Ray Spaxman’s Open Letter: 555 West Cordova and the Future of our Downtown Waterfront

ray spaxman

Ray Spaxman

Ray Spaxman recently released an open letter to Mayor and Council concerning the future of the downtown waterfront. We copy it below.

Spaxman is highly respected as the City of Vancouver’s Director of Planning from 1973 to 1989, and today runs Spaxman Consulting Group Limited. He is renowned for his balanced approach to development, for listening to all sides, and he has left his mark on the Vancouver we know and love today.


July 15, 2015

Dear Mayor and Council of the City of Vancouver

Re: 555 West Cordova and the Future of our Downtown Waterfront

The Central Waterfront Hub Framework, endorsed by Vancouver City Council on June 11, 2009, provides an exciting vision for the downtown waterfront. The Hub Framework shows how the downtown could be re-connected to the waterfront while also providing job space and public gathering places. At the core of this vision and of the transportation element in the Greenest City Action Plan is the enhancement of the regional multi-modal transportation hub centred around the Waterfront Station.

icepick origamiThe implementation of the waterfront vision is dependent on the interest of the two major landowners – Cadillac Fairview and Carrera Management – who have now both expressed an interest in moving forward with the Framework. Port Metro Vancouver, TransLink, provincial and federal interests also play a key role in realization of a new waterfront.

Vancouver City Council recently gave rezoning approval to the first development proposal within the Hub Framework area. This office building at 320 Granville Street, owned by Carrera Management, is generally consistent with the Hub Framework and therefore raised no concerns regarding the implementation of waterfront plans.

In January, 2015 a second proposal was submitted as a development application within the Hub Framework area. Cadillac Fairview is proposing a large office building on the small parking lot between the Waterfront Station and The Landing. Unlike the first application, this second application jeopardizes the future planning of the waterfront. It did not receive support from the Urban Design Panel and over 100 letters were received by the Development Permit Board. There is much public interest in the future of this site and in the waterfront. On June 4, SFU City Conversations held a panel discussion on the future of the downtown waterfront. It was their biggest crowd ever for this event. The event was video recorded and can be found here: http://waterfront.vancouverplanning.ca/index.php/waterfront-issues- 2015/sfu-city-conversation/videos/. (The videos contain images of the Hub Framework and the proposed office building.)

icepick waterfront towers

The critical question is whether the proposed development at 555 West Cordova can proceed without compromising the future of the waterfront. Our citizen’s group, the Downtown Waterfront Working Group, was formed in recognition of the importance of this proposal at 555 West Cordova on the future of the downtown waterfront. We believe much better solutions are possible. A thorough public evaluation of costs and benefits of various options is essential. And because the City does not have a site plan or a strategy for implementing the Hub Framework, the time is right to develop in a co- operative way the mechanisms for achieving a wide array of public and private benefits.

Many factors need to be considered before any building on 555 West Cordova can be processed:

1) The future allocation of density and land uses within the Hub Framework area has not yet been formulated. While the Hub Framework contains an initial Illustrative Concept Plan, the City has not advanced the necessary more detailed Area Site Plan clarifying how the various buildings, cycle/walkways, open spaces, streets, and other public realm/ infrastructure elements should be integrated taking into account today’s factors, many of which have evolved/changed since 2009.

The Hub Framework stated that a minimum of 1.1 million square feet of office should be built north of Cordova. The first proposal north of Cordova, at 555 West Cordova, is proposing to use 37% of the 1.1 million square feet of office space on a site occupying less than 2% of the land area within the Hub Framework. We expect that additional office space beyond 1.1 million square feet is possible, as well as retail/restaurant/entertainment and possibly even housing. A site plan is needed to determine the height , density, and location of these activities. In the absence of a site plan, there is no reason why the “Illustrative Concept Plan” should not be taken seriously as a guide for the proposed development at 555 West Cordova Street.

2) The sheer size of the proposed building at 555 West Cordova makes it very difficult to respect the heritage , public realm and gateway values of the site. The Illustrative Concept Plan in the Hub Framework suggests a building of 11 storeys and 65,000 square feet for 555 West Cordova in order to maximize the heritage, public space and the gateway role of this site. Yet the proposed building is almost six times this floor area at 408,000 square feet and 26 storeys.

3) Plans for expansion of the transit hub need to be advanced to ensure no opportunities are lost. The existing transit hub is inadequate, with severe crowding occurring when West Coast Express, SkyTrains and the Seabus disembark at the same time. People with disabilities, strollers, wheelchairs, and bicycles have a particularly tough time. When the Compass turnstiles become operational, passenger congestion is likely to increase given the limited amount of room. Bicycle storage is very limited. Bus circulation and capacity needs improvement. Given the continued expected shift to walking, cycling and transit as articulated in the Greenest City Action Plan and Transportation 2040, an expanded and more effective regional transit hub is badly needed. The involvement of senior governments, TransLink and Port Metro Vancouver is key to the future of the waterfront and expansion of Waterfront Station for regional transit facilities. As a recent example, we note in the $800-million refurbishment of Toronto Union Station, $164 million was of federal funds and $223 million came from the Province of Ontario.

4) Transportation access needs further exploration. Transportation 2040, approved by Council in 2012, puts much more emphasis on public realm and public spaces and less emphasis on space for vehicular traffic. Traffic analysis for the Hub Framework was completed in 2007. The Hub Framework identifies the Granville Street extension as the key access point to the future Hub lands and that right of way is owned by Cadillac Fairview in the form of a parkade for 200 Granville Street. Council needs a guarantee from Cadillac Fairview that they will enable the Granville extension to be built as a condition to the development at 555 West Cordova.

Fortuitously, the Sinclair Centre redevelopment could also make a major financial contribution to the Granville Extension. Further study is needed to determine whether an additional north/south artery is needed to access the waterfront. A 2014 study by Bunt & Associates shows a 16% decline in vehicle movements in the pm peak at the Cordova and Granville intersection. Should, for example, the Cordova Connector be designed for pedestrian and cycling access only, in light of the very problematic intersection at Cordova and Water Streets? It would be a serious error for the City to require Cadillac Fairview to finance road construction costs of Cordova Connector when a road may not be needed.

City Council need not be silent on such a critical issue, even though 555 West Cordova is a development application and not a rezoning. In the Central Waterfront Hub Framework, Council authority and responsibility is clearly articulated:

Eventually, through further, more detailed planning, it is the City’s presumption that there will be revisions to the ODPs and subsequent rezonings. In the meantime, the City will endeavour to ensure that no rezoning or development occurs that would contradict the vision put forward in this Framework. The Framework will be used as a supplementary “overlay” to guide further planning, including ODP amendments and rezonings, bearing in mind the need for flexibility to respond to evolving City land use, built form and density policy directions which could impact the Framework area. ( page 5)

The Downtown Waterfront Working Group looks forward to working with the City and all the interests in
creating a sensational new waterfront. We are asking, as first steps, for Mayor and Council:

1) Given that the two major landowners are now actively engaged in the future of the waterfront as well as the recent interest by the federal government in the Sinclair Centre, redevelopment, direct staff to update the Central Waterfront Hub Framework to incorporate changes in the key drivers since 2009 when the Framework was adopted and prepare an implementation strategy as per Council instructions in 2009.
2) Direct staff that no development applications or rezonings be processed within the Hub Framework area until a site plan and implementation strategy is approved by Council.

The Cordova application, as proposed, would seriously compromise the ability of other important components of the Hub Framework from ever being implemented. This involves an equitable amenity- generating distribution of densities and the ability to create a major transportation interchange in a creative way, both architecturally and in the design of vibrant public places. Vancouver deserves no less- and this is the moment when such a vision can be realized, or lost forever.

Sincerely,

Michael Alexander
Christina DeMarco
Frank Ducote
Michael Kluckner
Tom Phipps
Gord Price
Ray Spaxman
Steering Group of the Downtown Waterfront Working Group

origami tower

Tower proposed beside Waterfront Station (January 2015)

Previous open letter by Ray Spaxman:
“Is anyone else concerned?” message circulating from Ray Spaxman, esteemed former Director of Planning, Vancouver (April 22, 2014)

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