Thursday, January 22, 2015

My letter to City of Vancouver re: 555 West Cordova Street

Architects' illustration of the new tower as viewed along West Cordova Street
By email

January 22, 2015

City of Vancouver
453 West 12th Avenue

Attn: Brian Jackson, General Manager of Planning and Development

Dear Mr. Jackson,

Re Development Permit Application 555 West Cordova Street

I am writing to express my concerns with the proposed office building design at 555 West Cordova Street next to the CPR Station.

From 1983 to 1999 I had my offices in The Station and know the subject property and surrounding area very well.

Let me begin by declaring I like modern buildings juxtaposed with historic buildings, such as Arthur Erickson’s Bank of Canada addition in Ottawa which literally encases the old building inside a new glass block.

During my travels I have seen many modern new buildings successfully added onto or built beside heritage structures, including some literally on top of the old, and others cantilevered out over the old.

My fundamental problem with the design of this building is that it is neither an architecturally pleasing addition to the Station, nor a complementary new building beside it.

With its contrived geometric shapes at the street level and the first few floors where it appears to engulf the heritage building, it looks and feels both awkward and disrespectful.
Heritage Committee member Anthony Norfolk put it a different way. “It is as if a rodent from Jurassic Park had chewed the base at the ground level” where the old building comes up against the new.

A local urban designer wrote to me that “the new building will be jammed up against and in fact beetle over the top of the former CPR Railway Station”. He went on to say it seems like the architects have been drinking the same Kool-Aid that Daniel Libeskind imbibed when he came up with Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum extension. Anyone who has walked by or been inside this wildly unpopular building will know precisely what he means.
I have two other concerns. From the drawings and model, the building seems too big for its site, and is out of keeping with Vancouver’s tradition of respecting the pedestrian at street level. The latter is why former Director of Planning Ray Spaxman called the building “a horror”. I think he’s right.
I suspect your planning department knows this building design is not the best for the location. I am told one of the reasons it is so jammed up against the CPR Station is that city engineers insisted on a greater separation from the historic Landing building to allow a right of way for a future roadway. If so, why could the new building not be moved away from the Station with the right-of-way partially underneath the new structure?
I understand the building massing has also been constricted by the height limit imposed by the required view corridor of the mountains from Queen Elizabeth Park. Personally, I would relax this distant view corridor in order to allow greater views at the street level, a more sympathetic relationship between the old and new, and a less squat building shape.

Alternatively, I would encourage the city to grant the developer approval to transfer some of the building density allowed on this site to another site. The fact that the developer is not being required to provide the customary parking provision on site is a significant relaxation which could be traded off for a further reduction in building size.

Other design approaches might be to further cantilever the new building, raise it up on columns above the old building, or design it as a creative addition to the Station.

These approaches might be more architecturally challenging, but the architects for this building, internationally renowned Chicago-based Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture with input by local firm B+H Architecture should be up to the task. After all, Smith is responsible for designing Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, currently ranked the tallest building in the world, and Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Tower which will be the world’s new tallest when completed in 2018.

In conclusion, I am concerned that if this development is built as currently designed, it will not create the beautiful gateway to Gastown and future Port Lands development that city planners hope to see.

I would therefore urge the City to instruct the architects to increase the separation between the new building and the CPR Station, resulting in a less contrived building shape, and better integration with the Station.

I would also urge you to require a slimmer, more elegant building form, either by allowing the building to be higher, or through a reduction in buildable area.

Finally, I would urge the city to arrange an Open House, or instruct the developer to hold an Open House well in advance of the Development Board meeting. This would allow the general public and Vancouver’s design community to review all the materials that have been prepared, and presented to staff, such as the video and new model.

Having served as an advisory member of the Development Permit Board for six years, I would respectfully suggest that this will result in a more informed and constructive discussion at the DP Board meeting.

I hope these comments are helpful.

Michael Geller


cc Mayor and Council

5 comments:

David Gibson said...

An excellent - because it is both clear and brief. Michael knows what he is talking about. Perhaps he knows other architects who have had offices in that area over the years.

David Gibson said...

The developers are trying to match the size of towers a block or two away, and the architects are trying to design a remarkable building. Both groups have failed miserably on this site, while CPR has waved farewell to any degree of civic responsibility. As for City Hall...

Mossad Eladawi said...


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