Building the new Shangri-la

How Michael Geller declined to become a Rabbi and became a green developer instead

During his 30-year career as an architect and developer in Vancouver, Michael Geller got used to getting negative letters and emails. But things have changed: as president and CEO of one of North America’s most ambitious ‘green and sustainable’ development projects, SFU’s UniverCity, people write to him because they are in favour of some aspect of the project. For example, recently he got a lot of emails urging him to put a café in the town square.

“It’s really powerful to get emails that are in favour of something,” he says. The café is in place already, he’s now looking for someone to run a neighborhood pub and concerned about getting a school built. All the good publicity his project has been getting will help.

And since environmentalist David Suzuki mentioned the UniverCity project on The Nature of Things recently, even the New York Times sent a reporter to find out what’s happening up on Burnaby Mountain. And what’s happening is that UniverCity is on its way to becoming a model of how to build an ideal, green twenty first century community.

Geller says that the six years he has spent shepherding the massive project from conception to first stage completion ‘gave me a chance to learn from all the mistakes I’ve made in the past’. In fact, UniverCity enables him to use his past experience as architect, planner of social housing and developer of condominium projects in equal measure.

“I’ve been involved in almost every design decision down to the size of pavers and the shape of awnings,” he laughs. Seriously, this is a community where everything has been planned to optimize the health and well being of its inhabitants. “Something I’ve learned from this project is that good planning and well designed buildings can contribute to better physical and mental health,” he says.

Which means he proved his Rabbi wrong. Says Geller, “I had a rabbi who tried to encourage me to become a rabbi by sending me off to Yeshiva camp in the Catskills one summer.  He couldn’t understand why I wanted to be an architect, claiming architects didn’t really do much for mankind, the way rabbis did.”

Luckily, Geller didn’t listen—he’d known he wanted to be an architect since the age of ten. Now 59 years old, Geller has one more year on the mountain before taking a sabbatical and going on to other things.  UniverCity won’t be totally completed for another two decades, but it’s already a community that redefines an earlier, less hectic and less car focused way of life.
He says UniverCity was designed with five main needs in mind.

“People want to know their neighbors, they want to walk to school and shopping, they want to be close to nature, use their cars less and feel safe.” Affordability being a real issue for most people, Geller has managed to change local bylaws so that the condos feature small, independent rooms with some cooking and bathroom facilities that can be legally sublet. “We call it our mortgage helper in the sky,” he chuckles.

Other features of the community are North America’s first community bus pass, enabling residents to ride in all three-transit areas for $28 per month, and possible membership in a car cooperative. Cycling paths and walkways are everywhere, and stores are independently owned. Big brands in big boxes are not part of this vision.

UniverCity is the culmination of a professional life that includes many comprehensive development projects with a strong social planning factor and reflect Geller’s interest in serving the Jewish community. After growing up in Toronto attending an orthodox shul, he moved to Vancouver in 1974, and began a career that included projects like the Shalom Legion housing development in Kitsilano and the Oak Gardens Jewish Seniors’ housing condominium on Oak Street, with Morris Wosk as partner. He also worked on developing Louis Brier, which led to the creation of the Wineberg Residence. In addition, he has found time to be a director of the Federation and was president of the JCC for a couple of years.

He says he was pleased to be able to help Hillel create a permanent home at SFU in UniverCity. The way it happened was symptomatic of Geller’s vision of community. Hillel had approached him because they had their eye on his old office in a corner of the central library. Since the library had already allocated it for their own use, he suggested that they move into one of the new UniverCity buildings. Thanks to some vigorous fundraising, Hillel was able to move into their first new home in 40 years. At the opening ceremony for Hillel, one of the University chaplains was so impressed that he decided to move his office into the same building.

“So now I have Hillel on my left and the Elllesmere United Church about to move in on my right,” he says, sounding pleased.

His Rabbi would be proud, after all.

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