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The dilemma of the tower outside the downtown: RIZE at Kingsway/Broadway

February 26th, 2012 · 105 Comments

Monday night, council will start hearing speakers on the proposed new tower at Kingsway and Broadway, one that promises to be a landmark and precedent (or, some say, eyesore and negative force) for the booming Mount Pleasant area.

The project has also given birth to an extremely vocal and effective opposition group that says the building will 1. change the character of the area 2. drive up rents 3. displace people 4. have a negative effect on the heavily used 10th Avenue bike route 5. actually lead to less density, as multi-person households are replaced by single-occupant condos. See this commentary for a fuller account of the Residents Association of Mount Pleasant positions.

On the other side, I’ve heard the arguments that 1. the neighbourhood agreed that this site was one of three in Mount Pleasant eligible for possible higher densities 2. if council turns this down or scales it down, it will mean prices will rise as people continue to bid up the cost of a limited pool of housing 3. this is an ideal site for density because it’s got so much transit 4. this will help add population and businesses to Mount Pleasant that will strengthen it as a community. (To look at the project details, you can to the company website here and architects’ blog here.)

This project, of course, hits home because it’s only a few blocks from where I live. It puts to the test my general feelings about how the city needs to handle the new development that has been moving out from the downtown, where it was mostly confined for the last decade, to the city’s outlying neighbourhoods of single-family and duplex zones.

A lot of people have weighed in on this already, but here are my observations for what they’re worth:

1. I don’t buy the argument that scaling this project down would mean the neighbourhood rejects all density and that the lack of development will then just end up making it more unaffordable. That’s because …

2. This neighbourhood has already shown it has no problem with accepting density in certain forms. The blocks around me are awash in new duplexes, new stacked townhouses, and new seven- to 10-story buildings, including the Mount Pleasant community centre, with apartments stacked on top, several condo projects right around that, the Busby condo project next to the Biltmore, the ParkLane townhouses on the next block, a new Concord development, also next to the Biltmore, and the Bastion development at Main and 17th. The architects who have designed the RIZE tower also did the condo block (with a car dealership on the main floor) at 12th and Kingsway that generated zero comment in the neighbourhood.

3. On the other hand, I don’t buy the community opposition’s view that this tower will set off a wave of development and speculation that will wipe out affordable housing in Mount Pleasant. For one thing, my friends, it’s already happening. A number of low-rent houses in the two blocks around me have already been eliminated and replaced with much more upscale housing. That started about five years ago and it is just going to keep going. As well, as a Pivot Legal Society study showed, around five years ago as well, the rental housing in the area is slowly seeing immigrant and low-income families pushed out by renters moving east as they’re priced out of Kitsilano and South Granville. (I hope the group has also taken note of the just-released 2011 census data, which showed Mount Pleasant was one of the few neighbourhoods in the city that gained population 2006-2011.)

4. I’m also a bit dismayed about the knee-jerk and uninformed anti-developer rhetoric. One of the spokespeople for the group was on News 1130 all weekend being quoted that she was upset that the project’s community contributions (rental housing, artists’ space) had been removed and “now, what are they giving back?” or something along those lines. If she and her group had taken the trouble to pay attention to the last meeting about the project, they would know that the city asked RIZE to take out those spaces — partly as a way to reduce the building’s bulk, out of respect for community wishes. And, instead of incorporating those benefits into the project, the city has asked RIZE owner William Lin to give the city $6.25 million in cash. The city’s community-services manager, Dave McLellan, said that’s because city planners believe they can get more artist and rental space for that money in surrounding blocks, because it will cost less to buy it there than to have it built new into the project.

5. Like many people in the neighbourhood, I mostly welcome the new condo blocks that have been going in, largely because they aren’t replacing low-cost housing. Most have them have gone onto vacant land or former industrial sites or places that had single-storey retail only and now have ground-floor retail with several stories of apartments above. They, in fact, are displacing far fewer people than the invisible gentrification of Kitsilano renters moving into the four-storey walk-ups or the new duplexes that are replacing Vancouver Specials that used to house large immigrant families. Those new condo blocks have brought new people into the neighbourhood and reduced pressure on the existing apartments.

6. I also welcomed the new buildings because they fit into the neighbourhood in terms of scale and materials. The community centre and the condos that have gone up around it have taken care to echo the red brick of the area’s most distinctive structure, the Lee Building. They also did not rise above it.

7. I was prepared to welcome a new building at Kingsway and Broadway, especially knowing that it was being designed by Acton Ostry, a architecture firm with a great reputation. But I was dismayed, like many, that RIZE pitched a 26-storey tower while Mount Pleasant was in the middle of discussions about what the whole neighbourhood should look like. (For those who don’t realize it, a developer can’t be prevented from putting in an application while a city planning exercise is in process.) And I continue to be troubled by the tower form the developer has insisted on.

I’ve said this many times and I’m going to take another kick at the can here on this. Developers need to stop trying to build downtown glass towers outside the downtown. I supposed they’ve been encouraged to think they can do it because Burnaby, Surrey, New Westminster and Coquitlam — anxious to cash in on the development boom and to be good citizens by allowing more development around transit — have let them do whatever they want there, importing that form to those suburbs.

I don’t think it’s going to wash in Vancouver and it’s part of what has driven the recent upswell of anti-development angst.

The developer who figures out new building typologies that integrate better with the city’s established neighbourhoods will make a fortune. Buildings that feel as though they have some architectural connection to Kerrisdale or Sunrise or Marpole or Dunbar will be welcomed much more easily than those that look like they’ve been transported intact from Yaletown.

It’s also what former city planner Brent Toderian promised was going to happen with development outside the downtown. He talked a lot about a different kind of building shape that would be encouraged in the development nodes planned for the city’s neighbourhood centres.

I feel as though RIZE had a chance to experiment with a different form at Kingsway and Broadway, but didn’t take full advantage of it.

The revised plans that I’ve seen are a vast improvement over the original ones with the 26-storey tower. The newly added colours echo some of the heritage colours in Mount Pleasant. Acton Ostry has designed an arcade along the Broadway front that echoes the arcade of the Lee Building. The base is now big and solid and blocky, which fits in more with the older architecture of the neighbourhood.

But it still has that tower sticking up, the projection that every developer believes he has to have to sell small apartments more easily in this town, apparently with the idea that people won’t notice they’re living in only 500 square feet if one wall is all glass.

I would have liked to see the architects be allowed to at least experiment with a more blocky, square style for the whole block rather than just presenting a scaled-down version of the 26-storey original, now a big podium with a slightly smaller tower sticking up.

Maybe I’m wrong and a blocky building would have looked too massive or overwhelming. But at least the neighbourhood could have had a look at what the potential options were.

In all, it’s discouraging to see what is happening here: residents of an area that welcomes density and has lived with it comfortably are being driven to oppose this tower. Some of those opponents are disturbingly ill-informed. And council will likely stumble through this with some compromise decision that will make no one happy, that won’t address the problems of the lack of vision for development outside the neighbourhoods or the poor process, and that will set the stage for endless rounds of similar confrontations.


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