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What would the Marine Gateway project look like elsewhere? An architect shows us

September 21st, 2010 · 47 Comments

Architect Nigel Baldwin, who was always a thoughtful and rigorous evaluator of development projects when he was on the urban-design panel has also weighed in on his concerns about the Marine Gateway project.

Besides his words, which I will include below, he has also provided visuals: what the Marine Gateway project would look like if something that size were placed at Broadway and Cambie, the entry to Vancouver on Burrard, or Kingsway.

just how big is it

This is one-two punch now from the French-Baldwin household. Tough blows for the Marine Gateway project to have such high-profile people coming out so strongly against the proposal.

One of the unfortunate side effects of this controversy over the height and size of the project, someone pointed out to me recently and I agree with, is that people aren’t talking much about one of the other aspects of the MG project, which is the central plaza and gathering place it provides on the main level.

At least one speaker at the recent public hearing said that a development that gives people in the neighbourhood a place to go, as opposed to big boxes lining a traffic-clogged arterial, would actually be a pleasant thing. That part of Marpole is bereft of anything that people in the community can walk to or hang around.

The central plaza in this complex has been designed not just to move people through but to be a small main street. The south end has a set of wide steps leading down to the bus-loop level that have been put in specifically to encourage sitting out in the sun with their coffees or lunches, similar to the successful steps at the central Vancouver Public Library.

It would help everyone in the neighbourhood if they could sort out what parts of the proposed development might actually be a benefit to Marpole and what they could try to encourage the developer to hang onto, no matter what else happens.

In the meantime, Nigel’s letter

From: [email protected]
To: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected]
Date: Tue, 21 Sep 2010 13:04:57 -0700
Subject: Marine Gateway Rezoning, 8430 Cambie Street

Mayor and Council,

Re: Marine Gateway Rezoning, 8430 Cambie Street

I am a Cambie Corridor resident and long-time participant in Vancouver’s urban design discourse.  I have served four stints on Vancouver’s Urban Design Advisory Panel, was a steering committee member for the first Skyline Study and a team member in the South East False Creek design charrette.  In my four decade practice as an architect, I specialized in designing buildings sensitive to their Vancouver contexts.  I have won a few design awards along the way.

I am writing to express my deep concerns with the Marine Gateway proposal and the process by which it is being rushed towards canonization.  I urge Council to immediately suspend the rezoning process and to give planning staff the mandate and resources to complete a proper, professional, neighbourhood centre plan.  If, after the plan is complete, heights and densities like those seen in this proposal are still considered suitable – heights and densities that will by precedent radically shift the shape of all our neighbourhoods – Council should complete the City-wide plan promised by the EcoDensity Charter before ratifying the neighbourhood plan.   

The most important goal for the planning effort at the south end of Cambie must be to create the framework for a successful new neighbourhood centre in a location which poses significant challenges.  Other notions, like the first impressions airport arrivals have of our city or the memorialization of our southern municipal boundary might be important, but should never be allowed to trump this primary task.  If we create a superb neighbourhood centre here, these other issues will largely take care of themselves, anyway.   

Approving the Marine Gateway project at this time removes the opportunity to explore other concepts for the centre, one or more of which will almost certainly be better than the constrained result of trying to fit a neighbourhood around a single, powerful, private development, especially one that claims itself to be entirely self-sufficient, as if that were a good thing.  Fortunately, Vancouver can afford to wait and do it right.

My specific issues with the Marine Gateway proposal concern the retail/movie theatre component and the density, heights and built form of the proposal as a whole.   I welcome the applicant?s inclusion of a significant amount of office space in the proposal and accept to a degree the notion that such space might require cross-subsidization by other, more profitable uses, but believe that the overall result here is not a good deal for Vancouver.  I applaud the hard work put into the project proposal by the development team, but find many of the underlying principles to be wrong headed.  Nothing in the design rationale justifies the proposed net density of 6 FSR.  Nothing in Vancouver’s population or sustainability goals justifies 6 FSR, either.

Broader study is required to determine the quantity, location and type of retail needed to serve and support the neighbourhood.  We know that the location of key anchors and their early commissioning are critical to nurturing neighbourhood vitality and creating active streets.  Intuitively, would we not expect these anchors and the majority of the retail to be north of Marine like the centre of population will be (as demonstrated even in the sandbox quality ‘Draft Urban Design Concept’)?  Additional retail (and theatres) should only be allowed in the neighbourhood if they do not negatively impact this and other neighbourhood centres and if they do not add more traffic to already congested streets and intersections.

While I am a strong supporter of the appropriate densification of our city (I pretty much made a career doing it), too much density in the wrong places can certainly have negative impacts.  I have heard the Marine Gateway project described as ‘a little downtown’: pretty words to shore up audacious expectations for heights and densities, but actually an oxymoron.  We all know successful downtowns cannot be little; you need enough mass of people and services, links and connections to make them buzz, to make us want to live there despite their inevitable downsides like noise and congestion, loss of privacy and personal space, anonymity and alienation.  If you build a sliver of downtown three miles from the real thing, you get none of the benefits but all of the downsides.  If we develop here to significant but more reasonable densities, perhaps around the 3 FSR needed to support district heating, a much more livable centre can be created offering greater choice of built form and a broader range of housing types; a sustainable alternative to downtown living.

In my view, the project is both too dense and too high, and has an entirely un-Vancouver lumpiness; the coarse grain you might expect to find in Mississauga or Metrotown. Since many people seem to have difficulty appreciating the true scale of the project, I have attached a study showing the Marine Gateway proposal overlaid on some recognizable Vancouver contexts, which seeks to answer the much-asked question ‘Just how big is it’?

I have great respect for the architect for this project, not just for his leadership within the profession on sustainability, but also for his design and compositional skills.  His best buildings balance rational forms with elements of delight, and are executed with subtle sophistication and a light touch.  The design for the Marine Gateway displays none of these qualities.  Even if we accept the notion that a bold new direction is needed for architecture in Vancouver (which notion seems to have been extrapolated from an off-hand comment by a lone critic), and if we further accept that an exemplar of such brave new architecture must occur writ large in this particular location, surely this brash and overbearing piece of work in no way represents the kind of architectural future most of us would want for our city.

Regardless of which LEED standard it is targeting, the strategic decisions concerning the shape and location of the residential building made to satisfy the project?s monumental agenda leave it fundamentally flawed as an example of green development.  Its complex shape and unnerving cascading cantilevers will undoubtedly cost a structural premium to resist both vertical and lateral loads; jamming so many suites so close to a noisy transit station will require a huge increase in both the weight and complexity of manufacture of the glass needed to make the interiors quiet enough to live in; and that enormous west façade, which fronts fifty percent of the suites in the building, will demand equally enormous amounts of cooling (even if almost free) and/or shading to render the building habitable.

A basic tenet of sustainable design is the need to employ an integrated design process, which ‘brings together all the key stakeholders and design professionals to work collaboratively and interactively from the early planning stages on’ (to quote Metro Vancouver?s website).  Applying this process to community planning, how can we expect to plan a sustainable neighbourhood one private parcel at a time, favouring the interests of a single developer and a small but powerful group at City Hall over the needs of the neighbourhood and the values of the City as a whole?

Nigel Baldwin MAIBC FRAIC

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