Towering Stupidity: More Historic Area High Rises Approved

Over the past week, Vancouver City Council approved most of the recommendations of the Planning Department’s Historic Area Height Review. I’ve been debating this issue with City planners, architects, developers, and local residents for some time on Frances Bula’s blog. While influential people like Jim Green and Councilor Raymond Louie think building high rise towers and increasing maximum building heights in a Heritage District is a good thing and will help revitalize the area, other influential people like the Condo King, Bob Rennie, and former council nominee Michael Geller do not.

Last week, the City’s Director of Planning, Brent Toderian, one of the most powerful bureaucrats in City Hall, even came on the Bula Blog to defend the View Corridor and Historic Area Height Review, and even took the time to address old Gassy directly regarding some of my questions and criticisms. I guess even layman like me, if they care enough and make well-researched criticisms, can stand toe to toe with the big boys. As fond as I am of bashing Toderian for the HAHR, I give him credit for taking the time to discuss these issues openly in an online forum, where he opens himself up to a lot of abuse (although I notice that, the times he does this, people suddenly start playing nice and getting all deferential to him… interesting…). I certainly toned down my usual hyperbole when addressing him directly, but I have, nevertheless, done my best to counterpoint his past justifications for towers in the Heritage District, which, I believe, is just plain shortsighted stupidity.

So anyway, here’s my Bulablog comment in reference to Brent Toderian’s:

Mr. Toderian, thank you for your willingness to provide your comments here, and to address my questions in the earlier post. I especially look forward to hearing your thoughts on the approval of the towers in the Heritage District. Here’s my take – what I would have liked to say to council if I could have been there. I offer these points with the caveat that I’m no expert, just a hometown boy and long-time Gastown resident who cares deeply about this city’s history and heritage. So, to all experts out there, please feel free to counterpoint or correct some of my assumptions.

As far as I can ascertain, there is little or no research to support the argument that building towers will help “revitalize” a depressed historic neighbourood. In contrast, there is a fair amount of research to suggest that the opposite is true. I point to a UNESCO report, “Balanced Urban Revitalization for Social Cohesion and Heritage Conservation” (UNESCO International Urban Seminar, Jan 2007), with papers from multiple urban planning experts from around the world focusing on redevelopment in historic city centres.

As far as I can tell, every single one of these experts disagrees with the key assumptions the HAHR tower proposals make. Not a single one of them recommends (and several outright condemn) building towers as a means to revitalization.

Simply put, conservation of heritage and preservation of historic context revitalizes and provides assets that all strata of society enjoy the fruits of. Destroying history or denuding heritage with large-scale developments exacerbates existing social problems. To quote one the papers: “dominant physical structures lead to a fragmentation of the city’s neighbourhoods and landscape.”

In eastern Europe, after the fall of the iron curtain, the rapid destruction of heritage and occasional appearance of towers around historic cores created “interventions, dominated by private real estate developers, (that) changed the original urban landscape and architectural environment, and cultural heritage has constantly been at risk.” It is described as negative/loss, not positive/gain.

In contrast, “The valorization of cultural heritage and environmental resources is a strategic priority for the political action of the municipality of Naples. …These are investments for the future, which will not only produce significant results for cultural and urban development, but will also raise the economic activities and the employment rate of the communities involved, and at the same time, reduce the social inequality.” My distaste of the HAHR stems from the fact that a 3rd option – the valorization and stewardship of cultural heritage, and tightening (not relaxing) the restrictions – was never put forward for public consideration. That seems to me to be a glaring mistake.

The lessons of all these UNESCO papers are clear:

Adding density is a moot point, for like the well-planned historic centres around the world, our Heritage district is already one the densest areas of the city, despite the height restrictions the HAHR proposes changing.

Economic “rebalancing”, if that is our goal, can easily be achieved without towers given the density inherent in the district. In fact rebalancing is already rapidly occurring west of Main through development within the current height limits. The changes to this western side of the DTES in the last few years have been remarkable, to say the least.

The trade-off for amenities argument is, I think, an extremely weak justification for destroying or denuding historical assets, and recent history suggests that the amenities gained would fall far short of what is really needed, even if 20 towers were built.

The argument that developers can’t make money on renos and low-rises is also suspect, given that many of the UNESCO papers are concerned with cities in Eastern Europe, Southern Italy, South America, etc. that do not have the wealth or resources Vancouver does. If they can find ways to do it, and do it right, why can’t we? Nixing the heritage density bonus program, for example, was a shortsighted decision. Fixing its very clear structural problems is what needed to happen. Shutting it down just opened the door to adding this justification for towers and raised heights.

No land in the core left to develop? Every day I stare at the railyards that stretch from Main to Waterfront Station and the huge tract of land that represents, and shake my head when I hear the claim that “Northeast False Creek is the last undeveloped waterfront in downtown Vancouver.”

But what is the reasoning behind towers and added height from an architectural/historical integrity perspective? Anecdotally, I don’t know any locals who live or work in my neighbourhood, rich or poor, who think the Woodwards towers are anything other than horribly out of place. And how many people cringe at the thought of Shanghai Alley reduced to placards in a tower courtyard? Then again, how many even have a clue what once was there? Now that it is gone, it is close to being forgotten.

So I ask, what legacy do you believe you are leaving to future generations by this plan, Mr. Toderian? What do you think the decision to build towers in the heritage district – perhaps the most important heritage district in Western Canada – will look like in 40 years?

Well, looking back 40 years after nixing the “Project 200” proposal, most Vancouverites thank our lucky stars that the north side of Gastown didn’t get overrun by towers. Most view it as a prescient, city-shaping decision (however it came about) on par with the decision to protect view corridors. People look at the “200” proposal with utter disdain, do they not? Whatever one thinks of the neighbourhood now, there is no denying that the potential for it to be great is still there. But that is only true because no towers were allowed to destroy it.

You are now the steward of Vancouver’s architectural history and its heritage district, but this proposal does not seem to me to respect that heritage, nor does it appear to be based on any factual evidence to support its justification as a key to revitalization and future prosperity and pride for the whole city. I know a tight rope of compromise was walked when developing this plan, but I think all that resulted was a plan that comprises our historical legacy.

The socio-economic status quo needs to change, for sure, but the scale and character of the area does not need to change to achieve this. If it’s already well-planned and high density, why mess with it? Revitalization can occur without desecrating the district with more towers. As some of the UNESCO papers suggest, you may actually end up creating more problems and more social fragmentation, destroying our heritage and the public assets they represent, and not solving any existing problems.

So I can’t understand for the life of me why towers were ever even considered?

For the whole story, other comments etc. here’s the link to Toderian’s letter and the reply above.

And here’s the link to the earlier tower/view corridor discussion, which prompted Toderian’s initial reply, probably a more interesting discussion, so far…

And finally, a link to the micro condo debate, which is also kind of interesting.

Caveat: although I love these debates and am very interested in the outcomes for the City’s legacy, most people probably find them boring as hell!

.  .  .


2 responses to “Towering Stupidity: More Historic Area High Rises Approved

  1. The above photos illustrate perfectly why I have been continuously opposed to taller buildings in the DTES and Chinatown heritage districts. They are out of place, and not necessary. It is possible to get enough density to create ‘body heat’ with buildings up to 10 storeys.

    While I agree that it is difficult to bonus social housing without really tall buildings, I would argue we should not strive to do this in this area. Instead, we should seek funding from the federal and provincial governments, and work with the private sector to build both rental and ownership units.

    I like the glass tower and podium developments in some areas of the region, but they do not belong here. My worry about 12 storey buildings is that I’m often not sure if they are tall short buildings, or short tall buildings. If the ‘floor plate’ is small enough, they can look quite good, but often they end up looking fat and stubby. More continuous ‘street wall’ buildings, like what we find in European cities (as described above by GJG) or Washington DC can look terrific. They belong here. Much taller buildings do not.

    • Hi Michael, thanks for your comments. Still hoping for Brent to give us his view on HAHR, but not holding my breath since it’s the start of the work week…
      Take care, GJG

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