Back in 2015, the City of Vancouver’s Urban Design Panel rejected Cadillac Fairview’s proposal for the 26-storey Waterfront Tower it envisioned for 555 West Cordova St. The site, which has a relatively small footprint and is currently a parking lot, is between Waterfront Station and The Landing heritage buildings.
The UDP’s concerns included the location of the proposed building on the site and its proximity to Waterfront Station, that not enough sustainability measures were featured in the project and the relationship between the property’s private and public realms.
The UDP is only an advisory body and doesn’t approve or deny development applications, but its concerns helped lead to a redesign of the building,
Criticism of the building, which some dubbed an origami tower, also came from other quarters, including Courier columnist Michael Geller, former city planner Ray Spaxman and heritage activists.
The redesign, which was just released, includes a public plaza at street level, a public viewing terrace on level four and bicycle facilities.
Gordon Gill + Adrian Smith Architecture, an international firm based out of Chicago, is behind the design, while B+H Architects is the local collaborating firm. Charles Gauthier, president and CEO of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, has already stated the association supports the proposal, which he said will add much-needed office space to a major transportation hub.
The Courier spoke to Tom Knoepfel, senior vice president of the western portfolio for Cadillac Fairview, about the new plan for what it’s calling, 'The Crystal at Waterfront Square.'
This has been a long time coming — almost exactly five years since the last design went before the Urban Design Panel. Why did it take so long?
A few different factors. We engaged with the city and really wanted to understand what was important to the city. We took the feedback that we got from the Urban Design Panel and we were very considerate of those things and wanted to make sure we put forward the best design possible that addressed those needs and concerns.
What are the main changes that were made from the previous design to this design?
I’d say there are two main design changes. One, we shifted the tower further back away from the street and tucked it in behind the station, so as not to impact the street-front facade of this station. As part of that, we turned the core by 90 degrees in order to be able to accommodate that. Secondly, we also lifted the lobby up from the street level to make the building much more transparent. The result is that there will be much clearer vision, even around the building and through the building, to the views to the north of the harbour and the North Shore mountains. Our real focus was to create a beautiful urban plaza — 85 per cent of that space that today is a parking lot is going to be a new urban plaza that can be enjoyed by people who work in the building, people who work in the area and visitors to our city.
Will new building still overhang the station? That was one of the concerns in the past.
I don't have the plans in front of me, but believe it may overhang the building a little bit. But it's far less intrusive on the neighbouring building.
Some of the comments from the urban design panel five years ago were that there weren't enough sustainability measures in the project. They were also concerned about the relationship between the property’s private realm and public realm. How have you addressed those issues?
In terms of sustainability, our objective is to target LEED Platinum, which is the highest level of LEED certification for an office building. We can't comment specifically on sustainability features but what I can tell you is that once it's occupied, the building is going to adhere to our internal sustainability operating platform, which is green at work, which is an industry-leading platform for real estate companies in Canada.
There’s no parking in the building, correct?
No. And, in terms of sustainability, that's a key component as well. We're adding zero net new parking stalls to the facility. The building couldn't be any better located when it comes to transit. It's immediately adjacent to Vancouver's primary transit hub and we expect significant use of public transit and insignificant impact on the city in terms of additional vehicles. In addition, we're going to create one of Vancouver's largest bicycle storage facilities with first first-class shower and change rooms.
Aren’t there parking minimums through the city or are they just waiving that requirement?
We are fulfilling the city's requirement. We also have an adjacent parkade, which we own at Granville Square, which today is underutilised. People that do need parking, we will be able to provide it in existing facilities. The key is we're not building any new facilities.
(Note: The City of Vancouver told the Courier after this interview that 555 West Cordova is seeking zero parking through a Transportation Demand Plan (TDM), and is in alignment with the 2019 amended parking bylaw. "TDM plans contain measures used to manage traffic and parking demands, promote transit, walking and rolling. This is one of the many proposed elements of the project that are currently being reviewed by City staff.")
While you're not the architect, how tough is it, do you think, to design a modern building like this next to heritage buildings on such a constrained site?
We feel that our architects, who have designed buildings around the world including European environments where this kind of situation arises on a regular basis, we think they have done an exceptional job of bringing a new building into an environment with existing heritage buildings.
Is that why you chose that firm?
Yeah, we've worked with this firm before on other buildings and other cities and we're very pleased with their approach, especially in situations like this where there are heritage buildings nearby.
There are still hurdles to overcome. I assume you have to go through the Urban Design Panel and, perhaps, the Vancouver Heritage Commission. Would that be true?
Yes, that's correct. There will also be a public consultation coming up as well.
How concerned are you about the reaction, from the public, the Urban Design Panel and the heritage commission, on this design given the reaction to the last one?
We welcome public input or feedback. We were very careful to consider the feedback that we received in 2015 and we've incorporated that feedback into the current design.
In the past it’s been described as an origami tower and now you're calling it, 'The Crystal at Waterfront Square'?
With respect to design, I believe the origami moniker came from the first three to four floors of the building — the design. Those floors have changed, in design, fairly substantially — far straighter lines at the base of the building.
What's the timeline at this point if everything goes smoothly?
Ideally, we hope to commence construction later this year.
Is there anything else you'd want to say about the new design?
We're excited about being able to put this building forword. We've seen tremendous growth in our city and Cadillac Fairview is very much committed to the city of Vancouver, including this building. Our investment [is] over $600 million dollars in the city of Vancouver for both employment and commercial purposes. We're looking forward to creating more job spaces in the downtown core in a sustainable manner and located directly adjacent to transit.
When could it be completed if you are able to start this year?
Likely in the three to three-and-a-half-year range.
Note: This interview has been condensed and edited.
The project goes before an open house from 3 to 7 p.m. at Fairmont Waterfront Hotel in the Mackenzie Ballroom, Feb. 18. The development permit application is currently scheduled to go before the Development Permit Board May 25.
A rendering of the previous design from 2015.