A Shadow of Doubt (Brian Palmquist: City Conversations about the Changing Shadows) – About a 20-storey-equivalent tower proposed at 1406-1410 East King Edward

Brian is a guest writer for CityHallWatch. An architect whose career in Vancouver has spanned four decades, with projects ranging from first proposing the laneway-housing concept to serving as the managing architect on major multi-building development plans, personally designing more than 1,000 social and co-op housing units, and consulting on thousands more. Please visit this page for a list of all his articles.


A Shadow of Doubt
City Conversations About the Changing Shadows
By Brian Palmquist
(first published 5-Dec-2021)

Caption: One of these must be wrong! Credit for actual shadow model at right to Stephen Bohus, BLA[1]

December 5th, 2021—This City Conversation is about what the public and Urban Design Panel (UDP) are being shown by applicants seeking massive upzoning. Perhaps as a result of the kinds of questions asked in this Conversation, commentary on this application has been extended to December 12th. Regardless of your thoughts about the application itself, if you agree with our concerns described below it might be worth expressing your objections.

“Surely we must be wrong?” I thought to myself as I looked at the shadow diagrams for a proposed rezoning at 1406-1410 East King Edward. For those wondering what those are, shadow diagrams are specific indications of how proposed new buildings shade their neighbours as well as surrounding streets, parks, etc. By convention, they are provided for the summer solstice and the two equinoxes, capturing shadows cast at 10am, 12 noon and 2pm on those days.

Although these times and dates might seem a bit arbitrary, they have been the standard for decades, allowing applicants, the public, city staff and reviewers such as the Urban Design Panel (UDP) to see the shadowing impacts of larger, taller building proposals. As a former UDP member, I can attest that you get used to these standard times and dates, so that over time you develop a sense for “just fine,” “too much” or “too much in that place.” But you always trust the data provided—right?

But something was wrong here—CityHallWatch’s (CHW’s) Stephen Bohus, an experienced digital modeler, had raised his hand via a CHW post, identifying significant discrepancies between what was included as part of this rezoning application, as compared to the standard dates and times—what was illustrated were shadows substantially shorter than reality, suggesting a much lower building than actually proposed.

Why is this important? Because in this pandemic era, the details of this and many other applications are only visible to the public virtually, via the city’s Shape Your City portal. And if the information in that portal is inaccurate, then nothing shown to the public can be trusted.

Hoping Stephen was mistaken, I did my own cursory analysis, which suggested he was, in fact, correct. So, innocent soul that I am, I queried the responsible planning staff member: “…as per the CHW post, please provide an answer to the serious shadow-related issues detailed in the post. I would also like to know if the applicant team, including the architect, have been apprised of these concerns. As a former member of Vancouver’s Urban Design Panel, the seriousness of these concerns cannot be overstated. Noting the deadline for public feedback is fast approaching (December 5), I would appreciate your urgent reply. Thank you.” Good work, Brian, I thought!

The City’s response was not long in coming: “Thank you for your email. We became aware of the error in the shadow studies just prior to UDP on November 10th and alerted the applicant’s architect team at that time. The applicant produced revised shadow studies and boards, which [sic] stated and shown to UDP on the 10th. 

It was an unintentional oversight that we did not post the revised shadow studies for the public until today [two weeks later], even though we already had them in hand, as we have been taken up by responding to another concurrent virtual open house.

The previous shadow studies were offset by one hour, and reflect shadows at 11 am, 1 pm, and 3 pm. The revised shadow studies posted now reflect the City’s usual shadow analysis times of 10 am, noon and 2 pm.”

Except that’s not accurate. The difference between Stephen Bohus’s analyses and the original and the swapped-in-by-city-staff shadow diagrams is not explained by one-hour discrepancies. But this is what the city’s official website about the application now says: “The shadow studies previously shown in the Application booklet were offset by one hour, and showed shadows at 11 am, 1 pm, and 3 pm.

To provide the public with additional time to review the application materials, the virtual open house Q&A period has been extended by one week to December 12, 2021.”

The city’s information does not say that the actual shadows are almost twice as long as what was shown to all members of the public who reviewed the application on or before November 30th. Since the application had been open for comments for two weeks before the switch out activity, all of those preceding comments are based on faulty information, which is what I said to city staff: “ it nonetheless remains the fact that the citizens of Vancouver are being asked to comment before December 5th [the deadline at the time of my writing] on the appropriateness of a design that clearly has more impacts on them than portrayed in the only documents they have access to. The information made available to them is, in fact, false and misleading. I can only assume that either the Planning Department considers that UDP blessing trumps all citizen input, or worse still, that public commentary is not something to be bothered with if UDP approval is received. Your explanation about being busy with other work does not “cut it” when the Planning Department’s staff has increased by more than 200 people in the past few years.” I continued with a practical suggestion:

“In the circumstances, as a minimum you should a). extend the public comment period, probably into the New Year given the proximity of Christmas; b). advise all commenters (you have their email addresses) that the data they were shown is inaccurate, specifically which aspects, then ask them to re-review the true information and advise via comment if that changes their perspective; and c). revisit staff procedures around timeliness and accuracy of information and notification, especially in the event errors are discovered during the course of a public commentary period. Simply swapping out false for true information less than a week before the end of public commentary does not cut it.”

I wish that were the end of it. City staff did extend the comments period by one week (to December 12th) but their only other comment, about the one-hour discrepancy, is sadly incorrect—just look at the shadow diagram at the head of this Conversation.

I had been copying the applicant on my city staff emails, was sad to receive their response:

“Thank you for your email. In the preparation of rezoning application documents, there is always the possibility of items requiring correction. However, as part of the City’s application review process, these are surfaced and corrected. This review process is a normal part of an application’s review.”

I’m not sure which part of this email is more troubling: the fact that items requiring correction are only surfaced and corrected when ordinary citizens like myself and Stephen at CityHallWatch come across them and push them up the city and applicant ladder; or the fact that such egregious errors is a normal part of an application’s review.

This would perhaps not be as concerning, except that these very high-rise proposals are surfacing all over the city, and despite citizen concern about density and height, city staff and applicants seem to consider it business as usual for them to be error-rich; and when errors are discovered by concerned citizens, they are a normal part of an application’s review.

Is anyone else worried about this?

Brian Palmquist is a fully vaccinated Vancouver-based architect, building envelope and building code consultant and LEED Accredited Professional (the first green building system). He is semi-retired at the moment, still teaching and writing, so not beholden to any client or city hall. These conversations mix real discussion with research and observations based on a 40+ year career including the planning, design and construction of almost every type and scale of project. He is the author of the Amazon best seller “An Architect’s Guide to Construction.” He is also a member of team for a livable Vancouver, a new political party dedicated to restoring a livable Vancouver starting with the 2022 civic election.

[1] To support public dialogue, CityHallWatch welcomes interested parties (media, Vancouver residents, and neighbourhood associations, in particular) to use the images presented. CHW appreciates a concise e-mail if you do (citizenYVR@gmail.com). For more detail on how the renderings were created, please see one of CHW’s previous posts.

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