Westbank 52-storey tower at Howe-Granville-Pacific deserves spotlight – Public hearing Oct 24

Bjarke Ingels Westbank Granville 52-storey Tower concept(Friday. Post-hearing update. Council approved the rezoning on the spot. Many of our questions below were not covered. Many policies and guidelines were overridden for this rezoning. More on that later…)

Heavyweights and friends of the development industry are pulling all stops to get a major rezoning approved for the proposed Westbank Corp. 52-storey tower at the north end of the Granville Bridge. Here we will to provide some alternative analysis of the project (to be updated). And we may pose a lot of questions. Let’s see if they get answered.

If you see something that concerns you, please write or speak to the Public Hearing. The public hearing at Vancouver City Hall is slated to start at 6 pm on Thursday, October 23, 2013 (click here for official agenda, staff report, and correspondence). Full details of the application are on the City website: http://former.vancouver.ca/commsvcs/planning/rezoning/applications/1412-1460howe/index.htm.

Choklit Park view of Tower MassingBottom line: On this rezoning request, has City Hall negotiated adequate benefits for Vancouver citizens, commensurate with what Westbank is requesting? Westbank is asking City Council to approve a project with significant increases in height and floorspace on this site, amounting to a major transfer of wealth to a private company. About 80% of the land is owned by the public. There are many aspects to this complex deal. To our knowledge, no truly independent review of the merits of this application has been conducted. Here are our top eight questions at this time (to be updated):

  1. What are the exact details of the land deal, and did the public get a fair deal?
  2. Are Development Cost Charges (DCCs) high enough?
  3. Are Community Amenity Contributions (CACs) high enough and being used fairly for the community?
  4. Are the negative impacts on views given adequate consideration?
  5. Is the tower structure truly safe enough in a megathrust earthquake zone?
  6. The $6 million of in-kind CAC’s include both on-site and off-site work. Would it be more fair for the community if those funds were used only for off-site work, and the on-site work paid for separately by the developer — not counted as a CAC?
  7. What lobbying activity is being orchestrated by Westbank and is it acceptable?
  8. Are the elected officials who benefited from election campaign contributions from Westbank and associated entities able to make a truly arms-length and objective decision on this application?

For an intro, see this article in The Province:  An architectural eyesore or a potential masterpiece? Proposed building for False Creek could divide the city (Sam Cooper, 22-Sept-2013). He writes “The increased height and density of the tower and potential view and traffic impacts will be controversial. At open houses, some area residents complained that the tower is far out of scale with surrounding buildings. And the manner in which Ingels’ tower would rise from a thin triangular wedge, torquing into an elegantly top-heavy structure with zigzagged Lego-like units stacked high over the bridge, is “unsettling,” “overzealous” and even “an architectural eyesore.” “

On this development, knowing observers are witnessing a high level of orchestrated lobbying going on to convince our elected officials to approve this application. The spotlight of public attention should be shone on this project and public hearing. The hearing itself will be worth observing as it happens, and all the evidence provided will be fertile ground for future analysis. 

This controversial rezoning has broad implications on Vancouver views (a 497-foot tower) and it involves the sale of public land to private interests (WestBank).

Readers are encouraged to review the material objectively, and speak or write to City Council if you feel you have something to say. Public servants are also expected to display a high level of impartiality in making the case for this rezoning. Planning staff have worked for many years with the proponent on development projects. Is the public getting fair representation?

The site consisting of 16 lots is located at the entrance to the Downtown Peninsula on mostly City owned land, with an area of 135,376 sq. ft. under and adjoining both sides of the Granville St. Bridge including two on and off ramps. Existing uses consist of a mixture of vacant sites, single storey auto related businesses and a 4 storey mini-warehouse. A mixed use development is proposed with an overall floor area of approximately 709,477 sq. ft., consisting of a 52 storey residential condominium tower with a nine storey podium including market residential rental units and retail and office uses, and two six-storey buildings with retail and office uses.

Westbank has numerous projects happening around the city today, including the Oakridge Mall redevelopment, Telus Garden, Granville at 70th, Comox and Broughton, and more. The firm and its CEO is also a major supporter of Mayor Gregor Robertson and his civic party. About 80% of the project lies on land owned by the City of Vancouver — the public. Media and the citizens need to look beyond the promotional aspects presented by project proponents and ask if this entire package is a good deal for the City of Vancouver.

Public Hearing

 REZONING: (a) 1412 – 1480 Howe Street, 1429 Granville Street and 710 Pacific Street
(b) 1410 Granville Street

Summary and Recommendation PDF

Policy Report dated September 13, 2013 PDF

As of October 22, the city posted 30 letters in support, two opposed, and one other.

CityHallWatch has described the project in previous posts:

ANALYSIS – TO BE UPDATED

CAC’s of approx. $11 million on a $400 million project look remarkably low especially when the increase in floor area is from 276,515 to 709,477 sq. ft. There is a need for more transparency showing how the value of public benefits are calculated by the City. A statement from Real Estate indicating acceptance of a CAC offer from the developer is not good enough. Aside from the confusion with apparently contradictory CAC figures, there is the added complexity of no value attached to the provision of 98 secured market rental units without any provision for family (2 bedroom +) units, along with the fact that approximately 80% of the site is owned by the City and no mention of how its transfer value will be determined.  

HAS THE APPLICATION EARNED THE HUGE INCREASE IN FLOOR SPACE?

One question that is consistently asked is whether the application has the design quality to receive the full allocation of requested additional floor space. It is very substantial in the proposed development with an increase of 432,962 sq. ft. from 276,515 sq. ft.

DEVELOPMENT COST CHARGES AND COMMUNITY AMENITY CONTRIBUTIONS: HAS THE CITY NEGOTIATED THE BEST POSSIBLE DEAL FOR VANCOUVER TAXPAYERS?

In addition to development cost charges of $8,989,000 to help pay for facilities necessitated by growth in the community, and a public art contribution of $1,284,000, community amenity charges are negotiated based on the lift in land value as a result of rezoning. The City’s Real Estate Department has accepted the offer of $10 million, including an in-kind CAC of $6 million for public realm improvements on and adjacent to the site, and $4 million in cash, which staff has recommended for expenditure on local and city-wide needs.

The public should question the deal for several reasons.

  • The CAC total is very low based on current land values of approximately $125 – $175 per buildable foot in the Downtown area.
  • Negotiation is usually within the range of 65%-85% of the total land lift.
  • Applying 75% to 432,962 sq. ft. at say $140/buildable foot results in an estimated CAC of $45,461,000.
  • So, taxpayers and citizens, is this a good deal for you? The Director of Planning should be expected to make a good case for this at the public hearing, on record, for future review and accountability.

The relevant policies and design guidelines stress the importance of the need for an enhanced public realm treatment in the neighbourhood.

Should the in-kind CAC contribution of $6 million only be for off-site public realm improvements? Shouldn’t the on-site improvements be funded from the same source.

Should all of the CAC of $4 million in cash be allocated to the immediate neighbourhood and not just $1 million as presently indicated?

Citizens, if you have an opinion, you may wish to let Council know.

JUMPING THE QUEUE? JIMMY PATTISON TOLD TO WAIT?

People may wonder why Westbank’s project, though in the pipeline much SHORTER (note correction), has gone to Public Hearing ahead of the 600 unit + commercial, Burrard Gateway project at Burrard and Drake. This is a project on the books already for a few years, by Jimmy Pattison and Reliance Properties. See details of that project:
http://former.vancouver.ca/commsvcs/planning/rezoning/applications/1290burrard/index.htm

SEISMIC SAFETY

City Council has an obligation to consider the safety of current and future residents of this city. The unique architecture is eye-catching. But where can the public access a respectable independent review of the seismic safety of this design? Where has it ever been tested? How is it designed to respond earthquakes of increasing sizes? Magnitude 2? 3? 4? 5? 6? 7? 8? 9? This part of British Columbia is slated for a megathrust quake of the largest size possible on the planet. What has the proponent stated? What have staff stated? What say independent experts with no interest in this project or the proponents? We have heard that the BC seismic standards have not been compared in any systematic way to the best practices worldwide. Where is the evidence that this design will be safe? Council should get the proponent, senior city staff, and respected academics to answer questions like these in public, on the record, and put their reputation on it.

ORCHESTRATED LOBBYING BY WESTBANK AND HIRED GUNS?

There may be nothing illegal about the kind of activity described below, but the public needs to know that many who write or speak in favour of a rezoning application have interests and connections with political interests, project proponents and developers that they do not make obvious when they provide their opinions to council.

The activities described below are funded and supported ultimately by the profits of construction and development. Significant resources and paid, professional services are brought to bear to lobby public servants and elected officials in order to get the benefits from the approval of a rezoning and development.

What is on the other side — working to protect the public interest? Most individual citizens do not have the expertise or the time to analyze complex and voluminous project documentation and identify issues. Nor do residents associations have the resources to do this analysis or the organizational capacity to do in-depth analysis of major project proposals. (That should be the job of the public servants working at City Hall, working to put the public interest first, in accordance with the municipal Code of Conduct.)

So here we go, some information currently available  …

As in many other Westbank projects, Pottinger and Associates (http://www.pottingerandassociates.com/) has been busy on the ground. This firm describes itself as a “real estate consultancy firm specializing in development-related public relations….Our knowledge of the municipal approvals process, combined with our ‘hands-on’ work with community groups, municipal planning staff, elected officials, the media and other stakeholders enables us to provide public relations support to the professional property development team.”

This week, a private presentation to a group of realtors by one Ms. Bird of Pottinger and Associates included the exhortation that realtors who wished to support this project “should attend Thursdays’ public hearing,” with the office manager adding, “more for you people to sell.” The event was apparently organized in an effort to get some advance publicity and an early start on condominium sales. The presentation had the tone that the project was already going ahead, but some realtors correctly pointed out that the rezoning had not yet been approved. On Twitter, an unidentified source, possibly Pottinger and Associates, possibly paid by Westbank, is tweeting under the handle of @Beach_and_Howe.

The above is an example of the pre-approval activity by a paid consulting firm, which has also apparently attempted to coach speakers they have identified from the affected community on what to say in favour of specific rezoning applications.

As another example of lobbying efforts, one letter supporting the project is by “Dean.” He was co-chair of Vision Vancouver’s politically-appointed West End Mayor’s Advisory Committee. He is now Co-Chair of the pre-election politically-active Vision Vancouver’s West End “caucus,” which has adopted the name “West End Community Action Network” (WECAN, which is separate from the West End Citizens Action Network, also WECAN, the real grassroots group that preceded the new political arm by several years). He is also a key figure in the “Fillmore Family Foundation” which last week hosted a fundraiser at which Mayor Gregor Robertson addressed the assembled. The event was attended by a troupe of several Vision Vancouver T-shirt-wearing supporters. This is in no way a negative comment about that foundation. The point here is the dynamics involving Dean, Vision Vancouver, political supporter Westbank, and $400-million project applicant Westbank. How often do these kinds of dynamics occur in Vancouver? Now and in past rezonings and developments? And what should the public watch for in the future? 

Back to Pottinger and Associates, another employee is “Duncan,” also hand-picked by Vision Vancouver for the West End Mayor’s Advisory Committee. It appears he is now actually in the employ of Pottinger and Associates, as a project manager. As noted, Pottinger and Associates is lobbying realtors to support this $400 million project. Meanwhile, Duncan sits on the Advisory Board for the City’s Development Permit Board, which reviews projects like this Westbank project. So he now appears to be paid by Pottinger, which appears to be paid by Westbank, which is seeking Council approval on a $400 million project, which involves the sale of public land and what should be arms-length negotiations on development fees and levies of millions of dollars. Meanwhile, he is advising the Development Permit Board, which makes internal decisions beyond the reach of public influence.

Who is tracking to see of all members of advisory boards at the City are declaring their interests and recusing themselves from commenting or voting on projects or entities with which they have any connection. After his involvement with WEMAC, Duncan now joins Dean as Co-Chair of Vision Vancouver’s political arm in the West End.

Note that both Dean and Duncan are frequent writers to City Hall on rezoning and development applications, and often speak in favour of developments by Westbank and other major developers.

These above are just a few examples of the relationships at work in major development applications in Vancouver. In contrast to these well-funded and well-orchestrated networks and activities, do communities stand a chance?

**********************

The staff report has some interesting comments (see red text below) that reveal the editing process of staff reports. Who might have written them?

EXCERPT
Family Housing — Housing for families with children is a high priority for the City, particularly in the downtown peninsula. Family units are defined as units with two or more bedrooms. The application currently proposes, within the market strata portion of the housing, a total of 189 two-bedroom and 45 three-bedroom units. These may be suitable for families with children and they comprise 46 per cent of the total number of housing units in the development. All of the secured market rental units are proposed as studio (81 units) and one-bedroom units (17 units). am worried that we are building so many 1 bedroom units in rental – need more 2 bedroom units – any chance to shift this through public hearing or dp? The draft by-law for the rezoning of the Howe Street Lands includes the requirement to achieve a minimum of 25 per cent of the housing units in the development as family units and to comply with the City’s High Density Housing for Families with Children Guidelines. Further, a condition of approval in Appendix B1 recommends that 10 per cent of the secured market rental units be targeted as family units.
While this rezoning anticipates the securing of 98 market rental units or a minimum area of 5,910 m2 (63,616 sq. ft.), it is recommended that the number of units be varied at the discretion of the Managing Director of Social Development to allow for the possibility of more family units being achieved through design development and refinement at subsequent stages of the approvals process. We need to do this – see above

A live video link is available while Council is in session:
http://cityofvan-as1.insinc.com/ibc/mp/md/open/u/317/1204/wv150en

2 thoughts on “Westbank 52-storey tower at Howe-Granville-Pacific deserves spotlight – Public hearing Oct 24

    • Some suggestions: Tell your friends. Write to the media. Share the information. Pass on the web links. Write to Council. Speak to Council. Get involved in your local residents association or civic organization. If you are a member of a developer-funded civic party (that would be Vision Vancouver or NPA), as a member in good faith, ask the tough questions at your annual general meeting. Identify the power brokers in the party and let them know what you think. Let other supporters of these organizations what you think. For every new person awakened to what is going on right in front of us, we are one step toward fixing the problems.

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