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Why the city's chief planner is OK with you losing a view of North Shore mountains

Gil Kelley wants a 'more interesting skyline' than a 'straight-line haircut'

I need you to do something for me.

On the next sunny day, go stand at the corner of 10th Avenue and Cambie Street and gaze down the sloping strip that connects to the Cambie Bridge and continues in to downtown.

See the snow-capped North Shore mountains in the distance?

Beautiful, right?

Most people would think so.

Well you may or may not have heard the view will change sometime within the next 20 years—likely a lot sooner once and if council approves rezoning applications from provincial Crown corporation PavCo and private developer Concord Pacific.

The developers want to build three really tall residential towers—Concord two and PavCo one—that will partially obstruct your view of the mountains from that spot at 10th and Cambie, which is what the city refers to as a view corridor.

That spot, by the way, is steps from city hall.

So why is this allowed?

I'll let Gil Kelley, the city's director of planning, answer that once I set up why this is worth writing about.

If you followed the debate around the Northeast False Creek plan, you heard that one of city staff's recommendations was to amend the “general policy for higher buildings” to allow for the consideration of three towers at what will be the new Georgia Street and Pacific Boulevard intersection.

That's, of course, once the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts are demolished and a new sloping grade is built to connect Georgia to Pacific. That intersection will be known as the “Georgia Gateway.”

Not everyone, as expected, is pleased with council's Feb. 13 decision to include the height allowance in the plan. And by increase I mean another 10 to 12 storeys higher than is normally allowed in that part of town.

Green Party Coun. Adriane Carr told me the other day that she and the rest of council received "hundreds" of emails in opposition to having tall towers at that intersection.

Carr voted against staff's recommendation. So did NPA councillors George Affleck and Hector Bremner. What was Carr's rationale?

"It's a real move down a slippery slope," she said. "If you allow amendments to the higher buildings policy and the intrusion in to the view corridors once, it sets the ground for other exceptions —and there goes your view corridors."

Interesting take, but then I guess you could argue the slippery slope theory is irrelevant when using history as a guide: The majestic Marine Building near the foot of Burrard Street was once the tallest building in the city.

That was back in 1930.

Then, as the decades passed, a forest of bland highrises grew up and around it, giving us the skyline we have today. Some would say that's just the inevitable evolution of a city at work—that buildings get built, views get taken away.

Gil Kelley, the city's director of planning. Photo Dan Toulgoet

Anyway, let's get to Kelley...

He, too, acknowledged "voluminous emails" received from people concerned about the allowable height of the "ensemble" of towers. So then why even consider taller towers?

"We felt this was the best way and the place to achieve the density needed to achieve the financial objectives of the [Northeast False Creek] plan," Kelley told council. "That is to say the cost of the infrastructure and amenities, parks and affordable housing that are being delivered as part of the plan."

He said "bunching the extra height at one point" delivers on three urban design objectives. One, he said, is it limits the incursion of the height to the least intrusive area of Northeast False Creek; second, is it creates "a more interesting skyline from that view, frankly, than a straight-line haircut would do."

I'm not sure I heard a third objective but Kelley did say the city has protected several view corridors over the years in Northeast False Creek and kept low building heights over Chinatown.

Plus, he added, the three towers may be tall but he noted the ridgeline of the North Shore mountains will still be visible from Cambie and 10th.

One more point he made: This is not the first time the city has allowed extra height for towers downtown. He mentioned the bridge heads at Burrard and the bridge heads at Granville, where developer Westbank is building "Vancouver House," the futuristic-looking 49-storey twisty tower designed by architect Bjarke Ingels.

I was looking through my notes for a good quote from Kelley to put an exclamation point on his argument to go higher, but nothing he said could compare to how his colleague Kevin McNaney, the city's project director for Northeast False Creek, sold it to council.

He talked of how the grouping of towers "creates a celebratory moment in the skyline." He also said the towers would "create a magic moment in the skyline" and help the neighbourhood "sing in terms of urban design."

Yes, he said all that.

Two days after the vote, I caught up with Mayor Gregor Robertson to ask him why he wants to see taller towers at that intersection. He echoed what Kelley said about the city already protecting several view corridors at Northeast False Creek.

"I believe that our city planners are making that recommendation based on good planning and following a pattern in Vancouver where we do go with taller, slimmer towers where they fit and don't have big bulky buildings right on the seawall, on the water, on public spaces as frequently," Robertson said. "That planning has put Vancouver on the map globally as a well-planned city that has that combination of good views and good public space."

So there you go—no boring straight-line haircuts, we're going to create magic celebratory moments in the sky and we continue to just say no to big bulky buildings.

Before I conclude, I should emphasize that council approving the plan Feb. 13 does not guarantee rezoning applications from PavCo and Concord will get the green light for increased height for the towers.

A note I received from a city communications person last week said the city continues to work with PavCo and Concord to get the rezoning applications to the public hearing stage.

I wasn't told when that will happen.

But it was made clear the Northeast False Creek plan "is a guiding policy framework, but council always has to review rezoning applications with an open mind at public hearing."

Until then, enjoy the view.