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Larry Beasley weighs in on view corridors’ debate

April 2nd, 2009 · 21 Comments

For those of you who have missed it, there’s an incredibly lively and wide-ranging debate about view corridors that’s been going on here under my earlier post.

Former city planning director Larry Beasley posted his views on views this morning. Here they are:

Frankly, the essence of our city is at stake. One of the fundamental and unique amenities of our city is at stake: our tangible moment-to-moment experience of our glorious mountain and water setting from an array of locations both at the edges, across and within the dense urban core.

I see our view corridors, now so clear and obvious after years of careful management, as a part of the very commonwealth of our city. I say “our” corridors because they belong to everyone, regardless of wealth or status – they’re there for peoples’ enjoyment in their own time, in their own way. Trading them away for the expediency of the moment would be trading away our patrimony – and I think that would be a shame.

I’m skeptical of the intent of some of our politicians on this matter, but I think our Chief Planner, Brent Toderian, is right: we can tweak the corridors after 20 good years of experience (in fact, I hope we even add some new views). No one can argue that some have proven to be more vital than others and, in any event, it is good from time to time to refresh our public support for such a vulnerable amenity. But let’s make this a “no net loss” exercise.

To put this successful policy up for grabs, in principle, or to diminish much of the public equity that it represents would be a travesty for the public and an insult to those hundreds of developers who abided by the corridors over the years and still found ample profitability in their projects.

More to the point, to trade any of the very few now protected views away for more development potential of any kind – private or public – is shortsighted. There are many ways to accommodate development potential in our core without giving away our quality of life. What should our citizens think about deleting their public equity for private gain?

In fact, I propose an opposite strategy to what is now underway. Why can’t the City Council sponsor a program for people to nominate new views for protection? Instead of potentially less, let’s shoot for more protected views out of this review. Let’s turn this moment into an investment in our commonwealth, rather than a diminishment of it.

But no matter what happens, I hope the process fosters a wide and extensive public debate. Unfortunately many people take for granted the wonderful setting that they enjoy every day, assuming that it will always be there. Let’s make sure everyone knows the implications of less protected views: the closing in of our inner city, disconnection from the mountains and water and a sense of claustrophobia that is the day-to-day reality in most big cities in the world. I think most people would conclude that we don’t need that here in Vancouver.

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  • T W

    Very commendable analysis. What is the problem, what are the options and then what are the solutions in keeping with the public interest.

    Now if only all City Hall policy analysis was so erudite.

  • Joe just Joe

    Glad that post was in fact by Larry and not an imposter. It’s with regret that I saw his name get dragged thru the mud along with M. Gellar, two guys that have always had the best of intentions.
    Good to see you still around Larry. Some of us miss your work.

  • MB

    Great post Larry! The parameters of the debate have just expanded, and without getting personal.

    Keep up the exemplary work.

  • Wagamuffin

    You will not see towers in any of the following places: the West End of London, Rome, Paris.

    New York is the only place I can think of where tall towers are celebrated for themselves—rightly so, since the architecture, at least around the older buildings, is magnificent.

    We don’t need to aspire to that model—or any other model, except one of our own device. We don’t need that kind of build out when so much natural beauty is available –and then would be obscurred—and where most of the designs of our public and private buildings can only be considered pedestrian at best.

  • A. G. Tsakumis

    Larry Beasley should be ashamed of himself.

    He has the temerity to talk about protecting view corridors and adding to them, when he is the architect of the downtown’s demise.

    Mr. Beasley and his megalomania were the causes for the downtown’s OVERBUILD–period.

    There are large pockets of the town core which should have never had the density that he allowed, and now he comes along to tell us what a wonderful life it would be if we sought more of what is good, when he set the bar into the depths of what is bad.

    Larry the fool. Must be in the name…

  • fbula

    I just have to weigh in here to respond to Alex. Except for fewer than a handful of buildings, (Shangri-La, Wall Centre, the future tower where the Capitol 6 was), the vast majority of Vancouver’s downtown buildings have been built according to the zoning that permits most of them to go only to 300 feet and in a few cases 450. I am not sure what large pockets of the downtown core you mean.

    I should note, by the way, that every tower allowed to go higher in the city has had to provide substantial benefits back to the city — heritage restorations, SRO housing, art galleries, performance spaces and so on. Like it or not, in the face of senior governments that provide less and less, the city has turned to selling its airspace as a way to pay for a lot of things that people think the city needs to provide. That’s another reason why the corridors are up for discussion.

    Finally, can we stick to discussing the ideas and stay away from the personal name-calling?

  • spartikus

    Though London, Paris and Rome all have their share of urban planning disasters…what Wagamuffin said.

  • foo

    I think part of the issue is the disingenuous way the city goes about this development. All we hear is how the city is into sustainable, mixed-use, all-inclusive development.

    But what we get is a bunch of expensive condo’s that are beyond the reach of ordinary working people, inappropriate for families (especially when kids start to grow up), and that push a wide range of businesses out of the city.

    Really, preserving views of the mountains from a few places along some commuter corridors pales into insignificance when city policies have pushed ordinary people and their job into the suburbs, so that the overwhelming majority of people never even get the opportunity to look down the view corridors.

  • MB

    Very good response, Frances.

    AGT, Foo and GMGW (in previous posts) assigned an exorbitant amount of power to one individual, and make him the sole scapegoat to what they personally feel — and what many, many people would disagree with — is what’s wrong with downtown.

    That is patently unfair, disregards those who had much more power and responsibility, and disingenuously overlooks the public consultation process where thousands of citizens had a say and influenced policy on NFC, Coal Harbour, downtown transportation, Downtown South and hundreds of individual developments. Like it or not, downtown is our collective baby.

    I would add the restoration of many significant heritage buildings in Gastown and elsewhere, which includes the otherwise prohibitively expensive seismic upgraing, would not have been possible without the density bonus program. Vancouver is only one of many cities who benefit from negotiating additional density for public amenities.

    I don’t know how the Critics of Larry feel, but I like the Vancouver International Film Festival Theatre which was not possible without the benefit of the developer of the site it resides in and a $1 million grant from VanCity. So what if the developer got a few additional floors? It kept the construction workers working, the wheels of commerce turning, and helped keep the lower floors affordable.

    Wagamuffin brings up some interesting points. However, the great cities W. mentions have their own histories, and they are certainly deeper and often more controversial than Vancouver’s.

    Central Paris, for example, arose after one of the largest “slum clearing” exercises in history under one bureaucrat named Hausmann who had almost as much power as the King. However, the boulevards and dictatorial architectural policies he imopsed resulted in one of the greatest cities on the planet.

    Vancouver and every other modern city can certainly learn a lot from Europe, and — except for a couple of unfortunate decades — we have learned to respect and treasure the 19th Centruy urbanism that created Gastown, downtown Victoria and other places.

    But when you have a tiny historic downtown surrounded by the ocean in a metropolis of 2.3 million people, a high rate of immigration, and 1,000 protected acres known as one of the most fantastic urban parks in the world on the same peninsula, it is impossible not to go upwards.

    The conversation on views touches on many other city-related issues, so perhaps going sideways can’t be avoided. I am personally glad to have recognition and protection of views, and find the slice off the SW corner of the Shangri-La building (where the edge of a view cone exists) makes the tower more interesting than it would have been as a block with four 90 degree corners.

    But I would not want to see views become a cult, or detract from raising the bar on the quality of architecture and urban design, or bringing streetcars back. Nor would I move out to Freewayville aka sprawling suburbia and be a slave to my car just to have a view.

  • Bill Lee

    View corridors (cones) are on the VanMap tool http://vancouver.ca/maps.htm

    But what about the workers??
    Where are the view corridors or access to the water east of
    Denman? The ‘harbour’/port/waterfront is so barricaded and
    locked away from the benighted Eastside residents out to Port Moody
    that they have no access to any beaches, or waterfront to gaze
    at the views.
    New Brighton is hemmed in by a 6 lane road and the PNE and
    has only daylight hour access under the train tracks and tunnel.

    This is insufficient. Teachers at Tecumseh school were surprised
    in their yuppie ways that the students had never been to the beach,
    because there is none on the EastSide.

    Maybe it’s time to reclaim the harbour, clean it up and move
    industry and train shunting to Roberts Bank or the new port at
    Bella Coola, Prince Rupert etc.

  • foo

    MB, I don’t think you are getting the point of my argument. I’m not opposed to the forest of towers that has grown up in Yaletown/FCN/Coal Harbour. Sure the citizens of the city signed on to the concept of increased density, etc. Of course those were policy directions above the head of the planning dept.

    What most people didn’t expect/want/plan for, was a forest of unaffordable, singles/yuppie/retiree friendly condo towers with an associated flight of ordinary working families and their jobs from what’s now called the “Metro Core”. In that, the planning dept had plenty of say.

    Also, I’m not necessarily opposed to making the downtown core a haven for upper-middle class residents and expensive professional-type jobs, if that’s what the city wants. I just think it’s disingenuous to pretend that that isn’t what we have now.

  • MB

    The Westend has a long history as a “haven” for the lower and middle Middle Class. A large and growing forest of Downtown South and non-waterfront Yaletown towers have a price spread that includes a great number of reasonably-priced units. Mind you they are not the 20+ storey view units.

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  • ” . . . our tangible moment-to-moment experience of our glorious mountain and water setting from an array of locations both at the edges, across and within the dense urban core.” Ummm sounds like a Pravda quote, circa 1940 . . .

    Such unctuous nonsense provokes me to try once again to join this conversation: my earlier post, evidently, having been subsumed by the rush to self-serving hyperbole.

    The “Cone of Vision” or view debate goes back to the early 1970’s. Granville Square initiated the first controversy. Alderman Warnett Kennedy promised his tower would not impede the mountain view north on Granville. Unfortunately the good alderman miscalculated as is evident today.

    As the FCN conversation warmed up views of the mountains became a hot topic for those who had bought into Fairview slopes. During debate Councilor Puil averred to a wait-and-see policy until Concord had sited their towers: sort of an ass backwards approach in my opinion.

    The result being a wall of towers obscuring the view north to the mountains to all but the most elevated on the slopes.

    Actually the ensuing impermeable wall of concrete and glass is quite dramatic, especially at night, when seen from my sailboat anchored in the Creek. And the orchestrated, elevated decibel thrum of the city, at a distance, can be quite beguiling.

    Mostly, though, the “cone of vision” policy has been a failure: the white sails obscuring the promise of mountain view north on Howe being another.

    While paying lip service to uni-directional (i.e. northward) distant mountain views the greater value of intimate close views has been completely over looked.

    It is my opinion the view of a well designed scaled urban place, à la the Georgian crescent garden, or Mexican rinconada, has been completely lost in the Vancouver planning process and is more reliably attainable and, indeed, cannot be blocked those ubiquitous tower intrusion . . . Ojala . . .

  • gmgw

    “You will not see towers in any of the following places: the West End of London, Rome, Paris.

    New York is the only place I can think of where tall towers are celebrated for themselves—”

    Hate to disagree, Wag, but tower-fetishism is popping up in the strangest places these days: Chicago (the Sears Tower– which was recently renamed), Kuala Lumpur (Petronas Towers), Taipei (Taipei 101), Shanghai (Shanghai World Financial Centre), and, lest we forget, Canada’s very own CN Tower, though it’s considered more of a “structure”. All of these behemoths are in the range of 1500 feet or so, but even they have been dwarfed by the Burj Dubai, in Dubai, UAE, which reached 2,684 feet(!!) in January and won’t even be completed until this fall. I realize you were speaking of New York, with its scores of towers, but these individual structures are certainly “celebrated for themselves”; skyscraper buffs come from around the world to see them. As globalization gathers momentum (not so much lately!), it’s understandable that countries that were once considered economic backwaters but are now (or were) rolling in dough, so to speak, would want to show off to the world, and one of the simplest ways of doing that is to slap up a building so impressive that even Americans will be forced to stand up and take notice.

    With respect, you’re also mistaken about Paris. It is true that the Parisian city government, in the Haussmannian tradition, imposes strict development guidelines inside the Périphérique (the enormous elevated expressway that surrounds central Paris)– although there is increasing pressure to relax those guidelines. However, in the late 50s the Gaullist regime began to promote the idea of building large towers in central Paris. This ultimately led to the construction of the 689-foot Tour Montparnasse. Completed in 1973, it was at the time the tallest building in Europe. There can be few buildings anywhere so at odds with their surroundings. Apart from its height, which causes it to loom over south central Paris like a concrete-glass-and-steel King Kong, there is absolutely nothing architecturally distinctive about the Tour, and it’s a standing joke among Parisians that the real reason its 55th-floor observation point is so popular is that it’s the only place in Paris from which the Tour can’t be seen. Mind you, it’s also said that after the Eiffel Tower opened in 1889, the writer Maupassant lunched every day in the tower’s restaurant so that he would not have to see the tower itself, which he despised (I must strongly disagree with him).

    In any case, the construction of the Tour Montparnasse led to a huge public outcry, such that no further towers were built inside the Périphérique. Instead large-scale commercial development was shifted to the burgeoning La Défense district, across the Seine from Neuilly. If you stand under (or atop, if you prefer) the Arc de Triomphe and look west past the insane traffic circling l’Etoile, you can see, a few kilometres away, the extraordinary Grand Arche de La Défense, one of the most distinctive buildings on the planet. An enormous business hub has developed at La Défense since its beginnings in the late 50s (as well as a large group of residential towers for all those office workers), and it continues to grow; a whole complex of new 600-to-1000-foot-plus office towers is planned or under construction. The taller towers will dwarf the hated Tour Montparnasse– and thus, unfortunately, will be all too visible from central Paris’s higher points, such as Belleville or Montmartre.

    So there you have it. Parisians made it clear they didn’t want towers, so their government thoughtfully moved the towers out to the western banlieues (‘burbs), where their growth can be all but unrestricted. Is that an improvement? An acceptable compromise? Who can say, really? Personally, I’d rather not have them so close to the Paris I know and love; but really, I think only a Parisian could give an appropriate reply to this question. And if I know Parisians, that reply would likely involve slapping the palm of the left hand onto the inside of the right elbow joint, followed by a vigorous upward motion with the clenched right fist, accompanied by a large raspberry. Which is as it should be, really.
    gmgw

  • gmgw

    “The Westend has a long history as a “haven” for the lower and middle Middle Class. ”

    That was true at one time. I lived in the West End myself, for seven years, back in the late 70s and early 80s, when it was still the neighbourhood to go to if you needed relatively affordable accommodation on short notice. But that history is at an end, MB. Or haven’t you heard about the steadily increasing number of evictions of tenants from rental buildings by landlords wanting to do “renovations”? Spencer Herbert, the newly-elected MLA for the area, has done much good work in trying to call attention to the disappearance of relatively affordable West End rental housing, and City Hall seems to be ponderously turning its attention to the problem, but the merciless law of supply-and-demand appears to be hard at work once again, and there will likely be little anyone can do to stop these inevitable changes. Vancouver is, inexorably, becoming a very difficult city in which to find a place to live if you can’t afford to buy. Where will all those evictees find new homes? Not in Yaletown, certainly.
    gmgw

  • A. G. Tsakumis

    Frances, maybe you and I live in different Vancouvers…

    If you intend on telling me that you think that Yaletown or False Creek or Coal Harbour were “planned” properly, then I think you need to live there. If even five percent of the people moving in decide they need a car, gridlock reigns supreme.

    It’s nice that you list the amenities that the city demands and the airspace sale…but that’s irrelevant to my point. I’m well aware of the for sale signs in the sky, thanks.

    My point is and was that we have overbuilt the downtown core. What happens when the next wave of development comes? We’ll be Manhattan.

    So much for all the bleeding hearts and their concerns for the environment. Beasley’s plan is the opposite of what so many sycophants say it is.

    He remains, for me, and many others, hardly the visionary–and for damn good reason.

  • If Mr. Beasley is wise he will quietly dissolve into a quiet obscurity to enjoy his medal with his closed circuit of loyal cronies . . . paz

  • PS . . . a paradigm shift!

    And may I offer the same sage advice, as above, to Mr Gordon “paradise” Price.

    There is a scintilla emerging, in the city, of a more enlightened approach to urbanism that precludes the burnt umber proboscis . . . Dios bendice

  • Gassy Jack’s Ghost

    Wow, a fascinating debate! I found Frances’ comment to be quite revealing:

    “Like it or not… the city has turned to selling its airspace as a way to pay for a lot of things that people think the city needs to provide. That’s another reason why the corridors are up for discussion.”

    A skeptic like me might say that is most likely the main reason for the discussion, isn’t it? The big problem the city faces now — after twenty years of erecting condo towers downtown — is that no developer can afford to build new office towers in the core given the far higher returns with condos. It’s doubly hard in a recession. And even if they wanted to, where exactly will they go? As others have alluded to, all the talk of breathless aesthetic moments sounds a little rich in light of this key problem the city faces, so it’s very likely that this “discussion” about view corridors is being carefully framed to address this underlying issue going forward? In the core, offices have become a negotiable “amenity” that compete for space against affordable housing. If you’re pro-developer, this is a perfect storm. Witness Mr. Geller’s blustery challenge to lead the debate!

    But “deliberate poor”, Mr. Geller? Now that is really a pathetic thing to say for a man in your position. What scares me is that you are in charge of teaching our young and impressionable future city planners, and you will also likely be the loudest and most commanding voice in the debate over view corridors.

    I’d also like to add my voice to those skeptical of Mr. Beasley’s admirable-sounding comments. From my limited and admittedly biased experience with the planning and permits department back in the 90s, the word I associate most with Mr. Beasley’s administration is “relaxation”, as in, “we grant the developer the following code relaxations….” Under his watch, Vancouver perfected the art of negotiating amenities into planning, and then, with a nudge and a wink, letting the developer start whittling away at them before the ink on the “approved” stamp is dry. Bauhaus parks are one result. Heritage facadism another. Maxing out everything but the view corridors is another.

    These policies might be within the code (and if not, relax!), and perhaps it is necessary to leverage amenities to some degree. But it became so systemic in the 90s that developers even began cutting corners on basic and necessary design features to gain building space. For me and many others, the result was years of living under tarps and legal battling over another planning phenomena in Vancouver: LEAKY CONDOS.

    I can tell you from personal experience, Mr. Beasley took zero responsibility for this disaster, yet who else was to blame? According to him, it was the developers. According to the developers, it was the City. Both walked away from the problem unscathed. As our life savings vanished before our eyes along with our dreams of a happy new home, we ended up immeasurably poorer. I can assure Mr. Geller, however, it wasn’t deliberate. At least, not on our part.

  • CM

    In Paris we appreciate view corridors.La Tour de la Defence, l’Arc de Triomphe, la Concorde, Le louvre, all in a straight line you can see from the top of L’Arc de Triomphe. They call this esthetic. It is beautiful! View corridors exist because they are beautiful.