Report on 508 Helmcken (1111 Richards) Brenhill 35-storey tower, Feb 9 (Tues) Development Permit Board meeting: Initial analysis

508 Helmcken 1111 Richards image p1, for DPB 9-Feb-2016

Artist’s concept of 508 Helmcken 1111 Richards 35-storey Brenhill tower in Emery Barnes Park

(Epilogue, updated: On Feb 9, the Development Permit Board unanimously approved Brenhill’s application for a development permit for a 35 storey, 16.67 FSR mixed-use building at 508 Helmcken, on the corner of Emery Barnes Park, downtown Vancouver. This is the second of the pair of developments in the land swap with the City. The first building, the new Jubilee House, is nearing completion across the street. While the City had spot rezoned the site to allow massive increases in allowable density — in part based on the developer’s proposal to provide much-needed daycare (actually a private Montessori School) — the application now includes NO requirement for such a use. In addition, citizen research revealed that the high-density spot rezoning only applied to the portion of the site occupied by the original Jubilee House. The proposed development extends outside the rezoned area, and into land that doesn’t allow such great density. Despite these and significant other objections from members of Citizens Association of New Yaletown and other citizens, the DPB board voted, in what appeared to be a pre-orchestrated manner, to unanimously approve the development permit. Having exhausted all known appeals, this appears to be the end of CANY’s work to gain a better outcome for this site. From the secretive start to this questionable finish by an internal board, the entire saga of this development has revealed serious and systemic flaws in our municipal government’s processes.)

Development Permit Board
February 9, 2016 (Tuesday)
TIME: 3:00 p.m. start
Town Hall Meeting Room, City Hall, Vancouver

Late on Feb 5, the City posted online the documents for the February 9, 2016, Development Permit Board (DPB) meeting for a project that sent shockwaves through the development industry and municipal governments nationwide — a 35-storey tower on what was originally slated to become a part of the adjacent urban park.

The story has many problems with physical form, but even more so, with flawed public and secret processes of municipal government.

Led by the Community Association of New Yaletown, a lawsuit funded by citizen sacrifice ended up with an initial victory. The B.C. Supreme Court overturned a rezoning and slapped the wrist of Vancouver City Hall for its unethical and improper conduct, including concealing crucial information about a secret contract in a land swap of private and public lands and not providing information in good faith to the public prior to a Public Hearing. But in the end, legal warriors backed by millions of dollars from private and public funds (taxpayer-funded City legal department) won the day by exploiting the legal system, as the City and developer appealed parts of the Supreme court decision and had it overturned.

508 HelmckenThe City tweaked a few policies, repeated the Public Hearing (this time with reinforcements), and approved virtually the original concept the second time. CANY did apply to have the case heard by the Supreme Court of Canada, but the request for leave was denied. No reason was given for this decision, as is customary. Many people were surprised and disappointed by the decision not to grant leave. Even then-City Manager Penny Ballem said after CANY’s initial victory at BC Supreme Court that the case was of interest to municipalities across the country.

The citizens had no choice but to give up on the legal process. The strong financial backing and legal power overwhelmed the public interest. This case ended has up as a loss for democracy, a loss for transparency and a loss for accountability of government. The development permit board meeting on February 9 is one of the final stages of the process.

Readers may wish to review the documents. Below are the links, and further below, some questions/points from a cursory analysis.

Official project description: To develop this site with a 35-storey mixed-use building containing retail store and restaurant uses on the ground floor, commercial child day care facility on the ground and second storeys, 110 secured market rental dwelling units and 278 market dwelling units over seven levels of underground parking accessed from Helmcken Street. (Note that the official address has been changed, from 508 Helmcken, to 1111 Richards Street.)508 Helmcken 1111 Richards site p8-38 of DPB report 9-Feb-2016
Applicant: GBL Architects
Property Owner: Brenhill Developments Ltd.

The staff report for the Development Permit Board meeting is available on the city’s webpage at the following links:

Development Permit Board:

Report and Appendices:

There will be copies of the report at the Development Permit Board meeting on February 9, 2016. The Public may attend the meeting and may request to be added to a speakers list to address the Board. If are interested, contact Lidia McLeod, Assistant to the Development Permit Board at 604-873-7469 or


Cursory initial analysis, questions, concerns, and doubts:
  • Does the proposal actually conform to all legal requirements? The report itself appears to say that City officials/personnel have not evaluated the application against all requirements, and call on the developer itself to ensure that it meets all requirements. Isn’t that the job of the Development Permit Board?
  • Setbacks and proximity to property lines
  • Shadow analysis
  • Horizontal angle of daylight
  • View obstruction from buildings not included in the analysis
  • Whether the promised day care facility, which was a major argument for allowing the huge increase in density, is actually a real possibility. The Montessori school that was originally proposed to move here has since relocated, and appears to have no interest in moving back.
  • If the day care facility that’s been promised is actually provided, how they will manage drop-of and pick-up of students, given that bike lanes run along both Helmcken and Richards St., and cross both driveways. Where will cars stop to drop student off? How will parents move their toddlers into the facility? How will the bike lanes remain safe during busy drop-off and pick-up times?
  • Whether the view cone referred to has been properly defined and measured?
  • Is the overhang on Helmcken St. that the staff report refers to just another example of a slippery slope of projections outside of the property line that started with the Telus Gardens building, and appear likely to continue with the “Jenga” building proposed for 1500 West Georgia St.?
  • What is the relation of this building to any future development on the adjacent Brookland Court property?
  • Has the developer fulfilled all of its required obligations for the New Jubilee House, including moving all of the current Jubilee House residents into the new facility?



tower_design_for_508HelmckenMore from CityHallWatch: Note that the DPB report was completed more than three weeks prior, on January 9, but not posted until just this afternoon, February 3. Why does the municipal government hold back public reports until such a short time before public meetings, putting any interested party at an unfair advantage, with only two full business days remaining before the meeting? (This lag is not uncommon.) Anyone concerned with the details of the case would probably like more time to review the documents — 38 pages of the main report and 84 of appendices.

Activist types may wish to communicate with Mayor and Council encouraging them to direct staff to make documents public as soon as they are completed and dated, and ask why this is not already policy. Perhaps also let your ideas be known to the “Mayor’s Engaged City Task Force.”

Added comment.

As of February 3, 2016, the Urban Design Panel detailed minutes from December 2, 2015 are still not available. See screen capture below as of today. (Update: Apparently the notes from the UDP meeting on this application are contained in the DPB report, though one would have to search to discover that. Meanwhile, a citizen has obtained the minutes in PDF format <CoV 508 Helmcken 1111 Richards, Urban Design Panel UDP Minutes, 2-Dec-2015> though they are not yet posted on the UDP website as of Feb 4.)

Why are these important minutes still not posted? The DPB presumably has the received report internally. But the public is again put at a disadvantage by not having access to the contents of the UDP discussion. Why does a government that claims it wants an “engaged city” work so hard to keep public documents, such as the DPB Staff Report and the UDP Minutes, out of the public eye for as long as possible? CityHallWatch has noted elsewhere that the Q3 financial report of the City, dated November 9, 2015, was not posted online until we pointed it out, finally being posted on February 1, 2016. Official excuse? “It was an oversight.”

UDP minutes 508 Helmcken 1111 Richards minutes TO FOLLOW, 3-Feb-2016

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