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A rendering of the proposed development on 2538 Birch Street, Vancouver.

On behalf of: Jameson Broadway & Birch LP/Courtesy of Jameson Broadway & Birch LP

For three decades, Vancouver city planners have tried to shape a city that is visually harmonious.

But the conversation this month about how the city should change was awfully acrimonious. In a hearing that stretched over several days, Vancouver’s city councillors debated whether a new rental apartment building at Broadway and Birch would be acceptable at 28 storeys tall.

In the end, they approved it Tuesday – just barely. Among the most prominent issues were questions of design and planning: Would this be too tall? Would it short-circuit the planning policies that are now being framed for the Broadway corridor, which is getting a subway?

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Process arguments come up in any city. But Vancouver has a strange way of thinking about built form, which – as is clear from the Birch debate – has got to change.

The real equations here are simple. The more space you build, the more people get to live and work in a city. In most municipalities this is a matter of math: height, density, dimensions. In Vancouver it’s also tied to a more nebulous idea. “Vancouverism” has involved trade-offs with developers, allowing the right to build more if their buildings contribute “good urban design” and community amenities.

“It’s a highly discretionary paradigm, that wants to work creatively with market interests and incent good urban design principles,” said Scot Hein, an architect who spent many years working for the city’s urban design studio, this week.

For a while, this mostly worked well in downtown Vancouver. But it has also created a strange civic culture in which planners have a lot of leverage, and where aesthetic decisions come into tension with other goals.

On the Birch building, the main trade-off was affordability. The building took advantage of the city’s Moderate Income Rental Housing Pilot Program. Jameson Development Corp. wanted to add about 100 units, 55 of them for middle-income earners.

This, in a city and a region that are desperately unaffordable, makes a lot of sense. Yet some neighbours hated it, worried it would destroy neighbourhood character and create “incongruent development.” The Fairview/South Granville Action Committee commissioned renderings showing the new building towering over the area.

Never mind that the neighbourhood is about to change. Back up and consider the basic question: Why does it matter if a new building is taller than what’s around it? In Surrey and Burnaby, forests of towers are springing up with no real visual coherence. That’s how cities generally grow. Life goes on.

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But Vancouver is different. City planners have long cared very much about the shaping of the skyline for visual effect and preserving “view cones” to the mountains. In a recent piece, Daily Hive journalist Kenneth Chan unpacked these policies; development sites in the city “are becoming absurdly rare,” he wrote, “with layers upon layers of considerations, priorities, strategies and policies to consider.”

I asked Mr. Hein to help spell it out for me, since he publicly opposed the Birch project. He praised aspects of the Birch building, which “is doing some heavy lifting on the affordability front.” But, he argued, “cogent design” does matter, both for aesthetic reasons and because a chaotic policy doesn’t leave planners with leverage. “If you want to have a way of incenting the market to the greater good, you have to have a way of doing that,” he said.

Fair. But there can and should be a more straightforward system to make this happen. A clear set of zoning rules that reflects realistic levels of growth; a policy that accepts that tall buildings are going to spread across the city, even if many people would rather see smaller-scale growth; and a sustainability lens that acknowledges the importance of dense, mixed-use city neighbourhoods. A coherent skyline is a luxury best appreciated from a helicopter.

If planners are interested in making a more beautiful city, they might focus more heavily on architecture itself. The Birch building, designed by IBI Group, is unnecessarily busy, with six or seven flavours of brick, metal and window on its base. It would benefit from a quieter array of materials and better detailing on the ground level, where people will see it up close. Then let it be tall.

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