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The future of Vancouver’s downtown decided

April 22nd, 2009 · 32 Comments

While many of you were watching a couple of hockey teams face off on Tuesday night, there were two other teams facing off at city council over an issue that is key to what kind of city people think Vancouver is about: how much housing should be allowed downtown and how much of the downtown core should be preserved as a business-only enclave.

For some, the biggest danger for Vancouver is that it will become a resort city if office space isn’t defended zealously. For others, the biggest danger is that it will become a Houston-style monoculture, losing the diversity that make it a different-style downtown that attracts the cultural creatives of the world.

Not many spectators there (in fact, it was almost clubby, there were so few people — clubby enough that the mayor announced the final score at one point while the debates about zoning, density and mixed use were going on).

City staff, who are at the tail end of a five-year re-think of the downtown, recommended that a much wider swathe of the downtown core be preserved for business-only, although some exceptions will be allowed. If a mixed-use, part-condo development can help preserve a heritage site or residential hotel or if it’s a particularly large site, then council can consider allowing it.

The new area will cover about 15 per cent of the downtown peninsula, extending east and west from the CBD core that exists now, whose centre of gravity is, it seems to me, the multiple Bentall towers on Burrard.

But all of that dry description doesn’t really capture the dramatically different visions that different people have of the downtown and what they think this policy will do.

The Board of Trade/pro-business set came out to speak in favour of the new policy, which they think will set some limits on the housing encroaching-resortification that’s happened the last 20 years. That group has never been in favour of Vancouver’s Housing First policy. They opposed it back in 1986 and they’re still opposing it. They particularly went on the warpath a few years ago when the city allowed a few residential towers — the Hudson, the Shangri-La, Jameson House — in what had been seen as serious business space. In response, the city put a moratorium in place five years ago until it could study the situation and develop a policy.

City staff (head planner Brent Toderian and other planner Kevin McNaney) seemed to be mostly agreeing with the business types, saying that the previously flexible zoning that allowed mixed uses or residential very close to the CBD was driving up the price of land everywhere, making office-space construction unaffordable. They also talked a lot about how business people want a business-only enclave and that they also don’t really like mixed-use buildings, like the Shaw Tower.

On the other side were a couple of development consultants and a couple of residents of 788 Richards. The latter, interestingly, made the case that they bought condos in that building thinking that the area was going to be allowed to develop as more residential, and now they’ve been beached there alone, because the new policy will discourage residential all around them. Reza Sherkat said he’s lived in that area for 12 years and he can’t understand why the city would want to prohibit residential around the library, a great neighbourhood resource.

But the passionate plea of the night came from Chuck Brook, a former Vancouver planner who has made a living for the last couple of decades helping developers steer their projects through various city councils. He argued that Vancouver had created a unique downtown by allowing such a mix of housing, office and other uses in its downtown and that it was the way of the future. “Just when we’ve got a good thing going, we want to go backwards.”

He also made the interesting argument that “these big office buildings are the Hummers and the Escalades of the development world.”

Brook said that a homogenous office district becomes unsafe — with no one walking around at night, the lone traveller walking among the office towers is prey for bad types hanging around in deserted downtown spaces.

His colleague, development consultant and last fall’s council candidate Michael Geller, backed him up.

“In the interests of ensuring enough statistical office space, we’re potentially threatening the vitality of the streets and what has made Vancouver a success.”

Toderian and company kept saying that the downtown is still going to be mixed use, since at least a third of the available development sites in its shoulder areas could be considered for mixed use. But, they also said, the city has to preserve room for offices because, while residential can be built in many other parts of the city, there is only one place in the city where high-end/downtown-style office buildings can go.

The conversation took a few detours through the evening, with Tim Stevenson at one point bemoaning Vancouver’s boring architecture and Ellen Woodsworth worrying that Vancouver has created a “concrete jungle” downtown.

But it seemed clear that most of the councillors were gearing up to support the staff recommendations (they’ll do their official post-public hearing vote May 5), with Kerry Jang noting that Hong Kong doesn’t have people living downtown and that there won’t be a monoculture, since the CBD will allow all kinds of commercial uses from hotels to bodywork parlours. “You could have a lot of fun down there,” he reminded everyone.

Well, that’ll be a fun vote for all of them to explain to the many developers who donate to Vision and who are not very enthusiastic about the proposed policy. Those developers, a generation that has made its fortune in the last two decades building condos, don’t think office space can sell and they’ve been grumbling away in the background about how dumb they think this new policy is.

For the moment, though, it might seem as though they’ve lost — and for quite a while. This policy is intended to guide downtown development for the next 20 years. But then, maybe not. The city could still end up raising height limits in various parts of the downtown where residential is still allowed. We don’t know yet what mix of office and residential planners will recommend for the next big build-out downtown area, Northeast False Creek. And it feels to me like there are still lots of “exceptions” available for savvy developers to get hold of.

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  • “Brook said that a homogenous office district becomes unsafe — with no one walking around at night, the lone traveller walking among the office towers is prey for bad types hanging around in deserted downtown spaces.”

    THIS, totally.

    I don’t have any problem wandering around the DTES late at night. Why? There’s a lot of people about. Bentall Centre, on the other hand, is not somewhere I’m comfortable being — for the same reason I’m uncomfortable around Nanaimo or 29th Avenue Skytrain stations, because a zoning monoculture has resulted in very little late-night foot traffic.

    Mixed-use zoning with shops and activity at street level is what keeps the city safe at night. I’d hate to see that disappear.

  • “For some, the biggest danger for Vancouver is that it will become a resort city if office space isn’t defended zealously.” It already is!

    Trevor Boddy coined the term “resort city” some years ago, lamenting the over-building of condos causing the “reverse commute.”

    “We don’t know yet what mix of office and residential planners will recommend for the next big build-out downtown area, Northeast False Creek.”

    I don’t live in Vancouver anymore but I would be very disappointed if common sense locals fail to clip the wings of the planning department before repeats the horror of FCN http://www.theyorkshirelad.ca/New.Nanaimo.Center/pudpn/Commentary.pdf in NEFC at it is described in its on-line propaganda tract NORTH EAST HIGH LEVEL REVIEW: http://vancouver.ca/commsvcs/planning/nefc/public/pdf/jan09openhouseboards.pdf

    My heavens don’t these guys learn anything?

    Even a “Houston-style monoculture.” would be better than that!

  • jesse

    Thank-you for the interesting post.

  • Thanks for summarizing what went on at Tuesday’s discussion. This Metro-core review has been a big process, and is a very important one for the future of Vancouver.

    One issue that you didn’t raise, that I’ve heard, is that a downtown office node encourages transit use and other greener transport methods. Did anyone bring this up? Apparently you get something like 10X the rapid transit use if a station is by an office building versus a residential tower.

    If we don’t offer more office space downtown, instead making it an increasingly residential suburb, then you’re likely to get more private automobile use in metro vancouver as people have to drive to business parks not located on transit.

  • “For some, the biggest danger for Vancouver is that it will become a resort city if office space isn’t defended zealously.” It already is!

    Trevor Boddy coined the term “resort city” some years ago, lamenting the over-building of condos causing the “reverse commute.”

    “We don’t know yet what mix of office and residential planners will recommend for the next big build-out downtown area, Northeast False Creek.”

    How very disappointng if common sense fails to clip the wings of the planning department before repeats the horror of FCN http://www.theyorkshirelad.ca/New.Nanaimo.Center/pudpn/Commentary.pdf in NEFC at it is described in its on-line propaganda tract NORTH EAST HIGH LEVEL REVIEW: http://vancouver.ca/commsvcs/planning/nefc/public/pdf/jan09openhouseboards.pdf

    Heavens above, don’t these guys ever learn anything?

  • Joe Just Joe

    Thanks for the post, I missed the meeting as I was attending a neighbourhood workshop the same evening, I’ll have to go and watch the video. Frances if you have time I recommend you head over to SSP and see the thread about what the city has in mind for the Histroic Area Height review. I beleive some of your readers would be interested in your take on the matter. Cheers.

  • rf

    I can just picture people rolling their eyes and taking a bathroom break when Ellen Woodsworth starts talking and spewing cliche comments like “concrete jungle”.

  • LP

    I agree with Wendy, the downtown needs to preserve it’s office space if they want to reduce driving.

    This quote had me rolling my eyes: “He also made the interesting argument that “these big office buildings are the Hummers and the Escalades of the development world.”

    Nothing but clever hyperbole from a planner trying to sell his views on a “green” focused city council/mayor.

    BTW, clever hyperbole = a load of shit.

    If you get rid of the office towers one by one, the jobs will disappear. Then people will need to commute from downtown to their jobs elsewhere, effectively reversing the suburbia sprawl full cirle.

    What a mistake that would be.

  • not running for mayor

    Not sure where I stand on this, personally I don’t see the resortification of d/t as having happened (who knows maybe it would if we don’t change things) I do see the need to maintain and grow office space in the core.
    I disagree with Shaw Tower not working though, having worked there and knowing a few people that live there it works perfectly. The problem is there aren’t that many sites that can handle a tower large enough to make it work, you require over a dozen floors of commercial space to for it to work (2-3floors doesn’t) on the residential front you require almost 2 dozen floors to pay for the amenties todays purchases expect. The resulting ~400+ft can’t be located everywhere though. Perhaps the city should reshape the core location slightly. If it was completely surrounded on all four sides by residents, those people would spill inwards providing enough people to keep the area lively. Note the Bentall complex has improved now that Joeys and the Catcus club are there to attract people into the area in the evenings.

  • I served as a member of the City’s Metro Core advisory group that had representation from various stakeholders including developers of both residential and commercial properties as well as organizations such as the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA).

    This group met several times over the course of the past few years to provide feedback to City staff on what was proposed to City Council on Tuesday night.

    Although Tuesday’s public hearing may have appeared to be a “sudden death” overtime period with a declared winner and loser,
    I refer you to Appendix E of the Policy Report that summarizes the results of the public consultation process. There were three public open houses (a high number when compared to the one held earlier this year for the proposed bike trials on Burrard bridge) and a special advisory group meeting held in June 2008.

    At the June meeting that was well attended, the advisory group “indicated strong support for the proposed changes” related to the central business district, the CBD shoulder and Yaletown areas, and the office conversion policy. This was quite an accomplishment to have groups with different interests and agendas strongly support proposed changes, but it did in fact happen.

    At the public open houses that appear to have had the usual poor attendance, support for the proposed changes was “generally positive” and there was much more support than opposition for the changes.

    Vancouver has a very enviable downtown. Many of my North American colleagues praise what we have accomplished. It is the diversity of downtown that includes many land uses– residential, office, retail, hotel, cultural, entertainment– that is our strength. The proposed changes ensure that we have a balanced and measured approach to preserve what has made us the envy of many other cities.

    Charles Gauthier
    Executive Director
    Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association

  • Cara

    As a former Vancouverite living in Ottawa, I really hope that the downtown remains mixed use. Ottawa’s downtown is strictly business and it is dead, dead, dead except between 8-5pm.

  • Kevin McNaney

    Good day everyone,

    I want to ensure that everyone is clear about what changes are being proposed. You can read the policy report and watch the video of the City Staff presentation of the material (begins at minute 1:55) on the following web page:

    http://vancouver.ca/ctyclerk/cclerk/20090421/phea20090421ag.htm

  • MB

    Some people see office space as a monoculture. But it has many forms, from Class A towers in central business districts for large firms with billions in assets, to low density suburban business parks housing small and medium businesses, often with shipping / receiving and assembly facilities attached.

    Some imply that Vancouver “lost” a great number of offices to the suburbs, but in fact they’re comparing parsimmons to pineapples.

    Likewise, some pundits like Trevor Boddy have bemoaned the lack of corporate head offices in Vancouver, and praised Calgary for attracting more, while also bemoaning the resortification of Vancouver. So, where does Boddy live?

    I know both cities very well. Calgary’s CBD is appallingly inhumane at the street level except for a few tiny pockets, like the Stephen’s Ave mall. It’s even dead on a Saturday afternoon. It is the closest thing to a “Houston-style monoculture” that I have experienced. But they’re trying, and their success may well hinge on the high-density residential and mixed-use developments on the boards, like East Village.

    Vancouver’s, by comparison, is vibrant and active. I attribute that to the nearby residential and to the mixed-use developments. To me it is a success story when a street is lined with small shops and lively restaurant, regardless of the zoning around it.

    Let’s not forget either that a very high portion of people living downtown also work there, and that includes service industry employees (ie. those who cannot afford a “resort” condo) and the support staff that outnumber corporate management by far. A great deal of them walk to work.

    I largely see Vancouver’s downtown zoning diversity as a positive step, and as a reflection of the market’s response to a lower demand for Class A office space — as compared to Calgary, which has really a one-horse economy — coupled with a higher demand for high-density residential.

    Monoculture versus polyculture.

    I also believe Vancouver’s ‘resortification’ is a myth. The vast majority of condos on the downtown peninsula are not located in multiple million dollar waterfront or luxury hotel-based developments. And the ‘resort’ developments on the waterfront also have devoted a significant amount of land to high qualitybpublic open space (eg. Coal Harbour esplanade).

  • Ummmm, now let’s see MB, yes, there are some interesting pedestrian streets: “Thu Drive’ being “thu best” and that is under siege.

    But we’re taking downtown. Robson doesn’t cut it anymore: its logo-strauss, no character.

    Denman is great but it’s on the extreme west side. Howe @ Hastings is fun lunch-time weekdays. Hastings farther east is grungy-crowded.

    As for “Resort City.” I go with Trev. Swivel chair mortgage paying clients cannot substitute for wealth creating citizens.

    FCN is brobdignagian. Walking it’s blank spaces is soulless, brutal and lonely . . . day and night! Ditto Coal Harbour . . . ugh!

    The Brook’s, the Geller’s, the Toderian’s: talk, talk, talk! They’ve had their innings and the city is left wanting: i.e. their proposal for NEFC. They have leant nothing and they have forgotten nothing . . .

    Of course MB you can pick out the odd spot here and there but . . . need I go on . . . Vancouver sadly needs flesh and blood planners with pulse . . . paz

  • MB

    I also believe it is a myth that “flesh and blood planners” are able to conjure up bringing back the streetscapes of small-shop paradise Urbanisimo so loves (as do I), and we have lost.

    It is as much a myth as saying “planners” are responsible for their loss while ignoring the much imperfect socio-economic paradigm we live in.

    Planners do not have that much power.

    Also, if you truly prefer “Houston-style monoculture” over the “blank, soulless, brutal, lonely FCN and Coal Harbour”, then you should move to Calgary’s downtown.

    I guarentee you’ll pine for Vancouver’s within two days.

  • Gassy Jack’s Ghost

    It’s too bad that it appears transit/commuting and environmental concerns such as Wendy’s don’t appear to have been a big part of the council debate (one wonders why, given the new council’s “greenest city” plan?). But the whole review process seems to be predicated on an outdated conception of live/work patterns. For example, how many people tele-commuted in 1999 compared to 2009? How many more will do so in 2029? Will we need this office space at all a generation from now? I think Mr. Geller and friend are probably right to conclude that this policy will lead to a bunch of Hummers being erected (though their conclusion is based on a very different agenda, er, reason). At the very least, zoning flexibility and mixed-use options should be maintained given the rapid demographic and live/work changes that seem to be occurring.

    I don’t know if anyone took Joe Just Joe’s advice and checked out the Skyscraper page regarding the historic district review (which envelopes a good chunk of the DTES), but this seems to be a pertinent issue that will really affect Vancouver’s long-term diversity, heritage streetscapes, and ability to attract the elusive, yet vaunted, creative class of entrepreneurs (who mostly telecommute).

    I too would love to hear more debate about this review and any notes from Frances. I know Jim Green is (sadly) in favour of towers along east Hastings, and the report referred to and skyline models are by Spaxman’s firm (the old city planner from the 70s). The public workshops and open-houses are taking place over the next two weeks. Have your say! Once they start towering up the heritage district, there will no way to get it back. Is a new Project 200 (sans freeway) finally going to be approved 40 years later?

  • Urbanismo

    ” . . . and skyline models are by Spaxman’s firm (the old city planner from the 70s). The public workshops and open-houses are taking place over the next two weeks. Have your say! Once they start towering up the heritage district, there will no way to get it back. Is a new Project 200 (sans freeway) finally going to be approved 40 years later?”

    Oh dear, oh dear old habits never die! Project 200 . . . scary!

    ” . . . and skyline models . . . ” takes me back to Kits 1970+/-. Bill Graham, Spaxman’s immediate predecessor, was trying to sell us on high-rising Kits slopes: five already exist, he rationalized, and the skyline view from sailboats in English Bay would be magnifico!

    It was that last one that flummoxed us at the public meeting: OMG we thought: hundreds of high priced back-up and that what he comes up with! It was, if I remember, the last success the public had. It’s just public info now.

    “I know Jim Green is (sadly) in favour of towers along east Hastings . . .” Oh dear again . . . clearly another old war horse has learned nothing.

    Wasn’t the point of FormShift to shift form: to consider, once we get beyond obsessing on view, which by the way are all lost on build-out, is to look at alternate forms: the atrium, the composite or the many other options available once the debate is taken out of the mouths of the “usual suspects.” Open the area to CD, for instance, and get the debate rolling.

    And remember the developer “free market” preoccupation is, as the current recession has exposed, just blatant . . . cronyism!

    . . . Paz

  • PS . . .

    Definitive: the current FormShift disaster has, conclusively, demonstrated, the local developer/architect/planner coagulate to have their collective heads so far up their fundamental aperture they can see Kilimanjaro through their teeth . . . so don’t expect redemption there . . . QED

  • PS . . .

    Definitive: the current FormShift disaster has, conclusively, demonstrated, the local developer/architect/planner coagulate to have their collective heads so far up their fundamental aperture they can see Kilimanjaro through their teeth . . . so don’t expect redemption there . . . QED

  • LP

    If you have the time why not read up one the 1 Bryant Park project in NY. Rather than Hummers, we can build our office buildings to be Prius’s in the sky.

    Gassy Jack is being a bit gassy thinking that all jobs will be through telecommuting by 2029. Times are changing but work is work for many companies.

    Unless a company starts getting charged a carbon tax for their employees working at an office instead of at home, many will not change.

    Now all you VV green action team members, don’t go getting any ideas from that now…..

    I seem to recall all this talk about flying cars being the norm by 2010 along with personal jetpacks and George Jetson style factories.

    The only people seeing these in this day and age and by 2029, were the ones at the art gallery on 4/20.

    There is a difference between future reality and future delusions.

  • Frances, thank you for drawing attention to this issue. Your readers should know you were the only member of the media in attendance at the event. The following is an abbreviated version of my speech to council. I have also offered some additional thoughts at http://www.citycaucus.com.

    While the Public Hearing is over, I do hope that there will be further discussion regarding one aspect of the proposed changes, namely whether it is really necessary to remove residential as a permitted use in the CBD. I don’t think so. Do you?

    • I note that this study has been ongoing for a number of years: I only became involved in the discussion in December 2008, when approached by a client who controls a large property fronting along Georgia Street, between Richards and Homer streets. Their concern was that the zoning changes would remove the residential zoning from the properties, when it was their intention to develop a two building, mixed use development comprising both residential and office space, with retail space at grade.
    • I can support the general thrust of what the zoning amendments are attempting to achieve. I agree with proposed density increases and other measures….
    • However, I am concerned with the proposal to eliminate residential uses in the CBD to ensure adequate ‘capacity’; I question whether any of us can calculate, with certainty that the demand for office space will outpace the potential supply from available sites, resulting in a ‘shortfall’ of sites. However, I do not want to debate this.
    • Nor do I want to debate whether it is appropriate for Vancouver to continue to want to have twice as many jobs as all other lower mainland municipalities. Although I would note that Metro is in the midst of a regional growth strategy, with one of its goals being to increase office development within the regional town centres…
    • Rather, I would like to focus on two matters; whether it is desirable to remove residential as a permitted use in the C1 and F zones;
    • and whether it is appropriate or necessary to treat all sites the same; adding that under the proposed provisions, a mixed use development is not allowable on my client’s site, even with a rezoning
    • REMOVAL OF RESIDENTIAL ZONING…the rationale is set out on page 8 of the report…this will ensure that potential development capacity is not taken up by residential…and that land values remain reasonable for commercial development as a result of reduced land speculation for residential use.
    • I would suggest it is a major mistake to remove the residential zoning for a number of reasons:
    a) It adds vitality….I’m old enough to remember all of the reasons why Ray Spaxman and earlier councils wanted residential in the downtown….this is still a valid objective
    b) In some instances, and my client’s site is a case in point, the residential development could accelerate the development of commercial space, which is not viable on its own;
    c) The Director of Planning agrees that mixed use developments are appropriate; however he maintains they should only be developed if approved through a rezoning. This will provide an opportunity for the city to demand community amenities and other extractions.

    This is not the way to plan a city. Instead, impose DCC’s and other levies to offset the public costs associated with residential.

    Finally, I disagree with the staff concern re: the correlation between residential zoning and land speculation. The other proposed measures will address this concern.

    SUMMARY
    City planners may have gone too far in allowing residential developments to replace commercial development. I personally opposed the conversion of the West Coast Transmission Building.

    It is therefore appropriate to allow the pendulum to swing in the other direction…hopefully resulting in more commercial development in the downtown, but I fear it is swinging too far if residential is eliminated as an outright use.

  • Michael,

    Thanqu for your assessment of the downtown debate of two evenings ago: sage indeed!

    May I suggest, sin embargo, that while your advice is founded in decades of participation and experience perhaps you view the conversdation through the rear view mirror.

    Frances perceptively headed her article “The future of Vancouver’s downtown decided.” Huh “decided” eh!

    Indeed, if I may capture one paragraph of your assessment, to wit:

    “REMOVAL OF RESIDENTIAL ZONING…the rationale is set out on page 8 of the report…this will ensure that potential development capacity is not taken up by residential…and that land values remain reasonable for commercial development as a result of reduced land speculation for residential use. ”

    Residential here, commercial over there: fabricating and assembly nowhere!

    Risking your opprobrium, that I am conveniently selective, may I admonish your views as of yesterday’s: no longer appropriate for a future Vancouver.

    I recall some weeks ago Brent opined that zoning should be of form not statistical or usage or FSR.

    In agreeing with Brent, hoping he was more than musing, in my opinion, an open zoning model that recognizes free mix, restricted, only, by decibel transmission and air quality may line up with his view. A blast furnace located next to my living room would, obviously, be inappropriate by virtue of noise transmission and foul air. A manufacturer of fishing flies, on the other hand, would be appropriate since the assembling of such is benign. In short: allow any compatible usage mix.

    Then there is the exterior shape of a building.

    Abandon FSR, set backs etc and instead modulate the building envelope. Allow form, a la Brent, to define exterior spaces amenable to external use, especially pedestrian movement: a very important element of Eco-density.

    Guiding multi-building inter-relationships is, should be, the primary, function of a contemporary planning authority.

    If I may respectfully point out, you essay describes a failed zoning methodology. I hope you receive these comments good faith as is my intent.

    . . . Dios bendice

  • PS Michael,

    My first Vancouver project was Percy Norman Swimming Pool, 1958: C$500,000 (Wow, is that all it cost?).

    As I recall we dealt exclusively with Parks Board: Admiral-of-the-Fleet Sutton-Brown didn’t seem interested.

    Which brings me to my point: labyrinth creep: the invasion of the moles.

    Verbosity, control, meddling experts have so perverted the system only an epiphany and save the city . . . paz

  • An old, not so old, architect/planner’s view. Let’s see now:

    First Lord of the Admiralty Gerald Sutton brown was the first.

    George Fountain was, is, forgettable.

    Bill Graham was stupid.

    Ray Spaxman didn’t have a clue and, still doesn’t: I’m talking view corridors.

    Tom Fletcher . . . Huh! No footprint: no fingerprints, no lingering fragrance.

    The great triumvirate, Breasley and McAffee: the greatest trio. Yes, yes I know they are only two, but they had GOD on their side. But definitely a lingering fragrance . . .

    and now . . .

    Brent Toderian. So far, if he were a cricketer he’d be LBW.

  • Urbanismo… I keep re-reading what you have written, and unless I am completely off base, I think we are agreeing on the need to allow for a mix of uses…or am I mis-reading your flowery prose? I also favour a more ‘dynamic’ approach to zoning, as is being developed in a few cities…ie: the zoning takes into account what has been built next door!

  • Michael, Clearly I miss read your very clear remarks. Please accept my apoligies.

    Mixed use to the Nth degree . . .

    Having said the PD often recognises need for changes then does nothing.

    A case in point: NEFC report acknowledges city wide excessive noise transmissions emanating from BC Place. Then laments, it is no place for families.

    Byker UK and St Lawrence Toronto, have successfully deployed excessive noise containment buffer buildings. Why not BC Place?

    That is but one example . . .

    Let us hope, this time, they listen! Ojala

  • Brent Toderian

    Thanks very much for posting this, Frances, and for promoting discussion on the future of the central business district job space. All such discussion and debate is valuable and adds to the quality of our planning – and to be sure, this isnt easy planning work. There is a danger, though, after 4+ years of intense and complex analysis, public and stakeholder discussion and debate, of over-simplifying the discussion at the last minute.

    Proper planning for the central business district (CBD) is critical to the city, the region, and the province. Its isn’t just downtown Vancouver… Its downtown B.C. The CBD makes up, currently, only 15% of the downtown peninsula. To be clear, residential isn’t being proposed to be taken away from the CBD – it hasn’t been allowed there for at least as long as the Central Area Plan (CAP) has been around (passed by Council in 1991). Further, the CAP always anticipated an expanding of the CBD, and it was the recognition that such office expantion sites were being taken up by much more valuable residential development, that led Council in 2004 to pass interim policy for the CBD expantion area. This policy allowed residential in the expantion area only in limited circumstances (on large sites, or to preserve on-site heritage or SRO uses), to protect the capacity and give us time to study how much office/job space we would need for a balanced downtown in the future. Again, to be clear, it’s not proposed to take more residential potential away than the interim policy had already taken away since 2004 – rather, its proposed to make such residential limitations permanent, adding some new possibilities for mix, while adding more density for job space. There is no “over-swing” of the pendulum proposed.

    The downtown contains the largest concentration of job space in the province by far, and the vast majority of triple A office in particular (the “5 star hotel” of job space). It’s where triple A space in the province wants to be. Despite some occational mythology out there, jobs have been consistantly growing downtown and across the city over many decades. Our analysis has confirmed that if we don’t take appropriate planning steps though, both to protect job space potential, and to grow it, we will run out of such job growth potential in the downtown in a surprisingly short time frame. After the most comprehensive economic and space analysis the City has ever done, we calculate we need to not only protect existing job space downtown, but to grow it by an approximate 5.8 million square feet. This is needed to maintain a strong CBD and a healthy, truly mixed downtown over time.

    15% of the downtown peninsula – such a small area of land, but unique land, and perhaps the most strategic land in the province for our economy. Its also critically important to our social and environmental sustainability when you consider all the dynamics of the work-to-home relationship.

    Some who support even more residential development in the CBD, hold this up as an issue of mixed-use (and isn’t that always better?) and vitality (won’t it be homogeneous without residential?). They position it as a choice between mixed use and homogeneous places. This is a false choice – not what we’re really discussing. I encourage readers to listen to the staff presentation to Council on the web, hear what’s really being proposed, and what’s at stake if we don’t properly address the need for CBD job space as part of a sustainable city.

    To be clear, with these proposals there remains room in the downtown peninsula for almost 40,000 more residents even without any new rezoning, and even in the proposed expanded CBD we will continue to have real opportunites for residential. Enough for vitality, in combination with the thousands of people living a very close walk to the CBD. Add to that all the other uses that will add to the CBD mix – restaurants, clubs, social and cultural uses, etc, etc. This is mixed use. This is far from homogeneity. But we will have clarity and stable land values (without residential speculation and higher taxes pushing out job-space potential), and that is what office providers need to be ready for the 7 year development cycle of office space construction. Office development is about being patient, and having land available when the 7 year cycle comes around.

    As Vancouver city planners, mixed- use is usually our “default setting”. The vast majority of the downtown peninsula is, and will remain, just such a vigourous mix, although the significantly higher value of residential development has made the acheivement of such a mix challenging at times (some have spoken about the “homogeneity of residential streets”).

    For a CBD though, the mix must be special, and artful. For a downtown, the mix can be over a larger area (the whole peninsula), and doesn’t have to be the same on every block. It can’t be over-simplified.

    I look forward to further discussion on all aspects of the future of our downtown, as this is a big year for downtown planning!

    Regards,
    Brent Toderian

  • I would like to correct the several misconceptions around The Vancouver Board of Trade’s position on the Metro Core study and its previous policies around the residential development of Vancouver’s Downtown peninsula. The Board has been supportive of residential development on the peninsula as long as there is a balance with commercial/office development. What we have been concerned about is some of the developments in the choice of use areas which has seemingly gone all to residential. We need both kinds of development to make Vancouver’s downtown peninsula work. In fact, the proponents of Jameson House appeared before one of our committees seeking our support for its development. The Vancouver Board of Trade supported this project on the basis that all 88,000 sq ft of commercial/office space was also developed. As a result, we were and continue to be supportive of this particular project which is not what has been reported in your story.

  • fbula

    Bernie,

    Sorry if I got that wrong about Jameson House. I’m not trying to misrepresent your position but I do distinctly recall talking to Dave Park back in the day about how unhappy the Board was about some of the other buildings that intruded. I believe Shangri La and Hudson were specifically mentioned, unless I’m wrong about that too. And I have done research in the files back to the 1980s, where the board was expressing concern back then about too much encroachment of residential. I don’t think anyone ever thought your position was no residential on the peninsula, but there has been a pretty steady level of concern about encroachment into the CBD and immediately surrounding areas.

    Happy to have your comments here and please add other subtleties I may have missed.

  • foo

    I guess it’s just sad that nobody in any position of influence in the city is at all interested in the overwhelming majority of the citizens of the region who are neither rich nor lawyers/accountants/other highly paid professionals.

    It’s all very well to discuss how we should preserve AAA office space, or allow multi-million dollar condos in the Metro Core, but if we were truly interested in making a sustainable, inclusive city, there would be discussion about how to preserve light industrial space (or, heaven forbid, even increase it).

    There might even be discussion that maybe a residential culture of >$500k condos downtown isn’t really such a good thing for the long-term health of the city.

    Really, if you’re going to push all the middle and working class workers and jobs into the suburbs so that you can make this cool award-winning central core for yuppies, are you doing anything to make the region greener and more sustainable?

  • Brent Toderian

    To Foo and others wondering about Industrial job space. This is in fact a very significant issue in our planning. To illustrate, here’s a recent article from the Courier.

    Brent

    City, developers differ over Marine Drive Canada Line site
    Cheryl Rossi, Vancouver Courier
    Published: Friday, April 17, 2009
    A new neighbourhood proposed for the Marine Drive Station of the Canada Line will soon force council to decide if it wants to retain Vancouver’s critical supply of industrial land.

    “It’s probably one of the most complex and important questions we’re facing as a city right now,” Brent Toderian, the city’s director of planning, said. “There’s a finite amount of job space within the city and once you give it to some other use like residential, you can’t get it back.”

    Earlier this month land owners PCI Group and architectural firm Busby, Perkins and Will submitted a rezoning application to the city for the land, which is zoned industrial.

    The plan for Marine Gateway on Canada Line includes more than 330 condominium suites, an office building, movie theatre, fitness centre and daycare on a 4.8 acre site that includes a new Canada Line station and bus loop between Cambie and Yukon at Southwest Marine Drive. A two-storey retail podium is proposed to surround a covered plaza. PCI and Busby, Perkins and Will say they could construct 245 rental units in a 23-storey tower to appeal to city councillors desperate to expand the city’s rental housing stock.

    But Toderian said for ecological reasons the city must preserve low-cost industrial land to create local jobs easily accessible by transit. Job density generates higher ridership than residential density, he said.

    Toderian noted residential land generally has four times the value of commercial land, let alone industrial. And the city isn’t keen to see condo dwellers so close to the city’s sometimes pungent waste transfer station at Yukon and Kent because it doesn’t want complaining residents to push industry out.

    The developer and architect have offered to install equipment at the waste transfer station to mitigate odours which would benefit the surrounding community, said Andrew Grant, president of PCI Group. He added residential development would provide eyes and ears on the Canada Line station. “This is transit land now,” he said. “You’re not going to locate a factory on a $2 billion transit line. Once the transit lines have been put in, it changes the dynamics of the location dramatically.”

    Grant said the former ICBC office at the site employed only 70 to 90 people. He sees the potential for more than 2,300 jobs with the proposed 300,000 square feet of office space, plus shops and services.

    Toderian said the city could approve a higher concentration of office development on the site.

    City staff intends to present a report in May to council on land use that encourages transit ridership along the Cambie corridor. Staff will recommend council not permit residential use on the site near the Marine Drive Station.

  • michael geller

    Well once again, I disagree with the planning staff. I believe a balanced mix of uses is more appropriate, both in terms of vitality, but also in terms of economics. More specifically, light industrial and office development in Vancouver is not always economically viable. However, by mixing uses, the residential component can ‘subsidize’ the non-residential component. This is what happened at PCI’s development at Cambie and Broadway. It is what could happen on some of the 17 blocks that currently have zoning allowing residential, which the planning department wants to rezone.

    To Brent and everyone else who want to see more office development in the downtown….I don’t disagree. What I do disagree with is the notion that allowing 3 FSR residential will ‘use up’ the required capacity.

    But if I am wrong, then why not increase the commercial density from 2 to 6 FSR, and still allow up to 3 residential? Surely that would achieve both of our goals! It would also concentrate more jobs and housing next to the CBD.