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Waterfront Station 26-storey tower proposal remains divisive

Critics give redesign and timing of proposal icy reception; supporters praise redesign and cite need for office space
The redesign of the tower proposed for 555 West Cordova.
The redesign of the tower proposed for 555 West Cordova.

In late 2014, Anthony Norfolk was one of two members of the Vancouver Heritage Commission who voted against Cadillac Fairview’s development proposal to build a modern 26-storey office tower next to Waterfront Station.

The site, at 555 West Cordova St., is currently a parking lot located between the transit station and The Landing heritage building. Norfolk concluded the proposed tower failed to relate respectfully to both historic buildings.

More than five years and a redesign later — a result of criticism from various groups, individuals, and the city’s Urban Design Panel — Norfolk’s opinion hasn’t changed.

That was clear at a Feb. 18 open house about the revised plans for what Cadillac Fairview is calling "The Crystal at Waterfront Square" and what opponents, including Norfolk, have dubbed Icepick 2.

The redesign still envisions a 26-storey building, but it’s been shifted away from the street and tucked behind Waterfront Station, views to the north are clearer through the building, there’s a public viewing terrace on the fourth floor that’s larger than the building’s floor plate and there’s a public plaza at street level with the ability to create a future pedestrian and vehicle connection through it to the waterfront.

But Norfolk maintains the tower’s redesign is only “marginally” better than the previous plan, and it’s still inappropriate for the site.

“It's too big in its relationship in the context of the two heritage buildings either side. It basically disrespects them,” he told the Courier. “It is far too big. I'm all in favour of a very contemporary design but it is not the right building for that location, as the hub study indicates, in its current form.”

A model of the proposed
A model of the proposed "Crystal at Waterfront Square" was shown at a recent open house. Photo Dan Toulgoet

On the waterfront

Norfolk is referring to the City of Vancouver’s Central Waterfront Hub Framework, completed more than a decade ago to guide future planning in an area, which stretches from the Convention Centre to about Carrall Street between Cordova and the waterfront. Aside from Cadillac Fairview, landowners include PavCo, the Port and the Vancouver Whitecaps.

A drawing within the framework document shows an 11-storey building on the site at 555 West Cordova, although it describes the drawing as an “Illustrative Concept Plan” for “illustrative purposes only and that a variety of alternative approaches to the layout and form of development could be considered in further planning work…”

The site of the proposed building. Photo Dan Toulgoet
The site of the proposed building. Photo Dan Toulgoet

The overall vision outlined in the framework includes an extension of Granville Street to the north and a Cordova connector that would run from Cordova Street north past Cadillac Fairview’s site through the proposed public plaza. The connector may not be a conventional road, but such details still have to be worked out through further waterfront planning, which has been re-initiated. Background technical work is underway, in partnership with the Port and landowners, looking at issues such as sea level rise, local transportation and rail transportation. The next phase of planning work is expected to begin later this year.

Norfolk is also a member of the Downtown Waterfront Working Group, a group that includes retired planners and architects, some of whom were involved in helping to create the framework. The group has been active in opposing Cadillac Fairview’s plans, questioning its appropriateness, and arguing numerous issues need to be worked out, such as the allocation of public, cultural space and greenways, transit expansion requirements, distribution of density, land uses and infrastructure, before any development, including at 555 West Cordova, is permitted in the waterfront area.

“First things first. You’ve got to get the planning right,” Norfolk said.

Yellow outlines the area addressed in the Central Waterfront Hub Framework.
Yellow outlines the area addressed in the Central Waterfront Hub Framework.

Kevin McNaney, the City of Vancouver’s director of special projects, which includes the Waterfront Hub planning area, said all landowners in the area have been encouraged to wait until planning is completed, but developers and landowners have property development rights under current zoning and can submit proposals.

“They’re applying under the zoning and we're obliged to assess the application through the Development Permit Board,” he said. “But we do think, like everyone does, there's a bigger vision here. Can this proceed? Yes, it can proceed and we are considering it. It will go to Development Permit Board, but there is more planning to be done in the area, that’s for certain.”

Currently, the development application is scheduled to go before the DPB for a decision May 25.

McNaney notes that while the illustrated plan in the Central Waterfront Hub Framework shows an 11-storey building on the site, “it's very clear it’s an illustrative plan of one way the hub could be built out.”

“This proposal is not inconsistent with that, but it's different than the illustrative plan in the study itself. But it was always intended just to be illustrative. It’s suggestive of this is how it might look, and it says right beside it that other configurations can be considered,” he said.

McNaney said the proposal has to stand on its own right and go before bodies including the Urban Design Panel and the heritage commission, of which Norfolk is no longer a member. They will offer advice and then city staff will make recommendations to the Development Permit Board.

“They can approve it, they can approve it with conditions, and they can turn it down. It’s at their discretion as the decision-makers from council,” he said.

The "Illustrative Concept Plan" on page 35 of the Central Waterfront Hub Framework.

The case for building now

Tom Knoepfel, senior vice president of the western portfolio for Cadillac Fairview, maintains this is the right time to move forward with the application and that the proposed height is appropriate.

“We feel that 26 storeys works for the site. We are not maxing out our floor space ratio allowance and it's about creating space that brings jobs to Vancouver. With the location being directly adjacent to our prime transit hub, we think it makes sense to create as much job space as we can,” he said.

Knoepfel added that the building site is part of the Downtown Official Community Plan District and as such is permissible. (Read a Q&A with Knoepfel HERE)

“Our building doesn’t preclude any work on the hub lands which [are] adjacent to us. That can still proceed. We are providing a road easement to that area as well — our building doesn’t preclude that from happening in the future.”

The plan for the project identifies space for a future Cordova Connector.
The plan for the project identifies space for a future Cordova Connector.

Knoepfel added that they’ve been involved in “significant” consultation about the project, including a working session with the Urban Design Panel in 2015 and further public consultation in late 2015.

“We've taken all that feedback, both positive and constructive, and integrated it into this design,” he said.

“That's why you see the building having shifted further in behind the station, and [we] really focused on the public space, the public plaza. We heard that was very important to people. Now we're taking what is currently a parking lot and creating a beautiful public space out of it.”

A sketch of the proposed 26-storey office building.
A sketch of the proposed 26-storey office building.

Gordon Gill of the Chicago-based firm Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill Architecture, which designed the tower, believes some past criticisms were valid and he maintains the latest iteration is much improved as a result.

“The comments from the UDP made this building better. Some of the comments that we've heard, and the public comments that we received, have made the building better… and I think we can prove it — we can prove it actually from a quantifiable standpoint. Architecturally, it's maturing. That's why the dialogue is important. If we don't have that dialogue about architecture and urban design, how would we come to a point where we're really pushing ourselves to be better?”

Charles Gauthier, president and CEO of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, dropped by the open house to offer support.

The organization backs the overall proposal due to the scarcity of office space. Gauthier told the Courier 60 per cent of the space in buildings currently under construction, which will come on stream over the next four to five years, have been pre-leased.

“By the time this thing gets through the cycle, it's going to be three or five years before it's actually completed and open. So we're going to need that — there's so much demand for job space. And, I think, Cadillac Fairview has done an excellent job in terms of taking all the comments that they've received in the first go-round,” he said.

“They've got a building that’s respectful of the heritage building. We've seen this where you've got new buildings beside heritage buildings throughout the downtown area. And it's also added more public space.

Gauthier doesn’t see any reason to delay the project.

“Wait? For how long? You know, unfortunately, city processes take a long time. Are we going to hold all redevelopment, all development, because we're waiting for the city to complete a plan? I don't agree with that approach,” he said.

Norfolk, meanwhile, still wants the proposed building's scale  to be reconsidered and reduced to something more in the range of 11 storeys. He’s hopeful the development application won’t be approved.

“I have every hope that the staff first, and the then Development Permit Board itself, will stick with city policy that the hub study has to be completed before anything is approved for a site in this position,” he said.

A model of the propose tower shown at the recent open house. Photo Dan Toulgoet
A model of the proposed tower shown at the recent open house. Photo Dan Toulgoet


The proposed tower would be built by Waterfront Station. Photo Dan Toulgoet
The proposed tower would be built by Waterfront Station. Photo Dan Toulgoet


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