Retired planners push back against proposed tower at 555 West Cordova Street in Vancouver
This is a place everyone knows of but few consider. It’s where—in the years ahead—urban politics will contend. Controversy will be high. And decisions momentous. If one were to stand against the fence that backs Impark’s 76-vehicle parking lot—the one between Waterfront Station and Gastown’s Steamworks Brewing—it would be possible to imagine how two opposing and enormously important ideas will collide here.
Or, put simply: what is the future of Vancouver’s vast, train-track–covered downtown waterfront?
The story begins with a bizarre, 26-storey office building proposed for that parking lot and a feeling among many that, propelled by Vision Vancouver’s “greenest city” initiatives, the city’s traditionally sensitive planning process is being bulldozed by the juggernaut of unwanted high-rise towers. Becoming green has started looking more like Kermit the Frog than any prince.
For example, the city’s planning department proposed in 2013 to put 20 12- to 36-storey towers near the Broadway–Commercial Drive transit intersection. Local residents detested the idea. There are, currently, a dozen more controversial high-rises, some up to 40 storeys high, on the drawing board for the Oakridge Mall area. And still more in Marpole and Mount Pleasant. The public began muttering about Vision succumbing to the embrace of developers. And former city planners began worrying that long-held development principles were being abandoned to the expediency of so-called green growth.
Then news of Cadillac Fairview’s notorious 555 Cordova Street “twisty tower” plan broke this past January. The thing would spiral upward from the waterfront parking lot like an unbalanced crystal, leaning directly over the classic 1914 train station. Reaction was swift. Through a freedom-of-information application for 250 emails sent to Brian Jackson—at that time the city’s general manager of planning and development and a proponent of the project—shortly thereafter, I learned this: 129 writers and organizations opposed the structure; 18 supported it. One person called it “a contender for the ‘Ugliest Architecture in the World’ award”. Another: “an alien parasite eating the Waterfront Station”.
Even worse, Ray Spaxman, the city’s esteemed former city planner, called the building “a Martian landing” site. This despite Jackson’s endorsing the asymmetrical tower, calling it “an extraordinary design”.
There is, in politics as in love, a Law of Unintended Consequences, and the widespread rejection of the 555 Cordova structure produced a series of spectacularly unexpected repercussions. Critics complained that it was 15 storeys higher and contained six times more floor space than suggested by development guidelines for the site. Worse, it gave a glass-and-steel finger to Gastown’s adjacent 19th-century architecture.
In an interview at his home, Spaxman said: “ ‘Good neighbourliness’ used to be one of our planning mantras at city hall—from proportions to heritage to land use. If you read the 555 architect’s design rationale—that the building ‘maintains a sense of human scale for the pedestrian experience’—and then look at the illustrations, you may wonder who is smoking what.” Note the three words used to be. A not-so-covert fight was on: former city planners versus the pro-tower city planner, Jackson.
The 555 proposal became, in this way, a sort of stalking horse for Spaxman and his allies, who understood that were it to go ahead, the towerification of Vancouver—with Vision’s backing and Jackson’s persistent acquiescence—might proceed unchallenged. And this meant the Central Waterfront Hub Framework development, a massive 2009 plan envisioning a dozen more office towers on the Burrard Inlet waterfront adjacent to the Impark lot, could, in time, also proceed. Despite its not having had any public input.
What happened next arrived like a bomb at city hall. In a five-page open letter to Gregor Robertson and city council last July, the newly formed Downtown Waterfront Working Group (DWWG), a coalition of concerned planners, former city councillors, urbanists, and academics, lambasted the 555 plan. And, obliquely, Jackson. The building wasn’t just ugly, they said, it broke every rule of compatibility that Vancouver’s celebrated urban design was established on. Far more importantly, this powerful group took advantage of the 555 controversy to argue that the six-year-old Hub Framework plan for the city’s adjacent waterfront also be shelved and, instead, council investigate an imaginative redesign of the nine-hectare site, located directly east of Canada Place and directly north of the proposed 555 tower. Use this pause, they suggested, to Think Big.
Yes, the critics agreed, the Hub site should still feature a huge roofed transit concourse, as was proposed in 2009. It would extend northward over the tracks, directly behind Waterfront Station, and would shelter the movement of tens of thousands of transit passengers using the site daily. But in the future, a lot of the site might become—with dramatic views toward the North Shore mountains—a huge public amenity, with an emphasis on outdoor restaurants, parks, retail stores, and entertainment facilities right on the waterfront, right behind Gastown. Rather than it becoming, as the Hub Framework proposes, a concrete extension of downtown, with office towers built over the train tracks there. The letter was signed by Spaxman, Larry Beasley, and Brent Toderian (Vancouver’s three former directors of planning), plus 36 other authorities on Vancouver’s urban-planning politics.
Four days later, at age 60, Jackson quit.
By coincidence, I’d arranged to interview Jackson for this article on the day after he announced this. He explained to me that he’d considered retiring months earlier and his departure had nothing to do with the critical letter. I found this assertion hard to believe. He admitted that the DWWG letter was “unhelpful”. He felt that halting construction of the 555 tower—as the letter urged—would jeopardize the multibillion-dollar Hub waterfront development, to which it was linked as step one for the entire waterfront project.
“I’d love to dial things back to the time Spaxman was here, when the federal government was spending money on infrastructure. But we’re much more dependent on the private sector now. There’s a lot of potential for office towers in this area,” he said, pointing to the 44-page Hub Framework design on his desk. “It’s a key location for adding development and jobs, for acting as a catalyst for the waterfront transportation hub.”
It was, however, when I challenged him about his apparent rubber-stamping of developers’ oversized towers—Cadillac Fairview’s 555 Cordova plan, the clusters of towers around the Broadway-Commercial intersection and around Oakridge Mall—that the conversation quickly changed.
“People say you’re under pressure to approve new towers as part of Vision’s greenest-city strategy,” I said.
“No. No pressure from any member of city council.”
“Not from Penny Ballem?” I asked, speaking of Vancouver’s powerful city manager.
“No. No pressure from her. No. Pressure. From. Anyone. None. Period.” And goodbye.
From his tone, I knew he knew what I was talking about. Scot Hein, the senior planner formerly overseeing the Broadway-Commercial design, had earlier quit—along with two other city planners—in protest against directives from what Hein called “senior management” to put maximum tower densities into the Grandview-Woodland neighbourhood. And to do this without following long-established community-planning protocols. (It was clear that, among the many planning experts interviewed for this story, the phrase “senior management” was code for Ballem and that she was, in fact, dictating that towers be built at major transit hubs to propel high-rise densification.)
To help me understand the development issues and political complexities of the Hub waterfront site, I asked Frank Ducote to be my guide. Now retired from 11 years as a Vancouver city planner, and one of the authors of the contentious DWWG critique, Ducote first led me through Waterfront Station, then to that fence that backs the Impark lot. To the north, there’s a stunning aperture onto a possible future there.
“This is the most magnificent view in Vancouver,” Ducote said of the panorama before us. “Maybe the best urban view in the world!” I looked. It’s easy to agree.
From this elevated position, Ducote considered the transit traffic that surges past the parking lot: 100,000 people a day flow through the nearby Waterfront transit station; 30,000 more daily ride SeaBus, floatplanes, and helijet flights from Coal Harbour; 15,000 more daily use the Westcoast Express train; and 2,000,000 more annually depart from the Canada Place cruise-ship terminal to our left. Subways, buses, ferries, cruise ships, taxis, floatplanes, helicopters, trains, and pedestrians: it is, Ducote said, the most densely compact—and confusing—transit hub on Earth. Ask anyone who uses the place; it is in desperate need of redesign.
But the Hub site is also a chessboard of corporate land ownership and government interests. Cadillac Fairview is one of Canada’s largest commercial-real-estate developers, with holdings of $25 billion, including properties on both sides of Waterfront Station. Carrera Management Corp. acquired development rights—and still holds them—for most of the land behind Gastown. As well, there’s a dozen or so sets of tracks there controlled by Canadian Pacific Railway. Plus, there are TransLink’s rail and SeaBus interests and Port Metro Vancouver’s marine interests.
“Under Jackson, developers were getting everything they wanted,” Ducote said, “as if policy and neighbourhoods didn’t matter. In recent years, it’s been ‘form follows finance’. That’s the world we’re in right now. Density equals money. But form should follow policy, follow public consultation.
“So we’ve taken it upon ourselves,” he said of the former city planners, architects, and academics who signed the damning open letter, “to question the city’s rush toward densification and towers. The gloves are off. ‘Why are you so upset?’ Jackson asked us. Why? Towers here and here and here!” And with a gesture, Ducote wiped his hand across the North Shore mountains as if erasing the spectacular view before us.
At 80, Ray Spaxman is—although he’d be embarrassed by the idea—a legend. Vancouver’s livability owes its origins to his 16-year tenure as city planner (1973 to 1989), and to the design guidelines he applied from The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the famous 1961 urbanist book by Jane Jacobs. Sitting in his book-lined West Vancouver studio, he scrounged a pen and stray envelope and drew for me an equilateral triangle connected at its corners by three little circles that he labelled “politicians”, “public”, and “bureaucrats”. Then he connected these words with double-ended arrows.
“Livability,” Spaxman said of his urban-planning principles, “was our central concern. Designing a livable city is an equal partnership: politicians, the public, bureaucrats. It requires a balance between these, a synergy between forces.” And he gestured back and forth over the arrows, indicating that power flows both ways. “When you love a city, you love all of it. And you reach out to get people’s love and opinion and involvement. It’s what gives people a sense of place. It’s what has made Vancouver the most attractive city in the world.
“But…I’m worried by what’s happening in Vancouver; the balance is gone,” he told me in this early-September interview. And he pointed to his triangle. “I think Penny Ballem lacks an understanding of urban design and public engagement. Brian Jackson was brought in to produce densification and raise capital input for the city. Penny pushed that. Vision has done a lot of things I support. But there’s also a whole lot of stuff wrong at city hall. City council doesn’t listen anymore.”
And what about the 555 tower and the Hub plan? I asked, wondering if his critique applied there.
“I looked at the design of 555 and I was shocked! You can’t do that, I thought. It’s against design guidelines. It doesn’t fit the neighbourhood. This opened the door to thinking about the entire 2009 Hub plan for the central waterfront. It’s a crucial part of the city. But that plan’s been abandoned for six years. It would be a lovely opportunity for the city to show leadership, to reconsider the plan, to have a discussion with the landowners there, get public input,” Spaxman said, reiterating the contents of the open letter. “So we wrote the mayor and council to express our concern. We did what city hall should have done.”
Within weeks of Spaxman saying this, Ballem was fired.
Like Ducote and Spaxman, Patrick Condon, UBC’s chair of urban design, was sufficiently outraged by Jackson’s support for the 555 tower design—and the implications of that for the linked Hub design—to join the others in signing the open letter. “The city has lost its way,” he told me, speaking of council’s pro-tower advocacy. “It puts short-term benefits over long-term development. It puts profits over people. The value of urban design has been diminished at city hall. Vancouver’s known for its modesty. We’re admired all over the world for livability, not for weird buildings that shout like Donald Trump: ‘Look at me!’
“Vancouver’s got this dramatic space,” Condon said of the Hub site. “The question is: how can we capitalize on it? In the letter, we said to council: ‘Don’t encumber the future by making decisions there fast. Good planning takes time. It’s laborious. Consensus will emerge. Maybe you’ll discover you don’t want a bunch of office towers on the waterfront after all. Maybe instead a big public gathering place. The site’s about as important to Vancouver as Piazza San Marco is to Venice. Do something fantastic there.’ ”
The problems of doing “something fantastic there” are, I know, immense. Vancouver owns none of the land. So the city’s primary power is saying “No” to developers—something city hall has, demonstrably, not been inclined to do recently. In fact, Jackson argued against delaying construction of 555 and the Hub’s office towers when we talked. So did Vision councillor Geoff Meggs, who felt that, despite the open letter, the waterfront towers should go ahead. Meggs believes implementation of the plan is necessary to trigger federal infrastructure money for the adjacent proposed transit concourse linking buses, trains, ferries, taxis, and passenger movements under one gigantic roof.
Steve Brown, the city’s manager of traffic and data, spent two years researching and writing the actual Hub Framework report, and he explained to me—pointing at diagrams—the complexities of whatever happens there. “We’ve proposed building over an active rail yard—a huge platform over a dozen sets of train tracks. There’s $100 million of roads needed on the platform to be paid for by developers who’d put a series of commercial towers there.
“But,” he cautioned, “approval of Cadillac Fairview’s 555 tower is catalyst for all the rest.”
Unlike Jackson and Meggs, it’s Brown believes that the critical open-letter campaign isn’t entirely bad. He compares it to the angry 1970s protests against a freeway being pushed through Vancouver that ultimately saved Chinatown, Gastown, and the very Burrard Inlet waterfront now under development consideration from becoming an eight-lane superhighway. “Of course, Cadillac Fairview isn’t interested in delay,” Brown said. “They’re a pension fund. They think short-term. But delay might benefit them. Priorities can change.” (Cadillac Fairview did not respond to an interview request.)
And things have changed since 2009. Commercial vacancy rates in downtown Vancouver are currently at a 12-year high: 10 percent and increasing. That’s almost two million square feet of empty office space. The last thing Vancouver needs right now is 12 more office towers.
And if precedent means something, consider this: more than 40 years ago, the entire south shore of False Creek was lined with railroad tracks, remnants of the city’s industrial past. The land behind Jericho Beach was a military base, with gigantic hangars for seaplanes there. And that proposed highway was aiming at the heart of Chinatown and Gastown. Should False Creek be surrounded with high-rise towers? Should Jericho be converted to housing? Should the highway go ahead? Developers, of course, said yes. Build! But a newly arrived city planner said, “Let’s not rush into things. Maybe low-rise is best for south False Creek. Maybe a park is best for Jericho. Maybe the highway is a bad idea.” That planner’s name was, of course, Ray Spaxman.
Lance Berelowitz is a noted Vancouver-based planner and author of the 2005 book Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination. Seated in his Mount Pleasant condo, he scrolled through images of cities elsewhere that have transformed their industrial waterfronts: Boston, Barcelona, Rotterdam, Tel Aviv, and, best of all, Sydney, Australia, with its harbourside parks and shops, tree-lined promenades, and a new transportation hub at Circular Quay.
Turning to Vancouver’s waterfront and a possible revisioning of the Hub design, he told me he’s not opposed to towers there. “We have to make sure the corporations are respected. They’re stakeholders. Their concerns count,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if the city doesn’t own land there. It’s got power: discretionary zoning, permit approvals, public opinion. Imagine if Vision jumped on this. The train tracks get covered. Think of the value of that! A magnificent transit concourse is designed. And an expanded ferry system proposed—to serve places like West Van and Bowen Island. Plus, a lot of public access. All this done under Vancouver’s ‘greenest city’ guidelines: green high-rises, green transportation, green spaces, with walkways and restaurants. Directly on the waterfront. It could be transformational!”
Berelowitz has, I can tell, thought a lot about this. “Vancouver’s the world’s poster child for urban planning. We’ve got no shortage of great planners here. But it’ll take political will to do this. It’ll take leadership. It will take imagination. Push ‘pause’ on the current Hub plan,” he said.“The city then lays the table, invites the stakeholders and public, hosts a party, provides the wine, and asks everyone: ‘What should we do there?’ ”