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Planning director’s take on heights, views and Chinatown

January 29th, 2010 · 55 Comments

In case any of you missed this 60 comments down on an earlier thread, Vancouver planning director Brent Toderian has weighed in on some of the issues.

Hi Frances, and readers. This past Tuesday was the climax of two very complex exercises, the Vancouver View Corridors Review, and the Historic Area Height Review. The recommendations of staff and the decisions by Council are nuanced, so I thought I would try to summarize the process, recommendations and results. I’ll focus on the View Corridors first in this comment, and try to provide another comment on the Historica Area heights over the weekend.

Because of the overlap and inter-relationships, Staff presented both items in a joint presentation last Tuesday, and there were many very interesting and complex questions from Council (I would encourage anyone interested in these subjects to watch the presentation and Council questions, accessible on the City’s website, as the discussion covered a lot of very interesting ground). Then last Friday, Council heard from the many dozens of speakers throughout the day, mostly on the Historic Areas Heights item, and finishing around 9:30 Friday night. Council then reconvened the items this Tuesday for many more questions of staff, Council debate, and their decisions. A long and thoughtful process!

Staff’s presentation emphasized that both these exercises had very strong connections to our City’s values – the value of our roots, in the form of our heritage district, and the value of our views, and their powerful impact on our connection to nature and setting, and our “sense-of-place”. In both case, our primary recommendation (Recommendation A in both reports) was to reinforce these important values, and the policies that protect them, and to err on the side of preserving them in any changes chosen.

In the case of the Views, we recommended the addition of three new view corridors (including one from our new Olympic Plaza at the Athletes Village), as well as various techniques to strengthen existing views. These recommendations haven’t been reported on much, but they represented critical ways to expand and enhance the power of the public views. Council approved these.

We also put a question to Council that had come out of the public discussion – whether to continue to treat the view corridor policy as a “hard line”, which some thought resulted in a ‘flat-top skyline”, or to begin using more careful and strategic discretion for slight height adjustments in the right places and for the right reasons, that could help create a slightly more “varied skyline”. Staff put the two options to Council neutrally, and after considerable discussion, Council chose the former, erring I think on the side of a predictable result, and the prevention of view erosion over time through a series of “exceptions”.

The last recommendation was the most controversial, the issue of 4 taller buildings (3 on Georgia, one on Burrard). Initially in launching this process, Council had asked us to consider adjustments to the view corridors that could allow additional development capacity to achieve public benefits, and this was our most difficult consideration. This because we believe strongly that the view corridors policy has been one of the most important and successful city-shaping policies we’ve ever created as a city.

Having said that, we undertook an exercise through the public engagement, and with some special help from consultants (a group of 4 of the most respected urbanists on the continent, Ken Greenberg from Toronto, Kairos Shen from Boston, and Norm Hotson and Joe Hruda from Vancouver) to conceive a strategy option that might strike a balance between various objectives. Considering the public’s slight willingness to consider new limited taller buildings in our wider panoramic views (we heard this in Phase 1 of the consultation), we looked at where taller buildings might be located within the wider views, that might also create special moments in our skyline, and terminate views from all the key entrances to the downtown. Such visible place-markers and punctuation points within the skyline are thought to help create and read the “mental map” of our city and downtown, a long-standing concept in city-design.

These 4 sites were tested with the public in the second round of public consultation and surveying, and we found that approximately half of the surveyed respondents supported this idea – a number that we found surprising given how overwhelming the feeling of public support for view corridors had been in the first round. Many told us that they felt we had listened carefully in round one, and perhaps that why the ideas shown in round 2 were reasonably well received as being reflective of what we’d heard. We thought the approach, although it would impact the wider views, was careful and strategic, maximizing opportunity and minimizing impact on the views. Given this, and the reasonable level of support, we decided to put it forward for Council consideration, albeit still with cautious and trepidation. Support from around half, still can be interpreted many ways,and we still believed these insertions in the views didnt NEED to happen.

Thus although we put the 4 new tower idea forward to Council, I strongly reinforced in the presentation that our primary message is to err on the side of preservation – thus if Council felt a strong need to add more capacity, this is the MOST they should consider doing (and no more than 4, as had been suggested by some during the process). But we felt Council didn’t NEED to make such a change, and if they chose not to add any new buildings, it would certainly be in keeping with staff’s general perspective and the input from the public. We reinforced this many times, something Allan Garr picked up in his article on the subject, but several other media didn’t.

Ultimately Council chose to approve all of the view expansion and strengthening recommendations, and not support the 4 new towers. They asked us to continue to investigate opportunities for taller buildings that met current policy. And even though they didn’t support the 4 towers, they picked up the wording we had suggested for a much higher standard for architectural beauty and green design in the taller buildings, and applied it to ALL buildings within the current taller building policy – a very strong move for how taller buildings outside the view corridors will be designed. In general, they erred significantly on the side of the importance of public views. I think this is a wise decision, reflecting the values we had heard in our engagement with the public. This has been characterized as “vetoing” staffs suggestion, but I see it as in keeping with the tone and emphasis of our presentation to Council, and staff is very pleased with the outcome.

This decision provides significant clarity after years of pressure to randomly erode the view corridors with “special exceptions”. We now have an expanded, strengthened, preserved and confirmed view corridor policy for future generations, and that’s a very good thing.

Brent Toderian

Categories: Uncategorized

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    Thanks for the numbers, Michael, and before we put this string to bed, let’s just move the discussion over to the “media wars on housing”.

    It is interesting how the numbers that are driving the process are the last ones to come out. Hopefully we can crunch some options together off-blog, then report back.

    However, on the face of it, we may have to move to the other tid-bit reported by Portland’s Mayor: dropping the FSR in the historic nieghborhoods back to 2.0 FSR.

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    Becky, it’s not just that “Hello! As a taxpayer, I don’t want to provide housing for every goddamn individual in the world!”, consider that the ratio of workers to clients can be as high as 5 to 1 for high risk cases.

    Dealing with homelessness, mental illness, and addiction is not easy, or cheap. However, if “we are not the saviours that will end homelessness?”, then who is?

    So, if you want to end homelessness, (a) what’s the best way to do that; and (b) recognizing that what you are reporting fact, how do we account for our region being a magnet for the marginalized from other jurisdictions?

    Clearly, there is a need to have a direct relationship between the Federal and Municipal levels of government. Who else but the Feds can balance that ledger?

    Latecomer Murphy quotes a piece of “Death and Life… (Jacobs)” that I did not remember. It’s a good point. However, if your “Once economic circumstance improves” applies to the five historic neighbourhoods, you’re talking about the future. If it is meant on a case by case basis, fear not, there is a waiting list.

    Tthe question of Land Title is an important one. Can the city “own” the land, and lease back to non-profits and coops, say up to 99-year terms? Then, three of four generations from now, a new set of Vancouverites would have a win-fall of sorts when land reverts back to municipal control.

    Finally, the facts. Michael Geller’s numbers suggest that the real issue has gone by unnoticed: FSR of 5.0 in the historic neighbourhoods.

    [Primer: FSR is the multiple of the lot area that you are allowed to build. Vancouver bungalows were 0.4 FSR, and the Vancouver special probably hiked that up to 0.6 FSR—I used to know this. In contemporary terms, the building rarely occupies the entire site. At FSR 5.0 your building can have 5 times more floor area than the size of the lot (or lot assembly), thus towers are a given.]

    (1) Building types that are in-keeping with the historic buildings in residential streets of the five neighbourhoods don’t exceed FSR 2.0.

    (2) Fronting Hastings FSR 2.5 may still remain in keeping with the historic character.

    This begs a question. Who in their right mind can hold on to facts (3) and (4) below, Paul C:

    (3) We will allow buildings 2x larger (and many times higher) along the main spine of the neighbourhoods; and buildings 2.5x larger (and many times higher) along the residential streets; yet

    (4) We are serious about historic character and historic preservation in the cradle of our city.

    I don’t believe a word of it. Consider that FSR is like the Richter Scale for earthquakes, a small increase in the number means you get a lot more, then think about this consequence:

    (5) The “land lift” effect of raising the FSR in such gargantuan manner has priced the neighbourhood into a market where the only affordable building types are precisely those types that are considered ill-suited for the purposes of treating homelessness, mental illness, and addiction.

    The solution? Mayor of Portland reported that his city has taken “the plunge” to a session at SFU Downtown, Portland lowered the FSR:

    (6) Bring back FSR 2.0 (FSR 2.5 along Hastings provided buildings meet specific urban design criteria).

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    Correction (first paragraph previous post): 8-person team working 40 cases. Ratio is 1 to 5.

  • More Be Us

    I am heartened to hear that our elected officials demonstrate an openness to these concepts and I welcome this open exchange of ideas. My hopes are that this discussion continues in the most constructive way possible – this latest exchange helps move the ideas forward in a more realistic context.

    An important next step would be to help the masses begin to appreciate these principles – an accessible charrette would be one great way to approach that challenge. I would think that a lot of people out there haven’t got a clue to understanding how the rest of the environment outside of their granite adorned boxes impacts their quality of life. It is the citizens, after all, that have the power to elect the Council that runs City Hall.

    Let’s keep building this forward momentum of bringing principles into reality instead of focusing on myopic dissections of things that cannot be changed at this point.

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    We’ve moved over to the “media wars on housing” MBU, but it’s good to hear back from you. We’re going to run out of space there too, but my next area of focus will be the 2005 DTES Housing Plan, which is “home” to council policy.