Frances Bula header image 2

Council okays height increase for Ritz-Carlton

December 16th, 2009 · 12 Comments

There is literally an avalanche of news coming out of city hall these days, as staffers frantically push through reports in advance of the one-month shutdown at city hall during the Olympics so it’s hard to keep up with everything going on or pick out only one or two items.

There’s the first apartment building to be approve under the new rental-incentive program, one that brought out 50 speakers, most of them opposed — not to rental but to the height of the building at Bidwell and Davie. There’s the incentives the city’s putting in place to encourage homeowners to switch to solar-powered water heating. There are the various homelessness initiatives, at $500,000 a pop.

And one small item that has gone mostly uncovered was the staff recommendation and council approval of an extra 16 feet for the Ritz-Carlton, a move that brought out some spitting mad Shangri-La residents, especially those on the higher floors. The additional height will put the R-C at 616 feet, while Shangri-La is at 646.

Shangri-La residents came up with a number of arguments against allowing the new height and, along the way, made any number of accusations about what the city was really up to, along with dark suspicions about the windfall profits the developer (the ubiquitous Holborn Developments) would be making.

Planner Rob Jenkins got up last night to defend the decision, saying that the developer will end up giving the city $26 million in total through DCLs and other community amenities, including buying up $14 million of heritage density (that magic formula that allows owners of heritage buildings to get money to restore them and compensates them, in a way, for not just ripping them down and putting up something new).

Jenkins also noted that the additional height will result in only a 12 per cent reduction in views and that the impact on residents “is minimal.”

The head of real-estate services, Michael Flanigan, also made the case that the additional height will help the developer turn this into an economically feasible project. Hard for many of us to believe, but apparently the developer’s projection of the profit on this 60-something-storey building is only 1.8 per cent. Flanigan said the staff estimate of the profit was only slightly higher — 2.8 per cent — though he did note that if the market changed it could go as high as 17 per cent.

But his conclusion for now was the developer is “taking a significant risk” and so the extra height was not contributing to any windfall profits.

Of course, I can’t help thinking that we went through exactly the same revision and height addition with the Shangri-La a few years ago. And, although many people have resentfully concluded that it was the planning department colluding with or giving in to the developer, it seems to me like what’s happening is that the city — which demands about 90 per cent back of any landlift that developers get in these rezonings — is accepting arguments after that percentage has been agreed to that the developer’s pro forma is then too tight. Rather than back down on the amenities they’ve asked for, city planners agree to new height.

So when you admire a beautifully restored building in Chinatown or Gastown, or the public art in front of the Shangri-La, or any one of the millions of dollars in amenities the city has extracted from developers, look at those top floors and ask if the price was worth it.

Categories: Uncategorized

  • gmgw

    I am increasingly unable to voice my opinion of this Council’s willingness to grant the every wish of major developers without resorting to obscenities.

    However, I do have one message, only mildly profane, for those oh-so-vexed folks on the upper floors of the Shangri -La:

    Karma is a bitch, ain’t it?
    gmgw

  • grounded

    Not to mention the recent announcement of the city’s success in achieving the lowest GHG emissions of any major North American city (http://vancouver.ca/sustainability/climate_protection.htm). Gregor may get the glory of announcing it but this is an important legacy of forward-thinking NPA, COPE and Vision councils dating back to the original Clouds of Change plan in 1990.

  • Joe Just Joe

    1.8%-2.8% profit margin? Wow I am blown away that they could only manage that on property that they have owned for years and with a fsr of ~21.
    I really believe if that are their numbers they then need to sell that piece of property to someone else.
    As a development buff I’m happy to see this tower go ahead but as a citzen I’m pretty upset by the amount of density that the city is giving away at less the market rates. The case of this tower isn’t too bad but the Bidwell project was too much for too little. I’m all for the extra density but the city needs to ensure it gets top dollar in exchange for it. The STIR is going to come back and haunt us and hopefully the city phases it out before it’s set to expire.

  • Wally

    JJJ got it right on.

    What the late memo to Council explaining the deal deftly avoids is explaining why we are allowing Holburn to buy density at a value of $91 sq ft on West Georgia St.? That’s the math on the 80,000 sq ft of added density we gave them for $7.28m.

    The other deftly handled issue in the memo has to do with the expenses we allow Holburn to claim in getting to a residual land value. It’s all boring because it’s math. Most “lefties” (as Frances puts it) don’t want to bother figuring it out, or don’t feel confident in asking questions. Those that “get it” are more likely to be sympathetic to Holburn’s position.

    Even when we do hear warnings from articulate, informed, members of the public, they are scorned for being priveleged or accused of acting only out of narrow self interest. Do we know nothing of enlightened self interest? Have we forgotten how to appreciate healthy skepticism?

  • The numbers game again: placate the natives eh!

    I have no way of checking these numbers and nor does anyone else unless they have the resources of a KPMG. Not even the city unless it is privy to Holborn’s books. I doubt Holborn even knows at this stage!

    As for the city’s “Sustainabilty” page; GHG 4.6. Humbug! Tell that to bottom crawling Chicago. How convenient that it fits so neatly with Gregor’s new “green” guru coming on stream. Political numbers are so malleable.

    Hey, we want “sustainabilty”? Go to bed and stay there. Don’t do anything. We want “green”? Get out the paint pot!

    Of course Jenkins will come up with tailor made numbers. That is what he is paid to do! As for his estimate of 12% view correction . . . what ridiculous presumptive speculation? Did he helicopter up with his astrolabe and slide rule?

    There is more to Holborn’s request for the extra sixteen feet than meet the eye: it may simply be the correction of a lately recognised error in the documents.

    Sixteen feet does not represent extra two floors and with a sixteen foot ceiling height other uses may apply.

    Developer’s pro-forma profitability usually hovers anywhere up to 22% (less on a project of this magnitude) and the figure is, given current material cost volatility, unpredictable.

    Holborn knows what to expect from this site and it is not letting on.

    As for the “green / sustainable numbers . . . BULL SHIT.

  • PS . . . Icarus and the stupidity of numbers!

  • Glissando Remmy

    The Morlock’s Thought of the Day

    “In a troglodyte urbanity like ours the Elois are the ones complaining the most and crying out the loudest after their lost patches of clouds.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A9miqKm0aB0

    Oh, if we could only convince our politicians to try out The Time Machine, transport themselves into the future…and stay there for ever!

  • Bill Lee

    Fabula wrote “So when you admire a beautifully restored building in Chinatown or Gastown”

    Restored? All I see are facades. The Potemkin village of Vancouver post 1945 history, including the minute scrap of Woodward’s original building.

    And really who goes downtown anymore? The Bay is screaming for someone to come and buy. I dropped into the Woody London Drugs and found it quiet, but then the new Broadway (not the dead Broadway and Vine) store at Cambie seems strangely unfilled and has not the customer masses that were at the old location? Is this another Fung curse, where only he makes money from his developments Aberdeen, Parker Place, Cambie and 16th stores etc? Or is it a matter of the narrow front, or the extra long bus stops in front or….?

    Chinatown restoration? And these are….? Chinatown has few buildings that the tongs/clans would keep if they could break the City zoning restrictions. In ‘Fragrant Harbour’ they know how to break covenants and build 20 floors with a 40 foot base, and would here too. San Gimignano city would look interesting and manifest the many squabbles over land speculation uncleansed of the obscene word “development”

  • “but then the new Broadway (not the dead Broadway and Vine) store at Cambie seems strangely unfilled and has not the customer masses that were at the old location?”

    I wonder if it’s a case of the same amount of people in a much larger space giving the impression that there’s fewer people overall?

  • I know it’s just 16 feet, and what’s 16 feet on a 600 foot building for most of us….but for the life of me, I cannot understand the justification for this decision.

    If it was to get the extra dollars for the extra area, they could have added a few inches to each floor. No, it was a trick by the developer. The zoning said the building cannot be more than 600 feet high, so he said, OK, I’ll make the ‘building’ 600 feet high, but the architectural appurtenances may go up another 16 feet…what’s the big deal?

    As someone pointed out to me the other day, the big deal is that every day, small builders, large builders, designers and architects struggle to ensure that their 25 foot high building is not an inch more, because if it is, their plans won’t be approved. They squeeze the ceiling height of a retail store to ensure that the parapet at the roof level doesn’t rise above the approved height as set out in the zoning.

    We have these arbitrary measurements, and yes, 25′ or 40′ is arbitrary, but they become the rules, just like 0.8 becomes the rule related to drinking and driving. I’m not opposed to a periodic review of the appropriateness of such numbers, as happened with the height limit for mixed use buildings…

    But the 600 foot height limit was developed following a very comprehensive review, with outside experts…yes it was an arbitrary number, just like 300 feet was arbitrary, but upheld for years….and 450 was arbitrary…

    Some people bought homes relying on this height limit being respected, and even though they were rich people, I thought they should be entitled the assurance that the height would be kept.

    The developer tricked the staff and the council, and I now have a lot less confidence in the validity of any number in any zoning bylaw as a result of Council’s decision to approve those 16 feet.

    There was absolutely no public benefit or planning justification for approving this change, and I challenge any city councillor who voted in favour of it to publicly explain why he or she thought this rule should be broken.

    This time, I am really disgusted.

  • peter G

    No one has said it better than GMGW: ” In the long tradition of Vancouver city councils, they obligingly and collectively dropped their pants and bent over for the developers– the same courteous and submissive service Vancouver’s councillors and planners always eagerly provide for any major developer who so much as raises an eyebrow at them.”

  • MB

    Well said, Michael.

    But I thought the residential height restriction was 36 feet.