Frances Bula header image 2

Architect says design panel that judged Marine Gateway project hampered by conflicts, lack of community plan

January 3rd, 2011 · 73 Comments

Okay, with this letter from architect Nigel Baldwin, a former Urban Design panel member, to city councillors, the langorous Christmas season is now officially over.

Mayor and Council, City of Vancouver

Marine Landing: End of Term Report

Three months ago various groups and individuals from the Marpole neighbourhood and the broader community, including me, appealed to Council to initiate a proper planning process for Marine Landing (formerly known as Marine Gateway).  I believed it essential that this work be completed before approving unjustified development projects which at close to 6 FSR and 350 feet are almost twice as dense and twice as high as anything built outside the central core of Vancouver, and twice as dense but four times as high as any new development proposed elsewhere in the Cambie Corridor Plan.

On December 15, I attended the Urban Design Panel workshop where progress was reviewed.  Noting that a class of UBC design students managed to prepare a vision for a sustainable future for the City as a whole during their fall term, I had high expectations for what our world-renowned planning department could produce for a single neighbourhood centre in the same period.  I came away very disappointed both with what was presented and with the constrained and conflicted review it received.  I left with the following impressions:

  • That the City has missed an ideal opportunity to address the central issues affecting the neighbourhood.  It has failed to do the hard work necessary to generate and evaluate alternate forms of development, to come up with the most sustainable plan for the centre.  We are instead expected to accept uncritically the expedient solution − that is, the developers’ proposals changed only cosmetically in the last three months − and to be placated by faint hopes of future street beautification.
  • That the Urban Design Panel, by allowing architect members with declared conflicts of interest to appear to dominate and/or suppress the critical discussion of built form, has lost its credibility as an independent commentator serving the public interest on Marine Landing issues.  Since the community can no longer rely on the only effective court of second opinion built into the City’s planning and review process, it has little choice but to work outside the system to get its message across to Council.
  • That, given the vested interests in play, I heard a surprising amount of comment from Panel members critical of the broken process that has got us to the present impasse.  The glimmer of hope I took away is that the City might at last listen to this commentary, considering its sources, and finally lead us towards a better resolution for development at Marine Landing.

On the issue of freedom from conflict, the Architectural Institute of BC’s Bulletin 65 requires architects serving on design panels “to act according to standards of unbiased credibility…ADP members must disclose any involvement in an application being reviewed or any other personal or business relationship that might constitute or be perceived as a conflict of interest.  They must (my emphasis) withdraw from the meeting and refrain from any statement, discussion or evaluation of the merits of that application or the parties to it.”

At the beginning of the 15 December meeting, the Chair of the Panel declared that three of the four architects present, including himself, had conflicts of interest; each of them being members of firms with rezoning applications in the Marine Landing neighbourhood currently in process or shortly to be submitted to the City.  The Chair advised that, because the meeting was a workshop not requiring a vote, it had been decided that all three members would remain as active participants in the meeting, believing that the City would benefit more from their commentary than relying only on a single non-aligned voice for architectural comment. There was no public discussion as to whether the Chair should be passed to a Panel member not having a conflict of interest.

I have no reason to suppose that the architects in question had anything but the City’s best interests in mind when agreeing to participate.  They were, however, in an untenable position, since their clients’ interests and the public’s were likely not in perfect alignment, and neither staff nor the public would ever know for sure whose interests they were representing.

The two current rezoning projects creating conflicts were duly presented by their architects; both large, reputable firms carrying significant weight in the profession and the community.  In one case the presentation was made by a different member of the firm, in the other by the Panel member himself, who presented not only his scheme but also aspects of the post hoc urban design justification belatedly developed for the Marine and Cambie “intersection”.  He vigorously defended both in the subsequent discussion period.  When the sole non-aligned architect on the panel, well known for his teaching work, questioned the form of development proposed − asking whether importing downtown building typologies into Marpole was the right thing to do − the applicant-cum-panel-member dismissed his concern by saying that consideration of other forms of development would be merely an academic exercise at this stage.  The non-aligned architect stated his concern more forcefully in his formal comments, and at least one other panel member voiced similar concerns.

In addition to noting the lack of alternative forms of development − which would normally form an essential part of a professional planning process − several Panel members raised concerns over the scope and thoroughness of planning work to date.  One panel member felt that the area under review should be wider than just the immediate redevelopment sites at the intersection (the public deserving to know the City’s broader built form intentions).  He also felt that the planning process should locate neighbourhood facilities such as a library and local retail (a telling comment from a member of the firm whose project contains 97% of the retail space proposed for the area in the form of a 210,000 square foot off-street mall).  The applicant-cum-panel-member called for the City to show some leadership in the planning process.  Others present referred to the current stage of work as “mitigating damage” and “damage control”, not phrases usually associated with a well run planning program.

In his verbal summary of the Panel’s comments, the Chair did not mention any of the concerns expressed over built form or process.

Clearly the Panel’s deliberations did not meet the AIBC’s expectation of “unbiased credibility”.  There are a total of six architect members on the Panel, three of whom I believe to be free from conflict on this item.  With better meeting scheduling, the City could have ensured that it had three independent architects to comment, but it chose to proceed with minimal independent and maximum conflicted architectural advice.

We will never know how the discussion and commentary would have developed if only independent architects had participated.  We will never know how a non-aligned chair would have weighted the commentary in his/her summary or if the minutes (not made public as I write this) would have had a different emphasis.  Since the Panel can now be seen to have taken a position that it needs to defend, a position based on potentially biased opinion and strangled debate, any future Panel support for − or even the absence of criticism of − urban design or rezoning proposals in this neighbourhood will be suspect.

While UBC students developed a vision for the City’s future, the City spent its time agreeing to a name change for the Marine and Cambie area and having the developers’ consultants prepare a conceptual public realm plan with vague promises for themed public art, street furniture and maybe eventually better access to the river.  These gestures in no way substitute for a proper and complete neighbourhood centre plan.

By sending only the schemes proposed by the three developers actively working around the Marine and Cambie intersection for review by the Panel at this stage, the City has shown it has no intention of responding to the direct request from the community for consideration of alternative forms of development.  It is hard not to conclude that the City has never wavered from a Council-initiated intention to bully through the approval of two or three unprecedentedly dense projects prior to the next election, putting short-term political ambition ahead of the long term future of our City.

In the past, by providing independent, credible advice, the Design Panel has often been a key player in resolving conflicts over urban design issues in the City.  Because the Panel has here failed to avoid the appearance of bias, the public can no longer rely on its advice with respect to the development of Marine Landing.  With the community’s last hope of having its concerns heard within the system now extinguished, unless the City swiftly initiates a genuine, first-principles plan offering real alternatives, I predict the New Year will see an ugly and public confrontation between the City and its residents over developments in this neighbourhood.

Nigel Baldwin MAIBC FRAIC

Categories: Uncategorized