Vancouver’s Height, Density and View Give Away to Developers, a Holiday Gift?

***UPDATE TO BELOW*** December 14, 2010

Council has moved to push down the date when they will hear from the public regarding the policy: Implementation of “Vancouver Views” and Opportunities for Higher Buildings in the Downtown, from this Thursday December 16, to Thursday January 20th.  Given the enormous significance of what this policy means to livability and the shape of things to come for our city, not to mention the level of “chatter” in the public that was taking place, Council wisely decided to allow more time for the public to consider what is in the report. The key issue now, given the amount of developer “astro-turf” we’ve been subject to in other projects, will be the quality of public discussion between now and Jan 20.


The city of Vancouver released this PDF report to the public this past Friday, December 10th, regarding Implementation of “Vancouver Views” and Opportunities for Higher Buildings in the Downtown. It was prepared two weeks ago, yet the public, only now, has the opportunity to evaluate the report’s recommendation and let City Council know their thoughts a mere 3 days from now, just before the holidays.  Why the delay? Why so hush? Maybe the city wanted to keep this “gift” a surprise?

In what has become an increasingly routine pattern with the city, information is being controlled and held back from the public, in some cases right up to the moment of Council deliberation, stacking the odds strongly against effective and informed public input.  Just look at some of the public comments in the report which lay classic “astro-turf” seed, i.e:

“We need to frame this as affordable housing vs. sprawl vs. density”

West End / 'Burrard Gateway' and Downtown South "Higher Building" zones

West End and Central Business District "Higher Building" zone

For starters, the title of the report is misleading. It’s actually about the downtown -and- the West End.

The Burrard Gateway zone would allow a ‘discretionary height’ of 375′ (114m) and 300′ depending on the location of the property, including the northwest corner of the zone in the West End where now sits the Davie Village Community Garden and the Esso station across the street.

As well, two other sites in the West End are identified with a 700′ and 550′ discretionary height limit (213m & 168m) south west of W Georgia and Burrard.

Furthermore a larger portion of the downtown and West End has been identified to allow for 700′ buildings; see page 20 in the report.

As these are ‘discretionary’ heights, recent experiences demonstrate that what should be the maximum allowable height is in fact the starting point, and is granted by the Director of Planning on demand. Then comes the heritage transfer, different density bonuses, the elevator/penthouse. Finally the developer just asks for additional floors on top of all that.

Basically we are looking at allowing 800′ to 900′ buildings in the downtown core and West End. For comparison, you can see a list of the tallest buildings in Canada here on this wikipedia page.

Facing west at the 'Burrard Gateway' development at Drake (left) to Davie (right)

The proposed height “limits” with the liberal interpretation of ‘discretionary height’ would mean allowing buildings in Vancouver about as high as those in Toronto to penetrate into existing view corridors.  For the land owners of the Downtown Toyota dealership ‘Burrard Gateway’ development at the corner of Burrard and Drake, it’s obviously worth the wait for a Higher Buildings policy to go through as it means hundreds of thousands saved in tax dollars.

As we all know, developers then like to use tall buildings downtown as precedents for heights elsewhere in the city, as can be seen in the comparisons of the Shangri-La tower to what’s proposed for 1401 Comox. We can also see, all too well, how height limits at 1569W 6th were (not) respected. If “Higher Buildings” are approved, then the spread of extremely tall buildings goes into other communities from the West End and downtown to Chinatown & the Downtown East Side.

This exercise could appear to be an attempt to smash through existing height controls by stealth, right before the year end holidays, on very short notice, as part of a “Friday news dump” when most aren’t paying attention. That didn’t stop GlobalBC News from covering the issue:

Facing east along Davie, what the "Higher Building" zone looks like over what is now the Davie Village Community Garden (left) and Esso station (right)

If the policy is approved, the Davie St. site at 375′ (114m) would allow a 41 storey tower with a 9′ floor to floor height. Given the usual granting of additional floors, building height could go even higher. Similarly in the 700′ identified tower site, building height could go to 78 storeys in the West End.

A steady increase in the number of extremely tall buildings would effectively build a wall between the North Shore and Vancouver when viewed from locations around the city. Essentially, the presence of the North Shore mountains are becoming detached from the ‘Vancouver experience’ and made available to the highest bidders.

The flurry of development of extremely tall skyscrapers in Canada and elsewhere around the world during the 60’s & 70’s was the result of a number of factors. Developers and architects distinguished buildings by height alone, and not design. This rationale, of course, has gone out of style in other parts of the world.

However, it’s also dangerous to look out of context at other cities for precedents. Unlike other Canadian and American cities, we have the North Shore mountains.  It is our symbol and heritage, for which its dominance on the Vancouver skyline is deteriorating.

Let the city know your thoughts. We are in the final moments before they decide this Thursday, email: mayorandcouncil@vancouver.ca

For information or to register to speak, call Tina Hildebrandt, Meeting Coordinator, at 604.873.7268 or email tina.hildebrandt@vancouver.ca

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