Where is this going to be built – and what lesson is there to be learned?
This is the proposed residential tower for 1241 Harwood in the West End (map here). It is at least the third version, six years in the making. And it satisfies no one.
Not because it is a rezoning, or above the allowable density, or an incentivized development like the other contentious STIR projects in the West End. No, this is a failure of accommodation – an inability of various interest groups in the community to accept an imperfect solution that still results in something better than would otherwise occur.
The original proposal put forward by Bing Thom Architects would have incorporated a new residential tower, saved a massive tulip tree and restored the existing wooden mansion, considerably altered over time but still one of the remaining few in the district. To do so, additional density was required. And hence the rub.
Not surprisingly, the adjacent neighbours whose views would be affected were not pleased. But even the more neutral Urban Design Panel, charged by the City to critique development proposals, was not impressed. Too much density, they decided, crammed on too little site. It recommended transferring density off site – an option not previously offered to the proponent.
The architects pulled the application and came back to the Planning Department with a revised scheme that proposed transferring 3,000 square feet of density. Unfortunate timing. The City was concerned about the amount of density piling up in the heritage bank, and so first discouraged another transfer, and then applied a moratorium.
But before that scheme got going, Planning raised another concern: the tulip tree. This was seen by many as a piece of living heritage – but its roots straddled two properties. Given that living things had not previously been considered as eligible for heritage bonusing, the City Planner requested an opinion of Council in a special issues report. Council, concerned about the precedent, voted against a density bonus for the tree. (Councillors were no doubt affected by opposition in the neighbourhood, some of whom looked to oppose whatever aspect of the project would likely kill it.)
Next proposal: a scheme that saved the house but not the tree. This time, unanimous support from Urban Design and Heritage panels, and a strong recommendation from City staff.
But the project still had to survive a rancorous public hearing, where now the neighbourhood opposition rallied, with support from anti-development groups in the West End. Council was sufficiently intimidated to not support the heritage agreement necessary for the house to be saved. And, just to complicate things, Council wanted another look at saving the tulip tree.
The property owner, confounded by the constantly changing opposition, offered to save the tree without any density bonus – just to avoid further delay and to get the project moving forward.
Next up: a conventional development under the existing zoning, not requiring any bonuses, transfers or exemptions. The tree gets saved but the West End loses the heritage house. Heritage Vancouver, advocating for preservation of house, was drowned out by the neighbours again using whatever argument might kill off the development. When it wasn’t convenient to support saving the house, the heritage value was downplayed. Meanwhile, six years had passed, with an owner never quite knowing the right thing to do, and left with the option to move forward under existing zoning.
So now the West End will get a condo tower by one the city’s best architects, one with a very slim floorplate, a distinctive profile, and even some rental units to meet the rate-of-change bylaw requirements. But no heritage house.
The lesson: effective opposition requires the willingness to negotiate. Whenever community leaders maintain that more consultation will result in a win-win, that is true only if the desire for the perfect outcome does not defeat willingness to accept the merely good.