Tag Archives: Woodwards

Prolificus Vancouveritis

(L-R) Gassy Jack’s Ghost, Lewis Villegas, Roger Kemble (Urbanismo), Michael Geller, David Mah.

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I had coffee at Woodwards with a group of long-winded blog commentators/architects last week to discuss a research project we’ve been trying to develop. A very fun meeting, though somewhat odd as text-based avatars converge with their flesh and blood creators in real time under the towers that should not be.

For the first time in a long time, I was the youngest in a group; just a wide-eyed babe compared to these well-respected and accomplished folks, who have all had a direct hand in building the Vancouver we see today.

Can these guys save the world, or at least the city, from the grips of rabidly increasing DENSITY?

Well, we’ll see….

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Resigned, I Appeal to Creativity

(New Woodwards going up, with the Dominion building in the background. At the time it was built in 1910, it was the tallest building in the British Empire. If I’m not mistaken, Harbour Centre, on the right, was for many years Vancouver’s tallest building, too.)

OK, Toderian did reply regarding the HAHR, with what’s a pretty reasonable shakedown of the process, I guess. Now that I’m resigned to more height and high rises (WTF can I do?), I offered up a challenge that may appeal to our planners and builders and architects’ sense of pride and integrity. Hey, I still have some vestiges of idealism left in me! Anyway, below is my latest salvo on the bulablog

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Admittedly, I am somewhat mollified by Mr. Toderian’s comments, and the decisions by council in the context of his explanation. The Budget site, being across from Tinseltown (and same block as Shanghai Alley but outside the Chinatown gates), seems a decent choice if a high rise had to go anywhere, since the heritage in that area is pretty much screwed already, and a heritage tower (the Sun Tower) is almost kitty corner to the west – it won’t necessarily stick out like a sore thumb.

(Woodwards going up, seen from Alexander Street. The green domed building in the background is the Sun Tower, built in 1912, which replaced the Dominion as the tallest in the British Empire — see the theme?)

On the other hand, Pender and Carrall (I assume the southeast corner, since the other corners are heritage?) does not really seem like a good place for a tower at all, for all the reasons I pointed out earlier, including its proximity to many great 3 storey buildings across the street. I’m not sure a high quality design could counter its placement near the core of Chinatown, although, as David H. pointed out a few threads back, there is a fair amount of junk around here already (one of which would be demo’d to make way for this high rise), so maybe it would work?

I still don’t buy the more density=revitalization argument, and have no idea why this appears to be a given and unchallenged. I fear that those who put it forth are really only interested in making money, and don’t give a damn about history or architecture or revitalization at all…

I am very suspect about tiering so quickly up to 120 feet to the south, that’s a really big jump, and will create a serious wall-in effect, which will really become the antitheses of human-scale. The streets are too narrow for this to work without making it claustrophobic.

(Lux building going up, a new social housing unit. The old heritage Lux Theatre — anyone remember the raves here back in the 90s? — was demo’d to make way for this. It pushes the max height limit, and is very imposing; imagine a whole street of these faux-heritage monstrosities, and you get what I mean by the streetscapes getting walled in. BTW, this was a Carnegie Community Action Project rally against the Concorde condos. A sign of things to come, perhaps?)

I would also point out that, heading south from Gastown, the sheer number of non-protected sites vastly out-numbers the protected ones (see the HAHR models or VanMap). Which means that the newer buildings will, over time, eventually overwhelm the heritage buildings, leading to the denuding effect. And that’s where this becomes really problematic, and where Urbanismo’s oft-repeated message about design quality, and Lewis’ concerns over human scale and ratio, will certainly come into play.

So, will we end up with more junky faux-heritage sites that everyone agrees are crap, or will architects and Planning demand something more, say, Gaudiesque; take some real risks and maybe make the 21st century buildings something cool and unexpected, adding some real excitement to the district? Hopefully, the lessons of Concorde’s Greenwich proposal will not be forgotten, and the standard of design will be held to only: ultra high. There won’t be much hope for a UNESCO World Heritage site if we build to the lowest common denominator, and remake the streets where the sun don’t shine but for three weeks a year when it’s directly overhead…

(Concorde’s massive lot on Hastings, where the old San Francisco Pawn Shop used to be. The ultra ugly, bland-as-hell design of their Greenwich building proposed for this site met with huge opposition, not just from DTES activists, but heritage groups, designers and architects, and even Planning department thought it was horrible. The recession hit soon after it went back to the drawing board, and it’s sat empty since. I’m sure Concorde’s Terry Hui, whose yacht Councilor Ray Louie frequents, is happy that he can build an even larger monstrosity — his buddy Ray was the main Council pusher to accept the height increases….)

Nevertheless, resigned to the changes, I hearken back to the original debates on the bulablog last May, where I suggested near the end of one the threads that maybe one of the future Form Shifts should call for innovative and exciting designs for the heritage district.

It seems to me that, if we are going this route of higher buildings that will remake the district (and it will, given the high proportion of non-heritage sites), then let’s try to make it an exercise in building a new legacy of 21st century heritage, one that could be bold, daring, and yes, maybe controversial. Let’s make it a challenge for our architects and designers and planners, and hold them accountable to the highest possible standards and creativity. Isn’t that why you all got into the building profession? Not to make money first and foremost, but to build beautiful, cool, exciting and creative buildings? To make the city you work in great? If the status quo is changing, let’s also change the status quo of Vancouverism, and shift away from the monotonous, lazy, tiresome designs we’ve all grown so utterly sick of…

Think about yours and the City’s legacy as you go forward to build in this historic district, please!

Just my humble suggestion…

(The building sticking out near the middle of the skyline is the first Woodwards tower going up (and not yet at full height), which gives some perspective of just how out of place it is on the low rise heritage side of downtown. This was taken from Stanley Park, near the lighthouse, but it’s even more dramatic how out of place it is when you approach from the harbour on the Seabus.)

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!

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As Saviours Go, This One’s a Little Out There

Intellectual Property of the Urban Gentry


Art intersects with utility in many forms: chalk messages on sidewalks, public art in parks, graffiti on trains, and photo montages on real estate flyers. This glossy, uber-slick advertisement for the Woodwards development landed in my mailbox sometime in 2006. It is, I think, an interesting artefact of Vancouver’s recent building boom, and it is no coincidence that the man behind it is one of Vancouver’s best-known art collectors.

Bob Rennie, also known as The Condo King, has set the bar high for real estate promotion with a focus on hip, affluent and well-educated urbanites looking to get in on the market – a group more mundanely known in other cities as “first-time buyers”.


More than anyone else in the city, Rennie has promoted and sold the concept of Vancouverism – glass and steel residential towers built in the city centre to create a vibrant downtown core. Not content to inflate the price of real estate through slick advertising alone, Rennie personally contributes to the development of the so-called “creative class” he markets to by buying high-priced art pieces by local artists. The impeccable design and layout of this flyer suggests he has a well-trained eye.

The flyer folds out into a large poster of the city skyline basking in the glow of an impeccably Photoshopped brilliance. Your apartment even has its own logo: the retro red “W” puts a distinctive stamp on your abode – a cultural reference to the city’s past that you may or may not remember growing up in Hong Kong, Calgary or Abu Dhabi.

It has all the seductiveness of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue: gorgeous, airbrushed model (Vancouver, you hottie!) in a fantastic setting promising a lifestyle of excitement and fulfilment. The city skyline looks so hot it is literally glowing. As soon as I saw it, I wanted in! And I was ready to mortgage my future for 600 square feet of it. Well, OK, not really.

On the flip side, there is a montage of idyllic photos surrounding a map of Gastown and the hood. Noticeably absent from the photos are needles, crack pipes, homeless people, or derelict heritage buildings boarded up and crumbling from neglect. Hmmmn, is this really Gastown?


When folded up (top picture), the top of the flyer shows a yuppie with a latte next to the portrait of a laughing man who shows a hint of the neighbourhood’s, uh, colour. But hey, up in your glass tower, you’ll be above all that grittiness. And soon enough, with a few more towers in the area, the street life will all get pushed farther east. Vancouverism has come to the DTES. You are on the cutting edge.

The brochure must have cost a staggering amount of money to produce and mail out for free — full colour on both sides and poster size is not some cheap marketing campaign. And yet, you will notice there isn’t a word about floor space, design, cost per unit or features anywhere to be found. This is all about creating a buzz and selling a lifestyle that doesn’t exist: give yourself the illusion of street cred and show off your pioneer spirit by moving to the DTES. The brochure suggests that, if you don’t buy in on this, you are either stupid, cowardly, or totally uncool. Probably all three. In this day and age, that just won’t do. So, c’mon, catch the buzz. Get your ass branded already.


Rennie’s marketing campaign proved to be masterful. The opening day of pre-sales for Woodwards had people camped out overnight to buy in. There was a huge lineup down the block and every unit sold out within a few hours. It was, by all accounts, total insanity. A true work of art.


Last of the old Woodwards building…