried to make its in-town neighborhoods friendly to family life by incorporating everyday retail, parks and recreation areas, and community services into them. Most of the village’s buildings have courtyards that give the residents some sheltered outdoor space.

Three bicycle routes pass through the village, and another extends along the waterfront. Residents will be able to walk to a new streetcar route, a new light-rail line that links the downtown to the airport, and other transit. All residential parking is underground, its spaces sold separately from the housing units. This gives residents a financial incentive not to have cars.

Modernism and urbanism collide
In recent decades Vancouver has tried to reconcile tall, Modern buildings and an active street life — Le Corbusier and Jane Jacobs. The downtown peninsula is full of slim, glassy high-rises (“point towers”) rising from broad podiums that contain retail activities or residences. Toderian says that in the Olympic Village, Vancouver wanted to show that this was not the city’s only pattern; planners could also foster mid-rise development.

The abundance of glass — including, in some instances, stair halls and residential corridors that people outside the buildings can see into — makes for a “very welcoming” feeling, says Gordon Price, director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University. On the other hand, some of the tiny, elevated, shrubbery-shielded patios that serve as entrance-ways to individual units at the base of large buildings seem half-hearted paeans to the more generous entry sequences of old townhouse neighborhoods.

One Vancouverite, who asked not to be identified, said the city’s planners “are basically trying to marry the modernist box with the urbanist rules.” Thus the urbanist insistence on plenty of entrances, engaging the sidewalk, eyes on the street, a highly defined public realm, and a mix of uses. Those tenets of New Urbanism have to contend with the sometimes thorny rules of architectural modernism: monumentality, buildings expressed as individual objects, a celebration of bold and honest use of materials, and an absence of applied adornment.

The combination works — to a degree, depending on the viewer’s taste. The problem is that many of the village’s buildings, with their individualistic forms, differing heights, and general lack of small, delicate ornament, are not necessarily attuned to human scale. The scale issue was aggravated by cost pressures that pushed up the project’s density — the village ended up with a net floor-area ratio of 3.5.

Like many complicated public projects with unyielding deadlines, the 1.5 million-square-foot Olympic Village ran over budget — by about $130 million. In the global economic crisis, the city had to provide large sums when the Fortress Investment Group, the original lender, pulled out. Some elements of the project were curtailed. Of the 1,100 units, 737 are market-rate condos, 121 are market-rate rental units, and 252 units are proposed to be affordable rentals.

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