(Updated 12 June) This article is a snapshot into a major player in the Vancouver civic scene – Westbank Corp. (http://westbankcorp.com/), which bills itself as Canada’s premiere real estate developer. A discussion reviewing public input and staff recommendations on a major project (Oakridge Centre Mall) involving that firm and project partners is before Vancouver City Council today, June 11, 2013. Material below is in the public domain. We are happy to make corrections of fact upon request and encourage the sharing of further research. We start this article by acknowledging that in any industry, some players have the upper hand compared to competitors in working with the local system of government, planning, processes, permits, and approvals. But perhaps our public servants and elected officials need to put in a higher level of scrutiny, on behalf of the public interest.
The material below touches upon:
- meetings and deals apparently made with senior planners before projects become made public
- industry insiders and consultants strategically targeting elected officials to support rezonings and project approvals
- dynamics of the system of how developers in Vancouver make deals with City officials by offering amenities in return for greater height and density
- a case of heritage and public art offered at one site in return for greater height and density (Shangri-La, currently the tallest building in Vancouver)
In any city, the citizens are often relegated to being observers, outside the real system of consultants, advisors, academics, planning staff, and elected officials. Our society works on principles of fairness and trust. We compile this material here to mainly to put a magnifier onto some pieces of our local system. We encourage people of goodwill to work as individuals to ensure that Vancouver and the Metro Vancouver region do their part to ensure that our civic systems are working , with the highest level of integrity and fairness.
Our case study today is Westbank Corp., one of the largest development firms in Canada. Listed on its website as current projects (in Vancouver unless noted) are 1061 Broughton [formerly known as 1401 Comox], Telus Garden, Granville at 70th, 6&Fir, Living Shangri-La (Toronto), The Falls (Victoria) and Azure (Dallas). Listed as past projects are 700 West 8th, 60 West Cordova Street, Fairmont Pacific Rim, Woodward’s, Shangri-La Vancouver, Shutters (Victoria), Shaw Tower, Parc Residents (Victoria). In the works are the huge redevelopment proposal of Oakridge Centre Mall (41st and Cambie), and evidently, First Baptist Church (Burrard and Nelson). One project in the pipeline, the B.I.G. project at the north end of the Granville Bridge, involves land owned by the City of Vancouver. A rezoning for three fourteen-storey towers was approved in April 2013, at 2220 Kingsway.
Despite its high-profile projects, the company itself could be described as secretive. Typically, only CEO Ian Gillespie represents the company publicly, and media seem never to ask for more information. The website provides no information about the company itself — its principals, officers, key staff, ethical principles, or policies. Gilliespie and Westbank are major political campaign contributors to Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver, the political party with absolute majority on Vancouver City Council in both the 2008 and 2011 elections. Media were removed from the room for a closed-door fundraiser for Robertson/Vision just before the 2011 civic election.
We also know that publicity firms often work in the community, organizing meetings and receptions, looking for potential supportive organizations and individuals, and coaching them on how to communicate with elected officials at or before a public hearing to support a rezoning application. Firms like Pottinger and Associates and Brooks Pooni Associates are often seen in such situations. Also facilitating projects are prominent architectural firms, like Henriquez Partners Architects.
In the face of the vast resources firms in the development industry have available to them, what is the role of individual citizens and non-profit or volunteer community groups?
One discovery brought to our attention by a citizen was a string of comments on the SkyscraperPage online forum (http://forum.skyscraperpage.com/index.php). “Since 1999, SkyscraperPage.com’s forum has been one of the most active skyscraper enthusiast communities on the web. The global membership discusses development news and construction activity on projects from around the world, alongside discussions on urban design, architecture, transportation and many other topics. SkyscraperPage.com also features unique skyscraper diagrams, a database of construction activity, and publishes popular skyscraper posters.”
We find reference to this meeting hosted by SPUR (http://www.spur.org/), a “leading leading civic planning organization” that through research, education and advocacy, “promotes good planning and good government in the San Francisco Bay Area” through eight program areas: Community Planning, Disaster Planning, Economic Development, Good Government, Housing, Regional Planning, Sustainable Development and Transportation.
On January 17, 2013, SPUR organized a meeting called “Vancouver in Vogue,” with this introduction: With over 2.3 million residents, the Vancouver metropolitan area is one of the largest in Canada, and its progressive planning and developments have made the city the most dense in the country and one of the most livable cities in the world. Join Ian Gillespie, president of Westbank Corp., the most highly regarded and innovative real estate development company in Vancouver, for a look at the rapid growth of the city’s urban core, its Greenest City 2020 Action Plan and how to make high-rise projects work while keeping neighborhoods and cities vibrant. V. Fei Tsen, SPUR boardmember and chairperson of the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), and Jose Campos, director of citywide planning from the San Francisco Planning Department, will join Ian in a post-lecture discussion that will examine the lessons to be learned from Vancouver as San Francisco continues to pursue high-rise development at its urban core.
In the chat on SkyScraper Page, comments about the social mixer after the main “Vancouver in Vogue” event go like this (excerpts below) ….
so i’m going to be attending this forum on thursday: http://www.spur.org/events/calendar/vancouver-vogue
and i was wondering if vancouver forumers had any questions for the man. i intend, obviously, to ask about what he’s going to get up to in san francisco, and about the timeline for and potential modifications to the granville gate project, but the post-presentation mixer is pretty wide open and i don’t anticipate huge attendance on this one, as gillespie isn’t at all known down here, so his attention shouldn’t be an issue.
Comments below are in the public domain as of today. Excerpts are our own selection, and bolding is ours.
By easy as pie
hm, the dynamic wasn’t what i expected.
gillespie was very animated, telling stories about his development history mostly, and talking about vancouver’s environmental principles. it was hard not to like him, personally, he had a very freewheeling way about him, and he really played up the canadian thing, charmingly making loads of unexplained references to things/people unknown to the non-canadian audience. he also had this interesting tendency to describe almost everything hyperbolically or straight up as ‘the best in canada,’ which was oddly charming as well. alas, the contours of the form and the substance of the content seemed perfectly consistent on balance: during his presentation, in direct response to the sf citywide planning director’s questions, and to audience questions, he was very unclear on the details and he stuck to very broad pronouncements.
basically, this was a ceo flown into san francisco to do a presentation as part of the larger push into the sf market, rather than any real urbanism discussion. and he either didn’t know or wasn’t willing to discuss anything beyond his projects, how great they were, or what westbank could bring to sf.
however, we did learn a few things. first of all, westbank is huge – over 1000 employees. that’s padded by the fact that they own and manage hotels, restaurants (momofuku toronto came up), and that they do all their own general contracting. next, we learned that, according to gillespie, vancouver’s planning process is actually pretty free-wheeling, and that there’s a LOT of room for negotiation. he said that he’d never once built a project in vancouver that fit within existing zoning – a huge laugh line for the sf audience – and he described a somewhat astonishing development process for the shangri-la, which basically consisted of a few lunches with beasley and getting height and lot coverage settled before even acquiring the land. then approaching the land owner, a reluctant seller, and finishing up a co-venture deal with him within an hour, on the back of “a tim horton’s napkin” – a reference that most people didn’t get, even if they understood the point, incidentally. the rest was just siccing his people on it. there were also plenty of other stories that reinforce the “discretionary” nature of discretionary planning in vancouver, but none so powerful as gillespie’s flat out admission that you get what you want as long as you buy the city off with daycare space or whatever they want. he said that, after property taxes, cac (he just assumed that everyone knew what this vancouver acronym was, btw, which was charming) was the major source of financing for these things and, thus, in vancouver, there’s a lot of room for negotiation, so that everyone gets what they want.
there was a sort of sideline to this discussion, and indeed throughout, that given this state of affairs, developers have a lot of room to abuse the system and put up terrible buildings, and he continually made reference to his own company’s progressiveness and aesthetic awareness in this regard. in direct response to a question about why vancouver’s buildings are all so similar and of similarly low architectural quality, he said flat out and unequivocally that it was the market, that development has happened so quickly that progressive forces haven’t really emerged at the ‘critical mass’, at least, that’s what i got from his somewhat muddled answer.
finally, there is a mind-blowing project at the first baptist church in the pipes, gillepsie showed us a couple images and the entire room gasped in awe and excitement. it’s a full church restoration and expansion with a bing thom-designed tower rising off the back portion of the site, a very special, narrow, pointed marina city-esque wonder that will become a city icon almost immediately. gillespie called it “a done deal.”
Above Originally Posted by easy as pie
I am surprised the FBC project was mentioned to a public audience at this stage. The proposal certainly is special and will be an instant icon.
Above, originally Posted by jlousa
Excerpt: yeah, that first baptist church project is marvelous, and hopefully he gets it a little higher than what we saw suggests (~35fl), so as to make a more emphatic statement on the skyline….
… also worth mentioning in a gossipy sort of way: gillespie mentioned multiple times that he and his weren’t all that popular with developers in the city, because of their commitment to work with the city on everything from lift capture value and cac fees to pushing the envelope on design. pure speculation here, but i wonder if there isn’t some hint in there somewhere as to why toderian was dismissed. i.e. developer rebellion on the regime that toderian was hard pushing into place on the back of westbank deal-making precedents.
Above originally posted by easy as pie.
It is intriguing to note that the First Baptist Church site is not encumbered by any view corridors (other than Queen Elizabeth Park) and according to the recently released West End Community Plan a building of potentially 60 floors may be built in this area.
I wonder whether the West End Community Plan will have any effect on the height of this “iconic” mystery project.
Above originally posted by Prometheus
Vancouver is truly lucky to have someone like him, and I encourage those of you who care to support Westbank’s projects more exciting when and how you can.
Above posted by LeftCoaster
[About the First Baptist Church deal]
Posted by jlousa
I posted the links to it a couple of months back, don’t think many people read them though. I just don’t have the time these days to go thru and cut and paster out the interesting bits. We’ll have to wait until the WE community plan wraps up.
Posted by Prometheus
I read them.
Do you think that the higher limits under the West End Community Plan could alter the dimensions of this “iconic” (but average height) tower Bing Thom is designing for the First Baptist Church parking lot?
Separate thread about the B.I.G project.
A series of comments about this major project…
Excerpt: This one will get built if approved. As urbanists you owe it to yourselves to email council in support of both the height and design and even better take some time off when it goes to council and show up to speak in favour.
Above posted by jlousa
ABOUT THE SHANGRI-LA
Now, having noticed mention about how the Shangri-La tower was approved, as currently the tallest building in Vancouver, CityHallWatch did a bit of research into one particular aspect. Ten years later, was the benefits package a good deal for Vancouver? Did the calculations by our City’s real estate department reflect reality? Did the public and our city get back enough for the increased value created by giving the applicant extra height and density in the rezoning? These are questions that independent minds should ask for every development and rezoning project approved by the City.
Below are photos from June 6, 2013, including the “sculpture garden” currently on display.
The zoning is CD-1 [ 426 ], which went to Public Hearing on December 10, 2003.
Here’s the Policy Report:
Text from the City staff report in 2003: “The configuration of the sculpture garden and related space has been designed to provide a very interesting public place, similar to an Italian plaza. “
Excerpt from caption on art work in June 2013:
Madeln Company. Calm, 2013: At first glance, the installation from Shanghai-based artist collective Madeln Company appears to be debris from a recent disaster, demolition or construction project, but upon close inspection we see the pile of rubble slowly undulate. In a state of constant flux, this site-specific sculpture evokes the endlessly changing cityscape that has become typical in many urban centers of the world. Its ambiguity questions ways of observing, believing and understanding facts and reminds us that the truth often differs from what it seems. Vancouver Art Gallery
Below text is from the City staff report recommending approval of the rezoning for the Shangri-La. Bold is our selection.
DISCUSSION – PUBLIC BENEFITS
Heritage: City policy requires that residential rezoning in the core CBD only be considered if this will facilitate the retention of a heritage building. There is a significant heritage resource, the former First Church of Christ, Scientist building, on the adjoining site at 1160 West Georgia Street. It is in Evaluation Group `B’ on the Vancouver Heritage Register, and it has recently been determined that it has interior features of heritage significance. (See Appendix D for complete discussion).
First opened in 1919, the building has been in continuous use as a church ever since. The building has recently been at risk as a development permit was approved for a new hotel tower that would have only retained the West Georgia Street façade. Encouraged by City staff, the applicant and the new owner of the heritage building, Coastal Victory Church, have come together with a revitalization scheme for this heritage building. In anticipation of this rezoning application, on May 27, 2003 Council approved this heritage site as a candidate for receiving major heritage incentives.
As a condition of the CD-1 enactment, the developer is to pay $4,427,000 into a trust fund payable to the Church as rehabilitation work is completed according to a schedule. In return the Church is required to enter into the recommended Heritage Revitalization Agreement and accept designation which together will legally protect the exterior and interior of the church and secure periodic public access. The rehabilitation work includes restoration of the interior and exterior, including removal of the 1960 additions to the West Georgia Street facade, and voluntary upgrading to Vancouver Building By-law standards.
The former First Church of Christ, Scientist is an important part of Vancouver’s heritage and is notable for being a rare example of a building from the First World War era. Architecturally, it is a finely executed example of the Colonial Revival style, uncommon in Vancouver. It has a significant heritage interior that is not factored into its “B” Heritage Register listing, as it was added when legislation did not exist for protecting heritage interiors. The most notable interior space is the auditorium which occupies the entire upper floor and has only seen minor alterations.
Preserving the former First Church of Christ, Scientist building meets several of the planning objectives for this Character Area, including: locating institutional uses on West Georgia Street, enhancing the pedestrian environment, orienting the major building elements to West Georgia Street, reinforcing the street definition, and retaining a heritage building.
Sculpture Garden: The application offers a major sculpture garden and endowment as an integral part of the proposed development. [Note: While referred to as a “sculpture garden”, this major cultural facility will in fact provide art in various media, not only sculpture, and it is not simply a garden but a variety of spaces.]
First, the developer proposes to provide, equip, and ensure maintenance and repair of a public passageway which will be a mid-block connector between Alberni and West Georgia Streets (see plan on the following page). The public’s right to pass through and be upon the sculpture garden and related space would be established through a section 219 covenant and a statutory right of way. The total floor area of the sculpture garden and related space is estimated to be 2 429.2 m² (26,148 sq. ft.).
The original design of the sculpture garden was developed in concert with the Vancouver Art Gallery. The main area fronting on West Georgia Street is similar in size to one of the gallery’s main gallery spaces. The configuration of the sculpture garden and related space has been designed to provide a very interesting public place, similar to an Italian plaza. Views thru this mid-block connector focus on landscape, water features, and other amenities. The diagonal green space leading to the podium roof garden provides additional opportunities for public art on the second level, further animating the public open space. The bold concept for the ground plane and podium massing reinforces the artistic aspect of the project and lends itself more to contemporary art detailing.
Second, the developers propose to provide the funding to endow an art program for the sculpture garden. The intent of this program is to provide, annually, a series of professionally curated artwork installations that are intended to engage a broad public. The City will designate a nominee, (e.g., Vancouver Art Gallery) to develop a curatorial program for the artwork, to invite artists to develop exhibitions for and use the sculpture garden, and to provide and perform all services necessary to exhibit a series of annual art installations, according to a program approved by the City. It is anticipated that, subject to the cost of the art, two to three installations per year will be created.
It is anticipated that the art installations will on occasion form an integral part of the landscaping and the landscaping in the fully dedicated space may at the request of the City`s nominee, be removed, altered or replaced. The proposed water feature in the dedicated garden space may be utilized by the artist as part of their installation including the ability to turn the water off, or flood the area to a reasonable depth.
Link to Plan of Proposed Sculpture Garden and Associated Space.
The City/designate will be responsible for all aspects of the programming, including:
· engaging the artists,
· scheduling the installations,
· paying the artists and all art production costs,
· arranging accommodation through the development hotel,
· ensuring liaison between the artist and the facility management to arrange, as needed, installation requirements such as electricity, illumination, sound, anchoring, the provision and/or removal of water from the “pool” space; site storage; site preparation and site restoration,
· overseeing artwork installation and removal, and
· coordinating installation openings and publicity.
The City or its designate will have absolute discretion over the programming, which may not be inhibited or modified by the development owners or tenants provided it does not violate Canadian law.
The endowment fund, secured as a condition of rezoning will be held by the City and may be used to offset the costs of the art installation. In addition, the Office of Cultural Affairs proposes that the applicant’s normal contribution to the City’s Public Art Program be combined with the developer’s contribution to ensure a significant endowment for this significant sculpture garden.
Affordable Housing: The City has an Affordable Housing Fund through which capital grants are provided for affordable housing (non-market housing, non-profit housing and social housing). It has been used to fund the acquisition of existing housing, such as Single Room Occupancy hotels and rooming houses, and to build new affordable housing, such as non-market rental housing and non-profit housing co-operatives.
The developer proposes to contribute $1 million to the City’s Affordable Housing Fund.
PUBLIC BENEFITS PACKAGE
After all costs, including a Development Cost Levy payment of $4,013,300, the increase in land value resulting from the increased height, residential and live-work use, and increased floor area was estimated by the Real Estate Services Department to be $13,738,000. At least 91 percent of this value, or an estimated $12,501,149 would flow back into various public goods, as described below. This total does not include the contingency factor or risk value in the project.
1. The value of the designation, rehabilitation and heritage-sensitive seismic upgrade of the First Church of Christ, Scientist building is estimated at $4,427,000. The developer will also permit an encroachment by the church building onto its site for the purposes of foundation shoring and support, with value of $365,000. The total value of this heritage commitment is $4,792,000.
2. The estimated value of providing the sculpture garden and related space (to be dedicated to the City as a statutory right of way) is $2,311,000. A cash endowment for maintenance and public art program operations is $1,768,250. The total value of this is $4,079,250.
A Public Art Program contribution, consistent with policy, will be made, at a value of $631,750 (665,000 sq. ft. x $0.95). As a result the total endowment will have a value of $ 2.4 million, which is expected to generate $120,000 per year.
Arrangements will also be made so that the building owners, including future purchasers, make annual payment of $120,000 (including non-monetary goods and services to be provided by the hotel) to the endowment fund for the public art program in the sculpture garden.
3. A contribution of $1 million would be made to the City’s Affordable Housing Fund.
4. While the extra value of achieving LEED certification has not been estimated, the estimated value of forest re-planting is $50,000.
These figures do not include any special costs for quality urban design or architecture or other normal City requirements for a rezoning of this kind. It can be also noted that the developer faces possible additional expense in the provision of a traffic signal upgrade and possible upgrading of the City sewer system (see Engineering conditions in Appendix B.).