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Rendering of the Jericho Lands, in Vancouver.Canada Lands Co.

Within a few scant months, the park-like setting that is Vancouver’s Jericho Lands will be one step closer to becoming a master-planned community, developed in a joint venture partnership between MST Development Corp., and Canada Lands Co.

And emerging as the heart of the matter is the balance between green space and density – particularly height.

Proponents of towers say you can’t have both without going higher, while others argue that you can accommodate significant density without reaching for the sky.

“In order to have a lot of open space, the towers need to be a little bit higher,” says Adrienne Charlie, Squamish nation cultural liaison and member of the planning committee. “That’s a give and take of what we are trying to offer, and what people are looking for, and what we’re allowed within the parameters of what the city has for us,”

Architect James Cheng said if it were his project, he’d turn the usual design process on its head and start with the green spaces.

“To me, it’s a golden opportunity for the design professional and the First Nations people,” says Mr. Cheng, designer of about 50 downtown towers, including the new zero-carbon Stack tower – the city’s tallest office building. His fear is Vancouver could turn into a concrete jungle.

“The colonial way of doing things was to divide and conquer,” said Mr. Cheng. “So we sent in engineers to subdivide the whole country into grids, and the roads and the infrastructure govern the life of the people.

“If I were working on [Jericho], I would turn it around and say, ‘How can I preserve the land? And then put the buildings around them,’ instead of fitting the density in, and then just plant a few gardens.”

The MST/Canada Lands plan so far is for 13,000 homes, although that number could change. Of that, about 2,600 would be social housing units. A city staff policy statement is expected to go to the council by January at the latest, and it could contain some recommended changes, said the city.

A revised illustration released to the public in June showed many mid-rises and three towers called The Sentinels at 49 storeys – a key concern for a residents group called the Jericho Coalition, and some others.

“We were initially looking for higher with the Sentinels, but being a little bit courteous with the people that live there, we eased up on the height,” said Ms. Charlie. “This is not a complete finish of what the design will look like.”

Density and building height haven’t been confirmed yet, she said.

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A rendering of the proposed development of the Jericho Lands by the Jericho Coalition.Chris Foyd/BoForm

The MST Development Corp. is a partnership between the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh nations. MSTDC and Canada Lands, the federal government’s real estate arm, own the Jericho Lands jointly.

Once the policy statement is approved, the first phase of rezoning will begin, including an official development plan. That plan will take about six months to complete and will also go before the council.

Jericho Lands is an exciting recognition of reconciliation, said Mr. Cheng.

He’d like to see a plan that honours tradition and looks beyond the site, to the reactivation of West 10th Avenue and a connection to the beaches.

He said residents’ concerns about height could be addressed by determining what views are most important to them. Some will be lost, but a compromise is achievable. So far, he said, it seems the two sides aren’t working together.

“It needs to be a connected society. We are all living in Vancouver,” said Mr. Cheng.

Peter Waldkirch, spokesperson with Abundant Housing, a group that advocates for more housing supply, said he’s less concerned about the aesthetics and more with number of units. He fully supports the MST plan.

“We’re not talking about just shapes of buildings or how high they are,” said Mr. Waldkirch. “I think a lot of people would love to live in tall buildings if they are close to their jobs. I think there’s a huge demand for that lifestyle.”

Elisa Campbell oversees Jericho Lands for Canada Lands as vice-president, west region. The only way to deliver substantial density and keep the site green is by going higher, she said. Lower heights won’t achieve the partners’ goals of sustainability and housing.

“It is through height that you can deliver a whole range of important benefits,” she said. “Combine the number of housing units needed … and the desire to create an amazing neighbourhood, and you are going to have some height – that’s the only way to do it.

“Nobody has gotten this land for free in this project. It’s been at market value,” she added.

“I can tell you this, because I’m an architect by training and I’ve been deeply involved with our design team on this, and there is no way you can achieve all the things this project needs to achieve … with the way that others might be proposing, [such as] a lower height distribution of building. Not possible.”

If designed carefully, tall towers can work at Jericho Lands, said retired architect and urban designer Ralph Segal, who worked for the city for 25 years and led the city’s urban design group.

He called the extent and quality of the open space network of the MST plan “particularly outstanding.”

“The one aspect that raises a concern is the close-packed clustering of towers on the northeasterly portion of the site, several of which appear to have notably larger floor plates, resulting in a collective massing that has excessive shadow implications,” he said.

Mr. Segal would also like a minimum 45-per-cent affordable housing, and a definition of “affordable” that applies to actual household incomes.

The Jericho Coalition, made up of residents who served on the city’s advisory committee, drafted an alternate version of Jericho Lands. It consists of mid-rise buildings, up to eight storeys, mostly made of mass timber, with large courtyards and plazas and parks. Their concept is around 80 units per acre, or 7,200 units. The River District, another master-planned community, by comparison, is 56 units per acre.

They’d like to see larger units to accommodate families and a population of around 16,000 people. That compares to the MST vision of 24,000 residents.

Their concerns about the current design include too little affordable housing and investors driving up prices.

Randy Sharp, a landscape design consultant, said towers don’t afford a lot of landscaping because they have wide setbacks from streets and public areas, and an expanse of underground concrete parkades limits any tree growth.

“I don’t fault the MST for asking for the world. They are a developer,” added Murray Hendren, a retired BC Hydro engineer who’s concerned about the development’s environmental impact.

“But the city has a duty as well, and the city has to look after the needs of what the city requires. They’re not doing that as far as I can see.”

They fear a sea of concrete towers that are occupied by part-time visitors to the city, who aren’t around to support local businesses.

“We don’t need another Coal Harbour,” says residential designer Larry Benge, referring to the quiet downtown neighbourhood of luxury concrete towers. “We are trying to show there is a different way.”

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