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Above: The demolition of an old storefront on East Broadway was to make way for the Rize presentation centre. Below: Renderings of the project.
Above: The demolition of an old storefront on East Broadway was to make way for the Rize presentation centre. Below: Renderings of the project.

Builder moves ahead with contentious Mount Pleasant high-rise Add to ...

The demolition of an old storefront on East Broadway last week raised a few eyebrows in the Mount Pleasant community – the first sign that developer Rize Alliance was about to take another kick at the can with a redesign of its hugely controversial high-rise tower.

No sooner had onlookers started tweeting about the demolition of the unoccupied retail building than Rize swiftly posted an explanation on its blog. In an effort at transparency, the developer explained the demolition was to make way for a presentation centre that is already being built on an adjacent parking lot. It will showcase the large residential and retail complex consisting of a 21-storey residential tower and low-rise blocks, stretching from East Broadway to Kingsway to East 10th Avenue to Watson, which is currently more of a laneway than a street.

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“The City has yet to approve the development permit,” says the blog post. “We are optimistic that our development permit will be approved, and that home sales will commence late this fall or early next year.”

The revised submission shows the height of the building, which had been a hotly contested issue for some residents, remains at 65.3 metres, not including the trees that will be planted on the rooftop. The heights of the surrounding four lower blocks, which are designed to look like separate buildings, have been reduced. The building along Broadway was lowered by nine metres so as not to cast a big shadow over the street.

In other words, the architects have gone to some lengths to make the building as unobtrusive as possible, even if it does include a 21-storey tower. The height issue, says VP of development Chris Vollan, is no longer an issue since the city has already approved it in principle.

“The reality is that height, use and density are fixed – that discussion is done,” said Mr. Vollan. “Now we need constructive input on whether we met the eight conditions from council, most of which were defining character, defining street level, getting rid of the big band at the commercial level and improving the shadow performance. We need to know, did we do what council wanted us to. Height is off the table.”

Another major issue with the design had been the addition of about 60 units of residential to the rezoning plan of 2012. Some had criticized the developer for adding the units, perceived by some as a sneaky cash grab for more revenue.

“They have said that, but we were a completely open book – we gave them all our numbers and costs,” says Mr. Vollan, who estimates that the delay in terms of land costs and other expenses has cost the company around $2- to $5-million.

Those controversial residential units have been converted back to commercial space, with no change to the floor space ratio. Now the building has two full floors of commercial space, and 258 residential units. The design previously included 338 units of residential when it was rejected. The developer is searching for an anchor tenant for its large second-floor space.

The retail building was no longer occupied due to damage from a fire, so it needed to be demolished anyway, says Mr. Vollan. Subject to approval, the former Cantu building at Kingsway and 10th Avenue will be demolished in late winter or early spring next year.

The large site is one of three approved for potential high-rise development, according to a community plan in which Rize Alliance had participated.

Changes have also been made to the character of the building, which was another issue. Architect firm Acton Ostry has added wood-like panelling called Trespa to the exterior design of the buildings, along with red brick, a pedestrian street along Watson, space for public art, 3,500 square feet of amenities and an area for “urban agriculture.” The complex includes 430-square-foot one-bedroom units, 1,200-square-foot three-bedroom units and six two-level, three-bedroom townhouses. Pricing hasn’t yet been determined.

The designers are hoping the combination of natural-looking wood, garden and art will appeal to the neighbourhood’s artist demographic, which is growing along nearby Great Northern Way.

“It was the first taller building proposed outside of the downtown core that wasn’t ringing False Creek, so it did draw a certain amount of attention,” Russell Acton says of the seven bumpy years that he’s been working on the proposal. “We had originally come up with a colourful expression and people said it was too colourful. So we came up with a wood expression.”

Mr. Acton, who also designed the nearby 13-storey Stella condo project, calls the height issue “an emotional lightning rod.”

“People don’t like high development. We do these public open houses, and people say, ‘I don’t like tall buildings – they’re not friendly.’ But a single-family dwelling can be just as alienating.”

Professor Patrick Condon, chair of UBC’s Urban Design Program, is well known for arguing against bulky tower development as the means to densification. He is not anti-tower, he says, but he believes the city can obtain just as much density that is low-rise, built up along arterial roads.

He says the high-density Rize building helps justify the city’s rapid-transit proposal along Broadway.

“The conversation about high rises, I think, is obscured by height alone,” says Mr. Condon. “In my view, it’s problematic to depend so much on such a large project in the context of a city, which is comprised of buildings and parcel sizes that are literally hundreds of times smaller than the projects that are proposed. In the case of the Rize project, it looks to be more than one-million square feet next to buildings that look to be 10,000 square feet. So it’s a huge jump in scale.

“I think the West End is universally revered as a great place to live and it’s dominated by buildings greater than 12 stories in most cases. But they sit on small parcels, and are relatively modest in scale. None are close to one-million square feet – they’re more like 50,000 square feet

“So the issue of scale there is, I think, one of the things that frightens neighbourhoods. It makes them instinctively recoil when they see proposals like the Rize. I think it’s unfortunate that we don’t see small but equally dense projects.”

There will be a community open house in mid-April to get feedback on the changes to revised application. The submission then goes to the urban design panel at the end of April, and to the development permit board at the end of June. The presentation centre will open in about six months, according to Rize.

Editor's note: Professor Condon is quoted as saying the project "...looks to be more than one-million square feet next to buildings that look to be 10,000 square feet..." It should have been made clear that Prof. Condon was using imprecise language to demonstrate that public perception is often different than reality. The actual size of the proposed project is 313,000 square feet.

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