Vancouver has always had an unwritten law on how condo towers get placed in this city’s famously hyper-dense downtown of slim glassy buildings.
“You should be able to stand naked in one condo and not really be visible from the condo in the next tower,” is the plain-language rule that former planning director Brent Toderian says Vancouver has used as its guiding principle.
Usually, that means an 80-foot separation at least. That kind of spacing has been seen as the key to livability in such a tightly packed neighbourhood, providing privacy, views and light for every condo.
But, it turns out, the rule breaks down for condos in the city’s central business district – especially since Vancouver has decided that job space downtown is its new priority.
As a result, the travails of one group of tower inhabitants – the dismayed residents of the upscale Jameson House – are providing cautionary lessons for builders, buyers and planners about mixing condos and offices in the unique ways Vancouver has done the past two decades.
As the enthusiasm for condos roared in the 1990s and the 2000s, some former office buildings downtown, like the BC Electric and Westcoast Transmission, were converted to residences.
One new condo tower, the Hudson, was allowed to sprout up near Granville and Georgia. And several others – the Shaw Tower, the Private Residences of Hotel Georgia, and Jameson House – were new hybrid buildings that put dozens of floors of condos on top of a base of offices.
When the Norman Foster-designed Jameson House went on the market six years ago, buyers knew they’d be above offices and only a block from the city’s financial-district crossroads at Hastings and Burrard and its cluster of Bentall office towers.
But they didn’t realize they’d be facing, as they are now, the distinct possibility of hundreds of cubicle serfs a mere 28 feet away from their front windows. They don’t like it.
“I don’t want to wake up in the morning and have an office worker with a cup of coffee staring into my bedroom,” says Robert Lemon, a heritage consultant who helped restore the two early 20th-century buildings around which Jameson House is built.
Neither do 39 others whose condos on the south side of the building will be right across the alley from the new 420-foot office tower Swiss Real is planning next to the city’s historic stock-exchange building.
“We thought the city would retain the flavour of what was on the block already,” said Jo Anne Gin, who lives on the 17th floor, while her daughter lives on the 14th. At that point, it was mostly low-rise heritage buildings.
The residents have hired another former city planning director, Ray Spaxman, to argue their case at city hall.
“We came to the formula many years ago about keeping towers 80 feet apart,” says the regal Mr. Spaxman, who pioneered the city’s efforts in the 1980s to get people to live downtown. “We shouldn’t forget those livability principles.”
But, while city planners are usually quick to listen to that argument, in this case they’re saying another priority is in the mix.
The city wants the ability to create new job space downtown. That means tall office towers built the usual way – close together.
Planners started pushing back against condos in 2005, declaring a moratorium on new ones in the central business district and some of its shoulder areas.
And, in 2009, after a study on how much office space would be needed downtown in the future, councillors approved a new policy that put a priority on jobs and identified 25 possible sites for office towers.
One of them was the site across the lane from Jameson.
“We have worked with Swiss Real to minimize impacts on the Jameson, and we’ve been working with them to sculpt the floorplate,” says city planner Kevin McNaney. But he adds that the reality is that the city is not going to scale back new office developments to preserve a residential standard of 80-foot separations.
So far, other condo towers downtown haven’t had exactly the same problem, although their developers have been forced to alter designs to mesh with the business character of their location.
The Hudson, which rises above the SkyTrain station next to The Bay department store, has been designed to look more like an office tower than a condo building.
Architects designed suites at the Private Residences at Hotel Georgia, which is across the alley from the HSBC building on Georgia, so they don’t face into offices.
But more of those kinds of architectural puzzles are coming up, Mr. McNaney says. “I suspect we will get into that in Northeast False Creek.”
That’s the new area on the edge of the downtown peninsula where city planners have insisted that developers include a certain proportion of office space with the condos.
And that’s on top of the conflicts the area already has from combining condos and large sports arenas – just another example of Vancouver’s occasionally rocky experiment with mixing it all up.