Opinion: Building form should follow ‘fit’ not ‘finance’

The last week of January 2015 was not a happy week for some people at Vancouver City Hall.

Those supporting Cadillac Fairview’s major office proposal next to the CPR Station must have been disappointed when the city’s Urban Design Panel agreed with critics, including me, who worried that the large building was not fitting in with the historic station and small site.

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But of greater concern was a B.C. Supreme Court ruling that stopped construction on a major Yaletown project because the judge did not think the public had been provided with sufficient information prior to the public hearing that rezoned the site.

For planners, developers and lawyers involved with Vancouver property development, this decision was simply astounding.

Coincidentally, I once had concerns about this project too, so much so that in spring 2013, I encouraged SFU City Program Director Gordon Price to organize a noon-time “City Conversation” with the title: Where is big TOO big?

With hindsight, it is interesting to read the program description prepared by SFU:

“Vancouver has had periodic debates over heights of new buildings, first in downtown, then in some neighbourhoods like Mt. Pleasant. Successive councils have allowed developers to build taller buildings than zoning would otherwise allow, in trade for developers’ donations of parks, preservation of historic buildings, day care centres, recreation facilities and other public amenities.

“But where is the trade-off inappropriate? That’s the discussion around an interesting proposal on Helmcken St. at Richards St. Brenhill Developments is proposing to replace a deteriorating city social house, with a far larger social residence and other amenities, in trade for constructing a much taller residential tower than zoning now allows.

“Public benefits? Too tall? To frame the discussion, we’re very pleased to host Vancouver City Councillor Raymond Louie, former planning director Brent Toderian, and architect/developer Michael Geller. Then it’s your turn. Feel free to bring your lunch.”

At the time, my concern was not the business deal, but rather the project design. The Helmcken tower was proposed at a 17.4 FSR (the ratio of building to lot area) or about three times the permitted density for the surrounding neighbourhood. As an aside, this is equivalent to 10 times the density of Kerrisdale’s highrise district.

While I often advocated for projects with greater height or density, I was becoming increasingly concerned that developments in Vancouver were being approved at inappropriate heights and densities given their context and good planning. That was because the developers were offering community amenity contributions (CACs) being sought by the city, especially affordable housing.

To paraphrase the American architect Louis Sullivan who famously said “form follows function,” the city was allowing building design and form to follow finance.

I anticipated that Toderian and Louie would dismiss my concerns by assuring the audience that planners and politicians would never approve a building that was too large just because of the financial benefits for the city.

And this is precisely what they said.

During the SFU discussion, the details of this very complex transaction were reported. The developer had negotiated an arrangement with the city whereby he would acquire a city-owned site containing older public housing in exchange for building a 162-unit social housing project and a 36-storey condo and rental tower along with other financial considerations.

Many concerns were expressed by local residents at the public hearing about the project design and business deal. However, the project was approved. The Community Association of New Yaletown subsequently took the city to court and to the surprise of many, won.

Lawyers are now reviewing the ramifications of the court decision and the city is quickly proceeding to set dates for new public hearings so that construction can proceed.

However, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars the city is receiving in CAC payments, many continue to worry that in too many instances we allow the pursuit of community amenities to unduly influence building designs to the detriment of neighbourhood planning.

Whether it is an office building next to the station or new housing in Yaletown, form should follow fit, not finance. Hopefully the city got the message last week.


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