Urban planners and academics have waded into a row over a contentious Vancouver land swap.
It’s a dispute that has pitted the City of Vancouver and developer Brenhill Developments on one side and citizens with the Community Association of New Yaletown (CANY) on the other.
On the eve of an April 14 public hearing regarding one of the downtown properties in question, a group of 10 urban planners and academics added its voice to the fight. According to them, they are “concerned about the future planning direction in the city”.
The bunch includes Ray Spaxman and Ken Cameron, a former Vancouver city-planning director and an ex–manager of policy and planning with the Greater Vancouver Regional District, respectively. Penny Gurstein, director of the UBC school of community and regional planning, is a signatory, as well as Michael Geller, adjunct professor at SFU’s Centre for Sustainable Community Development.
“Our concerns relate to both the need for an overall planning framework for the city but also many individual project approvals which ignore long held planning values about the need for new developments to fit in with their surroundings,” the group stated in a letter dated April 13.
They urged council to defer consideration of Brenhill’s rezoning application for 508 Helmcken Street, a city-owned property where the developer wants to build a 36-storey tower. According to them, the proposed development is “out of scale with its surroundings”.
“This was confirmed by the initial Urban Design Panel (UDP) review which rejected it 7-0,” the letter stated.
Without naming Brian Jackson, the document also claimed that the city’s general manager of development services later applied “extraordinary intervention” with the UDP. According to the letter, Jackson “urged approval” of the project, which was granted “reluctantly” by the UDP when the matter was considered a second time (in April 2013) “following very minor modifications”.
Jackson declined the Georgia Straight’s request to comment on the allegation that he interfered with the UDP, which advises council and staff about development and rezoning proposals and policies. In their letter, the urban planners and academics suggested another review by the UDP before a new public hearing about 508 Helmcken Street.
It’s doubtful that Mayor Gregor Robertson and his Vision Vancouver caucus will favour this request, given the city’s recent moves in connection with the dispute over the land deal.
It may be worth noting that council is scheduled to consider on Wednesday (April 15) a staff recommendation to ratify a Development Permit Board (DPB) approval of another Brenhill application. This one involves Brenhill’s 1099 Richards Street property, which the developer wants to exchange with the city’s 508 Helmcken Street lot. On April 7, the DPB approved Brenhill’s application to construct a 13-storey building to replace an existing public-housing development located on the city property.
The B.C. Supreme Court quashed council’s previous approval of the rezoning of 508 Helmcken Street and the DPB’s earlier development permit for 1099 Helmcken Street. The court made the move following a legal petition—filed on CANY’s behalf by lawyer Nathalie Baker—that sought a judicial review of the city’s actions in connection to its land deal with Brenhill.
In his decision on January 27, 2015, Justice Mark McEwan concluded that the public hearing and the development-permit processes were “flawed” because the city didn’t disclose all relevant information to the public. McEwan ordered the city to hold a new public hearing on 508 Helmcken Street, which council is set to do on April 14.
The judge also required another DPB review on the 1099 Richards Street project, which the DPB did on April 7. The DPB’s approval will be considered by council on April 15.
Meanwhile, the B.C. Court of Appeal, on April 16 and 17, will hear appeals filed by the city and Brenhill on McEwan’s ruling.
Should council agree anew with the rezoning of 508 Helmcken on April 14 and endorse the DPB’s latest approval of the 1099 Richards Street project, there will be practically nothing left to argue about before the appeal court in the following days.
In the end, city hall will have won.