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.
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.
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.
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.