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Renée Loth

What’s Vancouver got that we don’t?

By Renée Loth
February 26, 2010

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AMID THE skating, curling, sledge hockey, and other attractions of the 2010 Winter Olympics, viewers have been getting a look at Vancouver, regularly ranked as the most livable city in North America. Hey, didn’t that used to be our title?

Vancouver’s population grew by 6 percent over the past five years; even the number of families with children living in the downtown area increased. The Olympic Village, built on the city’s largest remaining tract of undeveloped land, will become a new neighborhood for 16,000 - including housing, parks, and a public elementary school - when the athletes depart.

Meanwhile, Boston - with roughly the same population, a larger area, and, arguably, better weather - seems stuck in neutral, with much development stalled along the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, the Fan Pier, and the South Boston waterfront.

So what has Vancouver got that Boston has not?

“Political will,’’ said Tom Piper, research scientist at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, “and a set of procedures and practices that balance the public interest with the creativity of the development community.’’

“They support the enterprise of development in recognition of the added value that wealth creation can bring to the community,’’ agreed Richard Dimino, president of the downtown business group A Better City.

“They understand the economic and place-making value of density,’’ added Fred Kramer, president of the architectural firm ADD Inc. and chairman of the Urban Land Institute of Boston. Vancouver, he said, is a showcase for well-planned, thoughtful density that is “incentivized rather than feared.’’

This month the institute held a forum on waterfront development featuring Larry Beasley, former co-director of planning for Vancouver, and three other specialists in urban design. It was sponsored by the Chiofaro Co., which is locking horns with the Menino administration over redevelopment of its ugly (and strategically located) Harbor Garage near the New England Aquarium. Still, it was a provocative and fairly agenda-free discussion, focused on how to bring economic vitality, social interaction, and even joy back to urban waterfronts.

“Density was very much our goal,’’ Beasley said. An economic analysis showed that Vancouver was 75,000 residents short of the critical mass needed to keep the downtown vibrant. “But we didn’t talk about density, we talked about quality of life. We had to make it delicious.’’

Vancouver’s residential towers are tall by Boston standards, but thin enough to protect view corridors and make the best use of natural light in a gray climate. The bases of the buildings are at a more human scale, with townhouse-type entrances and stoops. “We pushed [architectural] details down to eye level for the first six floors,’ Beasley said.

For Beasley, density is the secret to sustainability, because big population increases create enough wealth to support good amenities and public spaces. At first, he said he had to browbeat quality food markets to consider moving downtown - until they saw tens of thousands of potential new customers. The compactness also means fewer cars and a smaller carbon footprint; 60 percent of the trips downtown are not motorized.

Many in the audience were inspired by Beasley and frustrated by the pokey pace of development in Boston. A study to write guidelines for properties abutting the Greenway, announced in March 2008, keeps extending its scheduled completion date; now it is this spring or summer. Last month, the state Department of Transportation, in charge of the development parcels on the Greenway, scrapped all the proposals it had received for a marquee site near Haymarket Square and went back to the drawing board. The South Boston waterfront, where city planners once envisioned 10,000 new housing units, is still mostly a destination for conventioneers.

There is little certainty to the development process here, which Piper says stifles speed and creativity. Every development decision is overlaid with politics. The mantra seems to be “When in doubt, drag it out.’’

Comparisons are always imperfect, and Vancouver also has high prices and social ills - a bad drug abuse and homelessness problem, for example. And no one wants Boston to become a nowhere-land of generic high-rises. But the city is becoming known in development circles as sluggish and exclusionary - a difficult, hidebound place to build. With that kind of reputation, it’s hard to bring home the gold.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.