1401 Comox – St John’s Church

Public Hearing Ended June 13, 2012.

A video of the Public Hearing, with the majority of speakers against the rezoning, is on the City website. Notably in favour of the rezoning were the first speaker, the former co-chair of the now-defunct West End Mayor’s Advisory Committee, which was politically appointed. The final speaker, also strongly in favour, was another member of that committee.

The final decision on this rezoning application will be made at a 9:30 am Regular Council meeting on June 27, 2012.

At the first night of the Public Hearing for the proposed rezoning at 1401 Comox Street the past Monday, it was “movie night” at City Hall.

New YouTube video “Integrity” shows political rhetoric about rezonings unaligned with reality in the West End

President of West End Neighbours and local filmmaker Emanuel Pereira debuted the sequel to his viral 2010 YouTube video, “Pssst, Mayor Gregor … the mic’s still on!” in which Mayor Gregor Robertson was caught on a live microphone calling residents “f_ckin’ hacks” for opposing his plans.

The video follow-up entitled “Integrity” played in council chambers before a packed audience of the Mayor, council and members of the public.

June 11, 2012 was the first night of the public hearing. Concerned residents were encouraged to write publichearing@vancouver.ca to say you’d like to speak, and to ask for your speaker number. You can also send an email or letter to the mayor and council.

May 15, 2012 The City Council accepted the Staff Report as-is, ignored the WEN letter about errors/omissions/misrepresentation of fact and refereed the application to a public hearing.

Westbank Projects Corp (CEO Ian Gillespie), Peterson Investment Group (CEO Ben Yeung) and Henriquez Partners Architects (Gregory Henriquez) are the proponents of the application. Originally it appears that they and the City of Vancouver staff  expected this rezoning and development application to get quickly and quietly approved in March 2010. Instead it has attracted attention and controversy, setting off a major backlash in the West End and across the City regarding projects of this sort — and related policies. The project and underlying policies have city-wide implications and significance.

The official City website on this rezoning application is here.

  • Information about signing up and speaking at the Public hearing can be found here and at Speak Up West End.
  • A summary of the existing guidelines is here.
  • A summary of the problems with the Staff Report to Council is here.
  • Information about the financial and affordability issues is here.
  • A history of recent events and a 100+ year chronology is here.
  • A history of the community consultation about the project is here.
  • For information about the STIR program and how it is impacting West End developments, see here.

There have been three versions of the proposed 1401 Comox Street Development. This is the most recent. What is different? Not much.

  • Previously-proposed 3,500 square foot community facility (for Gordon House and “Qmunity”) has been removed from the project
  • Density on the site to increase from existing permitted limit of 1.5 FSR (25,938 sq. ft. of floor area) to proposed limit of 7.19 FSR (124,330 sq. ft. of floor area)
  •  22 stories with a total building height of 61 metres (200 feet)
  • 186 market rent apartment units
  •  Vehicle parking of 79 spaces – a parking ratio of 0.4 spaces per dwelling unit
  •  Changes to the top 15 floors of the tower in an attempt to reduce shadowing of the Broughton Street Mini-Park

Has the developer made “extensive changes” to the 1401 rezoning application proposal over the three different versions proposed?

The Planning Department report to Council notes that revisions to the project in the three different versions of the application have been “extensive.”  This is clearly not true, as the tower height and FSR have remained essentially unchanged.

The Report to Council is available here.


The report states that “While there have been significant concerns expressed by West End residents about this proposal, staff have concluded that the application has undergone significant changes in response to public comments…” (page 2). But there is no evidence that “significant changes” have been made – the building’s height and density have remained essentially unchanged through this application review process.

The staff report indicates that while the “overall building volume is measurably greater than that which would occur under present zoning….the applicant has responded to concerns” (page 9). Clearly the applicant has not responded in a way that satisfies the concerns of the majority of neighbours to the site.

For a information about each of the proposals, see the Comparison of 1401 Comox Street Development Application Proposals.

Why is the community so concerned? Are their guidelines for development currently in place?

The West End has existing RM5 Development Guidelines that have been in place for many years. And until a new community plan is in place, residents are asking the City to respect them.

The Planning Department has advised community members that the RM5 development guidelines will be respected for new developments in the West End, and under the provisions of the STIR program “…rezonings should be consistent with general planning policy directions and good planning and design practice.”  It is difficult to see how the 1401 Comox Street proposal respects these provisions of STIR, given its lack of compliance with the existing Council-adopted guidelines for development in the neighbourhood.  A quick review of the existing RM5 development guidelines shows conflicts with statements such as:

  • It is very important that siting of adjacent buildings is respected to maintain streetscape continuity.
  • Buildings should be massed to minimize shadowing of the street and adjacent open spaces.
  • New development should not decrease present levels of privacy enjoyed by adjacent residents.
  • Windows and balconies should be oriented away from the windows of adjacent apartments, or screened to minimize overlook.
  • For new buildings to fit in comfortably, a balance between higher and lower structures must be maintained …An increase in height may be considered when the livability of adjacent development is respected.
  • The scale of a higher building along the street edge should not be overpowering.
  • To minimize view blockage, a small floorplate should be used, creating a slender profile.
  • Traditionally the street edges of development are open grassed areas that are visual extensions of the public realm helping to create an attractive, generous streetscape. New development should maintain and offer this sense of open space along the street edge and visually extend the depth of views from the street.

The building’s lack of compliance with the RM5 guidelines will result in damage to the livability of the neighbourhood and the developer should be sent back to the drawing board to produce a building that reflects Council’s existing guiltiness for development in the West End.

In the recent Staff Report to Council, many of these guidelines were ignored or by-passed without a substantial rationale to support the changes. IN addition, there were many errors in the report. These are some of the neighbourhood issues that are important and need to be addressed.


The developer has suggested the proposed building should be supported because buildings surrounding the site at 1401 Comox Street are as tall or taller than the proposed structure. However, the proposed building is surrounded by a mix of building types. The majority of them are low-rise ranging from 3 to 4 stories. Some towers nearby are in the range of 4 to 10 stories. A small number of buildings in the West End have more than 15 stories. The only recent towers constructed in the range of the proposed 1401 Comox building are at 1005 Beach Avenue (270 ft.) and the recent and controversial new development under construction at 1215 Bidwell Street (210 ft.).

In the late 1980s zoning changes in the West End reduced permitted densities and heights – a reflection of the position that a reasonable mix of building types was a good way to create a balanced community. The majority of buildings built since that time have been lower-rise buildings, particularly in the central part of the West End. The map below of existing building heights in the vicinity of the rezoning application site (indicated in yellow) shows that there are many low-rise buildings nearby, and no buildings equal to or higher than what is proposed at 1401 Comox.

The existing RM5 zoning guidelines state that the conditional height increases be considered and granted ONLY AFTER considering submissions from advisory groups, property owners and tenants, and determining the effects on public and private views, sunshine, privacy and open spaces.

The proposed building is inconsistent with the character of the neighbourhood and could result in a bulky glass tower in a part of the City known for its mix of buildings and its unique (and generally smaller) towers.

Density Bonus

Under the site’s existing RM5 zoning, the current permitted floor area at 1401 Comox Street is a total of 25,938 square feet at an FSR of 1.5. The rezoning application before the City requests an FSR of 7.19 and a total floor area of 124,330 square feet – an increase of 97,522 square feet of floor area. The justification for this increase is to create and secure market rental housing.

The detailed analysis (Appendix D) of comparisons to a potential 190 foot tower on the site under the existing RM-5 zoning do not make sense. A theoretical building at 1.5 FSR with 18 stories and a floor plate of 1862 sq. ft. (livable area of 1510 square feet) is clearly economically infeasible. This development scenario should not be used as a point of comparison or benchmark to justify the current proposal with a floorplate of approximately 6000 square feet.

The staff report about the building density states that the “the proposed tower is comparable to other towers in the West End…” and that “…there are at least three examples of towers on small sites with similar densities (page 7).” Yet the analysis does not show any towers with a similar density. All of the towers have a much lower density ranging from 2.75 FSR – 4.0 FSR with the exception of the Sylvia Tower 1861 Beach Avenue  (5.0 FSR) and the recent and highly contentious and recently-approved new development at 1215 Bidwell Street (6.27 FSR). The Planning Department appears to be making a case for precedents prior to the creation of the new West End Community Plan.

A five-fold increase in floor area from the permitted 1.5 FSR to the proposed 7.19 FSR is not a reasonable expectation by a property purchaser for a site where existing zoning and development guidelines do not accommodate such change. The proposed increase in floor area would creating a bulky building that results in the negative impacts associated with the project – shading, over-viewing, “loss of the sky” and lack of greenspace. This increase in floor area is an unreasonable density bonus for the proposed “community benefit” of market rental housing.

A market rental project currently under construction at 1142 Granville Street requested (and received) a density bonus of 19,964 square feet of floor area in exchange for creating 106 market rental units. This density bonus amounts to an increase of FSR from 3.5 to 5.72 – a resulting bonus density of approximately 187 square feet for each rental unit in the building.

In stark contrast, the proposal at 1401 Comox Street is requesting a density bonus of 97,522 square feet, a density bonus amounting to 524 square feet for each rental unit.

Given that 1142 Granville is close to completion, and is clearly an economically-viable prospect, why is the developer at 1401 Comox Street requesting such a huge increase in density?

The development needs to be scaled-down to respect its lower-density neighbours.  Economic evidence indicates that it is possible to do so.

Proposed Additional Balcony Floorspace Exemption

The proposed project includes a “hidden” floor area exemption for balcony space. The City’s normal exemption for balcony floor area is 8% – any balcony area in excess of 8% counts toward the FSR of the building. The proposal at 1401 Comox Street includes just under 12% balcony area, but the proposed CD-1 zone has been formatted to allow a balcony floor area exemption of up to 12%. This increased balcony area would result in an FSR of 7.48 under the existing zoning bylaw provisions, yet this proposed change to interpretation is not mentioned in the Report to Council.

The result of this exemption is added “bulk” to the building that the developer will then use to charge even higher rents for the proposed rental units.

In 2004, a subsidized seniors’ rental project at 1175 Broughton Street – two blocks to the south – was built with a density of 2.75 FSR, almost double the existing permitted density for the RM5 zone, but roughly one third of the proposed development for 1401 Comox Street. This building respects the existing development patterns in the neighbourhood, does not over-whelm its neighbours and has worked well to improve housing choices in the West End.

A rezoning proposal for 1401 Comox Street at something in the range of 2.75 o 3.0 FSR would likely earn a far greater level of acceptance from the neighbourhood.

Site Layout and Building Design

The situation and format of the tower is inconsistent with the RM5 development guidelines for the West End that encourage a “tower in a park” format and with traditional tower design in the West End.

Small footprint towers surrounded by significant greenspace are a hallmark of the West End – these buildings help to create the West End’s lush landscaped character and to reduce the impacts of the buildings on the streetscape. In the past the Planning Department has rejected tower proposals that do not follow this format.  Balcony setbacks of 2.5 feet from the lane edge are not typical in the West End, and should not be approved in this development.

The proposed tower floorplate at 6,000 square feet exceeds the floorplate size of most towers in the West End.  Existing towers that would exceed this size are typically those built after the early 1970’s – towers that resulted in a down-zoning of the West End due to public concern regarding the impacts of these bulky buildings.

Privacy and Livability

Existing development guidelines state that new developments should not reduce present levels of privacy enjoyed by adjacent residents. Windows and balconies should be oriented away from the windows of adjacent apartments, or screened to minimize overlook.

The staff report states that the ‘”proposals tower positioning and unit orientation provides for the best possible outlook and privacy for the neighbouring units” (Appendix D, p. 29). It also states that “the 4-story neighbouring building to the west was designed to orient away from the existing 2-story blank wall of the church…and therefore incorporates blank walls facing the proposed development (Appendix D, p. 29). This is incorrect. The 4-story neighbouring building to the west has several balconies and windows that will loose their privacy due to the extensive balconies and windows on the west side of the proposed development.


The developer suggests that changing the shape of the upper portion of the tower reduces the amount of shadow on the Broughton mini-park and other nearby properties, but the large size of the building means that large shadows are unavoidable.

The bulk and height of the tower will create shadows over the Broughton Street mini-park during the hours that children are using this park. In the winter and fall months it will be especially dark. Moreover, shadows will be created for all the surrounding properties affecting both private outdoor spaces and common roof terraces in the neighbourhood. Significant shadowing in the morning hours will negatively affect properties to the west which are “down-slope” from this project.

The Planning Department report makes it clear that a development under the existing zoning would have only marginal shadow impacts on the park and on neighbouring buildings. The developer should be instructed to re-design the project with a reduced density to allow a greater chance of protecting the sun exposure of the mini-park in the afternoon hours when it is most used by neighbourhood children.


Westerly views from low rise properties to the east will be eliminated. The combination of the proposed building with the existing tower at 1424 Nelson Street will have the effect of walling-in this portion of the West End, and is an unacceptable relationship to the existing tower.

The Planning Department’s Report to Council reviews view impacts from the existing tower buildings on Nelson Street, but fails to recognize that the view of the sky is an important aspect of neighbourhood livability. While public views of the ocean and mountains may not be dramatically affected, the proposed building will loom over the Comox and Broughton streetscapes and dominate the skyline for pedestrians travelling east from Denman Street.

Urban Design Panel

In November of 2009 the City of Vancouver’s Council-appointed Urban Design Panel met to review the initial proposal for 1401 Comox street.  The Panel approved the project with the acknowledgement that it was “a massive building on a small site.”

In May of 2010, the Urban Design Panel rejected a proposed development at 1754-1772 Pendrell Street. In general the Panel appeared to think that the density (at 6.17 FSR) was too large an increase from the existing zoning limit of 2.2 FSR, and the property is not large enough to support a development of this density and a building floorplate of this size. Specific concerns noted by the Panel members included:

  • The shadowing that would result from the building
  • Impacts on livability in the neighbourhood and the blocking of view corridors
  • The appearance of a “wall” on the Pendrell Street elevation
  • Too much building bulk at the ground level and a “clumsy” ground plane

The reasons given for rejection of the Pendrell Street application all exist to the same or greater degree at the 1401 Comox Street site.