Demolition coming for Legg Residence (1241 Harwood): Zoning explained – How much height and density did the City really have to give the property owner?

(This article is copied from CityHallWatch with permission. Neighbours are planning a protest this weekend, ahead of demolition slated for May 20. Stay tuned.) There’s been some confusion in recent media reports about the upcoming demolition of the Legg Residence (the Class A heritage building at 1241-1245 Harwood Street in Vancouver’s West End), the City’s options, and the zoning for the site. Let’s clear that up, as an important case study and evaluation of the performance of the media, as well as public servants and elected officials at Vancouver City Hall. Is the public receiving accurate and correct information? Was it really a choice between saving either the tree or the heritage house — one or the other — as suggested by Mayor Robertson in a Global TV interview? Or were there other options? Robertson’s comments on the Legg Residence are just after the one-minute mark of this Global news video on May 9, 2014 (click here to see video and article):

GlobalTV RobertsonRobertson said: “It’s really unfortunate to see the loss of a heritage building. The City’s worked really hard on getting a new heritage program in place. But the neighbourhood was very clear – that they wanted to see the tree saved. And that means development on the rest of that site. Which is, which is you know, respecting the neighbourhood’s wishes.”

Legg ResidenceDoes it follow that the neighbourhood’s wishes were to demolish the Legg Residence over saving the 12-storey tall Tulip Tree? Or that it was not possible to save both the tree and the heritage house? Was the neighbourhood even given a choice between saving the tree or the house? Could the City have worked “a little harder”?

Perhaps the best place to answer these questions is to see what the City is required to permit under its zoning bylaws for the height and density on this site:

RM-5A zoningThe City is only required to grant a fraction of the maximum possible height and density for the site. This power of the City to decide is one of the tools with discretionary zoning. However, City staff instead chose to grant the maximum permissible height and density. This  choice by the City paved the way for the demolition of the Legg Residence. The City of Vancouver had every right to tell the property owner that it can only build up to 60 feet (at the centre of the site, but lower at the edges) and to say it can only build to a Floor Space Ratio of 1.0 (vs. 2.2). Why didn’t the City play “hard ball” with the applicant in order to save the house? That is a question for the Mayor and City Council to answer.

If there’s any party that is responsible for the demolition of the Legg Residence, then it is the City of Vancouver. There were other choices. The following images show how much higher the tower is than the maximum permitted (i.e., if requested, the City is required to permit) under this site’s zoning (transparent pink envelope):

It’s also worth noting the City could have also conducted an investigation into the $2 sale of the Legg Residence and the murky circumstances around the transfer of the holding company ownership. This never happened.

There is also the issue of the 400-foot tower separation guidelines for the West End. That’s another policy that might have been used to limit the height of the tower proposed for the site of the Legg Residence. The Chelsea at 1219 Harwood is a 12-storey highrise. The City “remeasured” this building in the second half of 2011 so that it was just below the 110 foot height designated in the guidelines. Prior to May of 2011, a City report stated that the Chelsea was “approximately” 110 feet, and the analysis at that time considered the tower separation guidelines to be in effect. It’s worth noting that the “remeasured” Chelsea highrise was not measured to the top of the building, but rather to a lower roof level. This change would merit some greater scrutiny.

RM-5 tower separation guidelines

If the Chelsea would be considered a highrise with a height greater than 110 feet (measured to the top of the building), then the tower separation guidelines would preclude the construction of another tower on the block:block tower separation (for 110' or more)

It’s worth noting that the southwest portion of the site could have been developed with a 4 to 5 storey building, all within existing zoning. Both the heritage house and the tulip tree could have been saved under that scenario. Speakers at the Development Permit Board meeting in December of 2011 asked the City of Vancouver to explore that option. Why did the City not pursue that request?

The maximum height that must be granted by the City under current zoning is defined by the following cross section:

RM-5A height envelope (cropped, compressed for clarity)

ADDITIONAL INFO.

The provisions for the City to grant conditional height and density increases under the existing zoning are in this document:
http://vancouver.ca/files/cov/west-end-rm-5-rm-5b-rm-5c-district-schedules.pdf

Height:

4.3.2 The Director of Planning or the Development Permit Board, as the case may be, may permit an increase in the maximum height of a building to a height not exceeding 58.0 m provided that the livability and environmental quality of the surrounding neighbourhood is not unduly harmed, and provided that it first considers:
(a) the intent of this Schedule and all applicable policies and guidelines adopted by Council;
(b) the submission of any advisory group, property owner or tenant; and
(c) the effects on public and private views, sunshine, privacy and open spaces

Density:

4.7 Floor Space Ratio

4.7.1 The floor space ratio shall not exceed 1.00 except that the Director of Planning or the Development Permit Board, as the case may be, may permit an increase in the floor space ratio to any figure up to and including 1.5 in the RM-5, 2.20 in the RM-5A and RM-5C, and 2.75 in the RM-5B Districts, provided that it first considers:
(a) the intent of this Schedule and all applicable policies and guidelines adopted by Council;
(b) the submission of any advisory group or property owner or tenant; and
(c) the height, bulk, location and overall design of the development and its effects on nearby sites, streets and public open spaces;

In conclusion, the City made a decision to grant maximum height and density, regardless of the input of property owners and tenants, and this contributed to the false dichotomy of “tree vs house.”

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Also, for reference…

4.3.1 The maximum height of a building shall not exceed 18.3 m, but no portion of the building shall extend above the envelope illustrated and described in Figure 1. Height shall be determined by a line parallel to a line joining the official established building grades at the property lines. Angles shall be measured from vertical lines at the property line.
[diagram / cross section 7.4m to 18.3m to 11.0m]
4.3.2 The Director of Planning or the Development Permit Board, as the case may be, may permit an increase in the maximum height of a building to a height not exceeding 58.0 m provided that the livability and environmental quality of the surrounding neighbourhood is not unduly harmed, and provided that it first considers:
(a) the intent of this Schedule and all applicable policies and guidelines adopted by Council;
(b) the submission of any advisory group, property owner or tenant; and
(c) the effects on public and private views, sunshine, privacy and open spaces.

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