November 27, 2019

Burnaby Builds A City – 3

From William Whyte to Jan Gehl, there have been many attempts to find the formula for great public spaces.  And we do have a good idea of what goes into them. And yet really great spaces remain illusory, or we’d have so many more.

Here’s the one soon to be opening at ‘Amazing Brentwood’:

This is only a segment of the main plaza, still under construction.  It can’t fail insofar as there is a SkyTrain station on the south and lots of appealing attractions in every other direction.  And it feels like it has the right proportions given the way the height and curve of the buildings frame the space.

As Ian Wasson observed, the developer and designers have used really fine materials to realize their vision.

There’s a fountain off-centre that occupies a good percentage of the plaza.  You can see it from almost anywhere, but you have to walk around it – like a cog in the elaborate machinery of humanity in motion.

As night it’s a place that plays with light – ostentatiousnessl well done.  Here are some shots taken from Skyscraper Page by vanman:

Those whose job it is to take advantage of places that attract people obviously think this one will.

I know, a Starbucks.  Let the dishing begin.  But as a celebration of transit, this pavilion is terrific, seemingly cantilevered to catch the best view of the station and the trains gliding by.  Given its visibility, it’s an obvious place to meet, to connect, to wait patiently or do some busy work.  The Starbucks at Brentwood – everyone will know it.

So it’s clear that Brentwood Plaza (it needs a name) will be a good public space.  A great one?  Possibly.  Soon it will be full of people and we’ll see what happens.

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  1. Much prefer the Plaza at Marine Gateway and Westminster Pier Park in New West, great use of colourful materials in addition to strong scale and program especially with the later.

  2. Not sure if you’re secretly on a Twitter, but “Wrath of Gnon,” a twitter account dedicated to all things traditional urbanism posted a fantastic thread yesterday about what makes a great plaza.

    You can check it out here:

    He specifically uses Piazza Pio II in Pienza to discuss larger principles, but the photos alone are worth checking out. Just gorgeous. I think we still have so much to learn.

  3. I checked out this development and its plaza last summer and have been anticipating writing something for PT on Brentwood. A Commercial Real Estate broker advised me last week that the ‘Grand Opening” won’t be until spring…although it looks like the pieces are coming together sooner than that.
    Here are my initial observations:
    1. James Cheng was involved with the preparation of the urban design plan for the area. This gives me hope as he is one of the best urban designers and architects in the region.
    2. Like most good public spaces, it has good exposure to the afternoon sun as it faces southwest.
    3. Much of the footprint of the space is taken up by steps because of the change in grade. For the steps to be activated, something needs to be happening at the bottom of the steps to encourage people to hang out on the steps. Food vendors…Food!
    4. Good spaces need to be a balance of flow and stillness/gathering/hanging out. A party organizer made that observation to me when we were planning a party for more than 1,000 people. The direct connection to the Skytrain is hopeful for providing flow. But what of the gathering.
    3. Hopefully one will not have to be a paying customer of the Cactus Club or Starbucks to be welcomed and find a place to sit in the space. Movable tables and chairs for everybody. Sitting on the edge of the fountain is a good start but more places to sit will be needed. (Hudson Yard Plaza is a good example of what not to do)
    4. Plaza Stewardship – There is some hope in this regards. Shape Properties, the developer also owns Lougheed Town Centre and last summer they activated a space at that mall with live music, dj’s and possibly dancing, I hope… I did not make it out for that. Historically, security guards have not been stewards of liveliness and vibrancy. Will Amazing Brentwood be different?
    5. POPS – Privately-owned Public Spaces are increasingly important. I’ll be intrigued to see what balance is struck between the “quiet enjoyment” of residences and the potential vibrancy and fun of an adjacent POPS.
    6. Town Centre Vibrancy – will these places be lively centres, like some areas of our downtown or more reminiscent of the shopping plazas and centres some us breezed through as quickly as possible when we lived in the suburbs? Ideally, residents will want to live there because of this public space and support it being an active place. On the other hand, commercial tenants and residents may insist they just want more of the same we’ve experienced in the suburbs for years.
    PS Victor Gruen’s vision for shopping centres in the 1950’s was that they would be would be our new downtowns – vibrant commercial and cultural centres….hopefully we’ll get there with Brentwood.

  4. I don’t think you can sit on the edge of the fountain, as it’s a raised infinity edge. However, that raised design eliminates the drop in grade / water hazard necessitating glass barriers like you see at Telus Garden, so thumbs up for that design.

  5. Good to see that the fountain edge might be an infinity design as that could deter skateboarders, who otherwise tend to cause very expensive damage.

  6. Ideally, the youth in the neighbourhood who skateboard would have a location with skatable surfaces such as granite somewhere on this site and in other plazas in the Burnaby town centres. We’ve disappointedly been very thorough in planting skate stoppers on surfaces in public spaces. They’re so ugly. Street style skate boarding is something the youth want to do in a public space, rather than always being chased away.

    This speaks to my concern above that this plaza be different than the same old we’ve had in other plazas.

  7. It sucks when skaters get vilified. Given the sedentary nature of many children’s lives, we might be better off finding ways to accommodate this fun, low-carbon activity which, while not my bag, is clearly a sport embraced by many, including a growing number of young women. Compared to the costs to deal with torn up fields from various sports, or maintaining golf courses (oops, did I go there?) or disposing of dog shit in parks, maybe the city should just put aside a reasonable amount of money to cover the costs of repairs, or mandate sturdier materials?

  8. Hey Chris…thanks so much for the post…we skateboaders quite often feel abandoned…Hey Ian I am I still teaching at UBC,,,r u disappointed…I might suggest that youth could find a place to feel welcomed in Burnaby in the Town Centres, would be ideal….if you are, disappointed…fasten yer seatbelt ….youth will show up …it’s our future…you have a problem with us….?

    1. No objections to building a place for skateboarders that works for them and ensures noise and property damage issues are prevented and mitigated. I recall seeing the black granite fountain on the Helmcken St alignment behind Jubilee House slowly get destroyed by skateboarders riding the edges. It then needed a rebuilding that no doubt cost a good amount of public funds that would have been better going to other projects, possibly even for skatebaorders.

      1. Thanks Ian for reposting as a response to my post…really appreciate that. The crucial issue here in design is ideally a skatable space in a location and of materials that are robust. My main point was that these POPS should anticipate and design for those who will likely show up, including youth. Skateboarding is quite popular here. A number of the skaterboarders going to the Japan Olympics, representing Canada, as our country’s team, are from Vancouver…Thanks Again 🙂

    2. Done! Well, in one town centre anyway.

      Metro Sk8 Park is located a block from Metrotown Station near the distinctly ugly but well-used Bonsor Rec Centre. It accommodates both street and bowl skaters of all ages and skill levels, the latter who enjoy a very deep and shallow bowls and full pipe with a viewing / filming deck on top. It was designed in 2004 by Jim Barnum, a grown-up skater turned specialty designer, with input from local youth in a series of workshops that were overseen by the Parks Dept. Project management, design development and construction were managed with city staff by landscape architecture firm Space 2 Place was key, and they were involved from Day One. S2P and their materials engineer designed a concrete mix that displaced 35% of the Portland cement and aggregate content (thus ~30% of emissions) with industrial waste products (e.g. the glass-like slag from the Trail smelter). These initiatives resulted in a stronger concrete and a couple of awards, one for the engineering, the other for the design.

      It is notable that the city did not tuck this facility away in some forlorn industrial park, but purposely located it near a SkyTrain station and the core town centre. Moreover, the kids who had their say in the workshops now return as adults, some with their own kids arriving with boards tucked under their arms. This shows that such facilities will last for generations and provide one of the biggest bangs for the recreational buck ever (in this case, a density bonus fund). Burnaby’s dedication to youth, including those who are part of a distinct creative culture and who don’t care for organized sports that receive the lion’s share of funding, is commendable.

      Rolling with the graffiti is a challenge, but it was met head-on by retaining an artist to provide murals, again designed through youth workshops. The mural art projects need to be a regular thing.

  9. I agree with Erik that we have much to learn about creating high quality public space urbanism in Canada, with a few exceptions. Michael Gordon outlines a partial program for a successful urban square. Materials and enclosure / refuge plus prospect seem to be checked off that list at Brentwood. Diminishing or eliminating the undeniably negative effects of adjacent roads is a major consideration, and in this case the change in elevation seems to address that.

    Jan Gehl is the master of analysis of urban public space for humans around the world, and he will no doubt find several things to admire about Brentwood. However, it remains to be seen how one of the most important functional attributes of successful plazas materializes, and that is — as Michael iterated — its ability to accommodate gatherings. Having not seen this plaza yet I’ll reserve judgement. But I do know that private commercial interests are not mandated to create beautiful gathering places of significance on private property when it takes space away from profit-making retail leases.

    Further, before giving this or any big developer carte blanche kudos, those who have dealt behind the scenes with large projects driven by private interests know how they give private retail and residential spaces absolute priority over public space when it comes to building public amenities in return for additional density. I have seen land reserved for a community centre in a big development that in reality was nearly useless left over backwater space that presented egregiously bad programming and spatial issues. The efforts to resolve said issues by the developer’s architects are habitually weaker than that devoted to the private interests that benefitted from the approved additional floors. One such proposal was for a community centre with a road passing right through a big, fat hole on the main floor level, which effectively rendered every conceptual design, activity program and spate planning effort functionally deficient to the point of rejection . Seriously.

    The fundamental barrier to realizing decent urban design and high-level public open space today is the mere act of taking the easy way out and leaving it up to the private sector to design our cities. Any good planner can tell you how onerous it is to negotiate behind closed doors with developers over the size and quality of public amenities on their sites. Therefore, there is a convincing argument that designing most of the high-quality public spaces should be up to the public sector on separate, publicly-owned land.

    Shape Properties does not have the mandate to look beyond their mall sites to the neighbourhood next door. As an urbanist I have huge issues with how the Planning Dept. so easily accepted the steep 55-storey plunge from the north Brentwood tower to the single-storey, large lot residential lots only six metres away, and doesn’t intend to touch the sprawl beyond, even with innovative, well-designed infill, even that which seeks to respect heritage buildings and mature trees. Cities all over are too chickenshit to nudge the detached home off its untouchable perch in areas with a massive amount of land locked up in oversized lots, and where the economic pressures erupt in sheer cliffs and mountain ranges of super tall towers springing out of the flat Prairie of suburban sprawl.

    The principle of public initiative applies to plazas and other public urban spaces too. Cities themselves need to foster the effort to provide the design talent and devote land to the cause in order to fulfil the cultural requirements of gathering and celebration and to break the asphalt road stranglehold on urban land one bit at a time. If Brentwood Plaza appears too small to function as a successful public gathering space, that won’t be the developer’s fault.

    Lastly, the comment was made in one of the earlier Brentwood posts that Lougheed Highway is a “complete street” in this stretch. I am in profound disagreement with that conclusion. It may be more functional for pedestrians than before, but widening the sidewalks and punching holes in them for sunken planting beds does not mitigate the fact that it is an eardrum-piercing transportation corridor for cars, trucks and rapid transit trains dominating over all else. It is not hospitable for pedestrian occupation other than for passing through quickly on the way to your underground parking stall.

    Lougheed is an urban design nightmare. Guest in the previous post rightfully drew attention to Dawson Street down the hill as the designated but still-evolving high street with upcoming devoted pedestrian space. I agree that the SkyTrain guideway contributes to urban blight and one can think that it should have been put underground through Brentwood area, but I am persuaded to overlook that as a lesser blight than the eight-lane Lougheed Hwy at Willingdon, and as an asset that has phenomenal ridership potential (as Rico reiterated previously) and is one of the best climate fighting instruments one can conceive of for cities.

    There is a lot of work yet to be done in Metro cities at the human scale, and it’s time for cities themselves to lead.

    1. I live in the single-family neighbourhood behind Brentwood and agree with everything you said. I am pleased that we are getting a plaza, but very concerned that it is private. I have the same problem with the interior of malls: what could be vibrant indoor streets are instead soulless places. Is there no way better way to blend public and private space?

      Lougheed is a horrible street, though that stretch is definitely improved from what it was. Dawson is a nice idea, but for me it’s just a bit too far away to be revelant. New development continues to make old mistakes. The extension of Halifax St into the new development is four lanes wide. Combine that with hostile pedestrian signals and it seriously damages the experience of walking. The problem is obvious from pedestrians who routinely ignore the signals. I wonder if the only way the problem will be fixed is if pedestrians forcibly take back the street regardless of sidewalks and rules.

      1. Geof, you make a good point. When a new street is built in a big development like this, there are so many competing objectives. It appears in this case that accommodating vehicular traffic was the prime objective. I guess they want the pedestrians to go up and get into the mall as soon as possible, and not stay down on the ground plane.

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