Continuing on the theme of what should go on the ground floor of new condo buildings in the downtown neighborhoods, it is easy to criticize the faults of what was built.
But what about some examples of good stuff?
It’s pretty easy on main streets: put in commercial space. The building is going to be there for a 100 years or more, the downtown neighborhoods are most likely to get busier, and such space will be in demand for much of the next century.
Domicile’s Piccadilly building on West Wellington is pretty typical. It is currently two storefronts, but is doored and set up to be three storefronts:
All of the new condos along West Wellie have storefront units along the ground floors. When completed, the busy shopping mecca will be continuous, without so many of the dead gaps that characterised the street just a few years ago.
More storefronts increases the supply, which moderates rent increases. Affordable rents means there will be some innovative and locally owned shops. A scarcity of space leads to the crowding out of local shops in favour of franchised formats and their clones.
A few years ago the local associations opposed more storefronts in the Roosevelt/Golden Avenue area condos (they lost, and the street now has more of what makes Westboro vibrant and wonderful); and under the building that became the retirement residence near the Keg Manor (they won, and the shopping street peters out unhappily, eventually turning into mini strip malls).
Whether along traditional main streets, their extensions, or side streets downtown, I’d prefer to see zoning that permits the ground floor to be any use — residential, storefront, office (and changeable over time, as the market requires — but not parking garage nor “dead zones”.
If the ground floor is to be residential, then it must function was a residential unit that relates to the street. Consider phase 1 of LeBreton Flats, by Claridge. Both the developer and NCC boasted that the ground floor units would liven the streetscape. Alas, the ground level units in phase 1 are simply apartments with ground-level balconies, there are no entry features, closets, tile floors, or even lockable doors, so the the patios are very limited:
The phase 2 units on the Flats are much improved. The doors are more traditional exterior doors, with actual functioning locks so someone can exit and leave. Inside, there is a closet, tile floor, and other features that make the door functioning. The ground level entry spaces aren’t quite porches yet … they lack enough privacy and set back from the sidewalk, as evidenced by every single unit having a continuous window curtain. And the units are pretty much like the apartments above, dependent on the building central corridor for coming and going.
The Claridge design is getting better. Maybe in a few years some of those entry ways will get gates, planters on top of the walls, and other personalizing features that enhance their usefulness.
It isn’t as if developers don’t know what works. Consider the Beaver Barracks on Argyle Street. Built by CCOC, designed by Hobbin, and very much lifted straight out of the Vancouver design prescription pad, these ground floor units do everything right when it comes to making a lively street in front of residential ground floors:
Here’s what they did right: outside, the entry porch is elevated enough from the sidewalk to feel like a separate space; the rows of shrubs will give shelter and privacy; when sitting, the user is higher than the walking pedestrian or passing automobile; the porch is adjacent the front door and is likely to be used and cared for. The inside was also done right: these narrow units flow straight through the building, so the living areas face the street and bedrooms the quieter back of the building; there is no centre building corridor so users have to frequent the street/sidewalk to go anywhere, which means they contribute to street vitality (use the search box at the top of this blog to read more about beaver barracks).
Go back and compare the Beaver Barracks to the LeBreton condos, and decide which layout contributes more to the street life and which ones have private spaces more likely to be used.
So, what could we do with those buildings that already have residential units at the ground floor? In too many cases, I wonder why anyone lives in them, as they lack any visual privacy from the sidewalk right outside their windows (eg the Strand condo, the Laurier condos between Lyon and Bay…). A blanket rezoning of ground floor condos to permit a variety of uses, that could change over time without rezoning expense, would gradually see them convert to higher and better uses if that is what the condo boards and unit owners want.
Where residential ground floor uses do crowd the sidewalk, some imaginative landscaping can do wonders. Consider for example this elderly apartment building right beside Beaver Barracks, behind the Museum of Nature. There is an intensively planted zone out to the sidewalk, and then the street was given a bulb out that is planted wonderfully deep. This bulb out makes us realize how pathetic all the other bulb outs in the city really are.
From the pedestrian view shown above, the street is very unobtrusive: here it is:
The city is just concluding its infill housing review. Perhaps it could next shine its flashlight on ground floors of new buildings and revise its planning menu.