Condo vs. office conflict sparks debate about what city did wrong
By Joel Barde
The Vancouver councillor who led the way in approving a controversial office tower in the heart of its downtown business area said the city may have erred in allowing a condo building nearby years earlier.
“This is a situation where we perhaps didn’t think as clearly as we might have,” said. Coun. Raymond Louie. He acknowledged that in the wake of a nasty debate the last six months over the tower, which saw condo residents living across the alley campaign against it.
The debate culminated in a recent vote approving the 30-storey Exchange tower at Howe and Pender, a project being developed by Credit Suisse and Swissreal Group. The $200-million project will include restoring and building partially on top of the city’s historic stock-exchange building.
But, in the process, Louie wasn’t the only one to raise questions about how the city came to be caught in the middle of an unwinnable fight between condo residents who said they had a right to housing that didn’t face into office cubicles and office developers who said they had the right to build in a business district.
Supporters of the project largely dismissed the condo residents’ objections, saying they shouldn’t have moved into the office district if they don’t like office towers.
They also said the city made a mistake by allowing any condos into the area.
Rob Danielsen, a senior commercial adviser at Century 21, is among many who think the Jameson House should not have been allowed. “I think the business district should be the business district.”
That sentiment is shared by Bob Ransford, a development and and housing issues columnist for the Vancouver Sun.
He says the city’s business district is critical to the region’s economy.
“If a residential building hadn’t been built there, we would not have seen these conflicts when this building was proposed.”
Jameson House was one of three business-district sites where the city allowed condos in the early 2000s as part of its push to encourage residential development in the downtown peninsula.
The Hudson and the Shangri-La, on the shoulder of the business district, were complete rezonings. The developers of the Jameson House, closer to the core, were required to include the amount of office space it was zoned for and then were allowed to put condos on top.
The tower’s opponents
But those on the other side say the problem wasn’t the city’s original decision to allow a condo tower. It was the recent decision to allow a much taller office tower on the Howe and Pender site than was originally planned.
Green Party Coun. Adriane Carr said the area is effectively a neighbourhood — that it was transformed into one when the city allowed Jameson House to be developed — and that it would be disingenuous to now allow the Exchange tower.
Carr’s central contention was that Jameson House residents had a reasonable expectation that any development on adjacent property would be “constrained” by land-use policy.
When the Jameson House condo first went to market, the Howe and Pender site was zoned to allow a building that was seven times the area of the land. The city’s decision gives Credit Suisse and Swissreal the go-ahead to develop a building that is seven times that density.
“If you signal to the public there is a certain zoning in place and they can look with confidence that it will inhibit a big tower from being built there, I think you have to stand by your words,” said Carr.
An “exemplary application”
Supporters of the Exchange tower say the increased density is warranted because the tower will help create much-needed office space and preserve the city’s heritage by incorporating the old Vancouver stock exchange building.
Louie praised the developers and called the proposal an “exemplary application.” The city, Louie said, must encourage the development of office space in order for it to remain working and viable.
He referred to a 2009 city-commissioned study that says Vancouver faces a 5.8-million-square-foot shortfall in office space over next 30 years. And he underscored the fact that the development is in line with the city’s effort to restrict residential in favor of commercial development within the city’s business district.
Accommodating the neighbours
Selwyn Dodd, chief architect for the project at Iredale Group Architecture, said there has been a lot of discourse between the city, his office, and the residents of Jameson House.
And he says he has made significant overhauls to his design — on three separate occasions. These included truncating the northwest corner of the building and agreeing to cover sightlines (areas where Jameson House residents would be able to view office workers) in areas where the tower is within 20 metres of Jameson House.
Dodd would not comment on the cost of the changes, but he indicated that the revisions were a lot of work and “has resulted in a much less favorable floor plan for leasing.”
“The only thing that would make them happy,” said Dodd, “is if we didn’t build.”