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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

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