The 1401 Comox tower proposal reveals the nasty development game played at Vancouver City Hall

On June 27, 2012, Vancouver City Council is expected to make a decision on a rezoning and development application on 1401 Comox Street. This application first appeared in 2009, and in the intervening period of nearly three years, the West End community has experienced several surprises and actions by the proponents, City Hall and many of the players who influence the final outcome. This case has exposed a nasty side of City Hall and developer games in Vancouver.

Whatever the Council decision on June 27, this proposal deserves further scrutiny about the performance of all the players in the game, including consultants, architects, media, staff and elected officials.

This proposal first came to public attention on November 9, 2009, when The Province newspaper article “HUGE TOWER SPARKS ANGER” was splashed across the front page. Until that time, the community was unaware that this development application was in the works. The application was only made possible by the Short Term Incentives for Rental (STIR) developer incentive program that was adopted without any public consultation by Council in July 2009.

Since the application was presented to the public in 2009, all of the actions of the players appear to have been oriented around justifying the original development proposal, rather than engaging in meaningful consultation to address resident concerns. This project has exposed Vancouver’s entire development process to public scrutiny. It has also highlighted the need to change the processes at City Hall. Whatever the Council decision on June 27, this case has made it clear that it’s time to shine a brighter spotlight on this 1401 Comox project and other development applications in the city and to fix the system.

At the recent public hearing, the majority of speakers spoke against the proposed rezoning, citing numerous policies, guidelines and practices of urban planning as well as strong opposition in the community (nearly 13,000 signatures on a petition). Speakers raised many concerns about the processing of this application, about planning staff’s endorsement of the project and inaccurate information in the staff report. The staff report and responses to Council questions appear to have ignored many of the issues that were not favorable to the application or to the proponents. Many issues were left unanswered, including the basic question about whether the Planning Department endorsed the density on this site prior to the submission of the rezoning application since the requested density has remained constant over time.

Over the last almost three years the community has been subjected to a tainted consultation process led by the proponents Westbank Corp., Peterson Investment Group and the Henriquz Partners architectural group and facilitated by Pottinger & Associates, a real estate consultancy firm specializing in development-related public relations and Stratcom, a Vision Vancouver affiliated strategic communications firm that conducted a questionable survey  about this project in 2010. The proponents carried out lobbying activities and provided misinformation while using divide and conquer tactics in the community, such as offering benefits to Qmunity and Gordon Neighborhood House in return for supporting the project and withdrawing the benefits when it was no longer useful to the developer’s case.

In July 2010, the mayor appointed the West End Mayor’s Advisory Committee, (WEMAC) that appears to have been designed for the purpose of supporting this rezoning. It met privately with the developer, endorsed the demolition of the church on the site, produced a survey report that has been challenged for its methodology and conclusions and that minimized the importance of height as an issue in the community, and created a questionable scorecard that rated the project highly. Moreover, although discontinued, two former committee representatives spoke strongly in favour of the development at the public hearing.

For the public hearing for the 1401 Comox rezoning, Pottinger & Associates reportedly held private meetings to recruit and coach speakers to support the project (a repeat of the 1215 Bidwell rezoning in 2009). While there were speakers that supported the proposal for rental units at any cost, some observers commented that some of them either had relationships with the proponents or were repeat interveners in favour of controversial development projects — such as the speakers that also spoke in favour of the 1215 Bidwell rezoning (also a Henriquez project, with Millennium). One representative of a local church who spoke strongly in favor of the 1401 Comox rezoning failed to mention that his West End church has contracted with Henriquez Partners Architects to rezone his church site and build a 25-storey tower.

It appears to be a common practice for proponents to recruit people to speak in favour of their developments at public hearings.

While these activities may not be illegal and there is no requirement for speakers to disclose their connections and interests, the Council and the public would benefit from knowing more about those working toward getting this project approved. It places the people most affected by these major development decisions at a huge disadvantage in the face of the resources brought to bear by the development industry.

Who are the Major Players?

City of Vancouver

The City of Vancouver has failed to respond to or address many critical issues, including the potentially flawed legal basis for the Short Term Incentives for Rentals program that is the basis of this application. One of several WEN letters to council concluded, “In general, the Staff Report [to City Council, supporting the project] reads more as a justification of the proposed development, rather than an objective analysis of the impacts and benefits of the proposal….the developer should have been sent back to the drawing board to produce a building that reflects Council’s existing guidelines for development in the West End…information for public record about a rezoning or development application going to a public hearing must be balanced, objective, and accurate. This Staff Report fails to meet these tests, and fails to justify the large density bonus sought by the applicant.”

Our elected officials are bound by the City’s Code of Conduct to hold the public interest above all. Professionals involved in this project are also governed by their respective associations’ ethical codes.

Westbank Projects Corp.

The CEO Ian Gillespie was a major political campaign supporter during the 2011 civic election that hosted a closed-door fundraiser for Mayor Robertson with only developers present (media were ejected). During the public hearing, Mr. Gillespie stated that this tower will be a personal family investment. The development application process had been put on hold in August 2010 and in January 2011, after promising to allow the church to stand until the application permit was finalized, he announced that the church was a fire hazard (all the fire sprinklers has been removed) and he would demolish the church, but not before he hosted an illegal Buddhist open flame fire ceremony in the wood structure. The architect Henriquez was in attendance and when the fire got out of control, the Vancouver Fire Department had to come to the scene. It is unknown if a public report about this event has been issued.

Peterson Investment Group

The Peterson Investment Group, owner of Carmana Plaza on Alberni Street downtown, has been in violation of the permitted use of this building for years — running it as a hotel instead rentals. In January 2011, City Hall rejected a request to rezone the site from rental to hotel use. Yet, it is still operating as a hotel. The Principal Ben Yeung is a partner with Westbank Corp. seeking STIR incentives at 1401 Comox to build 186 market-rental units while apparently failing to make the 96 rental units at Carmana Plaza available as rentals as required. Despite repeated inquiries, City Hall has been silent regarding enforcement of the bylaws, or the penalties for violation.

Henriquez Partners Architects

Architects generally get the bulk of their payment on a rezoning and development AFTER the rezoning is approved. Ian Gillespie of Westbank Projects Corp. bought the site on speculation, apparently with a high level of confidence the project would be approved. Henriquez has invested much time and money on this project. Both firms have considerable influence on development in the city and neither want to lose.

Both Henriquez and Westbank were present at the invitation-only Mayor’s Roundtable on Rental Housing on April 25, 2009 (mostly only industry majors were present including “condo king” Bob Rennie, among others). This meeting led to the creation of the Short Term Incentives for Rentals (STIR) in June 2009 with no public consultation. Shortly after, any discussions between residents and the City about the possibility of acquiring 1401 Comox Street for community purposes ceased.

This 1401 Comox rezoning is a symbol of private and personal profit versus public good. Struggles like this between community well-being and development interests occur everywhere in the world. They are nothing new. But this case is significant, as it is happening right now, in real time, before our eyes, in our own city. CityHallWatch has suggested some ways to start cleaning up the Vancouver civic system, including limits on political funding, a municipal lobbyist registry, stricter reporting of gifts to politicians, and requesting the new municipal auditor general to review Vancouver practices.

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