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Opinion: ‘Awkward’ building would be bad fit

The CPR Station has long been one of my favourite Vancouver buildings. For 16 years I had my offices on the second floor and watched the waterfront transform around me.

The CPR Station has long been one of my favourite Vancouver buildings.

For 16 years I had my offices on the second floor and watched the waterfront transform around me. I often walked past the adjacent parking lot wondering what might one day be built there.

Perhaps this is why I was so shocked a few weeks ago when I saw an illustration in the Vancouver Courier of a proposed new office tower to replace the parking lot.

It did not fit in. It looked all wrong.

Many years ago, I participated in the planning and rezoning of the property immediately north of the station. It comprised two parcels bisected by a lane.

In order to create one taller building, we transferred the building mass that could have been built along Hastings Street across the lane to Cordova Street.

In return for rezoning approval, we proposed a public plaza at Seymour and Hastings Streets and raised a portion of the building on columns to minimize view blockage of the station.

Unfortunately, Narod Developments, the company for which I worked, went into receivership and another firm took over.

While I never liked their shiny chrome design, I did like the concept of a public space on Hastings and the greenery that was planted on the buildings.

I mention this since, in September 2014, the city rezoned this public plaza for a 25-storey office building. The floor space ratio (FSR), which is a measure of the building size in relation to the site area, increased from .09 to 24.34, almost three times the permitted downtown zoning.

City planners recommended approval since they claimed no one was using the plaza and council wanted new office building development.

It may be noteworthy that the firm of architects that designed this building is also associated with the proposed building on the CPR station parking lot, along with Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill. The latter are world-renowned architects, having designed the tallest building in the world in Dubai and what will be a 3,300 foot building in Saudi Arabia.

So why do I find their design for the building next to the station so objectionable?

Let me begin by declaring I like modern buildings juxtaposed with historic buildings. During my travels I have seen many wonderful modern additions to heritage buildings and new buildings built beside them.

My fundamental problem with this design is that it is neither an architecturally pleasing addition to the station, nor a complementary new building beside it.

With its contrived geometric shapes at the street level and first few floors where it almost touches the heritage building, it looks and feels both awkward and disrespectful.

The building also feels too big for its site and does not keep Vancouver’s tradition of respecting the pedestrian at street level. This is why former director of planning Ray Spaxman called the building “a horror.”

I think he’s right.

I suspect city planners know this building design is not as good as it could be. I am told one of the reasons it is so jammed up against the station is that city engineers insisted upon a greater separation from the historic Landing building for a future roadway.

A second reason is the building has been squeezed by a required view corridor of the mountains from Queen Elizabeth Park.

Personally, I would relax the requirement for this distant view corridor if it would result in improved views at the street level, along with a more sympathetic relationship between the new and old buildings, and a more slender building shape.

Alternatively, I would encourage the city to grant the developer approval to transfer some of the building density allowed on this site to another site.

This afternoon (Jan. 28), the city’s Urban Design Panel will review the current proposal. If it supports the design, the public will have an opportunity to see the plan at an open house before it goes before the Development Permit Board.

If the panel does not support the design, it will be back to the drawing board.

I hope it will be the latter.