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Four new buildings for Vancouver’s skyline

December 8th, 2009 · 46 Comments

After a few months spent on a view-corridor study, Vancouver’s planning director, Brent Toderian, is expecting to go to council with a report in January recommending that four new sites be allowed to go higher than usual limits and intrude into existing view cones.

(For conspiracy theorists thinking this is a giveaway to developers, the city typically looks at how much of a profit a developer is going to make from the extra space and takes back up to 90 per cent of it.)

My story on this in today’s Globe.  I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who was at the meetings and is violently opposed to this, for future stories (i.e. I need your name, if you’d like to contact me offline). It sounds to me as though, from the public surveys, that most people are not in favour of any intrusions, though they are more reluctantly willing to accept a few tall buildings that other options (narrower panoramas or a wholesale rise in building heights throughout the downtown).

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  • Joe Just Joe

    I’m against the intrusions, unfortunately I can not go public. The D/T toyota, bus depot and false creek sites would not be too bad but the bay parkade site at 700ft would not make for a better skyline nor a better city. It is already zoned for an FSR of over 10.0 over such a large site. There is no need to allow extra height it can be easily accomadated within the view cones. Besides Holborn still hasn’t shown the city that it can handle a project, maybe we should wait to see how Vancouver’s Turn and Little Mountain turn out before we hand them another gift basket.

  • Tiktaalik

    “The department’s review will also create one new view corridor, this one aimed at protecting views of the mountains to the north from the waterfront plaza at the Olympic village.”

    This sounds like a great idea, as I wouldn’t be pleased to see the ring ring of tall, boring, glassy towers south of Yaletown eventually encircle all the way around to the NE False Creek East of Abbot and Science World. No doubt the developers proposing residential buildings for that area wouldn’t be pleased at the restriction.

  • Ummmm interesting . . .

    Four seven hundred foot towers all at once: have I not been paying attention or have these proposals come out of the blue? In any event what an extraordinary way to plan a city!

    The Harlan Bartholomew plan was the first, and unfortunately the only, attempt to plan the city: aesthetically anyway.

    So far as I can see it was the first zoning plan as well as laying out streets and boulevards emphasizing aesthetics. Thanq Bartholomew for Burrard bridge and by extension, bike lanes.

    That was 1928! This is now!

    Contemporary planning, if we can call it that, seems to struggle, and fail, capable only with th approval process, numbers and reports.

    Were we not agonizing over view corridors just a few months ago? Now is the director of planning attempting to redefine the conversation by simulating mountain peaks and valleys rather cones of vision?

    Obviously four huge towers dispersed throughout downtown are not motivated by aesthetics. Something else must be afoot . . . or should be.

    Are there serious applications?

    About siting: three clustered on Georgia in the vicinity of The Bay, to form, as Brent suggests, a gateway effect. For the life of me I cannot visualize it.

    How does a Burrard tower fit into that composition?

    Such huge intrusions into an already over crowded area must have more reasons that “how they look” for heaven’s sake: economics, mix of use, traffic generation, services et. al!

    Not the least, do these towers have a reason for being? Will they, as is often the case, deplete tenancies in existing buildings? Newness and novelty is so seductive at that level.

    We already have the flawed intrusion of the Wall Tower on Nelson at Burrard: the tower zooms leaving street level spatial amenity completely ignored. Will that happen at street level for the four?

    Will the FCN disaster be replicated, or the pending disaster at NEFC. Views are of the least concern.

    Does the record of this planning department give confidence that such intrusions can be integrated at a sophisticated level.

    At, dare I venture . . . harrrrumph . . . at a world class level?

    This conversation is far from over . . .

  • Ooooooooooooooooo . . . ha . . . and let’s not forget “GREEN”!

    Four @ 700!

    Is “green” yet “another word for nothing left to lose?”

  • Westender

    With regard to the “giveaway” – my understanding is that the “up to 90% rule” is the city’s takings on the increase in land value, not the profit on the newly-created floor area. A developer making 15% profit on a 500,000 square foot building is making more money than a developer making 15% on a 300,000 square foot building. But Mr. Geller can jump in and correct me if I’m missing something.

  • Frances Bula

    Hey Urb, it’s not four towers at 700 feet. The only one “modelled” at that height was the Bay parkade. The others were 450-500, but that’s high for where they are.

    Westender. You are right and that’s what I meant. The city recaptures 90 per cent of the land lift, but the developer is still given room to make the standard 15 per cent profit on that additional density.

  • Big Eagle

    So on hand we have been lauded as the best City for liveability, but on the other hand city planners want to allow the building of high density towers which will block views and reduce the liveability factor.

    A bunch poppycock. graft. bribery, & stupidity.

    None of the great cities of Europe have big towers and there is no need for Vancouver to emulate NYC. Scale is important.

    On top of al this I had to listen to Bing Thom lecturing us that we have this city too wrapped up” Well Mr Thom we know where you make your money so your voice on this issue is cock full of bias.

    Move the towers to Surrey. If I was king no more towers over 20 floors would be built in Vancouver.

  • Big Eagle

    I await Mr Geller’s take on all this….

  • Gassy Jack’s Ghost

    Did respondants to the survey overwhelmingly support this choice of the three, as Toderian would have us believe, or did they overwhelmingly support choice D, “none of the above”? Was there a choice D?

    I suspect that, like the horribly slanted HAHR questionnaire, this questionnaire was framed in such a way that Toderian could manufacture consent for over-over-building when really there is virtually no public support for this at all.

    On an entirely unrelated issue, respondants to a recent public consultation in Gastown were 92% against a certain proposal, yet city staff completely ignored this in their report, recommended approval to an unwitting council, and voila!, the development was approved. It bears repeating: 92% of respondants were opposed.

    And we wonder why less and less people bother to vote in elections anymore. Voter apathy isn’t the real problem. Lack of representation is.

    BTW, at the HAHR open house in April I signed up for the email updates. I have since received a grand total of one email, and that one was to inform me that I was on the list to receive updates. What a complete joke the City consultation process has become (despite how incredibly expensive it is). The only thing that is transparent is that City bureaucrats like Toderian don’t even bother to hide the fact that they don’t care at all what citizens think. Or am I just being gassy?

  • Big Eagle

    Gassy you and all of us are being Gassed by Farting Bureaucrats who don’t give a fig for “consultation”. “Let them have their say, ignore them, and we do as we wanted all along” …. the new politics of Modern Times.

  • Joe Just Joe

    What development was approved? The HAHR never made it to council to be voted on. The report also clearly states there was no support and that it isn’t recommended.

    Here is a link to the latest update on the matter

    Can you link to your info please?

  • Stephanie

    I’m going to guess that GJG is referring to the recent approval of an increase in capacity for Canvas Lounge. Letters and such to the City were overwhelmingly negative, but staff recommended approval – in part because Canvas is a “good neighbour.” Canvas’s actual neighbours apparently beg to differ.

  • Joe Just Joe

    That’s an increase in liquour license capacity and nothing to do with the planning dept nor the historic area height review though. Am I missing anything?

  • Big Eagle

    “A total of 46 responses were received from residents, businesses, non-profit organizations and the Gastown Business Improvement Society within the notification area and surrounding areas. The responses consisted of 41 in opposition to the application (3 letters, 31 emails and 6 telephone calls) including one petition containing 12 signatures from a residential building in the notification area.
    Concerns were expressed over increased noise, safety and security, and disturbance and nuisance issues in the residential areas of the community.
    There were 5 respondents in full support of the application which also included a letter from the Gastown Business Improvement Society unanimously supporting the Canvas Lounge application.”

    Pretty well cut and dry. The 5 in favour had more weight than the 41 nay-sayers.

  • Westender

    I have my own concerns with the city’s “consultation” process of late (and I use the quotation marks pejoratively) . In a Vancouver Sun article today regarding rezoning proposals in the West End, it is noted that: “The projects, proposed under the city’s Short Term Incentives for Rental (STIR) program, are being recommended for approval by city staff to secure more rental housing in the city.” The neighbourhood was advised of one of these projects on November 3rd, and the public input deadline is December 22nd….but it would appear that staff have already concluded their review and will be recommending approval. For a five-fold increase in the permitted density on the site? Neighbourhood consultation be damned – all hail the almighty dollar!

  • Otis Krayola

    Here we go again with the ‘old bus depot/parking lot’ site again. Memories are certainly short these days.

    Let’s at least hope that, when approved (note I didn’t say, If approved), the developer will be compelled to name his monstrosity Larwill Park Tower.

  • City Observer

    The pace and form of development in the City of Vancouver — proposed by Vancouver’s Planning Department, and supported by Vision Vancouver (perhaps the most developer-friendly municipal party in Vancouver history) — will initiate a more radical reshaping of our urban landscape than has occurred at any point over the course of the past 100 years.

    And all of this change seems set to occur with nary a word about ‘context’ being uttered by anyone on Council.

    500 blocks along the Cambie Street corridor, the untrammeled development of North East False Creek, the False Creek Flatlands, and the ‘Historic Height Review’ towers on the Downtown Eastside, and barely anyone
    references the issue of “livability”, or so much as bats an eye at a proposed urban landscape which is set to make Vancouver almost unrecognizable 25 years from now.

    The people of Vancouver have a right to provide input into the proposed massive redevelopment of Vancouver. Our current City Council has an obligation to immediately commence a City wide consultation on development (density, height, park space, amenities).

    Vancouver City Council does not rule over us, and neither do the unelected officials employed within the City’s Planning Department. We elect our Council to represent us and carry out our wishes. How in good conscience can this Council approve and initiate a massive redevelopment of our City, and not bother to consult with us, and afterwards carry out the public will?

  • Hey Fran,

    700/400/500 who cares? It’s still set designing . . . not city building . . .

  • Thank you to those who have invited me to comment on this matter. I must confess that I am somewhat reluctant to do so, since I am not entirely sure I know what I believe to be the right thing to do. I am also experiencing some conflicts of interest in my own mind which I feel I should share. And as soon as I post these comments, I suspect I will regret doing so!

    But by way of background, when I was studying architecture in Toronto back in the 60’s, I had a teacher who suggested that an appropriate upper limit on density for an urban neighbourhood was around 3 FSR. This is the density for new mixed use complexes along West Broadway.

    By way of comparison, the area west of Denman, with its mix of old and new buildings is probably less than 3.0. The current maximum density for much of the West End, as set out in the zoning bylaw is around 2.2 FSR

    The Bayshore development, on which I worked for 10 years, and which I think turned out quite well, has an overall density of less than 3 FSR when you include the park areas. New buildings in Kerrisdale, which have a height limit of around 12 storeys, do not exceed 1.7 FSR.

    The Downtown South neighbourhood, by comparison has an overall density of around 5 FSR. While I am happy to see the city building a new park, I personally think this area has turned out quite well, despite its relatively high density. I like the mix of townhouses (albeit fake townhouses) and towers along the streets. I also like the variety in the architectural expressions with variations in the brick, concrete, and glass exteriors.

    I also think the north shore of False Creek, with its proliferation of glass towers looks and feels pretty good, both when viewed from the bridges and from the waterfront walkway and park areas. The ‘gross’ overall density of this area, when you include the parks and streets is probably around 3 FSR.

    The new Woodwards tower, designed by the talented Henriquez and Partners is much taller, and at a much higher density than I initially thought appropriate for the site. I understand it is around 9 FSR. However, now that it is nearing completion, and with the opening of the food store and drug store, I like this ‘landmark’ development. Part of my enjoyment is the high quality of exterior design of the tower. It is more than a glass box. However, I am not sure I would like to see many more similar buildings in the area.

    I share this in order to help explain why I am struggling with some of the current rezoning proposals around the city, as well as the new proposal for 4 additional very tall buildings.

    The Davie and Bidwell proposal, also designed by the talented Henriquez and Partners, is 6.27 FSR. The rationale for the density bonus is the retention of a heritage facade and the inclusion of 49 small rental units under the STIR program.

    I am uncomfortable with this proposal for a few reasons. At the grade level, I do not feel that the new rental block relates well to the Heritage facade or to the street. This is a detailed design matter, but it affects my opinion of the project. I also think the city is giving away too much density to the developer, in return for both the heritage facade retention, and the rental units.

    My view is that one of two things should happen. If the building form is considered acceptable, then the developer should be required to purchase the additional density that is being used for the condominium portion of the complex from the heritage density bank. Alternatively, he should pay the city for the additional density and the money should be used to fund new amenities for the area.

    Henriquez is also the architect for the 1401 Comox site. This project is seeking a 7.5 FSR, increased from 1.5. In this case, the entire density bonus is to be used for rental housing.

    I am not sufficiently familiar with this proposal to comment on whether it fits in or not. But as former Director of Planning Ray Spaxman has noted, this 5 fold increase in density on an internal West End site is not something most of us would have contemplated a few years ago.

    I personally accept that density bonuses for rental units are a reasonable proposition, on a time restricted basis, in order to encourage developers to build projects that will remain as rental in perpetuity. However, I must declare that I too am about to come forward with a STIR proposal in the West End that will be requesting an FSR bonus for the rental units. (There will be no condominium units in the development.)

    This proposal is at the early design stage. However, depending on the final design, the FSR for this particular site could end up around 5 or 6. Because of the somewhat unique location and surrounding context, with good design I think it could become a very attractive addition to the area.

    This brings me to the tall buildings proposal. I am not yet certain whether they are being proposed to enhance the skyline, or increase capacity to reduce the heritage density bank, (which I once calculated had enough excess density to create 22 new 20 storey buildings). Alternatively, the city could sell the excess density and receive around 70% of the value which it could apply to various amenities.

    Regardless of the motivation, in order to assess the merits of the proposal, I believe the city must undertake extensive computer modelling to illustrate for all of us what the taller buildings will look like from a variety of different viewpoints around each site, and the downtown peninsula as a whole.

    I should say, based on the very preliminary design work that has been done on the STIR proposal which I am working on, it is possible using computer generated graphics, and Google Earth, to create some very accurate and realistic images of what new developments will look like, from all different angles. This is even more revealing than having a large architectural model of the downtown, something else that I would like to see.

    If the Planning Department doesn’t have the funds to prepare these computer generated graphics, Council should either find the money, or defer a decision until the models are created.

    I think it is essential that these design studies be carried out in order to allow all of us to assess whether these ‘gateway projects’ along ‘ceremonial streets’ should be allowed to proceed from a massing point of view. Then we should decide who gets the money!

    Finally, I must confess that I am troubled by the recent rezoning proposal for one of the previously approved tall buildings, 1133 West Georgia, across from the Shangri-la.

    When Georgia Street was initially rezoned for high density residential, the FSR was set at 6.0 and the buildings could go up to 300 feet in height (if I recall properly). The Residences on Georgia by Westbank got greater height and density by incorporating a heritage property into the project.

    The Shangri-la, also by Westbank, was approved as a 600 foot building. However, for various reasons, it ultimately got increased to something in the order of 646 feet. The corresponding FSR increased to 13.41.

    The Ritz Carlton development was identified as either a 550 or 600 foot site. It too went through a number of designs and text amendments, ultimately ending up at 600 feet and 17.7 FSR. Yes, 17.7. Now the developer is asking to increase the FSR to 20.8 and 616 feet. The rationale for the increased FSR and height is that he will buy density from the density bank.

    I am really troubled by this. While I am not really able to assess the appropriateness of the 20.8 FSR, since I have not seen any computer generated graphics to show how it will look, and how it relates to the Shangri-la project, I do know that people bought on the upper floors of the Shangri-la on the basis that the building across the street would not exceed 600 feet.

    Now, as Bill Good mentioned yesterday when Frances, Jim and Daniel were on his show, excuse me a minute while I wipe away a tear (for the poor people living on or about the 61st floor of the Shangri-la). Yes, I know it is hard to feel sorry for such lucky people. However, as Frances pointed out, if someone suddenly proposed a building that blocked a portion of his Coal Harbour view, he might have a different attitude.

    If the 600 foot height limit is allowed to be exceeded, just to justify a further purchase from the Heritage density bank, then I wonder how we can have any certainty in the city as to what might happen on any of the proposed four tall sites, or for that matter, on any site in the city.

    You can read more about the Ritz proposal on my blog at

    I say this knowing fully that in the future I too will be coming forward seeking approvals for buildings on sites where no one expected buildings to be built, or for greater heights than previously contemplated. However, I like to believe that if there justification in terms of PUBLIC BENEFITS, and today, rental housing is considered a public benefit, such proposals will be favourably considered, as long as they generally fit in with their surroundings and are deemed to be attractive buildings.

    And in response to the question whether one can make more money on a bigger building…I have three answers….
    1. Yes, if the project goes well.
    2. No, if things do not go well.
    3. As the building gets bigger, it becomes more and more risky and difficult to finance.

    To those of you still reading, I hope this is helpful.

  • Go Fish

    I recall a comment made at a meeting I attended some time ago – “We aren’t blocking the view – we are the view” and so it goes

    check out the views over the ages – used to be called cones I recall – now it’s just mountain tops

  • dazzle me

    thank you michael geller.

    i guess this significantly problematizes the potential vag move to the larwill park site.

    also, the bay parking structure site is a strange gift to holborn that would give them a lot of interesting options. the site at 700ft also seems a pretty odd move in terms of context – the new tallest building in the city would be almost wholly surrounded by mid and low rise.

  • Joe Just Joe

    I have to admit I am not a fan of STIR, it is going to cost the city a lot of money in foregone DCLs at a time when the city needs the money. The public benefit in my opinion isn’t really there. I fully know there have been a lack of rental dedicated buildings built in recent history, but….
    A large precentage of any new tower built ends up on the rental market anyways, so why do we need rental dedicated? A case in point at last nights council meeting the starta vice president of 501 stated that only 40% of her building is owner occupied and that 60% was rented out. That figure is high but not too far off the norm. So my question is why do “we” need to subsidize rentals when the market is already providing them at no cost to the taxpayers?

  • dazzle me

    because ‘subsidized’ rentals are permanent rental stock, and they’re cheaper?

  • Joe Just Joe

    Cheaper? Rents are market driven, in my opinion the only reason rental dedicated buildings might appear to be cheaper is due to the fact the buildings are much older then the current crop of condo rentals, not to mention most do not have insuite washer/dryer or even dishwashers. I’d love to see data comparing the rents of compartive units in a rental building vs a startafied building. Hopefully such data exists to see if there is a monetary benefit to renters.

  • Joe Just Joe

    It appears the going rates are for a 1bd in an older west end building is ~$1250/month compared to ~$1350 for a new building in yaletown which has parking, laundry, and a fitness room. The discount does not appear to be there although I will agree that the rental building is properly better run then most owner rented units.

  • Joseph Jones

    City Observer at #17 is bang on the money.

    At one end of time there is city building, at the other archaeological excavation. A principle of archaeology is, do not do the precious site all at one time. Save something for the future, when knowledge may be greater.

    Construction forces are converging to do Vancouver in a decade or two. That’s just dandy if the only knowledge involved is how to make a big fast buck.

  • landlord

    No reason CofV can’t have a 3D model of the city and a free viewer (although Java should do) running on its website. Two-three guys for a month should be plenty. They run these programs internally anyway, just put it on the server. Developers with guts could post 3D models of their projects. Ideally, visitors to the website could vote yea or nay with a mouse-click.
    Eliminates tons of paper and “debate”. Maybe someday.

  • landlord

    Michael has the right idea. There are models out there :

  • Big Eagle

    Mr. Geller has eloquently made what I think is a tentative endorsement or support for some of these “taller” structures. But I would argue that we should not have _any more_ of these structures in the city. We don’t want a Manhattan on our peninsula. Keep the Scale Lower should be our mantra. Emulate Barcelona rather than NYC or Chicago.

    I don’t buy the old canard of trading some “street level” facade for big and taller mass. Just Say No! The future will love you for it.

  • Otis Krayola

    @Michael Geller,

    You want me to believe that you (or other developers) are channeling Santa when you erect one of these monstrosities?

    To ‘enhance the skyline’?

    No more favours, please.

  • Hey Krayola..”.to enhance the skyline”. These are not my words…these are the words of city staff and consultants who often talk about ‘domed’ skylines and irregular skylines, etc. I personally have not been an advocate of very tall buildings…but now that we have one, and another on the way, I do agree that there probably should be others.

    One other consideration. Just because the Director of Planning is proposing four more doesn’t mean there will only be four more….there may be four more for now….and in ten years, there may be another four more, etc.

    It reminds me of the New Yorker cartoon of the couple looking at a city skyline with a number of construction cranes….The lady turns to the man and says “I can’t wait until the city is finished!”

  • Westender

    Thank you Michael Geller for an interesting read! Can you elaborate on this statement: “But as former Director of Planning Ray Spaxman has noted, this 5 fold increase in density on an internal West End site is not something most of us would have contemplated a few years ago.”
    Where did Ray Spaxman note this comment?

  • Mary

    Of the many interesting and valuable insights Michael Geller provided above, the one that needs more heeding is that of the worrisome trend in the exchange of public benefits for density. Yesterday at Council it was revealed that the City’s Real Estate department hasn’t provided (or won’t provide for citizen scrutiny) any analysis of or justification for the granting of great swaths of density for “purchasing” heritage density. The case was the stalled tower at 1133 West Georgia tower (back to Council for the 3rd density increase).

    In fact, the proposed deal is probably not defensible as speaker after speaker pointed out only to have their motives rudely impugned by the likes of Councillors Jang and Louie. Apparently in their minds one can’t be both civically minded and well off financially.

    We should all pause and reflect when the well off tell us that we are giving away the farm.

    The folly of the staff recommendation was also pointed out credibly and articulately by a development consultant named Chuck Brook.

    Pity that Councillors Jang and Louie weren’t as tough on the sloppy staff report as they were on the civic minded members of the public and business community who came out to speak on behalf of livability, fair play, and good government.

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    It is not realistic in our boom-and-bust-town to expect that we will not build towers. All we can hope for is to contain the damage.

    Thus, I have held to the view that the downtown peninsula, the part of our geography that juts out into the water, and has approximately the same footprint as the majestic Stanley Park that counter balances its north-western flank, should be the place where we experiment with hyper-urbanism and the politics of the land lift. The downside of this position is that once such forces are loosened in our free-market economy, they will prove hard to contain. Not only the Woodward’s site, but all the horrible stuff on view in New Westminster, Burnaby, Surrey, Coquitlam, Port Moody, and even wee little ol’ White Rock attest to this dilemma.

    Building high-rise is a race to the bottom—with developers and egos daring each other to do more, not necessarily to do better. Reducing urbanism to counting floor heights amounts to reaching ‘degree zero’. The towers are most certainly the true inheritance of the modern movement which is now discredited and receding in the rear view mirror. However, not receding fast enough to save us building some really bad mistakes.

    All of this is infinitely easier to state thanks to Michael Geller’s excellent and incisive review of the facts on the ground in the downtown peninsula.

    However, as most of us can appreciate, the kind of thinking Geller describes rises to the level of medieval philosophers arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. None of it makes a single iota of difference to the resulting urban quality downtown, or the livability of the condos. The only way any of it can be apprehended with the human senses is when the observer is miles away, far enough to get the “Plimsoll line” experience (Google that, its a doozie).

    In other words, as my friend “Urbanismo” points out, building towers is not about making good cites, much less good places to live. Let me lay down a few bullet points in support of the position that towers are about good profits, not good urbanism:

    • Nowhere in Frances’s piece do we read about the “use” for these towers (“zoning” is the great achievement of modern planning). Are we to assume these are all residential condos?

    • The survey, as has already been suggested above, is not to be taken seriously. A finding that “We don’t want high buildings” is followed by (paraphrasing:) “Okay, but which of these two high-rise building options seems less offensive to you?”. The survey sponsors are not interested in listening, and the buildings come anyway.

    • The carbon footprint of each residential condo in a tower was reported at VUDF recently by a UBC grad as the equivalent of a 1970’s suburban home. Go, Green, Go (away).

    • “Trading density for community benefits” is a panacea. We can finance community benefits by other means, including tax increment financing which the Director of Planning brought to a neighbourhood-in-decline when he headed the Calgary planning department.

    Good urbanism has a way of providing the greater part of the benefits for a community for free—in the enjoyment of a stroll on walkable streets, through connected series of parks, and into a human-scaled village square. Take that over a rec center any time.

    • “Gateway effects” are not created by buildings. I presume we are talking to the Piazza del Popolo of the Renaissance and Baroque centuries (not the two mirror-image warehouses you can spy on the south side of the freeway approaching Port Mann from Coquitlam). Gateways are platted on the ground first, by changing the block pattern. You don’t really get a gateway in a grid. It requires radiating streets.

    • Urbanismo has it right that the Wall Center, so prominent from 2 miles away approaching on Oak, is bloody-awful up close and at ground level. Burrard Street did not benefit from that development, say the way Howe and Hornby did from the Ericson Law Courts. That is a blow to downtown urbanism that we still don’t understand. The point of loosening the density should be to build a great district, neighbourhood or quartier. I don’t see that happening today. Homer along the “fake row house blocks” looks mean and dark after sundown. Upon reflection the pedestrian counts feel low to me.

    • Even in Biscane Bay, Miami, where Architectonica put up some buildings that look fantastic seen approaching in a high speed boat in the middle of the bay, the sense you get from those very structures walking on the street beside them is something altogether different, and altogether unremarkable.

    • The true star is Miami’s protected Art Deco District, where walking in the streets is a pleasure because the deco towers (about 10 stories and probably conforming to Geller’s FSR 3.0) interact with the human experience of place. The lobbies are terrific, many have cafes, bars and small night clubs, and the windows near the ground allow views in (and out) humanizing the street with a glimpse of someone’s interior decor, or the odd misplaced bit of personal belonging. The BIA joined with the city, a $1 million tax increment financed bond was issued, sidewalks along the beach front were widened and parking re-schemed. The cafes offer dinning outdoors, linen table cloths, and real china. The success story now spans decades.

    • However, if the object is to build 3.0 FSR, the REAL house row can yield 2.33 FSR and you get walkable streets and livable neighbourhoods in the bargain.

    • If we continue to build canyon walls downtown, we will live shadowed lives.

    • That can’t be good urbanism in a latitude and climate region where every ounce of sunshine is cherished. Yet, planners will indiscriminately give away two hours of sunshine from any given street at any given time.

    • Exiting the towers is very problematic. The very rich have been known to over-reach and suffer the consequences (i.e. the occupants of the state rooms on the Titanic). Are we ready to become as mean as the Big Apple, and suffer people leaping from burning towers to their deaths every hundred years?

    So, after all the bulleted points, how can I support building towers downtown?

    For one, I expect governments to behave responsibly—where the private sector cannot—and use the profits from hyper-development to forge a first-class urban design plan for the build out of the entire district or area.

    Eventually I think we will get that plan, but not before we try everything else first!

    For another, there is no stopping it. Containment is the only plausible strategy left.

  • Otis Krayola

    First, I want to thank Michael Geller for his quick and polite response. It seems I’m wrong – building to a ridiculous height is not a function of what can be squeezed from the gullible rich.

    Blame the planners.

    I’d also like to thank Lewis (Luis?) Villegas above for calling to mind the Piazza del Popolo, which I dutifully looked up on Google Images. Radiating streets are easily visible, giving credence to his point.

    Only one thing. When viewed from afar, the surrounding skyline of the Piazza del Popolo reveals a single domed structure (I presume a church) in the distance. Other than this one anomaly, all that can be discerned as far as the horizon, above the tops of all the other buildings is ….trees.

    Don’t they have any planners?

  • gmgw

    This has been an excellent discussion, and at this late date there is little I can add to it. I do feel a need to point out that in the wake of the Wall Centre and the Shangri-La, proposals on this scale were inevitable. The old catchphrase applies: “If I give you one of those, everybody’s going to want one”. The two earlier developments established a new standard for height which every major developer in town is now frantic to emulate and, ideally, surpass. Result: A spiral of escalation, reminiscent of the arms race.

    What is truly disturbing is to see Toderian finally drop the pretense of reasonableness and of maintaining a considered, rational approach to central area planning, and stand revealed for all to see as a pusher of densification of such naked, blind zealotry as to make Larry Beasley look like a heritage preservationist.

    I feel these proposals are vile and obscene. I also feel that in the current climate it’s almost inevitable that one or more of these projects will ultimately get built. With a planning department that has repeatedly demonstrated that it doesn’t give a damn what the citizens of this city may want no matter how loud they may say it, and a rabidly pro-development Council that has its eager mouth more firmly affixed, lampreylike, to the anus of this city’s development community than even the NPA at their most abysmal, how could it be otherwise? Maybe the nutbars in this forum who still castigate the Visionistas as “socialists” have the right idea after all. Certainly what the Visionaries propose to do to downtown has a great deal more in common with the monumentalist style of that noted socialist Kim Il-Sung than the people-friendly concepts, frequently derided as “socialist”, that were espoused by the sainted Jane Jacobs, whose books are probably gathering dust somewhere on Raymond Louie’s shelves as we speak.

    Interesting how the Sun, true to form, appears to be resolutely ignoring this story, isn’t it? Thanks for keeping us informed, Frances. And thanks to everyone who contributed to a most enlightening discussion. I suppose I should be wailing and gnashing my teeth about Toderian’s atrocity, but I’m getting tired of the level of struggle that’s becoming necessary to save it from itself, I really am. The battles may go on, but I fear the war is lost.

  • No, this conversation is not going in the right direction: Lewis and I seem to be the only correspondents who have a handle on the matter.

    The stated siting of these four towers is arbitrary: on what basis is Georgia and the end of Burrard chosen: surely not solely as a skyline gateway! And as Michael points out there will be more to come, which sort of obviates Brent’s gateway/mountain/valley reasoning.

    Michael seems to have a following of sorts yet, with respect to his point of view, his is of yesterday.

    Mind you, Michael evidently enjoys a level of support on this thread: he will “not go gently into that good night”. But, then, city building is not a popularity contest.

    Michael is in, and of, a struggling development ethos the future of which is indeterminate. He, along with the planning-design community have become enablers of a process long past its buy-date: and if Vancouver is to remain on the shelf beyond that date . . . so be it!

    The new Vancouver, if it has a chance to materialize has to be of . . . “Firmness, Commodity and Delight”! FCD as valid and achievable today as Vitruvius envisioned 2000 years ago.

    There can be no other criteria, as manifesting in the public domain at street level

    I have sometime said Vancouver is “the willful desecration of a magnificent setting”. Perhaps I should better say the magnificent setting has willfully desecrated the city. Views have become the corrupting element in all urban our urban conversations, always looking north to the snow capped mountains. Obviously Brent, the plains Calgarian, is besotted.

    Well there are other ways of looking at the city. And the greatest of all views is the encapsulated urban space in front of our window: La Riconada, little corner, as described by Latinos.

    When the city rules 2.5 hec/2000 pop., (I wonder does any one ever check) a very crude measure at best, the statistic materializes as a blank ill-defined, inappropriately located green that may or may not be used.

    Also, arm-twisting-trade-off-DCL’s, up until now, seem to go for community facilities; the round house being typical: which give the monstrous mistake of FCN was a very bad trade indeed.

    If the “monstruos” Michael seems to reluctantly condone and, indeed, anticipate, come with creative covenants for street level public-spatial, interconnected amenity, custom designed in detail to integrate the towers into the city and its neighbours, the city may be on its way into the twenty-first century. (Interconnect being the governing participle).

    In closing may I suggest, as a start, the first remedial, humane, undertaking to benefit the sentient among us would be to retrieve the space now occupied by the nowhere-to/from-nowhere Pacific Boulevard.

    Likely, indeed, if all these “monstruos” materialize with their supposed statistically prescribed parking spaces, traffic will be so grid-locked asphalt will be wasted as on “The Road to Hell”:
    Now if we can just grasp that concept, then, high density, grand scale may be livable . . .

    . . . Dios benice . . .

  • PS

    Yes, yes I know . . . 2.5 hec/1000 pop . . .

  • PPS

    FIRMNESS COMMODITY AND DELIGHT as a concept embraces security of occupancy and the affordable. For as long as I remember sixty percent Vancouverites have been tenants: evidently are still!

    Randomly dispersed towers are of no consequence without a stable secure, contented population, capable and free to create its own wealth. Such necessitates a vastly more humane governance both civically and provincial. And a vision beyond concrete towers . . .

    Prosperity demands a wide economic base, inclusive of but not exclusively, a limited development vision of expensive luxury. Why always luxury?

    If we complacently accept that as “the way it is”, as Michael evidently does, we need change our political priorities!

    Financing à la False Creek south has been generationally successful: subsidized co-ops! It was abandoned for ideologically reasons . . . only!

    Building material costs are unstable. Workers must be paid a healthy wage. Abandoned ideology.

    Provincially the rapaciously minded Campbell/Falcon approach to legislation must be seen for what it is.

    Councilors who cycle to the office to discharge their duty to God and the Queen need not apply. Those who discharge their duty to the less fortunate may . . . they are us!

    The mark of civilization is how we nurture our most unfortunate: temporary plywood shelters do morph into permanency, random towers not withstanding.

  • I would love to respond, but I have to prepare for a presentation in Abbotsford tomorrow morning on innovative and affordable housing ideas in the Fraser Valley. But rest assured, I will not be supporting Stanley Kwok’s claim in a May 2009 issue of the Georgia Straight that the only way to create affordable housing is with more highrise towers….like Dubai.

    I will be promoting what Lewis promotes above…high density street oriented row-housing. I will also promote some taller buildings on shopping centre parking lots, but encourage the local politicians and planners to read this blog, before thinking about identifying sites for some really tall buildings!

    A final thought, it’s not just planners and developers who like tall buildings. 30 years ago, I was often surprised when I visited communities across Canada and noticed that the tallest building in town was often the CMHC funded seniors’ housing project, sponsored by the local Kiwanis or Lions Club.

    I never understood why until one year I was invited to be the guest speaker at a national conference of the Lions’ Club. Before lunch was served, those in attendance were invited to share what their club had been doing during the past year.

    One after one, the representatives rose to their feet and the conversation went something like this…

    “The Haney chapter is proud to report that in August, the Federal Minister of Housing and our club president cut the ribbon on an 11 storey solid brick seniors’ building…The Windsor chapter is also pleased to report that we just completed a 14 storey building, the tallest building in our city, opened by the Mayor and mother of our Club President…..” and on and on it went.

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    We cannot allow Michael Geller the benefit of a double retreat. He cannot both go to Abbottsford and play back voices heard 30 years ago, when Canada—at least—was fully engulfed in the modernist lie. While good urbanism will be measured in exactly the same way in the downtown peninsula as in Abbottsford we will tolerate towers in one, but not in the other. Not even in a mall parking lot, because simply put: “two wrongs don’t make a right”.

    Spiro Kostof, in his last work “The City Assembled”, can put our discussion back on track:

    “In Germany… The Fluchtliniengesetz (Law of Building Lines) of 1875 was designed to encourage broad thoroughfares; it allowed municipalities to lay out streets up to 26 m (85.5 ft) wide without compensating property owners along their line. But this ostensible concern for light and air stopped at the building line. Behind it came the private space of the deep blocks, where developers filled every inch of the property with huge buildings; here many of the inhabitants had no benefit whatever of the light and air of the ample streets, as they breathed through narrow courtyards and less.” p. 206.

    The concern is that we can’t “trust the developers”. Not because they are some kind of despicable mutation of humanity, which they are not, but rather because the rules they play by are dominated by a single, all-encompassing value: the profit motive. If the city we build is to be the city we want, then the total effect of its construction must project back more than just this one, merest and basest bean-counting fixation.

    Others have observed how the “race to the bottom” imposed by unbridled market forces have dumbed down even the most exalted of the modernist urban experiments, Le Corbusier’s Unites d’Habitacion:

    “In Nantes (1952), design begins to be simplified as a result of the economic constraints of the building process with an elimination of the nonprofitable shopping gallery and a simplification of the [building] textures. This simplification continues in Briery (1957) and ends in Firminy (1967), where the design of the high parapets of the façade is reduced to the pattern of floor slabs and [party] walls crossed by the high parapets of the balconies. It is not unimportant that Firminy was built after Le Corbusier’s death.”

    Panerai, Castex, DePaule, Samuels. “Urban Formes”, (Formes Urbains, 1975, first English translation: 2004) p. 118.

    Fate is a wicked mistress, and the last two times I stayed in Montreal our Auberge on Rue Saint-Denis did not have on-site parking. However, along with an excellent breakfast, they provided free parking passes “at a lot just around the corner”. That lot, as fate would have it, would turn out to be in CMHC’s Jean-Mance Housing Project (1960).

    The parking lot was lined by “row houses” executed in a modernist vocabulary, and—quite obviously—fronting the wrong sort of “park”.

    Not to be too negative, but the obligatory tower—done in the same architectural vocabulary—stood just behind the 2-storey rows, well, because as we have already heard people wanted height. Aerial photography from the 1960’s later revealed to me that there were six towers in total in this development. All of them, more or less of the same hand as our McLean Park Project (1960), in Strathcona.

    The irony in all of this is that I had deliberately parked my family in this ‘quartier’ in order to study Montreal—the leading Canadian metropolis in the 19th century. Yet, in the act of finding a storage space for our rented vehicle, I would come face-to-face with one of the most dire consequences of “modernism degree-zero”: the now discredited notion that we can ignore history.

    Who did what is not what we are after when we assert that modern urbanism has failed the test of time. The work that needs doing is the work that was not done before.

    We need to understand in plain and concrete terms what it takes to build places that work.

  • Robert W

    3 basic comments:

    1. The current situation perfectly illustrates the value in developing something along the lines of an urbanarium as was once advocated by Ray Spaxman. Such a project would facilitate a shared understanding of the real issues at stake, a shared understanding which frankly appears to be lacking. Right now everyone is guessing and this is a problem that will polarize people, regardless of the merits of a proposal.

    2. Spatially you are talking about adding four new structures 100 feet taller than the Shangri La. That building by virtue of its exceptional height is visible throughout the city- far more so than any other building. Don’t lose site of the fact that buildings not only block views, in their very presence they look down upon the city and define the city. People will use them to find their way about the city and the locations around them will become massively elevated in importance. Be sure that the locations chosen are key places you want to draw people to, places you want to celebrate because this is what you are getting, like it or not.

    3. Vancouver should start to give the public something back in terms of the high ground! Make the top floors of these buildings public places that everyone can come and freely experience. Instead of feeling like prisoners or mere ants crawling at the base of an observation tower where the super wealth elite rule over all, imagine if the top of the city was public? Part of the reason the loss of the World Trade Center in New York City was so accute was that the top two floors of each tower were dedicated to public oriented uses and this made these admittedly ugly buildings nevertheless something that in a sense belonged to all. Another consideration was that these two towers helped orient ones place in the city. Thier loss meant people lost their bearings to a degree. Your four new towers have the capability of reorganizing the city and you really need to be careful about this.

    I recommend you take this further and make public places that all can enjoy free of charge at the top of each of these towers. Such a move would begin to move towards shifting values back towards people and away from money in Vancouver. Make the city something that belongs to all, a sort of vertical complement to the fabulous network of waterfront parks and paths.

  • Otis Krayola

    @Robert W,

    OK, but your scheme makes the birthday-cake-on-a-stick called Harbour Centre redundant.

    We want that thing out of our lives, or the whole deal’s off

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    Four really tall towers have the ability to re-define the city? Canadian examples will suggest otherwise. However, “Robert W” is thinking on his feet which is very reassuring.

    Let’s take up the bank towers in Toronto.

    Even with the advantage that two are by Mies van der Rohe (Toronto Dominion Bank), completed shortly after he pioneered the form in NYC (Seagrams, 1958); and the one by I. M. Pei’s (Commerce Court) is one of my favourite works by an architect with an ouvre that runs hot-and-cold, the towers produce none of the results that “Robert W” suggests will materialize in our city.

    Of course, the Bank of Montreal Tower’s architecture is so bad as to be an embarrassment. And, the “Twin Peaks” of the Royal Bank with the glass-roofed galleria and banks of escalators separating, make you wish all the gold in the curtain wall glass had just been left in the bank’s vaults instead.

    When tall towers are bad, they become horrible eye-sores that just won’t go away.

    I would argue further that this cluster of towers precipitated the construction of the one of the most banal buildings in Canada, the CN Tower. This sky-high observatory was meant to offer the perfect vantage point to view and photograph the four towers (have pictures to prove it). But, now that I have Google, I can’t imagine ever going up the CN Tower again (I wouldn’t return to the WTC rooftop observatory either if it were still there).

    As part of my quest to understand what has gone so wrong with the Canadian urbanism, I’ve been looking at a segment of Yonge Street, from Dundas Street (Eatons/Sears Center) to Bloor Street (alignment for et east-west subway line). This is an area just north of the banking and business district, a stretch of Yonge that runs between Toronto and Ryerson Universities, pretty much what should be one of the most vibrant urban places in Canada.

    And yet the urbanism could not be more disappointing.

    The fronting buildings are old and tired. The retail is third rate. The sidewalks are denuded of trees. There is nothing of merit and not much to hang on to, except for the odd sandwich board advertisement. The four lane curb-to-curb traffic artery is only ameliorated by curb-side parking.

    The build out is decidedly “under performing”. Fronting what must be a 66-foot (20m) R.O.W. the buildings could be taller by a storey and a half, adding 50% more density. That is not just an increment of new tax revenue for a suffering city, but it would serve as an injection of energy to rejuvenate what is a district brimming full with potential.

    Two out of three façades are very good, and from the same period (Toronto boomed in the years that the C.P.R. was building west). There are 4.5-storey period examples that could also serve as templates to guide re-development. And, might one hope that construction replacing the shoddy and speculative newer stuff might set back, like was done on Robson Street here, and provide pockets of needed girth in the public realm?

    When there is high rise residential nearby, as on Alexander Street, the additional density (and we are talking tall condo towers and slab buildings providing a considerable jolt of new municipal revenues) does nothing to add vitality to Yonge Street, or prosperity to neighbourhood merchants. All the density in the world is there, with no palpable improvement in the urban quality (take note, Vancouver).

    It really is a puzzle. But, it is a puzzle that we will not get right if we follow “Robert W’s” flight to the top, avoiding engaging urbanism’s bread-and-butter: the street.


    Revolving restaurants? Revolting!

  • RW stat . . .


    was exhibited at Urbanarium One in the old Motor Vehicles’ building at the end of Georgia: sometime beginning of the 90’s and if I remember U’s only!

    Nothing rubbed off: from the X I mean not my irrelevant little poem . . .

    Swingcity is allegorical: hovering.

    An ideal matrix of humane interaction yet to come to ground . . . we could use a bit!

    The juggernaut, the carapace, of mindless development has got too tight a grip on our collective genitalia to ” . . . facilitate a shared understanding . . .” of the psychosis gripping the collective urban imagination . . .

    Epiphany . . some day . . . .

  • MB

    Lewis, Michael and Urbbie, thanks for your insights. This was an exemplary discussion, GMGW’s vulgarity aside.

    Perhaps our vision is too compartmentalized into site-specific architecture or broad stroke planning. Urban design is an as-yet unrecognized and undervalued cluster of talents and expertise, but it seems such a purposeful melange of disciplines is where the next logical step should reside in our aspirations to change the city into something more meaningful and relevant.

    Who can really answer the question, What kind of urbanism should Vancouver aspire to? without conducting some serious research into what works and what doesn’t.

    When you consider that about half of the land occupied by the city is public, be it in roads, lanes or parks, it makes sense that the public realm should receive a lot more attention. Today the lions share of effort is spent on the approvals process imposed on the private realm (eg building height increases), but not enough on building design per se. Are not all buildings a public visual resource? As the result we have, with the occasional exception, architectural mediocrity. To think there was an age where distinct architecture mattered more as a public resource and the private clients were proud of them, and that produced structures like the Marine Building.

    But blandness doesn’t measure even a fraction as bad as the purely utilitarian treatment we have bestowed on even our most important ‘ceremonial’ streets, and on the relationships between buildings, parks and streets. To add insult to injury, we have plastic kitsch cluttering the downtown sidewalks that some try to pass off as public art.

    It may evolve under a well-informed urban design strategy that each neighbourhood would have varied urban design guidelines in accordance to its geography, social and ethnic make up, history and known urban design principles for humans that work in other cities that are treasured. This is perhaps an exercise as relevant to social science as it is to design and zoning.

    This brings to mind another question: What level of urban design effort should occur for large projects that are bound to change the character of neighbourhoods and entire streets? The discussion so far on the 600+ foot tower issue has to my knowledge not punched through to street level. Because a number of them are located on or near Georgia Street along with several public institutions, shouldn’t Georgia receive a renewed urban design focus along its entire length? And shouldn’t Broadway from Commercial to Alma receive a significant urban design treatment with the possible advent of a new rapid transit line in future?

    Another larger issue that would have to be addressed with respect to higher towers is the fact that we live in a seismically active region. I am not very concerned about the collapse of towers built since the upgrades to the Building Code were written. But most of these buildings have glass curtain walls that are sure to break into tens of thousands of razor sharp panels raining down to street level in a moderately severe shaker. The seismic codes for exterior cladding should be reviewed.

    Lastly, planning and design forums should consider an amalgamation to promote a more complete, wholistic urban design process regarding city building. This is too important an issue to be left to politicians whose need to be informed is constant (whether they admit that or not), and planners who know how to plan, but can’t design or project manage their way out of a wet leaf bag, or to engineers who are by nature myopic.

    Urban design is a more cooperative endeavour.