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Vancouver council’s ‘reasonable trade-off’ on tower proposal marks flashpoint in housing debate

From the central ridge that runs across Vancouver, there are stunning views of the blue-green Coast Mountains to the north – views that have been zealously guarded since 1987 when the council of the day created a view-protection policy.

But Vancouver city council’s decision last week to allow a proposed tower on the north shore of False Creek to jut 100 feet into one of the city’s 27 designated “view cones” – provided the tower was rentals only – was a clear illustration of the pressure civic politicians are facing as an election looms and the housing crisis continues.

The mayor and his Vision Vancouver party members supported the last-minute decision to allow the potential 400-foot tower, built by the provincial agency PavCo, on the grounds that only a “microscopic” piece of the view would be blocked. The benefit, councillors reasoned, would be a couple of hundred units of housing for local residents in a city where many feel they can’t afford to buy and the vacancy rate is near zero.

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“It’s a reasonable trade-off,” said Mayor Gregor Robertson, as he suggested testily that activists should consider lobbying to get certain trees cut down in the city if they want improved views.

But critics of the project, including councillors from two other parties, warned that allowing tall buildings to creep into mountain views, regardless of the benefits, would eventually erode a cherished public resource.

Green Party Councillor Adriane Carr called the decision the beginning of “death by a thousand cuts” for Vancouver views. Others scoffed at the mayor for making it sound as though the city had no other choice.

“This was pure political posturing, with Vision Vancouver trying to make it seem like it was affordable housing versus views,” said Melody Ma, an activist who started a Save Our Skyline YVR group that ended up getting more than 1,000 supporters for its petition, including previous city planners.

The decision has become a flashpoint in the months leading up to what promises to be tumultuous civic elections in October in the region, where anger over the cost of housing is likely to dominate.

It’s also part of a recent trend among municipalities to demand more rental housing in development projects, often at the last minute, as vote-conscious politicians try to appeal to those unhappy residents.

That fight will continue with a second chapter when a future council decides whether to allow two more 400-foot towers next to the PavCo site, proposed by one of the city’s biggest developers, Concord Pacific. The city’s head planner, Gil Kelley, has supported those heights, saying that will help pay the heavy cost to the city of taking down the viaducts in the area – another trade-off.

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Vancouver city officials have emphasized that there are already 10 buildings downtown that edge into view cones, including the Trump Tower, the Shangri-La and the Sheraton Wall Centre.

And some urban-design advocates say it’s not unreasonable for the city to rethink its view corridors, especially the panoramic one that extends far to the east of the downtown – the corridor that the PavCo tower sits in.

But those advocates, such as former councillor Gordon Price, and other critics say those buildings were allowed only after a general policy discussion on higher buildings in 1997, when council decided to allow towers as high as 600 feet on a few key sites to punctuate the skyline if they had exceptional design.

Vancouver’s decision also has the development industry wondering what might happen next, as councils scramble to solve housing problems.

“The last-minute change is causing a lot of consternation,” development consultant and architect Michael Geller said. “This project has been under review for a considerable amount of time. [The decision] has caused a lot of people to scratch their heads.”

PavCo officials said they didn’t know yet what the financial implications would be of building a rental-only tower. The agency still has the right to build a 300-foot tower as market condos, which is thought to generate a higher and faster financial return than rental apartments.

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