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The future of Vancouver’s downtown decided

April 22nd, 2009 · 32 Comments

While many of you were watching a couple of hockey teams face off on Tuesday night, there were two other teams facing off at city council over an issue that is key to what kind of city people think Vancouver is about: how much housing should be allowed downtown and how much of the downtown core should be preserved as a business-only enclave.

For some, the biggest danger for Vancouver is that it will become a resort city if office space isn’t defended zealously. For others, the biggest danger is that it will become a Houston-style monoculture, losing the diversity that make it a different-style downtown that attracts the cultural creatives of the world.

Not many spectators there (in fact, it was almost clubby, there were so few people — clubby enough that the mayor announced the final score at one point while the debates about zoning, density and mixed use were going on).

City staff, who are at the tail end of a five-year re-think of the downtown, recommended that a much wider swathe of the downtown core be preserved for business-only, although some exceptions will be allowed. If a mixed-use, part-condo development can help preserve a heritage site or residential hotel or if it’s a particularly large site, then council can consider allowing it.

The new area will cover about 15 per cent of the downtown peninsula, extending east and west from the CBD core that exists now, whose centre of gravity is, it seems to me, the multiple Bentall towers on Burrard.

But all of that dry description doesn’t really capture the dramatically different visions that different people have of the downtown and what they think this policy will do.

The Board of Trade/pro-business set came out to speak in favour of the new policy, which they think will set some limits on the housing encroaching-resortification that’s happened the last 20 years. That group has never been in favour of Vancouver’s Housing First policy. They opposed it back in 1986 and they’re still opposing it. They particularly went on the warpath a few years ago when the city allowed a few residential towers — the Hudson, the Shangri-La, Jameson House — in what had been seen as serious business space. In response, the city put a moratorium in place five years ago until it could study the situation and develop a policy.

City staff (head planner Brent Toderian and other planner Kevin McNaney) seemed to be mostly agreeing with the business types, saying that the previously flexible zoning that allowed mixed uses or residential very close to the CBD was driving up the price of land everywhere, making office-space construction unaffordable. They also talked a lot about how business people want a business-only enclave and that they also don’t really like mixed-use buildings, like the Shaw Tower.

On the other side were a couple of development consultants and a couple of residents of 788 Richards. The latter, interestingly, made the case that they bought condos in that building thinking that the area was going to be allowed to develop as more residential, and now they’ve been beached there alone, because the new policy will discourage residential all around them. Reza Sherkat said he’s lived in that area for 12 years and he can’t understand why the city would want to prohibit residential around the library, a great neighbourhood resource.

But the passionate plea of the night came from Chuck Brook, a former Vancouver planner who has made a living for the last couple of decades helping developers steer their projects through various city councils. He argued that Vancouver had created a unique downtown by allowing such a mix of housing, office and other uses in its downtown and that it was the way of the future. “Just when we’ve got a good thing going, we want to go backwards.”

He also made the interesting argument that “these big office buildings are the Hummers and the Escalades of the development world.”

Brook said that a homogenous office district becomes unsafe — with no one walking around at night, the lone traveller walking among the office towers is prey for bad types hanging around in deserted downtown spaces.

His colleague, development consultant and last fall’s council candidate Michael Geller, backed him up.

“In the interests of ensuring enough statistical office space, we’re potentially threatening the vitality of the streets and what has made Vancouver a success.”

Toderian and company kept saying that the downtown is still going to be mixed use, since at least a third of the available development sites in its shoulder areas could be considered for mixed use. But, they also said, the city has to preserve room for offices because, while residential can be built in many other parts of the city, there is only one place in the city where high-end/downtown-style office buildings can go.

The conversation took a few detours through the evening, with Tim Stevenson at one point bemoaning Vancouver’s boring architecture and Ellen Woodsworth worrying that Vancouver has created a “concrete jungle” downtown.

But it seemed clear that most of the councillors were gearing up to support the staff recommendations (they’ll do their official post-public hearing vote May 5), with Kerry Jang noting that Hong Kong doesn’t have people living downtown and that there won’t be a monoculture, since the CBD will allow all kinds of commercial uses from hotels to bodywork parlours. “You could have a lot of fun down there,” he reminded everyone.

Well, that’ll be a fun vote for all of them to explain to the many developers who donate to Vision and who are not very enthusiastic about the proposed policy. Those developers, a generation that has made its fortune in the last two decades building condos, don’t think office space can sell and they’ve been grumbling away in the background about how dumb they think this new policy is.

For the moment, though, it might seem as though they’ve lost — and for quite a while. This policy is intended to guide downtown development for the next 20 years. But then, maybe not. The city could still end up raising height limits in various parts of the downtown where residential is still allowed. We don’t know yet what mix of office and residential planners will recommend for the next big build-out downtown area, Northeast False Creek. And it feels to me like there are still lots of “exceptions” available for savvy developers to get hold of.

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