Vancouver Sun

Plenty at stake at Cordova Street site

Planning process should focus on reconnecti­ng downtown Vancouver with its waterfront

- LANCE BERELOWITZ Lance Berelowitz is an urban planner and award-winning writer on urban issues. He is the principal of Urban Forum Associates and can be reached at

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.

 ?? SAEED KHAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES ?? Passenger boats sail toward the Circular Quay ferry terminal in front of Sydney’s Opera House. Sydney, says Lance Berelowitz, is among the world’s cities that value their urban waterfront.
SAEED KHAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES Passenger boats sail toward the Circular Quay ferry terminal in front of Sydney’s Opera House. Sydney, says Lance Berelowitz, is among the world’s cities that value their urban waterfront.
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