Frances Bula header image 2

Beach Towers a no go

April 21st, 2010 · 11 Comments

This internal memo was passed on to me recently, a decision by the Vancouver planning department that a proposal for a new tower added to the existing Beach Towers complex is not going to be allowed to go ahead. One less sore point for the West End.

April 19,2010

Martin Bruckner

IBI/HB Architects

700 – 1285 West Pender Street

Vancouver, BC    V6E 4B1

Dear Mr. Bruckner:


         1600 Beach Avenue (Beach Towers)

       Thank you for your rezoning inquiry for the above property which we received February 23, 2010.  You inquired about rezoning the Beach Towers property from RM-5A to CD-1 under the Short Term Incentives for Rental (STIR) Program to permit construction of a fourth residential tower at the corner of Cardero and Harwood streets, and townhouses at grade along Beach Avenue with a café at the corner of Beach and Bidwell Street. 

This site was originally developed in the 1960s with three residential towers at 19 and 20 storeys, or 176 to 180 feet.  The existing density is 3.39 FSR which is legally non-conforming to the RM-5A maximum of 2.20 FSR.  You propose to retain the 447 rental units in the three existing towers and indicate that the tenants would not be displaced by the proposed construction.  The proposed fourth tower would add 165 rental units, plus another 25 rental units in the proposed townhouses.  Three options for the tower were shown in the inquiry ranging from 15 storeys to 22-storeys (199 feet).  Density would increase from 3.39 to 4.88 FSR in all three options.

STIR Program

Under the STIR Program, rezonings to higher density and/or height can be considered where new rental units are built and secured through a long-term housing agreement, provided existing tenants are not displaced by the development.  In considering such proposals, Planning staff review the policies, guidelines and regulations that apply to the site and its context.  In the approval of the STIR Program in June 2009, it was specifically noted that the program does not suggest that the City’s interest in achieving rental construction overrides prevailing policy or guidelines, or reasonable urban design considerations.

RM-5A Tower Separation Guideline

After reviewing the RM-5A Guidelines with regard to your submission, we note that your proposed tower does not meet the specifics or the general intent of the guideline for tower separation [4.3(a) on page 8].  This guideline calls for 400 feet (121.9 m) of spacing between towers that are within the same block-face and over 110 feet (33.6 m) in height. 

The intent of the separation guidelines is to maintain a diversity of building heights across the West End residential districts. High towers are to be located to create a skyline with an evident pattern and sited where they maintain or create view opportunities between existing buildings. The intention is to avoid filling gaps, creating a continuous wall of towers blocking views and resulting in a wall like appearance.  Due to the length of blocks in the West End, the 400-foot separation requirement effectively means that most block-faces can only have one tower over 110 feet in height. 
The guidelines do allow for consideration of less separation distance if heritage objectives are met or if a high tower form better serves urban design considerations and neighbourliness compared to an envelope building or lower tower allowable under the zoning.  In three of the five towers approved in the West End RM districts since the guidelines were adopted, decreases in the separation distance were allowed for such reasons (from 400 feet to 105, 160 and 185 feet).

Beach Tower Proposal

Your submission indicates 78 feet between the new tower and the existing tower to the west along the Harwood block-face.  The two existing Beach Towers in the Harwood block-face also do not meet the tower separation guideline, but of course they were built prior to the guidelines being adopted in 1989.  Nonetheless, given that the block-face already has two towers, and given the proximity of the third existing tower to the proposed fourth tower, the resulting ensemble does not meet the intent of the separation guidelines as stated above.  The view analysis you included with your inquiry focuses on the micro view impacts from immediate neighbours.  We feel that the view opportunities mentioned in the guidelines relate more to the macro experience of views toward English Bay from existing upland towers that are less immediate to the site.  We conclude It is difficult to argue that a wall like appearance would not result from the addition of a fourth tower. 

Also, in considering whether your fourth tower merits a decrease in the tower separation, we looked at what the STIR Program indicates.  The STIR Program does allow consideration of infill buildings on properties with existing rental housing, but the program’s report from June 2009 specifically states that STIR (and the City’s interest in rental housing) do not, by themselves, lend weight to requests for relaxation of building separation.  Such requests for relaxation continue to be guided by the zoning guidelines.  The report does suggest that building separation may be subject of longer-term comprehensive planning updates.  Council has since asked staff to report on the timing of a planning program for the West End, but it will be some time before it is known whether a review of the tower separation guidelines will be part of that work.

With respect to the infilling of the Beach Avenue frontage, as well as the Harwood Street frontage, with townhouses or other 2- to 3-storey form, we see considerable merit in pursuing this idea.  

In conclusion, we cannot support a fourth tower at 1600 Beach, as the 400-foot tower separation intent cannot be achieved on this site.  If you wish to consider a notably lower building form at the Harwood/Cardero corner that relates to the scale of neighbouring buildings at the intersection, then we would be pleased to review that in another inquiry submission. 

Yours truly,

Brent Toderian, MCIP

Director of Planning

tel:  604.873.7446
fax:  604.873.7045

Categories: Uncategorized

  • Joe Just Joe

    I look forward to seeing M. Gellars response on this subject, if he is free to discuss it in public.

    I also look forward to seeing ” In the approval of the STIR Program in June 2009, it was specifically noted that the program does not suggest that the City’s interest in achieving rental construction overrides prevailing policy or guidelines, or reasonable urban design considerations.” tested by the opponents of the other developments on the table.
    Hopefully we do not see double standards apply, as the matter could be preceived as polictically given the party involved.

  • Tessa

    I like the sound of more townhouses and infill of that variety, especially rental, and a lower building could probably still work. It’s good that they apply the regulations where they are needed with this program, and I think this shows that they’re not just approving anything and everything under this program, but are giving each proposal a fair hearing based on merit. It sounds to me like a reasonable decision.

  • John

    Wow. That sounds like a great idea. I’ve always loved the Beach towers but it looks like the base is just a big mistake. A great big blank wall on Beach avenue and a huge parking lot on the corner! Horrible existing urban design condition. I can’t think of anything better than adding some kind of new podium to that site. Maybe another 20 storey tower is a little much, but 10 – 12 storeys would certainly be in keeping with the neighbourhood and the west end in general. I hope they don’t give up!

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    The Beach Towers were the first in the West End—if memory serves—to exploit the water’s edge for high-level views. Visionary stuff…

    In Montevideo, the city where I spent my first 11 years living two blocks from the beach, “walling off the beach with slab buildings” (HAHR-style) happened in the 1950’s. Me-n-my-bike got to see what that urbanism was all about.

    My sentiments to Michael, because this was a project he had worked on.

    However, the point is that we have to switch paradigm. Infill in the West End should not be about “the building form” it should be about “the urban form”.

    The greatest opportunities available in the WE neck of the woods lie at the feet of the city, not the private development parcels. The public realm in wonderful, wonderful English Bay leaves a whole lot to be desired. I’m sorry, but a bike lane implementation barely scrapes the surface of possibility in a place where the light show is on every time the sun sets.

    There’s a lot of dead wood washing up on that beach, and most of it is coming from 12th & Cambie.

  • First in the West End: Burrard Building, Burrard @ Granville: next Pacific Palisades, Jervis @ Granville then Charlie Van Norman’s Beach towers . . . but I digress.

    As an aside, I lived in the Pacific Palisades in the late ’60’s. With my office in the late Birk’s Building, Granville @ Georgia, my evening walk, picking up my groceries, home along Robson was urbanism at its best: that was when it was a street, before it was defiled into Rodeo Drive North!

    Good to hear Brent, you are putting your foot down.

    So Brent, good show: first do no harm, then change architects!

    Don’t expect too much from IBI! I have watched these people for decades, most recently here in Nan presenting their contribution to the ugliest of ugly sprawl called Sandstone.

    Believe me like all corporate thugs, they may do their meetings, current de rigueur, with open neck shirts but they are thugs nevertheless, incapable of understanding the nuances of the street.

    Unfortunately that applies to most architects who are so busy awarding themselves and pretty pics in the trade mags!

    Charlie’s concept, inherited from Corb’s La Ville Radieuse was supposed to be a tower in a park.

    Actually the park part was necessary to allow light into the, not quite yet, congested towers: which, in fact, become wasted space, private property that kills the street of any potential ambience.

    West Enders may love the towers but, I contend they have become inured because they are unaware of better alternatives: God bless ’em!

    May I suggest Brent, you call upon, whoever ends up doing this, to conduct a complete reassessment of the site paying close attention to build-to lines at street level.

    Also beware of the “podium” misconception: check the FCN disaster.

    Try instead for a composite atrium at ground level for stoop privacy and a street ambience circumference!

    Hope it works . . .

  • Joe Just Joe et al. I am happy to respond.

    I agreed to be an advisor to the owners of Beach Towers because of a 20 plus year friendship, and community and business relationship. In the 80’s I helped the Wosk family add new rental units at Langara Gardens at a time when few others were building rental housing. (The one exception was VLC properties, which started building on properties leased from the city.)

    I therefore accepted the invitation to assist with the planning of additional rental units at Beach Towers under the STIR program.

    Our initial discussions with the planning department and the community were encouraging, and I therefore did not anticipate the outpouring of community opposition to the various options that were presented.

    However, in light of this opposition, and the recent response from the planning department which is printed above, I have advised the owners that I would prefer not to be actively involved with this proposal as it moves forward to the next stages. Like John, I too hope they do not give up.

    I continue to have an ongoing interest in the future planning of the West End, and look forward to the opportunity to more freely participate in discussions on this blog, and elsewhere, on how best to increase the stock of rental housing and other affordable housing solutions in the city.

  • Sarah Isaacs

    Mr. Toderian’s memo still leaves the door wide open for rezoning to CD-1 if the applicant wishes to pursue a ‘scaled-down option.’ And why wouldn’t they? RM zoning has controlled Beach Towers for more than 4 decades and now they have an opportunity to no longer be restrained by it. This release from West End zoning will be to the long-term detriment of the surrounding neighbourhood.

    I would ask those in favour of development on this site (which will require rezoning) to consider what rezoning is for in the City of Vancouver:

    “It is intended for unique sites or areas or to accommodate special uses or forms of development which do not fit within a standard zoning district schedule.”

    Beach Towers does not meet this criteria by a long shot, STIR or no STIR.

    I oppose spot rezoning in our estbalished residential neighbourhood, but I resent being accused of anti-development or anti-change sentiments. Why don’t we make a distinction between rezoning and development? In Mr. Geller’s neighbourhood such a rezoning would never be allowed. In his neighbourhood, “additional area planning would be required before any zoning changes would be considered, and individual rezonings would not be considered prior to this planning.”

    West Enders aren’t so lucky.

    In response to John, please don’t recommend rezoning in order to beautify a neglected property. And that ‘wall’ at the South of the building is behind a lovely swath of greenspace that will be lost to townhouses.

  • John

    I hear you Sarah, but I don’t know if those shrubs really count as “green space”

    but I digress, what I find really interesting about this project is that it is symptomatic of the fact that Vancouver is pretty much built out. But that doesn’t mean that there is no more work for the local architects and developers. It means the work is going to get a whole lot more intersting! Now it’s going to be all about how to infill. On derelect sites, laneways, strange places with unimaginable solutions! This, however, means that people will unavoidably get hurt in the process. It’s going to get messy, but out of mess often comes brilliance!

  • So I would be interested in knowing what Fabula readers think of this latest piece from Andres Duany

  • Rickie

    Regarding the piece by Andres Duany, I am convinced that Duany as always continues to blame others for the myopic dysfunctional flacid view of urbanism he offers. He persists in thinking that good cities can somehow be produced by a top down approach that ignores the ground level experience of ordinary citizens, and then blames the system, the public, anything but himself for his problems. In reality great cities are never the result of this sort of process.

    The fact is that his work is consistently stale, standardized, unimaginative and tediously derrivative of vernaculars that have lost their currency. Yes, the supposed “New Urbanism” is cleverly packaged and marketed, even though it honestly is neither new nor urban. People like the idea of it but fail to grasp that there are far better and more meaningful alternatives. Garments made in one size fits all rarely serve anyone well and so it is with New Urbanism.

    I am glad he has a hard time getting his projects approved because I have never seen one that I liked.

    You asked for it and there you have it.

  • Arthur Block

    Yes, Iam Arthur Block of Block Bros Realty and we were the Developers of Beach Towers. I certainly agree with the heritage decision. The development required extensive demografic studies, changes to planning bylaws, the use of light weight concrete, improved earthquake design, new techniques of exposed aggragate, and the financing for the largest residential project in Vancouver to that point. The project won top awards in Canada and United States for residential design. I am pleased that Charlie VanNorman has been recognized as the outstanding architect that he rightly deserves. I am somewhat surprised that the developer of the project has not been consulted or mentioned. The fact remains Block Bros made the decisions and paid the bills.