BIG URBAN WATERFRONT OPPORTUNITY FOR CITY
Downtown site proposed as office tower needs a new plan, Lance Berelowitz says.
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Back in 2015, the future of Vancouver's downtown waterfront was a hot topic. The city had received a proposal for a new 26-storey office tower at 555 Cordova St. It is currently a parking lot located between the Waterfront Station building and the beginning of the nationally listed Gastown Historical District along Water Street. It also offers the city's most impressive panoramic view over Burrard Inlet to the North Shore mountains, one of the only such open spaces remaining in Downtown Vancouver.
The site, owned by Cadillac Fairview, is also a key piece of the unresolved puzzle that is Vancouver's downtown urban waterfront. And the company has every right to develop its lands. However, if approved, the tower proposed for this charged site would all but obliterate that view or use of the space as a future public square.
Five years ago, I argued in these pages that the proposal should be paused, while city hall convened a roundtable of all key stakeholders in the broader context of the central waterfront. After all, this is the waterfront gateway to our city and also its most important public transportation nexus, with multiple stakeholders, including Translink (the Seabus, WestCoast Express, Skytrain lines and bus routes all converge here), the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, the railroad companies, and yes, private landowners such as Cadillac Fairview and others. The area urgently needs a new plan.
Interestingly, while the city had previously developed and adopted the 2009 Central Waterfront Hub Framework (which includes this site), it owns no land here apart from the existing street rights-ofway. So it has limited skin in the game, even as its framework recognized and eloquently described the huge opportunity to reconnect Vancouver to its waterfront and create a world-class multimodal transportation hub. So this particular project — 555 Cordova St. — is the first piece of an interlocking puzzle that will either deliver the huge potential of a dynamic, publicly accessible, and re-engaged downtown waterfront focused on the transportation hub, or seal the area's fate forever. To say there is a lot at stake is an understatement.
After a significant outcry, the project was indeed withdrawn. In the interim, the city announced that it would undertake a Central
Waterfront District plan update and that it remained committed to realizing the vision established in the Hub Framework. Several years later, this work is still in progress with no new plan yet publicly tabled. And now the proposal for 555 Cordova St. is coming back for approval. The project went before the city's Heritage Commission in early December, which opposed it by a vote of 8-2. It was scheduled to go to the city's Urban Design Panel in January for review, and then to the Development Permit Board in March. However, this week the applicant apparently asked the city to delay all further steps in the approvals process, for an undetermined time period, for reasons unknown.
Just to be clear, Cadillac Fairview is not the problem. In fact it can, and should be, part of the solution, being one of the key landowners in the area. It owns not just the adjacent heritage station building, but also the Granville Square development at the foot of Granville Street to the west. The city's hub framework envisages the current parkade structure that forms a podium to the Granville Square tower above as being partly removed and Granville Street being extended northward to Canada Place and the waterfront. This will require Cadillac Fairview's co-operation, both with the city and other stakeholders.
That is the key word for achieving the precinct's potential: co-operation. And to get this, there has to be a process of goodfaith negotiations, in which all key stakeholders both get something of value and give something, for the greater public good. Government, at all three levels (the feds control the port through a Crown corporation, as well as regulate the railway companies, and the B.C. government controls Translink) will need to lead this process, in order to find win-win solutions that unlock the area's best development potential. And as I wrote five years ago, implementation cannot be achieved on the backs of private landowners solely.
Will our elected officials and senior civic management show the vision and leadership required, and will we succeed? It will take time, sophisticated negotiations and potentially complicated trade-offs, and the outcome is not guaranteed. One thing is clear though: A business-as-usual approach to processing a discrete development application for a tower at 555 Cordova is not the right approach. It should be paused until a comprehensive waterfront plan emerges from the process I propose above. There is far more in play than the design of one single building on such a charged, historically significant site. And approving it could preempt some of those possibilities.
For example, the 555 Cordova site has the potential to be a true urban square in the sense of being a public space carved out of the fabric of the city, as opposed to an open block surrounded by streets. And what a dynamic public space this could be, with animated uses framing an unbeatable view across Burrard Inlet, and public connections down to the waterfront and along the rear edge of the Gastown heritage buildings down Water Street.
However, the developers still need to realize their legitimate development interests. Just not on this site. So perhaps there could be some form of land exchange with adjacent landown
Our urban waterfront should be more than just a development site for the highest bidder.
ers, or a density transfer to another location, to compensate the landowner and preserve this site for public use. This is not without precedent in Vancouver.
Our urban waterfront should be more than just a development site for the highest bidder, although private development is part of the solution and can help pay for the public infrastructure.
So again, I urge the city to convene a roundtable and invite key stakeholders to participate in a process to shape a downtown waterfront that is commensurate with our aspirations as a sustainable “green” city that is carefully planned and balances legitimate private interests with the greater public good. Many other great waterfront cities have done this successfully in recent years — think Sydney's Circular Quay, Barcelona's Vell Port, San Francisco's Embarcadero, or Cape Town's V&A Waterfront, to cite just a few examples. It is not too late for Vancouver to do the same.