Comments on 1155 Thurlow rezoning for 22-storey tower (Public Hearing July 15): Density, rents, urban design, and fairness

1155 Thurlow, aerial photo site surrounding CoV-PH, 15-Jul-2014(Updated/revised) Though the creation of social housing is a laudable objective, an examination of this application from the perspective of urban planning and fairness to the West End neighbourhood shows that  some things are seriously wrong with this development.

This post is a compilation of comments WEN has received on this rezoning application at 1155 Thurlow, going to Public Hearing on July 15, 2014. To be updated as more come in.

The site is where  Central Presbyterian Church stands today. The application has been coordinated by Henriquez Partners Architects (other recent projects by this firm include what is now the 21-storey The Alexandra at Bidwell and Davie, and the former site of St. John’s Church, now 22-storey The Lauren, at Comox and Broughton).1155 Thurlow, building image CoV-PH, 15-Jul-2014

The application is for a “22-storey mixed-use building comprised of a church, child day care facility, one retail unit, and a total of 213 dwelling units of which 168 would be secured as market rental housing and 45 would be secured as social housing. The proposed floor space ratio (FSR) is 9.45 and height is 63 metres (207 feet).”

Key concerns:

  1. Density of the project
  2. Rents for the social housing units (and whether these are truly “social housing”) and market rental units (for which no information has been provided to the public)
  3. Other urban planning considerations
  4. Fairness to the community

The basic issue is whether the project has “earned” the very large floor space ratio of 9.45 being proposed up from current zoning of 2.75. In time, an objective examination based on standard planning principles is likely to find that it has not.  Understandably, the Church wants a new facility, but perhaps it is neither fair nor the public’s obligation to bear the negative consequences of the bulky development necessary to provide this. Quoting from the staff report (our bold for emphasis):

4. Density and Form of Development (refer to drawings in Appendix E)

Density — The subject site is within the “Neighbourhoods” policy area of the new West End Community Plan, which recommends that the existing RM zoning regulations and mid-rise and high-rise tower separation guidelines generally be maintained in this area. Additional density would be considered where 100% of the residential units are social housing, requiring the entire development to remain in the ownership of a non-profit or government organization. While the proposal includes the participation of a private developer who will own and operate market rental residential units this will enable the Central Presbyterian Church to create 45 new social housing units which will be financially sustainable without government funding. This is a unique development partnership which warrants consideration in the context of Council’s citywide affordable housing objectives. Staff have assessed the proposed increase in density from 2.75 FSR under the current RM-5B zoning to 9.45 FSR and have concluded that, based on the proposed built form, setbacks and massing, the proposed uses can be accommodated on this site, subject to the design conditions noted in Appendix B.


The City staff report suggests that increased density is being supported on the basis that social housing is being provided.  But there is a minimal benefit of housing affordability here.  The application would appear to FAIL to meet the provisions of the newly-approved West End Community Plan for additional density where “100% of the residential units are social housing.”  Notably, almost 80% of the units in this project are market rental, and of the remaining 21%, sixty percent of the 45 units proposed will rent for between 80% and 90% of market rent.  This is certainly not “100% social housing.”

It is also interesting to note that in the staff report, “affordable” housing rates are calculated based on CMHC Average Market Rents for “Zone 3 – Downtown” – yet, when the City Planning Department compares rents under STIR and Rental 100 (developer incentive programs), they strip out the older rental units, and only compare to rental units built within the last 10 years.

The two bedroom units renting at $1,630 a month in the “social housing” portion of the building are going to do little to help address homelessness in the City. As many people have challenged or asked relating to the STIR incentive program, what is the measuring stick for these units?  Is it fair, honest, and sincere to consider rental units to be “social housing” if they are only 10% below market rent (and significantly higher than other existing rentals in the neighbourhood)?  Is this what the community expected when the City included the creation of “social housing” in the West End Community Plan?


The scale and design of this building are inappropriate for this location and out of context with the lower density development to the South, West, and North of the site. Quoting from the staff report:

Form of Development — As seen from Pendrell Street, the application proposes a 22-storey residential tower about 23.7 m (78 ft.) wide resting on a wider base containing church and residential entries. The base steps down from eight storeys at the corner of Thurlow Street to three storeys next to the neighbouring three-storey apartment building.  This transition is intended to reflect the scale of nearby development, which ranges from the prominent mass of St. Paul’s Hospital to the east, with a height of approximately 46 m. (150 ft.), down to the lower scaled residential area to the west.


The documented “stepping” at the West side of the building is minimal and creates a terrible relationship to the existing building to the West.  The existing windows of the adjacent three-storey walk-up building will be facing a blank wall.

Central Presbyterian’s efforts to create social housing are commendable.  But it is important to recognize that the church will attain approximately $60,000 per month in income on the affordable units –  over $700,000 per year.  There was no need to provide the developer with the huge number of lucrative market rental units in the remainder of the building. This project likely could have been feasible at a lower density.


Is Central Presbyterian entitled to a free new church and 45 rental units?  Perhaps yes. Perhaps no.  Most likely, every existing church in Vancouver (including the existing Central Presbyterian) paid to build their structure.  Should the congregation be entitled to impact liveability for the rest of the neighbourhood to get a new space that they want?  In a standard urban planning sense, the design relationship of this proposal with neighbouring properties is very bad.  From an urban design perspective, it’s inappropriate to put a massive building like this (22 storeys, 9.45 FSR) so close to existing low-rise buildings.

But if it is a given that the City is going to say “Yes,” and if the Church has put its faith and trust in that influential architect that offered professional advice, perhaps the Church cannot be blamed. The architect in this project has successfully rezoned many properties in Vancouver to create billions of dollars of real estate value despite strong opposition from and significant negative impacts on surrounding communities. City Council appears never to says “No” to him. But it doesn’t mean that it is right, in terms of urban planning and community development.


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