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Citizen forum on building heights: One review… and responses

January 12th, 2011 · 64 Comments

I didn’t make it last night to the forum that West End Neighbours organized on Vancouver’s proposal to allow some taller new buildings on the downtown peninsula, an issue that council is going to vote on Jan. 20. However, others did. Here is one review, from architect and development consultant Michael Geller. I’d like to hear from others what their take on this was.

Well, since I promised I’d attend the ‘citizens forum’ if Brent Toderian attended, I did attend. Sadly, Brent was not afforded an opportunity to speak, but I heard on CBC that he might be organizing a briefing soon.

While I believe that Randy Helton and his colleagues are well intentioned, (they want to save the environment) I must say I found the presentations very naive and uninformed

(Mr. Helton expressed shock and dismay re: the Metro regional growth management study…why haven’t we heard about this, he asked…referencing some comments on the UDI website.. The fact is, this has been one of the most publicized consultative initiatives over the past few years, with literally hundreds, yes, hundreds of presentations and consultations….)

As for the analysis of building heights, views and capacity, what seemed like an ‘anti all high rise’ presentation by a landscape architect was simplistic, rambling, and terribly naive.

Jean Swanson’s tirade against any more condominiums in the DTES was misguided, and I won’t comment on Ned Jacob’s presentation other than to say after about two minutes, the organizers started manoevering to get him away from the mike.

All in all, a most disappointing effort. That being said, there is a need for more understanding and discussion on this most important topic.

And a response from Randy Helten, of West End Residents and CityHallWatch. It was CHW that organized the event — apologies from me for confusing the two.

Randy Helten here. (Mr. Geller, please note spelling.)
1. The “landscape architect” is Steve Bohus, with professional experience in view protection studies.
2. I think Mr. Geller left early, so may not know that Director of Planning Mr. Toderian declined to speak when offered the chance. It was his choice to decline, but he did announce an event to correct “misinformation.” We encourage all independent thinkers (including academics and professionals) to attend that meeting when it does come up, to participate actively, and to hold the Planning Department accountable for every word. Let us hear exactly what misinformation is out there, and have a chance to respond. He said it would be in Q&A format, but I hope that there will be opportunities for a fair discussio, so that this does not just become a controlled message to set the stage for the dominant group on Council to pass two policies. What gets presented there should be for the public record, as a part of an increase in scrutiny of the performance of the Planning Department. The Planning Department should not be able to simply cut discussions off after they make their point. Bottom line, everyone should watch to see if the event is held in good faith for the public benefit. Note that Mr. Toderian was not able to announce the date or venue of the event, so we all look forward to hearing more.
3. At issue in all policies being discussed is not the number of meetings or number of months elapsed, but the quality of the discussion. In all of these policies, I think the public should be asking for independent third-party expert reviews of Planning Department recommendations (and even presentations) to Council.
4. Submissions from speakers were limited to two minutes, so Ned Jacobs had two minutes.
5. The Metro Vancouver Regional Growth Strategy is something that many members of the public do not understand, regardless of whether there have been “hundreds, yes hundreds” of presentations. The fact is that the impacts of this legislation are poorly understood. And the focus of last night was the height review, not the RGS. Watch for more on the RGS, with a media briefing on Thursday night, 7 pm. The general public has not idea what our elected officials are about to decide on the citizens’ behalf at 9 am on Friday.
7. This meeting was set up as a community discussion with short notice and almost no resources. To classify it as a “disappointing effort” is unfair, unless someone else is ready to organize something better. The fact that this kind of discussion happened at all is thanks only to eleventh-hour action by citizens last month after the Views policy was released late on a Friday. Council deferred the decision on the views policy to January 20th. Great, but no other outreach or effort was made by the City to promote public dialogue on the topics, or even to provide more information.
8. The event was hosted by and completely run by volunteers. The host was made clear in all announcements and media releases, and in the opening statement. WEN was invited to have a banner on the wall, as the West End is affected by the Vancouver Views policy, despite what the Planning Department has told our elected officials.

The main point of the meeting last night was to raise awareness and give the public a chance to learn and speak on the issues. We are dealing with an electoral organization at City Hall that has absolute power, with 8 of 11 votes. They know it and wield it strongly. They can do anything they want while in power. I think we showed that there are a lot more factors involved in the Vancouver Views and Heritage Area Height Review Policies before Council on Jan 20. Even just the issue of environmental impacts of tall buildings alone requires more discussion. The one minute in council on Jan 16 dedicated to this topic, in which the Planning Department satisfied Council that about 64 stories is the optimum height, was insufficient depth of analysis for a city that wants to be the Greenest City in the World by 2020. The Greenest City Action Team and other independent experts should be allowed to analysis this topic further. There are many studies on this topic. Council needs to show some more sophistication on the topic of environmental impacts of buildings. And that’s just one example.

Bottom line is that I don’t think any elected officials could in good conscience pass the two proposed policies on January 20. They don’t have enough information on all the issues raised. For such important policies, why the rush? Answer: There is no reason rush, if these decisions are to be made in the public interest. The Jan 20 meeting will be a test for Council.

Finally, are there things to be learned from last night? Probably. The intent was to raise awareness and encourage people to do their own thinking and research.

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