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Rize tower council’s moment to take a stand on future development in city

April 17th, 2012 · 19 Comments

Vancouver city council can approve the Rize tower at Broadway and Kingsway today as is and defend it energetically, saying this is a good design that represents the way future development should be done, if it believes that ultimately people will come to point to the building as a good example.

Or it can turn it down, if it thinks it’s too far from the goal.

Or it can modify it, saying, “We’ve listened to the community and they’ve made some valid points. In order to ensure that future communities welcome density, we will ask for changes that make this project work better with local goals.”

That was the way former city planning director Brent Toderian outlined today’s possible choices for council as I talked to him, plus the developer and community group, about today’s decision, coming in three or four hours. (My Globe story here, with a somewhat unfortunate headline in the print edition that overstates Toderian’s point.)

But I have to wonder if councillors are thinking about modifying the design at all. As I looked over the staff memos to council, which were in response to questions councillors put to them, none were about what options council had for asking for any changes to the building.

As Brent and other planners have explained to me, if councillors really wanted to explore the possibilities for making adjustments to the building, they could ask staff during the hearing about the impact of this or that change and whether it was doable

Instead, most of the questions to staff seem to have been of the “Doesn’t the crazy public have all the wrong ideas about this?” kind of question.

So staff supplied memos explaining that no, it’s not a conflict of interest to accept a campaign donation from a developer and then vote on the project, according to legal decisions. And no, the retail on the second floor is not a big box, it’s supposed to be a food co-op. And no, the bike lane won’t be impact by trucks turning into the new development because there will actually be a separated lane and traffic reduced to one-way. And yes, there will be money put towards cultural facilities in the area, thanks to the developments community amenity contribution. Etc etc.

None of the questions, that I can see, dealt with the presenters’ questions who were less of the developers-are-evil-deceivers track and had more subtle points, those who said “We welcome development but have concerns about the form and height of this building.”

Some of that, as staff has rightly pointed out, can be dealt with in urban design and development panel hearings. But some can’t, like the questions of massing and height or having a second floor of retail that is about the size of the local IGA or Buy-Low grocery stores. (Which is said to be for a food co-op, but someone who interviewed the co-op people recently noted that their plans were surprisingly vague and that they don’t have financing yet. Plus, without interviews, I have to wonder how a food co-op the same size as Buy-Low would work. I’ve never seen a food co-op that size anywhere in Vancouver.)

Council’s lack of interest in those issues, plus their leading questions on and off the floor (“Don’t you think this tower might be just as much of a landmark in the future as the Lee building, which was seven times higher than the surrounding houses when it was built?” “What about all the local businesses who think this project is a good idea?” and so on) lead me to think that they are wanting to approve this project pretty much as is.

If they’re doing that, they may be counting on two things:

1. The people who participated in community hearings who DID say they were willing to accept higher buildings on the three identified key sites in Mount Pleasant. I keep being told that there were many people like that who participated in the community-plan process. It’s odd to me that not a single one seems to have appeared at public hearings or this blog — perhaps intimidated by the virulent opposition? — but councillors may be hearing from them quietly or councillors may be relying on the planners’ summary of the long consultations as their evidence for that support.

2. The 40 to 50 per cent of people who have indicated in random surveys of the neighbourhood that they don’t have a problem with the project as is.

If so, they need to be sure that those people and more will continue to be on board. As Brent has noted, projects that come to be seen as density done poorly end up turning the public off and making subsequent developments even more difficult to get approved. Density done well ends up making people nod and say, even if they were originally opposed, “That was a good thing.”

Two examples of the ends of those: Arbutus Walk, bitterly opposed by the residents of the day, now seen as a complementary addition to the neighbourhood with its low- and mid-rise buildings. Elsewhere, the Knight and Kingsway project, which was ironically welcomed enthusiastically by the neighbourhood group that had worked with the city on this area. But, even though the project provided all the amenities the community wanted, its form and architecture have become, for many, an example of developments that don’t fit with their neighbourhoods. The project continues to look today like a rocket ship that landed in the middle of a small town.

By the way, for those who might have missed it on the last Rize post, here is a copy of Brent Toderian’s fuller remarks there.

“The Rize project and many others illustrate the biggest challenge in the much-needed evolution of the city outside the downtown; in “density done well” in many different contexts, how big is too big? Some developers start with proposals that are too large for site, context or policy, antagonising communities early in the process, and staff are caught early in finding/negotiating a workable design that developers might claim is too little and some in the community say is too much. The parties sometimes play what I call “squeezing the balloon”, taking density off one part of the project, and casually suggesting it could be added back in somewhere else, most often in additional height, instead of recognizing that the density proposed is too high. Thus the stage can be set for tensions and controversy. This has to change, as “how big is too big” really is the key urban design question as we seek to implement “density done well” across the city. You can’t be reluctant to talk about it. It also needs better clarity across the city, which is why I wanted to undertake a first city-wide plan that would consider clarity of form and density in the many contexts across the city.

I say all this as an obvious strong supporter of density, the primary author of EcoDensity. But not out-of-context density, over-building, or over-density for the wrong reasons (ie cac calculations or pressures to “solve affordability” in one project). “Density done well” leads to successful densification, density done poorly leads to densification being justifiably opposed.

For the Rize, the site is a very good site for density, and an appropriate site for height as a form for density as per the freshly approved Community Plan. I felt the density proposed was on the high end of supportability, it pushed the envelope, but the design was well done and made the density workable. Council doesn’t have to treat the application as black-and-white though. They can approve, refuse, OR MODIFY the application if they are convinced by what they’ve heard, and there’s nothing to say that this is the exact right density for the site; just that staff thought it was supportable. The public hearing is PART of the decision process, not something that happens after the decision process is over – thats true for both Council AND staff. They’ve done a lot of listening, and although I think the application should be approved, that listening could reasonably lead to Council modifications to the proposal. Council has that choice. A proposed, and even a supported, density level is never an absolute truth.”





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