By Robert Renger
The lack of new parks for the 50,000 additional people to be housed in the Broadway Plan is one of the plan’s most controversial aspects. Vancouver city council will be making its decision on the plan on Wednesday (June 22).
The city has a long-standing target of providing 1.1 hectares of neighbourhood parkland (excluding destination parks) per 1,000 people. Another stated target is to “maintain the current citywide average of 1.2 sq. ft. of community centre space per person (excluding rinks and pools)".
The Broadway Plan area is currently one of the more park-deficient areas of the city, with about 0.15 hectares of neighbourhood park per 1,000 persons, not including the two destination parks in False Creek South (Sutcliffe Park at Granville Island and Charleson Park). Including these, the ratio for the plan area is 0.30 hectares of destination and neighbourhood park per 1,000 persons.
The plan is to greatly increase the area’s population—from 78,000 to 128,000—without providing any significant new parks. Planning staff and the mayor have asserted that high land values (resulting from recent high-density rezonings in the area and from the Broadway Plan itself) make it too expensive to acquire more parkland.
Nevertheless, it seems perverse to provide less and less public open space per 1000 residents, as more and more of these residents live in ever-denser, ever-smaller high-rise apartments with no open space of their own.
Planning staff have said that a way to improve the park ratio will be “to include types of open spaces that are not currently included in the park board’s park-ratio calculation” and that “the plan responds with a creative strategy” for expanding, adding and renewing parks and adding Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS).
I would urge council and the public to be wary of relying on POPS to provide needed public open space, given the planning department and council’s recent record of allowing important urban plazas downtown to be demolished, so that the owners can develop buildings to replace them. I will detail one sad example below.
A related point—the Broadway Plan has no indication of where the required 60,000 square feet of additional community centre space for the 50,000 additional residents will be provided.
Beware of POPS (Privately Owned Public Spaces)
There used to be a lovely, well-used public plaza on the north side of Alberni Street between Burrard and Thurlow. It was very well-designed, with cherry trees, lots of seating, and a public art sculpture. It was wonderful to see people sitting in the plaza, having coffee, eating lunch, or just watching passersby.
In 2015 the plaza was demolished to be replaced by a building for luxury retailers Van Cleef & Arpels (jewellery) and IWC Schaffhausen (Swiss watches).
This approximately 4,000 square-foot plaza was the public amenity part of the 23-storey, Class A, 168,000 square-foot Grosvenor Building office tower developed in 1984 by Grosvenor Canada Limited (a private company owned by the Grosvenor family headed by the Sixth Duke of Westminster). The public plaza no doubt featured prominently in the reports and renderings supporting the rezoning.
Normally, a city would protect a privately owned public plaza like this for public use in perpetuity by a covenant and statutory right-of-way. (That’s what we did in Burnaby when I was a senior development planner who dealt with many POPS). So what happened in this case? I couldn’t find any report explaining it on the city’s website.
Regardless of the exact reason, this was a huge FAIL by the city’s planning department. Instead of protecting this wonderful public space for the long term, it approved its demolition and redevelopment for luxury retail—after only 30 years, and as the working and residential population that used it continued to increase.
And this isn’t an isolated example of the loss of one public plaza in the downtown in recent years. Here are three more.
The Pacific Centre Plaza (originally the Four Seasons Plaza - 1971) at West Georgia and Howe streets
First the Pacific Centre rotunda was built on the Four Seasons Plaza. Then the rotunda and remaining plaza were demolished in 2020 for a new retail building.
Glass-Domed Princess Plaza (1982) of the Princess Building at West Hastings and Seymour
This was another privately owned public plaza that a 2015 rezoning turned into a development site for a new 25-storey office tower with an FSR of 24.
Crown Life Place Public Plaza (1978) with Large Reflecting Pool and Waterfall at West Georgia and Nicola
If this had been a truly public or legally protected open space, it could have been redesigned into a more friendly public people space at some point. As a Privately Owned Public Space, however, it served as a developer’s land bank that was rezoned in 2018 for the 51-storey 11 FSR ultra-luxury Jenga condo tower.
As a result of the City's approval of the demolition and redevelopment of these POPS, the private owners gained development rights worth many millions of dollars, and the public lost open spaces, which would cost the city many millions of dollars to replace.