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Proposed buildings

More high-rises set to mar Vancouver's skyline

The City of Vancouver is proposing to build as many as four new skyscrapers – including the city’s tallest building…

By Grant Burns , in City , on November 5, 2009 Tags: , , ,

Proposed buildings
The four new towers would alter the skyline of Vancouver

The City of Vancouver is proposing to build as many as four new skyscrapers – including the city’s tallest building – in the downtown core, threatening its famous mountain views.

The tallest of these buildings would top the Living Shangri-La at 213 metres.  The planning department will bring their recommendations to the city council chamber on January 21, 2010.

“The big move is for higher towers,” said Kevin McNaney, a senior planner with the City of Vancouver, adding that this project is still in a conceptual phase.

The city’s motivation for adding new buildings is the public benefit in the form of affordable housing, childcare and cultural facilities the city would receive from developers.

The proposed new buildings would mar existing views of the North Shore, which are protected by city bylaws, and further crowd Vancouver’s already dense downtown core.

Crowded urban centre

An information sheet released by the planning department after the 2006 national census lists the density of Vancouver’s downtown as 63 people per acre, making it one of the most densely populated urban centres in North America.

Enjoying Vancouver's views
Visitors are drawn to Vancouver's beautiful views

An ongoing review by the planning department has shown that most residents are opposed to altering the view corridors.

“When I moved to the West End in 1956, you could see the mountains wherever you were. Now, if you’re a newcomer, you miss them,” said Robert Buckley, a downtown Vancouver resident.

More than 75 per cent of the Vancouver residents surveyed by the planning department over the summer would prefer to leave the views alone.

Michael Geller, a prominent local architect and developer, said there were other reasons for the study.

“If no developers had ever complained about the restrictions of the view corridors, this study wouldn’t be taking place,” said Geller.

Long-running debate

The reasons for the study were also questioned by the man who helped protect Vancouver’s views during his 32 years as a city planner.

”It confirmed public support for the views,” said Larry Beasley, the city’s former co-director of planning. “It would be imprudent to make any changes with that much public support.”

Local residents’ relationship to the city’s views and density in the downtown core goes back to a debate that began in the 1960s.

As the height of buildings started to increase in the West End, opposition to downtown development grew.

Demolitions in Strathcona-Chinatown were halted and the proposed freeway system that would have ripped apart downtown Vancouver was cancelled.

By 1989, bylaws were in place to protect the city’s views by limit building heights, based on their position in the view corridors.

Go east

By sacrificing some of these historic views, the city could add more affordable housing, cultural centres, childcare or school facilities, and public space.  Developers must include these public benefits in their construction plans.

City planners say that there is an insatiable demand for more affordable housing and other public amenities in the downtown core.

“We don’t have enough social housing,” said Henry Tsang, an associate professor at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design. “Most people don’t know about the view corridors.  Some people don’t care.”

But former city planner Beasley argued that was another way to add density to downtown, by expanding the city core to East Vancouver.

“The downtown peninsula is approaching build-out but it’s undeveloped to the east,” he said.

Beasley has organized a course at UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning focusing on downtown Vancouver’s future.

For the city’s planning department,the solution does not lie in East Vancouver.

“It’s not quite as simple as ‘Hey, we have some land here.  Let’s build another downtown’,” said McNaney.

In the short term, the city is looking at redeveloping the Broadway corridor rather than East Vancouver, which is home to city infrastructure such as the rail yards and the ports.


  • Great article Grant! The tension between affordable housing needs and Vancouver’s view corridors is extremely interesting because the city is known for its environmental beauty and definitely suffers from housing problems and homelessness.

    My friend from Ontario came to visit and she noticed how there must be certain zoning regulations in particular areas because there are some wonderful glimpses of the mountains where expensive homes are located. Why wouldn’t they build bigger, she asked.

    I wonder if the people who say they don’t care about the view corridors really won’t feel the impact of increased high-rise buildings. Many more could change the whole feel of the city. However, I don’t know what other options are possible for creating much needed affordable housing.

  • Before succumbing to the conventional anti-high-rise hysteria read former mayor Sam Sullivan’s piece “Densification is the path to affordable housing” on page A17 of the Vancouver Sun, Friday, November 6/09. More high-rises are not neccessarily incompatible with preserving view corridors but can have a hugely beneficial effect with respect to global warming.

  • Well done. You’ve really encapsulated the tension between densification needs and view (snobbery). It’s also great that you’ve looked critically at the implications of spreading development East, given then East Van has consistently done an effective job at housing densification, with low-rise apartments, multi-family dwellings and secondary suites. Wouldn’t it just be fascinating to see densification attempts made in, say, Point Grey?

  • “By sacrificing some of these historic views, the city could add more affordable housing, cultural centres, childcare or school facilities, and public space. Developers must include these public benefits in their construction plans.”

    I’m tired of hearing the same old reasoning. I can site 2 examples of this argument being used to gain higher density – “let us build higher and we’ll include affordable housing.” Well it’s a lie – look at Olympic Village – the whole point was 30/30/30 to gain the permits and give the land to a private developer. Well – it’s now 100% market. Concord Pacific was allowed to build higher on the North False Creek as long as they included affordable housing. That was the last on the drawing board and when it came to build, Concord pleaded with the City “it’s too expensive, we can’t afford to build it” and what did the City say – “keep to your promise”? NO – the City said “okay, we understand, you don’t have to build it anymore.” It’s all promises but action does not follow. Hold these developers to their promises – require them to build the affordable housing first – house the homeless before selling to off-shore investors!!!!!

  • I’m proud to call myself a Vancouverite and I think the downtown core has some of the most modern examples of highrise architecture in the world. I here people bragging, and have been that person myself ,how Vancouver is such a great world class Metropolis but one thing we don’t have are world class highrise land marks tall enough to inspire a sense of awe.

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