Plenty at stake at Cordova Street site
Planning process should focus on reconnecting downtown Vancouver with its waterfront
Irecently attended a City Conversation event hosted by Simon Fraser University. The topic was the future of the city’s downtown waterfront, with particular reference to a development application the city has received for an office tower at 555 Cordova Street.
Following a number of presentations, the conversation opened to the floor, where the discussion became passionate. Why does this matter? Well, the development is the first piece of an intricate, interlocking puzzle that will either unlock the huge potential of a dynamic, publicly accessible, and re-engaged downtown waterfront focused on a new multimodal transportation hub, or seal the area’s fate forever. This is the waterfront gateway to our city, with a current hodgepodge nexus of poorly integrated transit facilities such as the SeaBus, WestCoast Express, SkyTrain and bus services. There are provincial interests (TransLink, for example), national (the railways) and even federal government (Vancouver Port) at play here. There is a lot at stake.
You’d think the city would have a plan for this key area, given its history and function as Vancouver’s gateway. And it does. However, the 2009 Central Waterfront Hub Framework, detailed and well thought out as it is, lacks one critical component, which renders it virtually ineffective: there is no implementation strategy. And since the City of Vancouver owns none of the lands covered by the plan, other than street rights of ways, it has limited leverage. The plan is now six years old, and circumstances have changed, so it needs updating.
More importantly, all the key interests need to be at the table, or development will not happen in a co-ordinated, integrated way. And implementation cannot be achieved solely on the backs of private landowners.
As the hub framework notes: “One of the keys to moving forward will be to identify a ‘champion’ for the project. This could either be a single party, or a consortium, with the capacity for multi-year involvement, lengthy negotiations and significant financial investment, as well as the ability to present a comprehensive approach to development which demonstrates how the complex, interlinked challenges could be resolved. Mayor and council could also play a significant role by advocating for the vision established in the framework and seeking the support of senior levels of government, area landowners and other stakeholders.”
But will they? So far, the city has shown noticeably little leadership, instead falling back on a business-as-usual approach to processing the development application for 555 Cordova Street, which does not require a public process since it is not a rezoning.
This is far too narrow and unambitious an approval process for such a charged, historically significant site, especially since it is the first piece of the Central Waterfront Hub Framework puzzle. The site is currently occupied by parked cars between the historical CP Railway Station to the west and the restored Landing warehouse building to the east, which also marks the start of the nationally listed Gastown Historical District. The site provides a panoramic view over Burrard Inlet to the North Shore mountains, one of a very few such spaces that remain in downtown Vancouver.
As I wrote in my book Dream City, this site has the potential to be “a true square in the sense of being a space carved out of the fabric of the city, as opposed to an open block surrounded by streets. And what a public space this could be, with a little imagination and some capital. However, the civic and economic mechanisms must still be found to bring this piece of the urban fabric to its full potential as a major public space.” That was 10 years ago. Plus ça change …
There are plenty of precedents for the City of Vancouver initiating and leading a comprehensive planning process for large strategic sites that involved both private landowners and senior government interests. Think of the former Expo 86 lands or Coal Harbour, for example. Or even this same area itself, for which the city previously developed a Central Waterfront Port Lands Policy Statement in close cooperation with the federally regulated Port of Vancouver. Such initiative is urgently needed here again, and not just for this particular project.
A workshop on 555 Cordova Street was set with the city’s advisory Urban Design Panel for Wednesday at city hall. However, the use and design of 555 Cordova Street should be decided, not in isolation, but as part of a comprehensive planning process that addresses the wider public interest in downtown Vancouver reconnecting with its waterfront. If this means some form of land exchange or off-site density transfer to compensate the landowner in order to preserve the site for public use, this too is not without precedent.
If we value our urban waterfront as more than just a development site for the highest bidder, as do many other great waterfront cities — think Sydney’s Circular Quay, Barcelona’s Vell Port, or San Francisco’s Embarcadero — then we should be demanding more of our civic leaders and their planning department. And they, in turn, should be demanding more of the private landowners, as well as of senior governments. It is not too late. We should pause, and take the time to shape and facilitate a downtown waterfront that is commensurate with our aspirations as a carefully designed, elegant, inspiring city that balances legitimate private interests with the greater public good.