In a city where the glass condo tower has become omnipresent, nothing is safe.
Not even, perhaps, City Hall.
There is a fear that the historic art-deco building, which sits on a north-facing slope of Cambie where it dominates views from the downtown, is about to get a very large neighbour.
A company that is part of the Toigo family empire, of White Spot restaurant fame, is proposing a 120-foot building right across the street from the hall which was built in 1936.
The tower, which got turned down once already by the city’s urban design panel and is due for round two on Wednesday, is making some people uneasy because of the way it threatens to diminish the look of one of the city’s important sites.
“There are so few instances in Vancouver where a building takes on symbolic importance. City Hall, as seen from the Cambie Bridge, Cambie Street and numerous other locations, is one rare instance,” said Ralph Segal.
Until recently, he was the city’s senior development planner. “To have that symbolism compromised unnecessarily would be an odious mistake.”
Mr. Segal is no knee-jerk opponent of tall glass buildings. He shepherded some of the city’s tallest towers like the Shangri-La and the Wall Centre through city approvals over the past two years.
But, he said, city planners and councillors also fought for years to preserve visual room around buildings they thought needed to serve as landmarks for the city.
City Hall was one of them.
After one developer managed to persuade the city to let him build the 16-storey Plaza 500 hotel kitty-corner from the hall in the 1970s, planners created a specific set of guidelines to prevent any more incursions.
Developers who built further down Cambie in recent years, including the Crossroads/Whole Foods development and the Rise building that houses Canadian Tire and Home Depot, both had to come up with relatively low-rise designs in order to keep City Hall prominent for those looking from the north.
If the tower is built as designed, it will hang visibly and awkwardly over the shoulder of City Hall, said Mr. Segal, who has written a letter to the city asking officials to remember the guidelines put in place 30 years ago to keep City Hall as a prominent visual feature.
The city’s assistant planning director, Kent Munro, said Monday the building is an “issue of concern.”
Members of the urban-design panel have also been uncomfortable with the building, unanimously rejecting it the first time it was reviewed in September. They commented that they had “reservations with the architecture” and that the “density was a bit aggressive.” They also didn’t like the way it relates to the row of heritage houses next to it on 12th Street – houses that are just one small part of a neighbourhood filled with grand old houses.
The project designers are proposing to move one of the heritage houses over to 13th Avenue, which extends the frontage of the new building even further.
The panel recommended in September that the architect come back with a design “to better respond to the context of City Hall.”
The revised design coming back Wednesday is actually 15 feet higher, though with its bulk arranged differently. The project, which is being partly steered through city hall by former deputy city manager Brent MacGregor, has attracted little notice from the general public.
Heritage advocate Don Luxton said the problem at City Hall is about to become a problem the length of Cambie Street. Property values are skyrocketing along the Canada Line.
The City Hall-related development, three blocks from the Broadway stop, “could set a precedent.”
“The price stuff is selling for in the Cambie corridor – nothing there now is going to survive,” said Mr. Luxton. That could affect several historic churches and the venerable Park Theatre.