Vancouver has so rigorously defended the views of the city's mountain backdrop that one prominent architect once had to slice off a section of the Shangri-La Hotel diagonally and another had to give up on his project entirely because the buildings would have poked into a protected vista.
So city council's recent policy decision to allow three tall towers to be built in the huge new downtown district being created in Northeast False Creek has amounted to fighting words for prominent defenders of the "view cone" policy.
The buildings' opponents, though, are squaring off against others, including the city's current planning director Gil Kelley, who has argued the towers are needed, not just for good urban design, but because they help the city leverage funds from developers to pay for city projects, including subsidized housing.
"I considered this move very carefully," said Mr. Kelley, defending his recommendation of the towers at city council. "My reasons for recommending were that, one, it was the best way to achieve the density needed and the financial objectives and, two, bunching the height here is good urban design."
The 27 view cones, established in 1989, limit building heights at key spots and provide expansive views of the mountains from areas all over the city. The new plan would allow an extra 10 stories for each building to intrude into the Cambie view cone, the sweeping view down Cambie Street from Queen Elizabeth Park.
"This will set precedence for other real estate developers to pressure the city to allow them to penetrate view cones," says the Save Our Skyline YVR web page calling for public dissent. "This will be the end of Vancouver's unique mountain skyline as we know it. We cannot let city council and Crown corporation Pavco privatize our free public views."
The battle is complicated by the fact that the city has already allowed two towers next to the Granville Bridge to go into the same view cone, as well as at least one at the Burrard Bridge gateway.
The builders of the new proposed towers – Concord Pacific for two of them, the province's Pavco organization for one – come back to the city for official rezonings later this year.
Former city-planning director Larry Beasley oversaw the build-out of Concord Pacific's north False Creek developments in the 1990s and early 2000s. He said while he is enthusiastic about all the other aspects of the plan for Northeast False Creek, he argues allowing the tall towers undermines the city's ability to resist other developers who will want the same.
"The first intrusion means the view is gone," he said.
"You can't let one group in and not others. How do you look everyone else in the eye?" continued Mr. Beasley, who called the current willingness to bend the policy in Northeast False Creek a "disaster."
Two other former planning directors, Brent Toderian and Ray Spaxman, have also expressed concerns.
Mr. Beasley said that the urban designers working with Concord Pacific and Pavco are smart enough to find ways to spread density around the development so that the city still gets what it needs in developer contributions.
But another retired senior city planner, one who worked closely with Mr. Beasley during his time and enforced view cones for buildings such as the Shangri-La, said there's a case for the three towers, which will create a grand new entrance to Georgia Street.
Ralph Segal said that, when the city amended its higher-buildings policy in 2011, it envisioned allowing taller buildings on seven key sites to punctuate the city's skyline and make it more interesting.
He believes the three towers at the foot of Georgia Street are the ideal location for an eighth site, helping mark another gateway into the city.
Mr. Segal also argues it would be extremely difficult to find a home for the approximately 180,000 square feet that would have to lopped off the buildings and placed elsewhere if the city wants to extract from the developers the roughly $340-million to take down the viaducts and build new roads, as well as building new parks, a new seawall and the subsidized housing.
"Although the Concord Pacific site looks big, people forget that the city is demanding a huge park and that eliminates two-thirds of the site," Mr. Segal said. "They are already jamming too much into all of their buildings. Those are massive buildings already on the remainder of the site."
Justin Jay, a planning assistant who is behind Save our Skyline YVR, said he was surprised that, after he published an opinion piece recently, about half of the people who responded to his article argued that the city's view cones are a public benefit that needs to be preserved, but another half were quite happy to see taller buildings.
He's hopeful the discussion will continue to be heated leading up to the rezoning decision. "The rezoning is still in progress. There's still time for the public to get their opinions out," he said.