Grandview-Woodland towers were foisted on community, says former planner

A former City of Vancouver planner has written in a blog comment about what many in Grandview-Woodland have long suspected — that towers proposed for the neighbourhood were a last-minute addition by senior city hall staff to the community plan’s emerging directions.

Grandview-Woodland residents condemned the proposals, unveiled in June 2013, which envisioned a tower up to 36 storeys for the Safeway site at Broadway and Commercial Drive. Other locations in the surrounding area were cited for future highrises between 22 to 28 storeys.

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The city backed down and launched a so-called citizens’ assembly to come up with non-binding recommendations that will be delivered to city hall next June.

Scot Hein, a senior planner in the Urban Design Studio, recently retired from the city after 20 years and took a job at UBC. Earlier this week he posted a comment on Gordon Price’s blog Pricetags outlining his take on what happened before the emerging directions were released.

Hein wrote that the original plan brought to senior staff included two towers in the range of 20 to 25 storeys on the eastern half of the Safeway site at Broadway and Commercial.

“We absolutely did not support towers outside the focused ‘Safeway Precinct.’ We were instructed to put this plan (in our view based on thoughtful urban design best practice) in the drawer never to see the light of day. We were then ‘told’ by senior management to prepare a maximum tower scheme which we produced under protest as we declared we did not support such an uninformed approach for the GW neighbourhood,” he wrote. “Our next plan yielded 20 towers which was advanced to the decision makers (I cannot confirm who saw this plan). We were then told to produce a third plan which cut the towers in half down to 10. We prepared this third plan, also under protest, which was taken out to the community. The public process imploded soon thereafter. Our work in the city’s Urban Design Studio for over 10 years was always about best practice and integrity of process. We always believed that meaningful, honourable co-design processes could yield win-win if conducted properly. We were never given this opportunity in GW.”

Hein could not be reached by the Courier and the Courier was not able to independently confirm that the comments attributed to “Scot” on the post were definitely written by Scot Hein.

But Brian Jackson, the city’s manager of planning and development, disputes this version of events and said he was surprised to read the commentary.

“I was surprised because I think that in these discussions all the options were debated and discussed with a number of staff, and to my recollection, I do not remember staff, you know, putting a plan in a drawer and coming to me and saying that they didn’t support a plan — that was not my recollection,” Jackson told the Courier.

In the process of creating community plans like the one for Grandview-Woodland, Jackson said many options for heights, density and uses are explored.

“So all the options were debated and discussed and there were a variety of different professional opinions. When we collected the information and we put it in the emerging directions report, we thought we were summarizing what we thought we had and offering different options,” he said. “But clearly, and we’ve been on record since June of last year, when the report came out and was criticized by people who live in Grandview-Woodland, we admitted we didn’t get everything right, and especially we didn’t get the area at Commercial and Broadway right. So it’s no surprise to anybody that the number of towers that we showed was being criticized. We recognized that we had to press the restart button. That’s why we started what we think is a very meaningful, unique process for moving forward to actively engage the community, so that we can end up with a better product.”

Grandview-Woodland resident Jak King, a critic of the emerging directions in the community plan, as well as the citizens’ assembly, said he’s happy the information outlined by Hein is out in the open. King said residents had been trying to confirm that the towers were added at the last minute.

“It’s a sign of what’s been happening [at city hall]. Everything is kept close to the chest and not revealed and frankly it always looks worse when it comes out in the end,” he said.

“I can imagine it’s quite a worry to go through something like that when you’re a professional guy like Scot is. He’s probably relieved that it’s out now.”

King maintains it proves the Grandview-Woodland process was a “sham” to begin with and he thinks the citizens’ assembly should be halted or paused. He doesn’t want to wait for the citizens’ assembly recommendations.

“One of the problems with the towers at Broadway is we could get sideswiped. They could say, well take them out of the community plan completely — forget it, and then come back under the guise of the Broadway corridor. It’s difficult to know how to deal with these people if they’re not going to be open and upfront about things.”

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