In the following open letter, former chief city planner Ray Spaxman shares his thoughts on problems with the consultation process leading up to the Public Hearing on what has been called the Jenga Tower, a proposed 43-storey tower at 1500 West Georgia. City Council will review the application at the Public Hearing on Tuesday, January 16, 2018.
The rezoning application is by Francl Architecture in conjunction with Büro Ole Scheeren, on behalf of Bosa Properties (1500 Holdco) Inc., to increase the permitted floor space ratio from 6.00 to 10.82 FSR and building height from 91.4 to 134.0 meters for a mixed-use tower with 220 market strata residential units while retaining the existing office building on the site. It would be built the east of the existing Crown Life Place office building.
Mr. Spaxman’s letter follows. We have taken the liberty to emphasize some of his points.
This note is simply to add a few more dimensions to the issues I have raised about the Jenga Tower proposal at 1500 West Georgia. My purpose is to draw attention to the improvements that can easily be made to strengthen the level of trust in our community about our processes of controlling development.
I have monitored several major development proposals over the last many years, especially the ones that seem to have missed some of the basic urban design principles that the city had developed and refined over many years. I have reported to you several times on this particular application since it first appeared in public some two and half years ago.
It is now several years since the city’s urban design principles began to get lost in the city’s review processes. They were either being overlooked, forgotten, ignored, no longer valued or just not understood. However, I am now sincerely impressed and relieved to see the beginning of changes in the management of the City. That is capable of remedying the loss of principles that occurred. Nevertheless, unfortunately those changes don’t seem to have caught this application. You can see some of that in the comparative photos I showed in my last note to you. What you cannot see is the inadequacy of the community engagement involvement over that 30 month period.
So, here are my final thoughts before the Public Hearing on Tuesday. I am setting out a brief description of the three primary participants in the processes leading up to the approval or otherwise of a major rezoning. At the end are two diagrams I had produced some time ago after attending the developer-managed public open house on this project. [CityHallWatch note: We have placed one depicting the seemingly identical tower designs in 2015 vs 2018 at the top of this post. The second one is at the bottom.]
I am a big and successful developer. I have enormous resources under my control. I have access to large quantities of capital to assist in my speculative searches for new development opportunities. These come from my own past earnings and from many financiers who are always seeking a reliable investment opportunity.
I have a large staff and access to many consultants who provide expert technical and professional advice throughout development processes. This will range from the initial search for property, design development, obtaining approvals, construction, completion, marketing and sales, and lawyers to finesse any last minute legal complications.
A primary element of our success is keeping informed and on good terms with the people who become involved in the local zoning and development approvals process. This involves ensuring that the advisers and decision makers at staff and political levels are kept informed and feel involved depending on their particular role or interest in the process and the product as they unfold, and their willingness to share their views at different stages of the rezoning process. Depending on the nature of a rezoning I will also seek the support of neighbours. My goal is to operate a successful business and provide the built space that meets the needs of the community.
City Hall houses the community’s elected Major and Council and the many civic departments that manage the city’s many responsibilities including regulating development.
I am the Manager of Planning and Development and, among many other responsibilities, I am primarily responsible for the processing of rezoning and development applications. I have a large professional, technical and administrative staff to assist me in this work and we work with the staff of many other city departments depending on the size, scope and complexity of the application.
My first responsibility is to the citizens-elected City Council and to the City Charter. I must advise council on all planning and zoning matters to the best of my professional ability. In processing rezoning applications my department advises applicants about the information that must be provided to support their application and eventually I advise Council about the implications of the application on established Council policies and recommend whether or not the application can be approved.
I am also responsible to ensure that the public, especially the neighbours who might be directly affected by the rezoning, are properly informed about the application and are provided with the information about the application and to ensure the publicly required processing is carried out through to the required public hearing before Council where the final decision will be made.
I am a neighbour who lives in an apartment immediately adjacent to the site of the application. My neighbours are a diverse group of citizens from many walks of life and have varying degrees of knowledge about their neighbours and the city and its processes. They may or may not have any local organisation to help coordinate their response to the application. Often when a rezoning application appears in a neighbourhood it may require an enormous learning curve for individuals and their families. They have to become informed about how they might be affected by the proposal, how they can participate in the assessment of the application, and if and how they can influence Council’s deliberations. Many rezonings create an enormous degree of anxiety for anyone who believes they will be harmed if the proposal proceeds as set out in the application submitted for Council approval. Most neighbours have very limited knowledge, few financial resources to hire consultants to advise them about their own opportunities to deal with the application. They must rely significantly on the genuine assistance of city staff and the applicant to obtain the information and advice they need.
There are many challenges for the people who participate in the process. The participants who may be most challenged are the neighbours. They do not have the resources in time, money or knowledge that the other two participants have. While some local governments reach out to help neighbours who, after all, are their primary clients, some do not. The City of Vancouver has a very checkered history over time in terms of being open minded and helpful to citizens as they grapple with major rezonings. Fortunately this is changing as a new management organization improves these practices at city hall. However, I have tried to monitor the lengthy 1500 Georgia rezoning process and believe it lacked many of the principles of engagement that I have described in this and my several other communications.
TWO ELEPHANTS IN THE ROOM.
I attended the public open house last September and found the whole process alarming. While there was a lot of complex information around and lots of developer’s representatives and a few city staff, the conversations that occurred were not helpful as everyone including city staff either were there to argue the merits of the scheme proposed or, were told by city staff that they had not yet reached an opinion. For example, the obvious concerns about the impact on the livability of adjacent neighbours was barely mentioned let alone identified, assessed and presented. I have yet to see an actual, real photo of an impacted view from one of the existing apartments, yet amazing displays of high tech graphics are part of the application. It is alarming to note the comment I made in a previous Urbanarm note that pointed out the false information contained in one of the applicants principal renderings of the proposed tower.
I noted that many of the public visiting the open house were potential purchasers and the gathering had the appearance of being there to market the spectacular iconic building that the applicants are so proud of, yet have avoided dealing with the neighbours’ genuine concerns. After that meeting I began to prepare a description of the occasion for Urbanarm. I did not send it because of other priorities and the positive thoughts I had that new management would deal with these issues at the next phase of review.
However, here are two sketches from that draft that still seem appropriate to the current situation.
SOME OF OUR PREVIOUS POSTS FEATURING RAY SPAXMAN’S COMMENTS:
Vancouver’s former chief city planner Ray Spaxman: Observations on ‘citizen engagement’
May 5, 2017
What is Urban Design? (by Ray Spaxman)
November 10, 2016
Ray Spaxman’s Open Letter: 555 West Cordova and the Future of our Downtown Waterfront, July 13, 2015.
“Is anyone else concerned?” message circulating from Ray Spaxman, esteemed former Director of Planning, Vancouver, April 22, 2014
Urban Evolution “Retold” with Ray Spaxman, Brent Toderian (Sept 20, 2012)
VPL Panel summary (Spaxman, Toderian and others)
June 24, 2011