Vancouver's planning director says he believes the developer trying to build a controversial project in Chinatown will come back with a vastly improved design that the city can approve.
"I really feel we'll come out with a better building," said Gil Kelley after he and two other city managers made a rare decision last week to reject a proposal for a nine-storey condo building on a significant site in the historic neighbourhood. "I really feel we need to up the design game."
But that is completely at odds with what some of the most vocal opposition groups want: They don't care if the building is better designed if it remains a condo building. "It's about the substance of it as opposed to the façade," said Sophie Fung, a spokeswoman for the Chinatown Action Group, a new activist organization of young second- and third-generation Chinese-Canadians.
Her group hopes that, with the surprise rejection by the development-permit board, developer Beedie Living will be more amenable to selling or swapping the land.
Then, if the federal government were to provide some money, along with the province and the city, it would be financially feasible to construct a building that is 100-per-cent subsidized housing.
"If that happened, the height and design is kind of secondary," Ms. Fung said.
But Mr. Kelley says the city has no power to compel the developer to provide a certain kind of housing.
Instead, he says, the most the board can do is push the developer, as it has with its rejection, to go back and come up with a radically improved design.
"This is such an important site," he said. "It needs to be a remarkable design. It needs to resonate as an iconic monument."
That requirement has everyone wondering what will happen next.
Beedie Living has already gone through almost five years of planning and design work, altering the proposed building at least four times to respond to concerns from the city's urban-design panel and city planners.
The rejection by the development-permit board, with Mr. Kelley casting the deciding vote, took everyone by surprise. The city's development industry has warned that the decision, which they said appeared to be a response to community opposition more than design, will create massive uncertainty.
So far, representatives of Beedie Living, who met with Mr. Kelley last week to get more information, have not made up their minds about what to do with the site.
"We remain concerned, like most in the design and development communities, at the disregard for process, staff support and the unanimous endorsement of the design professionals on multiple advisory bodies," executive vice-president Houtan Rafii said in an e-mailed response to The Globe and Mail. "Additionally, we are perplexed at how, in the many months and meetings leading up to the DP board, the General Manager [Gil Kelley] did not communicate his concerns to us, our design team or his staff, so his issues could have been addressed."
Even city hall insiders and close observers – some of whom say the rejection was the right thing to do, while others say it was not – are perplexed about what happened, since city staff had recommended approval.
Mr. Kelley rejected the idea that it was a political decision or that there was some grand conspiracy behind it. He also insisted it wasn't a precedent or a sign that zoning rules don't mean anything any more. He said the developer could be back with a revised design in as little as six months.
One of the main concerns expressed by Mr. Kelley and city engineer Jerry Dobrovolny was about the building's bulk. Although it didn't exceed the zoning limit of 90 feet in height, it filled up most of the space on the site to that height – except for the top two floors, which were pulled back slightly.