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Vancouver's Urban Design Panel rejects 'origami' tower

Architect says he looks forward to addressing concerns raised by panel

Vancouver's Urban Design Panel rejected the proposal for Cadillac Fairview's Waterfront "origami" Tower at its meeting Wednesday.

The panel doesn't approve or deny development applications but is an advisory body to the city. The Vancouver Heritage Commission supported the project at its December meeting, although that decision wasn't unanimous.

Had the UDP supported the project, it would have gone before the Development Permit Board (DPB) in March. That meeting will be rescheduled when the tower is redesigned, head planner Brian Jackson told the Courier. Before the revised tower goes to the DPB, it will go back to the Gastown Heritage Advisory Committee and the Vancouver Heritage Commission. 

“Timing is entirely in the applicant’s hands in terms of the need to redesign in accordance with the UDP’s comments,” Jackson said.

The 26-storey glass tower is envisioned for next to Waterfront Station and it would overhang part of the station. The Landing heritage building is on the other side. The small footprint of the site, coupled with city planning and design guidelines, means a creative solution is required.

Urban Design Panel members raised numerous concerns, including the location of the tower on the site and its proximity to the historic Waterfront Station, that not enough sustainability measures were featured in the project, and the relationship between the property's private realm and the public realm.

The tower was designed by Gordon Gill + Adrian Smith Architecture, an international firm based out of Chicago. B+H Architects is the local collaborating firm.

Gill called comments from the panel "insightful" and said the firm looked forward to addressing them. The project generated significant criticism over the past week over the tower's appearance, as well as its relationship to the heritage buildings on either side.

"I don't see [the criticism] as a personal affront. Correctly there's a lot of concern about heritage buildings. I think that's fair. I think that's right," Gill told reporters after the UDP meeting. "We are also concerned as you see, which is why we positioned the building originally farther to the east. So I think the comments tonight were very constructive and very helpful - not just to us, but hopefully [to] the city and to everyone who's working on the project."

UDP chairperson Ryan Bragg from Perkins + Will Architects summarized panelists' comments before they voted. He noted some of their concerns about landscaping and the public realm as it relates to the existing and future context of the site.

"The perception of the public is this is a public space, but it's not. It's a private space. So, as one of the panelists suggested, this is going to change the landscape of the city forever, which is the right of the owner and as a result you tried to respond in a manner that accepts that, but is cognizant of the role of the public realm," he told the applicants.

Bragg noted that the relationship of the building to transit is important, as is the relationship to the adjacent heritage buildings.

He also said: "Some suggestions as well [were] that perhaps the ground floor could be seen as an extension to the overall public realm and perhaps there's more porosity than less porosity and as a result the perception of the site and what would be private space is in fact much more public."

While some panelists suggested the building could be moved away from Waterfront Station, others were concerned that would then create concerns about its proximity to The Landing.

After the meeting, Gill said he's not sure how difficult it will be to change elements of the proposal or how a revamped proposal might look.

"I think that's a matter of how we assess that with our client [Cadillac Fairview] as to exactly what will be the next steps. So we will take the comments, sit with the client and look as to what the next steps are and determine how to address it," he said.

Gill also said he wasn't surprised by the comments from the UDP.

"I think we knew pretty much where we stood. I think we understand the site very well. It's a difficult site and it's good to hear that [acknowledged]."

When a reporter noted Gill didn't seem to be taking the rejection too badly, Gill said they are often at the other side of the table.

"It is a very important job and we really have a lot of respect for the panel and the comments. We understand the process of architecture, especially when it's complex. You have to allow that process to happen and typically the buildings get better because of it," he said.

Note: This story has been updated since first posted.