What is Vancouver without its views of the mountains? And why should rich people have exclusive access to those views?
Those are the key questions that prominent former city staffers and housing advocates are asking as opposition mounts to the city council’s decision to review long-standing view protections that are unique to Vancouver.
View protections have been in place since 1989, from various points of the city. Whether people are walking across Granville Street Bridge or along the seawall in False Creek South, or looking downtown from Cambie Street, they can enjoy the majestic mountain views.
The city has 26 such “view cones,” and city councillor Peter Meiszner, who put forward the motion for a review, argues that they are not all necessary. He says some of them are likely getting in the way of housing and commercial space and other benefits.
Developer Intracorp Homes has applied to build a 56-storey tower, informally known as The Shard, that would partially obstruct the view cone from South False Creek, near Leg-in-Boot-Square, protected by the Heather Bay view cone, which offers a view of the Lions, Vancouver’s famous set of mountain formations, known by the First Nations as the Two Sisters. To protect the view, the limit right now is much lower, around 30 storeys.
A city staff report on The Shard cited “significant non-compliance” with maximum heights and protected public views. The developer owns 830 and 850 Thurlow St. and 1045 Haro St. and has applied to build two towers, a 56-storey tower for 443 condo units and a 14-storey building for 66 market-rate rental units.
Former director of planning Larry Beasley is a passionate defender of protecting Vancouver’s view cones, which, he fears, will be eliminated entirely one day if they are chipped away at. Mr. Beasley is to give a talk at Simon Fraser University on Dec. 6 on view cones, a policy he helped develop in 1988.
“I find our developers, by and large, are very responsible. But I have always said, ‘if you find yourself in that view corridor, No. 1, you knew it was there when you bought the property,’” says Mr. Beasley, in response to the Intracorp proposal.
“And No. 2, you’ve had a lot of prewarning to shape your building, to design around it. I still think that holds true.
“And here is the last thing that worries me a lot – and you can hear a little of the passion in my voice, I hope – it only takes one building, after hundreds of developers had the discipline of working with the city after 30 years. It only takes one building [and] the public view enjoyed by thousands of people becomes a private view enjoyed by just the few people on that side of the building that blocks that view.
“It’s a conversion of the public to private, with no benefit to the city whatsoever.”
Intracorp president Evan Allegretto says that the development industry is encouraging the debate over the view cones to determine how much housing is being compromised for view cones that are not a priority.
Mr. Allegretto said The Shard project is on hold until the matter is resolved. The tower has been designed in a way to minimize its impact on the view of the Lions – which had already been impacted by other buildings, he said.
There is a second plan to build two shorter towers; however, that would take a lot of cash for the city off the table. In exchange for the rezoning, Intracorp is offering a community contribution in cash, worth “tens of millions of dollars,” he says.
If they can’t sell high-value view properties, the cash community contribution would also drop – the public can’t have it both ways, said Mr. Allegretto.
“Truthfully, the rich people do get the view, but they are paying the community benefit. The cities are taxing them to pay for the community centres – that’s the transaction the city is creating.
“The flip side of it is increased property taxes. Don’t give the value to these rich people and so spread it out, and increase property taxes. I’m sure people wouldn’t like that.
“I understand the views are sacred,” he said. “But real estate, from the city’s perspective, if they are not willing to increase property taxes, the only thing they can trade is density in the sky. And so the public needs to realize that when they say, ‘The views are sacred’ and they want a community centre. Then they need to pay their fair share.
“Development can do it. But they have to give things up, or they have to pay their fair share, and that’s the trade.”
Mr. Meiszner, a member of the ABC Vancouver majority on the council, said no one is proposing the elimination of view cones. He adds that, if developers can go taller, then they can afford to add below-market housing to their projects.
“Of course, in the taller buildings, the upper-floor units will be expensive. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t use those taller heights to extract more public benefit for people, whether it’s [community amenity contributions] for libraries or community centres.
“If you look at The Butterfly [condominium complex] for example, on Nelson, there’s a whole separate social housing building being built beside the tower. We wouldn’t be getting that if they weren’t able to build such a tall building.”
A glance at the packed downtown peninsula shows that the view cone policy has had little impact on the building of towers in the city. Developers and the city found a way, says Mr. Beasley, and for the past 34 years, hundreds of buildings have been built lower or angled so that they don’t block a view. Some towers were allowed to go taller because they were on sites that didn’t impact views. And developers had the option of selling density to a developer outside a view cone.
Mr. Meiszner argues that restrictions have only slowed the process.
“Yes, you can do density bonuses and different things, but the fact is, it does result in super inefficient floor plates, for example. So it’s much easier to build a square tower than a triangular tower.”
The views aren’t just a public benefit, Mr. Beasley says. A key part of the equation is that thousands of people living in residential units also have protected views looking back along the corridor. That tacit promise should be honoured, he says.
“I can see a time when there will be no views to the mountains, or the water. … I lament the loss.”
Critics of the review also find the suggestion that more luxury housing will lead to affordable housing unlikely. Judging from downtown land values, and the number of investor-owned condos, another luxury tower with the city’s best views will only increase housing prices, they say. And new market-rate apartments won’t be affordable.
Former city planner Sandy James questions why the city focuses on the pricey downtown peninsula to provide rental housing when there are far less expensive parts of the city that could easily be densified.
Also, the view cones were not, as some have stated, designed for drivers, but were designed for pedestrians, at the ground plane, she says.
“Who gives a four-year council the right to undo 30 years of policy?” asks Ms. James. “The views are what makes Vancouver really special. People don’t come here to see towers … those views are precious and that’s what makes us different from any other city.”
At a recent Simon Fraser University talk, former director of planning Ray Spaxman spoke in defence of the view cones and received a round of applause.
Later, he wrote in an e-mail: “The current short-sightedness of those advocating the further harming of this particularly unique view of The Lions is awful. I support undertaking a review and update of all the current view protection policies, but narrow-minded interests should not prevail over a thorough evaluation of genuinely valuable assets.”
Mr. Meiszner said there won’t be a formal public engagement process, but members of the public will have the chance to speak at council when the staff report is released midway through next year.