When I first arrived in Vancouver in 1974 as a young architect/planner for CMHC there was no doubt where I was going to live. While the CMHC office was located in Kitsilano at 12th and Vine, like many newcomers to the city, I wanted to live in the West End. My first choice was Beach Towers, the 1967 Canadian Housing Design Council award winning complex on Beach Ave at Cardero. Unfortunately, there were no apartments for rent that month, and I ended up in another iconic Beach Avenue property, Martello Tower at 1011 Beach. I moved away from the West End to become the very first resident in the then brand new Plaza International Hotel...I loved the idea of wandering down my apartment corridor into the bar...but returned to the West End in 1976 for another year, until I had to leave Vancouver for Toronto.I shared this story on Sunday afternoon at a forum presented by the West End Residents Association, as part of a campaign for community-based planning and a comprehensive community vision for the West End. The forum included a visioning workshop, a Q&A with the City of Vancouver, and a case study discussion for a possible future redevelopment in the West End. I was there, not as a resident, but as an invitee representing the new owners of Beach Towers. While I was not able to rent an apartment there 35 years ago, I was recently invited to assist the new owners (who are both friends of mine) with a proposal to add a new rental tower and rental townhouses on portions of their property.
The Visioning Workshop turned out to be a very interesting afternoon as about 80+ people shared their stories about what makes the West End special for them. While the list of desirable qualities was quite extensive, at the top was the neighbourhood's diversity, in terms of demographics and architecture, and the sense of belonging that so many people experience. Many people talked about walkability and accessibility, noting you do not have to own a car. However, many people mentioned that although they did not have a car, they had a parking space to accommodate visitors who often have difficulty finding on-street parking.
Although 80% of the residents are renters, I was interested to hear how very stable the neighbourhood is...many renters have been in their homes for decades. They appreciate the sense of community, safety and variety of neighbourhood amenities.
Michael Gordon, a senior Vancouver City planner briefly reviewed the zoning history of the West End. He suggested that the biggest change occurred in 1956/57 when highrises were allowed along Beach Avenue and the edge of Stanley Park. In 1969 to 1972 a local area planning process resulted in a down-zoning of the West End, although high rises were still permitted. Then in the 80's, new regulations were put in place allowing an outright height of 60 feet with only discretionary approval up to 190 feet or 210 feet.
I think it is noteworthy that while a number of buildings were designed within the 60' height limit, some of the better buildings in the West End including those designed by Henriquez and Partners....the Sylvia Tower, Eugenia and Praesidio, were all approved under the discretionary height provisions when it became apparent that taller, thinner towers often fit in better, and blocked fewer views than lower, fatter buildings.
Michael also noted that while there will be significant population growth in Vancouver from Main to Stanley Park in the coming years, most new development will be east of Burrard. The West End is not likely to see much new development, except along the commercial streets. This is due to the moratorium on the demolition of rental housing and related zero rate of change policy. There is also a shortage of sites where new development can occur.
In response to a question from an audience member who feared that the West End could end up looking like Downtown South or Yaletown, he added that the West End guidelines generally limit towers to one per block, unlike Yaletown and Downtown South where there can be two towers per block. For this and other reasons, he did not expect the West End to ever become another 'Yaletown'.
As a result of 2 recent STIR proposals, at 3 to 5 times the permitted density, and concerns that there could be more such proposals, residents are asking City Hall to undertake an overall neighbourhood plan to guide future development.
I can understand the community's angst over the future of the area. No one really knows just how many new projects might be forthcoming in the next few years under STIR or other programs. (At the moment, in addition to the Bidwell/Davie approved STIR/condo project, and 1401 Comox propsal, there are two potential new projects on Harwood and Pendrell.)
However, as a planner, based on my knowledge of the area, the STIR program and development economics, I do not foresee many new proposals in the West End. But in the absence of an overall plan, or further advice from city staff or other independent third party planning experts, it is difficult for Westenders to know if this is true.
One thing is for certain. The West End offers green space, proximity to transit, many nearby restaurants and entertainment, recreational opportunities, the beach, views of the water, and a great architectural diversity. Everyone at the visioning session wants to see these qualities maintained.
At the same time, there is a growing recognition that many of the older apartments, especially those offering affordable accommodation, are not being maintained and beginning to approach the end of their useful life. There is a need for a renewal of this housing stock. There is also a need for more subsidized and supportive housing, especially for seniors. This will require more federal funding, and innovative partnerships between local churches, other institutions, BC Housing, the city, and private sector.
While I heard concerns about the two current STIR applications, many others acknowledged the need for more purpose-built rental housing since it can offer a security of tenure not possible in a condominium rental. However, WERA and other Westenders want to see an overall plan in place to understand how each proposal will fit in with the rest of the neighbourhood.
If this cannot happen, given other competing requests for neighbourhood plans in Grandview Woodlands and Kitsilano, there needs to be as a minimum a community developed planning framework that identifies where new development could occur, guidelines in terms of height and density, along with an assurance that new developments will not compromise the qualities that make the West End so attractive. At least, that's what I heard Westenders want.