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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Delirious Vancouver

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Some of Vancouver's 27 view cones

As a kickoff to the upcoming public hearing regarding Vancouver’s view cone policies, Sean Ruthen describes the debate that took place on October 5th between Larry Beasley and Richard Henriquez.

By Sean Ruthen, re:place magazine

In 1978, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas noted that New York City, like many cities in Europe, had become a museum of its former self. With all the dynamics that had gone into creating the island of Manhattan, by the late 1970’s the great metropolis had found itself so overregulated as to leave no possibility for future growth, transforming itself into a static artifact bound by rules, zoning bylaws and building codes. Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan was a testament to how our modern cities are the byproduct of the often rocky pairing of architecture with urbanism, and a reminder that a democratic society must exercise its rights to question the decision making of its representatives.

New York has necessarily succumbed to the urban apparatus of managing a large city, with the city-making itself no longer the sum of its constituent parts, but the result of careful deliberation by a corporation representing the public good. In Delirious New York, Mr. Koolhaas points out that in such a static environment, the visual iconography of the city becomes a fleeting experience, not unlike the thrill of an amusement ride at Coney Island. Or put another way, architecture had become a fantastic show for public consumption, with some people going through their whole lives not ever giving it a second thought.

Imagine then a world where the Eiffel Tower had never been constructed because it blocked a particular view of the Sacre Coeur, and compound this with the same view becoming blocked by a grove of protected tree foliage over time, and one begins to approximate the complexity that is the highly contentious subject of Vancouver’s view cones. While cities in Europe have protected areas which limit building construction due to existing heritage structures, the City of Vancouver is unique in regards to its 27 protected view cones (though Seattle has their very similar ‘view corridors’). From the south shores of False Creek to Cypress, Grouse, and Seymour Mountains, the city has safeguarded these narrow pathways through its urban bulk from being overbuilt, all for the public benefit, with the consequence of having severely limited the development of those particular swaths of the city for the past twenty years.

With many issues affecting the city in its last stretch up to the Olympics, Vancouverites will be able to partake in a city wide discussion about the view cones in the next coming weeks, and to express their ‘views on the views’. Put on by the City of Vancouver, four open houses will be held between October 15th and 20th, with three at Library Square, and the fourth at False Creek Elementary School. As a kickoff to the public hearings, the City of Vancouver, along with SFU and the City Program, presented two polar arguments for and against the view corridors, respectively by Larry Beasley and Richard Henriquez, at the Segal Room on October 5th.

With close to 250 people in attendance, comprised of architects, developers, city councilors, and concerned citizens alike, two microphones were set up so that the people could have their say following Mr. Beasley’s and Mr. Henriquez’s presentations. Gordon Price presented the SFU City Program to begin the proceedings, and dedicated the evening to the late Peter Oberlander, for the announcement of his posthumous award of the UN Habitat Scroll of Honour.

As a prologue to the two keynote speakers, director of city planning Brent Toderian gave a brief history of the view cones, describing the two men asked to speak on the issue as one of North America’s best urbanists and one of its best architects. He explained that the view cones were comprised of three elements – the shoreline, the skyline, and the ridge line. Of the results gathered from the city’s current survey on the subject, the connection to the mountain’s ridge line was found to be the most important. Further, Brent pointed out how the view cones, being implemented when they were, had prevented a wall of buildings from being built across the three gateways to the city, i.e. the Burrard, Granville, and Cambie Street bridges. Using a shaky video in his power-point presentation, Brent demonstrated as much by showing a filmed segment with an unobstructed view of the mountains while driving north on Cambie Street.

As he summarized, the view cones had their beginnings in the 1970’s, when the street end views in the downtown district were first protected. Later on, the city hired Peter Busby as a private consultant to do a study on the views, with the result in 1989 being the implementation of the 27 view cones. The only modification would come in 1997, when the ‘domed skyline’ was mandated, such that the future skyline would adhere to a gradual increase in height toward the city’s centre (and as it happens, Shangri-La stands at the centre of the dome). And so now, twenty years later, Council has directed Brent and company to ask the public their ‘views on the views’, in order to determine whether they’re still relevant, especially given the need to lift restrictions on anything that could impede economic recovery. With the need for future job space, economic growth, residential growth, smart growth, and sustainability, will the view cones help or hinder these processes?

Brent also summarized the results from the surveys on the view cones, given to about 1000 people, which showed strong public support for the views, with some tolerance for their modification, as well as support for additional views. While it seems unlikely that the view corridors will be jettisoned entirely, Brent believed that strategic modification of them could allow the wiggle room needed for the city to continue to grow. He also pointed out that with new development set to happen on the shores of north False Creek next to the Georgia Viaduct, new view protection would need to be set up for the views from the Olympic Village.

As part of Gordon Price’s introduction of Richard Henriquez, the former city councilor pointed out how the architect’s attention to view was very much responsible for his Sylvia Hotel Extension in 1987. As he explained it, Richard effectively showed to the planners and residents of the day how a tall slender tower would impede views less than a short and squat building. Gordon further pointed out that Richard has been an architect in Vancouver for 40 year now, and hence the value of his input into the discussion. His body of work is as impressive as his eye for Vancouver’s scenography, from his 1975 Gaslight Square to the Sinclair Centre in 1986, as well as the aforementioned Sylvia Hotel extension, itself part of a trio of buildings at English Bay which includes the Eugenia with its distinctive penthouse pin oak tree. It is the new Woodwards redevelopment with his son Gregory which is undoubtedly among his most heroic and ambitious works to date.

He began by thanking Brent and Gordon, as well as the City for having the review of the view cones, and for asking him to be part of the process of their reevaluation. Point blank he stated that they should be modified to allow for discretionary development, of what he called exemplary architecture, at the street end views. In his opinion, the view cones are too abstract and at times arbitrary, and given the need for future growth it is not conducive to the creation of a livable city to dismiss a project outright because its in a view cone. The system needs to be modified to allow for projects to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. In his opinion, the City has set up an excellent system of urban design panels and zoning bodies that would prevent ‘view hogs’ from taking over the view cones, as has happened with parts of the city in the past.

Given the need for Vancouver to be able to accommodate its future population growth – 10 million souls by the late Arthur Erickson’s count – merely using the same discretionary system that has built much of the downtown peninsula, Richard is certain that the chaff will fall away from the wheat, contributing to a healthy, livable, and affordable city. In his opinion, the city cannot pretend to be able to imagine any future possibility of densification and remain livable unless the view cones are relaxed. Issues of affordability, privacy, neighbourliness, along with the creation of a healthy public domain all stand to be affected by this decision.

Richard also imparted his wisdom in a brief history of Vancouver’s planning policies from the last forty years. When he arrived in the Lower Mainland 42 years ago, the planning system in place was very much a top-down one. Project 200, which would’ve seen a massive freeway built through Strathcona and Gastown, was before the City Council. Had it been passed, it would’ve meant a very different city than the one we see today, and he realized at the time that its being voted down was a watershed moment for the city. Up to that time, architect’s skills and neighbour’s views were largely being ignored – after Project 200, everything changed. Enter stage right planner Ray Spaxman and TEAM City Council.

Vancouver's downtown peninsula

One of the things these planners set about was to regulate growth in the downtown peninsula, especially in its West End. A 2.75 Floor Space Ratio (FSR) was permitted, with a height restriction of 210’, which worked for a while, at least until the views became blocked by new development. This, he says, began the ball rolling on the enterprise of view consumption, where real estate began to use the view to set their price a la location, location, location, to the tune of $25,000 a floor. The outcome of this was the set-up of the discretionary zoning process, whereby 2.75 FSR and 60’ height were allowed outright, with the possibility of up to 210’. The result of this is what we currently see along False Creek and Coal Harbour, a marked improvement from the wall of buildings being built at English Bay thirty years ago.

As a consultant for the survey currently being evaluated, he pointed out the very important 20% of the public who see the buildings in the skyline as an integral part of its beauty. My guess is that two out of ten people represent the percentage of the population who are working directly in the building industry, an industry which definitely needs some support given the current recession. Richard also voiced his disdain for the ‘domed skyline’ addendum to the view cones, feeling that with Shangri-La, the future Hotel Georgia and Ritz-Carlton set to vie for the title of tallest building in the city, there are only two or three spots left downtown to build a tall building.

As a final point to his argument, Richard referred to a topographical map of the Lower Mainland in his powerpoint presentation, showing how the view of the mountains from the shores of False Creek represents 0.0007% of the province’s natural beauty. With an effective organization of public officials to oversee the discretionary zoning process, and a city filled with talent architects and planners, there is no reason that some relaxation of the view cones couldn’t be permitted to ensure its continued growth as one of North America’s most livable cities.

As with Mr. Henriquez, Gordon briefly introduced Larry Beasley, describing how during his time as director of Vancouver’s city planning, the city enjoyed much of the development we see that has been built since Expo ’86. Brought in as deputy director of planning while Ray Spaxman was head director and Gordon Campbell was mayor, it was shortly thereafter that City Council passed the view cones, at which time they were presented to Larry to implement. In his view then, and contrary to Richard’s, Larry believes that the view cones are more important to the city than its parks and community centres, and that not only should they be allowed to continue as is, but new cones need to be added to the existing 27 to preserve views for new communities like the Olympic Village.

The nature of the views, he believes, are often taken for granted, and if one doesn’t pay attention, or rather, if no one safeguards them, one day you’ll look up and they’ll be gone. He demonstrated this by showing before-and-after shots taken from False Creek between Expo and now, as well as by giving an anecdote of his own, recalling how someone had recently lamented to him how the towers of the Woodwards development, being given their height, had consequently blocked the view of the mountains up Beatty Street. He recalled the terrible battles that occurred at City Hall in the 1970’s and 1980’s before the view cones were set up. It was shortly thereafter that Peter Busby was commissioned to do an independent study of the ‘view issue’, where the hard choices were made which views would be preserved, and which would be diminished. As it stands, this view status quo has held for almost a quarter century, much to the benefit of the city in his opinion.

But even Larry agrees that the view cones should not discourage the realization of ‘stellar’ architecture, such as the Woodwards development. It his belief that modest changes could and should be made, with respect to what has already been preserved. But he also believes that there is more opportunity in the city than simply building more towers in the downtown peninsula, pointing to the Great Northern Way flats as an untapped resource for new development. The solution is a planning one in his view – lay out a better city plan where the density can go, and it will go there. As a final word, he believes that the City should’ve created more protected views when they had the chance, for as he pointed out, one day you wake up and they’re gone, never to return again.

The questions from the audience, making up the final third of the evening’s discussion, were comprised mostly of people’s observations, with only a few questions that gave the panel a chance to engage with the issue, a disappointment to say the least. Hopefully, the discussions generated by the open houses in the next coming weeks provide a better dialogue. One question from a resident of Richmond, recently arrived here from Paris, was that there seems to be so many other places to build, why are we so hung up on just the downtown? Both Larry and Brent responded by again speaking of the Great Northern Way, and its potential as a developer’s gold mine.

Another question was concerned with the development of Northeast False Creek, and the need to restrict development there. Richard responded that the area should remain a public realm for its most part, to which Larry pointed out that the tenured architect had presented an excellent plan of the area, currently before the City, which he hopes is implemented. For those lucky enough (myself included) to have spoken with Richard about his proposal when he presented part of it in tandem with the VAG’s plan for a new gallery on the waterfront, they would know to which Larry spoke.

Next up was William Gibbons, who in his best Jack Nicholson monologue, gave what sounded like a mostly prepared speech on Vancouver’s love affair with myopia. Another question asked the fate of the Georgia Viaduct, which Brent revealed the City’s position to be one of neutrality, that in their belief the benefits derived from tearing it down are equal to those of keeping it as is. The next comment was to the trees that are currently blocking some of the view cones, and if we’re not preserving the view cones this way, why are we being so hard on the growth of the building fabric.

Next up was the always ebullient Michael Geller, who turned one of Larry’s arguments for the view cone’s preservation on its head. By show of hands, Michael asked those present to vote on whether they preferred the view of Vancouver in 1986, or its present one. The latter was the almost unanimous victor, an obvious testament of the majority of architects and urbanists assembled in the room. His question was simple: if the City is preventing good architecture from getting built, should the view cones not be revised? Richard responded by saying this was the key point for the review, and why it’s a timely discussion given the nearly maxed out development given the current zoning restrictions in the downtown. He pointed out that if developer’s use the same FSR with a lower height restriction, the resulting short, squat buildings create a less livable environment in the downtown. In his view, good architecture is impossible given the restriction.

Up next was Lance Berelowitz, making the observation that part of the problem is the association of the built environment as a negative, i.e. that which is blocking the view of the mountains. The result in his opinion is an argument that presents the issue to the general public with a bias. He believes that by showing the built form of the city as a positive, the public can then make a more balanced decision of the view cones and their future as a part of the city. To sum up, Richard again challenged those present to imagine the city fifty years hence, saying that without action now we risk it being the livable, sustainable, and affordable city that it could be. Larry also reiterated his position, that if we don’t be even more protective of them than in the past, one day all the views through the city will be gone.

And so begins the discussion of a most contentious topic between the City and its constituents. With what has recently transpired with the lane-way housing incentive and ensuing controversy over BC Hydro’s exorbitant connection fees, effectively killing the incentive outright, the City has to be extra vigilant to avoid another similar controversy. In my opinion, I agree with Mr. Henriquez – that by relaxing the view cones there may arise more opportunity for thoughtful and careful development in the downtown, as the current system discourages it outright. With the opportunity of the City’s STIR program (Short Term Incentive for Rental Housing), there are definite opportunities to implement new healthier programs that are not, at the end of the day, simply issues of vanity.

If Arthur Erickson had been told by the city planners of his day that he couldn’t build his glass and metal space frame for the law courts because the city would only allow a 60-storey building on the site, one would’ve questioned such logic then much as we are presently questioning the rationale of this quarter century old institution of the view cones. We must ask then what are their benefits, short term and long? Let your voice be heard, go out and show your support, and give your views on the views.

The future growth of your city depends on it.

Sean Ruthen is an architect working, living, and writing in Vancouver.