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Council okays height increase for Ritz-Carlton

December 16th, 2009 · 12 Comments

There is literally an avalanche of news coming out of city hall these days, as staffers frantically push through reports in advance of the one-month shutdown at city hall during the Olympics so it’s hard to keep up with everything going on or pick out only one or two items.

There’s the first apartment building to be approve under the new rental-incentive program, one that brought out 50 speakers, most of them opposed — not to rental but to the height of the building at Bidwell and Davie. There’s the incentives the city’s putting in place to encourage homeowners to switch to solar-powered water heating. There are the various homelessness initiatives, at $500,000 a pop.

And one small item that has gone mostly uncovered was the staff recommendation and council approval of an extra 16 feet for the Ritz-Carlton, a move that brought out some spitting mad Shangri-La residents, especially those on the higher floors. The additional height will put the R-C at 616 feet, while Shangri-La is at 646.

Shangri-La residents came up with a number of arguments against allowing the new height and, along the way, made any number of accusations about what the city was really up to, along with dark suspicions about the windfall profits the developer (the ubiquitous Holborn Developments) would be making.

Planner Rob Jenkins got up last night to defend the decision, saying that the developer will end up giving the city $26 million in total through DCLs and other community amenities, including buying up $14 million of heritage density (that magic formula that allows owners of heritage buildings to get money to restore them and compensates them, in a way, for not just ripping them down and putting up something new).

Jenkins also noted that the additional height will result in only a 12 per cent reduction in views and that the impact on residents “is minimal.”

The head of real-estate services, Michael Flanigan, also made the case that the additional height will help the developer turn this into an economically feasible project. Hard for many of us to believe, but apparently the developer’s projection of the profit on this 60-something-storey building is only 1.8 per cent. Flanigan said the staff estimate of the profit was only slightly higher — 2.8 per cent — though he did note that if the market changed it could go as high as 17 per cent.

But his conclusion for now was the developer is “taking a significant risk” and so the extra height was not contributing to any windfall profits.

Of course, I can’t help thinking that we went through exactly the same revision and height addition with the Shangri-La a few years ago. And, although many people have resentfully concluded that it was the planning department colluding with or giving in to the developer, it seems to me like what’s happening is that the city — which demands about 90 per cent back of any landlift that developers get in these rezonings — is accepting arguments after that percentage has been agreed to that the developer’s pro forma is then too tight. Rather than back down on the amenities they’ve asked for, city planners agree to new height.

So when you admire a beautifully restored building in Chinatown or Gastown, or the public art in front of the Shangri-La, or any one of the millions of dollars in amenities the city has extracted from developers, look at those top floors and ask if the price was worth it.

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