Thursday, April 18, 2013

The SFU City Conversation: Where is big too big?

Where is Big TOO Big?

Vancouver has had periodic debates over heights of new buildings, first in downtown, then in some neighbourhoods like Mt. Pleasant. Successive councils have allowed developers to build taller buildings than zoning would otherwise allow, in trade for developers’ donations of parks, preservation of historic buildings, day care centres, recreation facilities and other public amenities.
But where is the tradeoff inappropriate? That’s the discussion around an interesting proposal on Helmcken St. at Richards St. Brenhill Developments is proposing to replace a deteriorating city social house, with a far larger social residence and other amenities, in trade for constructing a much taller residential tower than zoning now allows.
Public benefits? Too tall? To frame the discussion, we’re very pleased to host Vancouver City Councillor Raymond Louie, former planning director Brent Toderian, and architect/developer Michael Geller. Then it’s your turn. Feel free to bring your lunch.

So what did I have to say?  Here are some notes I prepared for the event.

“When you’re sitting in the bathtub with the hot water running, how do you know when to shout?”

I first shouted about the scale of some new Vancouver developments a year ago when I wrote a blog posting in response of a number of developments that in my opinion, as an architect and planner…were too big.  But they were often justified because they offered greater affordability or sustainability.

Today’s discussion was prompted in part by Tweets I posted expressing concern with a proposal for a 17.4 FSR building on Helmcken.  For those of you who don’t know what 17.4 FSR means, it’s about 3 times the permitted FSR for Downtown South or 10 times the density of the high rise district in Kerrisdale.

Now, normally I’m the one advocating for more height or density;  today I’m going to be arguing that some developments in Vancouver are being approved at heights and densities that are not justifiable in terms of context, good planning, but rather because they offer exceptional public amenities or affordable housing or both.

Put crudely, the City and other Metro municipalities occasionally approve developments at densities higher than might normally be appropriate because of the substantial CAC’s or other public benefits being offered by or extracted from the developers.

I know that Brent and Raymond are going to dismiss my concerns by assuring me that they would never approve a building that’s too large just because of the benefits…in other words…they would never allow form to follow finance….they will say they first determine an acceptable building form…then they negotiate the $$$. 

I would argue that form should follow fit, not finance!

I will confess my views on this topic are somewhat influenced by Ray Spaxman.  I recall when I was a member of the City’s Development Permit Board Advisory Panel and a proposal came forward around 1984 for a large but very plain rental building complex on the north shore of False Creek. It was argued that it should be approved because it would provide much needed housing for EXPO 86 and beyond.  I recall Jimmy Pattison, then in charge of EXPO, urging us to approve it.

I recall Spaxman questioning why we should approve a rather unattractive building on a prominent site  just because it was needed for EXPO 86 and offered rental housing.  However, if I recall correctly, the Board approved the project, but fortunately it was never built. Today, the site is occupied by 888 Beach, one of Vancouver’s best waterfront developments.

In coming here today, I acknowledge that design and planning are highly subjective.  

I also know that often it doesn’t matter whether a building is 20 storeys or 22 storeys…what matters more is what’s happening at the ground plane or the size of the floorplate…or the detailed design of the building, the materials, the balcony details and so on

As others have suggested to me, the FSR calculation is a blunt instrument.

I agree…but when I see a proposal for a 17.4 FSR building for a site on Helmcken, I start to worry…It wasn’t that long ago I was advocating for 4 or 5 FSR for the area. Have things really changed that much in two decades.

So what’s the rationale for such a high density on what is a City-owned site?  In a somewhat complex transaction, the developer is proposing a lot of social housing units and rental housing and other community benefits.  And on its own, it’s not an unattractive building….it's across from a park, but just happens to be on a small site.  

(I would add that it has a 10,300 sq.ft. floorplate and ten levels of underground parking for about 500 cars)

I had similar concerns with the PCI development at Marine and Cambie.  To my mind, it too was too big. I once expressed my concerns on Frances Bula’s blog and asked, what is the justification for the size of this complex…did the developer pay too much for the land?  Is the city seeking too many amenities?  Is there too much rental housing?

Later that day I received a confidential email from a City planner who said the answer to these questions was yes.  She wrote that she and others in planning were also uncomfortable with the scale and massing of the complex, but had essentially been instructed to make it work. 

Time will tell if our concerns were valid.

Another development that troubled me was the Rize in Mount Pleasant. Again, time will tell if my concerns are valid, but I contend that this building form was driven by the CAC package.  Now, in 20 years there will be other large buildings around it so maybe we won’t care. But for a few years to come, I predict this building will be out of scale and detract somewhat from the neighbourhood.

Two other recent examples are 1401 Comox that was approved at 5 times the permitted FSR since it was rental (I hesitate to criticize it since I admire the architects and developer) but if this had been a condo the proposed density would never have been approved…it was approved because it was rental.

I am also troubled by the new development in the 900 Block East Hastings.  It looks like 12 floors of stacked containers, so I should like it.  But it too is too big for the context.  When I asked the developer about this…a very good developer I might add, he said the city was insisting that he develop and donate, yes donate 70 social housing units as part of the zoning trade-off.  He was also having to build light industrial space.   

Well hello….the site was zoned for light industrial.  This project is over 6 FSR and it may ultimately 
be an interesting building to look at…but now others are now buying sites assuming 6 FSR will be approved for them too. I worry what this area will look like with a parade of 6 FSR developments.

Furthermore, if 6 FSR is considered appropriate along East Hastings, why isn’t it acceptable everywhere?   

Arthur Erickson once said something in a radio interview that is quite germane to this conversation.  He said it was important for any new development to relate to its surroundings.  When the interviewer noted the surroundings will likely change over time, Erickson agreed, but added future buildings will relate to his building and change will happen incrementally. 

I support an incremental approach to increasing heights and density. But that’s not what’s happening…just look around 70th and Granville or along Kingsway…these new developments do not relate to their surroundings…but they each offered a package of community amenities, rental housing, social housing, or cash that the City found too hard to refuse. 

Last year the City received $180 million from developers in return for site rezonings. Many people will say that’s great, it means taxes didn’t go up so much…but I still worry that we’re letting housing affordability, and CAC packages drive building forms that may ultimately detract from the design quality of our city that we have enjoyed for so many decades. 

Form should follow fit, not finance.


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