Outdoor spots that offer a measure of tranquillity downtown are a treasure.
Vancouver historian John Atkin knows one, and it’s at the southwest corner of Melville and Thurlow streets.
“You can sit in there, be surrounded by traffic, and get lost in your thoughts,” Atkin told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.
It’s obvious why Atkin likes the grounds of the Sun Life Plaza building. In an exuberant stream, water gushes out of fountains at one end, and rushes down terraces to a pool, evoking the sounds of nature.
Resting on steps and benches hidden from street view, one can shut out the hurried noises of the urban environment. The water feature was designed by now-retired landscape architect Don Vaughan as part of the building’s construction during the 1980s.
According to Atkin, the city has come a long way in creating open spaces as inviting as this one.
Atkin knows Vancouver well. He leads tours on foot and buses, providing insights into its past and present, buildings, and neighbourhoods. He has written a number of books, including The Changing City: Architecture and History Walking Tours in Central Vancouver, which was published in 2010 and coauthored by Andy Coupland, a municipal planner.
“Now we design places that actually encourage people to hang out,” Atkin said.
That’s what he hopes to see in a proposed rezoning in another part of downtown, which ironically involves turning an existing plaza into an office building.
Last September, the City of Vancouver received an application to build a 25-storey office tower at the northwest corner of West Hastings and Seymour streets.
It’s the site of a domed court, a public amenity set as a condition to allow the construction of the Grant Thornton Place office building at 333 Seymour Street during the 1980s. The plaza and building are connected by a covered escalator and a circular flight of stairs.
While the plaza at 601 West Hastings Street was intended as a gathering place, it doesn’t attract a lot of people. That’s according to documents submitted to the city by B+H Architects on behalf of the property owner, Morguard, a company with a real-estate portfolio in Canada and the U.S. valued at over $15 billion.
Perceived as “unsafe especially at night”, the plaza is “very underutilized” except during lunchtime “on the nicest of days”, the rezoning application notes.
“There’s not a really good reason to go there,” James Vasto, a principal with B+H Architects, told the Straight in a phone interview on March 13. “Sitting isn’t comfortable. There’s very little retail. There’s one little sushi shop, and not much to do there.”
Compared to the sunlit plaza at 1100 Melville Street, 601 West Hastings Street feels cold, especially with its metal benches and tiled seating areas. According to Vasto, the domed court was “fine” for a while, but the city has outgrown it.
“It doesn’t have great views. It is sort of an odd space, a leftover space,” the architect said.
Vasto said that the new office development will “rejuvenate” the area.
The plan involves a “large public space” serving as a “focal point around which the tower evolves and responds”, the rezoning application states. The base of the tower will be carved away, allowing as much light as possible to enter the plaza. There will also be ground-level retail.
In addition, the proposed development includes 102 parking spots and 78 bicycle spaces underground.
Across West Cordova Street to the north of 333 Seymour and 601 West Hastings is Waterfront Station, the terminus of the SkyTrain’s three lines, West Coast Express, and SeaBus.
The Urban Design Panel, which advises the City of Vancouver on rezoning and development applications, unanimously supported the project in a meeting last November.
Vasto expects the development to be in its permit phase around this time next year.
When it’s completed, Atkin might add the new plaza to his favourite spots to hang out.