SFU City Conversation: Future of Our Downtown Waterfront Hub
June 4, 2015
Audience discussion with presenters
Highlights from the discussion with the audience following the presentations from Anita Molaro and Steve Brown, Frank Ducote, and Graham McGarva.
The highlights have been extracted and edited for clarity. The questions and comments follow the sequence at the event. For the complete text of questions and comments, please refer to the videos.
1. What about climate change adaptation strategies at the waterfront level, around sea level rise and so forth?
Steve: We are looking at strategies throughout the city for how to address that. From a transportation perspective, it generally means looking at seawall heights and edge-of-water heights. In this location, because all the development is actually at a higher level, it’s primarily the rail tracks that are in the risk area for seawater heights. So that would be a question for CP Rail as to how they are planning for that because that is the lowers ground plain.
Anita: It’s a good comment and certainly the devil is in the detailed design. We have those same goals and visions, particularly for street-end views to provide those open spaces, but also at the ground plain. And we don’t really know what the hub street would look like. It might be serving a transportation purpose in terms of buses and such, but it could also be a very much a pedestrian environment as well. It certainly could be explored as the framework moves forward.
Graham: I want to add on that. When we look at the hub framework having a sound logic, certain things need to be connected. And the next question is exactly that, connected for what means? Some of it is servicing transit vehicles. But a lot of goes back to the vision from the stadium planning that is still possible with new development, and that vision is for a pedestrian, a people place. That’s how we are looking at it.
Steve: The concourse piece is something that we have envisioned as a big pedestrian area that could have pedestrian space around the outside that looks into it, with the seawall bordering the outside edges. And there is the lookout plaza area by the Seabus terminal where you are looking out over the water with pedestrian space in that area as well.
Anita: Under the current zoning, Cadillac Fairview have the ability to develop that piece of land. Now that ability is subject to performance in urban design, architecture, and public realm. In the hub framework plan, we had envisioned a smaller building. But that is a framework, so they’ve been testing with us something other than that. And as of yet, they have not been successful.
3b. What are the development ideas for the eastern area of the site in the the Carrera 2015 plan (Slide 10)?
Graham: The magenta colour marks is the entirety of the rail yards that our client Carrera owns. In theory, it can all be built on, but it’s a question of where the process goes. Some of the previous studies and plans talked about what is possible in the area near Crab Park if the rail yards go, but it seems very unlikely one would want to take on the expense of doing that. And so the focus has been at the western end, around the hub.
Anita: From the City’s perspective, there are a couple of things to think about. It does depend if the rail lines stay or not. If the rail lines stay, you are talking about an elevated structure that has to be a certain clearance height, and you have to think about that relationship with the back side of Gastown. That causes some anxiety from an urban design perspective because now you lose the back side of Gastown. So do we see some future development there? Perhaps, if the rail lines were gone, but in the interim, from my perspective, an elevated structure that blocks the north side of Gastown is not likely.
Graham: The only thing that is on the table is that the rail yards are there to stay. So this is not an either or debate amongst any of us.
Steve: To add to that, during the hub study, there was the proposal for a 15-18K-seat stadium behind The Landing. Access out through The Landing and lane was very challenging, with a lot of it at grade level. As you move to Gastown, Water Street actually drops down towards the track level, so you are already starting at a lower level than having to develop over rail tracks. It’s complicated enough on the eastern end where everything starts spreading out with the rail tracks. But you bring that down to the tail end of the tracks, and it’s quite challenging to go over there. There was one component of a connection over the tracks to get to Crab Park where we have another street right away at Carrall.
Anita: The issue of finance was something that we certainly struggled with back in 2009 when this went forward, because the City doesn’t own any of this property although they do have some rights for roads. We always identified that it required multi-level government support – the Port being an extension of the Feds, TransLink being an extension of the Province. In order for this framework, this vision, to happen and to build such a facility, it can’t be entirely on the backs of the property owners like Cadillac Fairview or Carerra. It will take a multi-partnership to deliver this. We understood that at the time and that still remains to this day.
In terms of getting government commitments, althoughTransLink was involved with us in developing the plan, it really requires more political will, than efforts at a staff level, to champion the development and the vision. And we all know how challenging that can be. This is another major opportunity and we have to elevate it. I’m thrilled about the discussion that’s going on that has been generated around the recent development proposal. It’s making people aware of this opportunity because it has gone kind of silent since 2009 when we were out in the public talking about it. And it needs to get elevated again.
4b. Regarding 555 Cordova, if it appears there is going to be a propensity for a development there to go above the existing height guideline, what about the of the value capture potential to finance some parts of the plan?
Ducote: There is in all likelihood a chance that it will go higher than that. The question is how high? And what materials, what color, what are the benefits for the public realm and access? So should be conditional on a lot of things including, as we said, the performance.
Graham: One of the key things, as we’ve skipped forward nine years to what it will take for our development site to be feasible vis-a-vis our neighbour Cadillac Fairview, and as we are preparing our plan to submit to the City, is to understand the exact location of the viaducts. So we have to go back and look at the existing viaduct right-of-way and see why there would be any reason to move it forward. And that impacts everybody in the circle we’ve been talking about.
Steve: Here is a comment on what would spur this to happen. When we were doing the hub plan, the Convention Centre was being constructed. And if you look to the west, all that road network was developed as part of that plan, and then the other developments came in with that. It was similar with Canada Place. A lot of those big viaduct structures get developed with the Convention Centre or a similar big push. We said during the hub study that it may need that kind of push, like a further expansion of the Convention Centre, because it’s really expensive to create infrastructure just to be able to access and service all of that area.
5. How have we managed to find ourselves at this advanced stage of approval for a very significant project without commentary or public discussion? I was shocked when I saw the picture of the proposed building, in the way it didn’t relate to anything at all, it led me to say, the Martians have landed. And yet I was also concerned about why had I suddenly come across this. The hub plan was a great plan, it was moving in the right direction. And then to suddenly find this proposal, after what I believe were months or weeks of discussion with the City without any commentary at all about anybody being concerned. I remember an older director of planning would have refused it on sight and made a fuss about it because it was so out of gear compared to the plans that were happening. How did that proposal then get to that place? Why are we discussing this without a sort of understanding? If you read the application and the words in the application, you’ll find very complementary language about how compatible it is with everything, how it reflects the various view lines. And yet something went wrong in the process. Why is it that it gets to this stage without all of these concerns being worked out before it goes into the confusion of public discussion?
Anita: Anyone can make a development application, and we have to take it through a process.
Anita: I’m not sure I understand the question, in that we are going to look at any development proposal within the hub framework, and to see how it delivers and achieves the objectives that we had set out in the plan.
6b. Would it make sense, as Council has done in the past, to set up a separate planning process and community consultation to look at all of these projects in the context of the hub framework to see whether the framework needs to be renewed and maybe look at other opportunities, given that there are so many projects at a scale not anticipated?
Frank: The citizen’s Downtown Waterfront Working Group certainly thinks so. If this is the first toe in the door and it’s so out of keeping with what we thought we had a good framework for, it does beg the question, should the whole hub area be put up to a more fulsome process? I don’t want it to be. I’d rather the hub framework be a stronger document that staff can rely on and use a stronger tool to say no or yes or whatever (Council not being involved in this). What do you need to do to have a process? You need somebody – staff – to say, we are going to have a process.
Graham: I’d say there are two different ways that one could go. One is that the City can convene a process and I know that has to go through a whole deliberation, budget cycle and so on. But the fact of the matter is that we are now engaged in preparing the development application that we are assuming is working within the hub framework. So that’s the other mechanism that will make something happen. We are going into a process with the City to establish what we can and can’t do, must and must not do, because we have seen the take up of all the office buildings, and now is the time to move forward with such a plan. And so we are going to see what it will take to make this place work. That will become itself a public process. So, there are two different routes, and our client has proactively decided we had better get in there and see, first of all technically and physically, what we can do with all the background due diligence, and then enter in, and we have started the process with the City.
6c. Are you meeting with the other developers to find out what you might be able to do and does it make sense to do this with the City? Liaising closely with the City implies that you would have a process and some community participation with it, so why not set that up?
Graham: Absolutely, those conversations are happening and they’ll go whichever route they go, business-wise. It does not make sense to do this with the City in the first step. The first step is for the parties with the land to sort out where are the areas of interest and opportunity, working closely with the City, to get to a proposition. Regarding a process, it’s not for us to set up a process with community participation. We are trying to help the City.
Anita: They are trying to help us deliver the plan.
6d. Would it be helpful for the City to have a funded process, with contribution from the developers, and take a comprehensive look at all projects, City interests, private interests and community interests in the hub, to be discussed as a separate process?
Anita: I’d be happy to have a public process which we would do anyways through a development permit process… [a single project] could be looked at in combination, depending on the timing of different things. There was community consultation when we developed the plan.
6e. Do you have an implementation strategy?
Anita: No we don’t… The only implementation that we identified was we had a lot of challenges because it involved a number of different parties and governments.
7. As a former member of the Heritage Commission, I was shocked and appalled that the Commission went along with approving that design in the middle of that space. What is the status of that project? Is it going ahead as designed, or not? I’d like to see some leadership from the City on pulling together the many parts, and I’m not seeing it.
Anita: Following non-support from the Urban Design Panel, the applicant team has been rethinking their approach. City staff have not be apprised of what that approach is. So basically the project is on hold until they choose to engage with us again.
Frank: To answer your underlying question, we as a citizens’ working group have reached out to Cadillac Fairview and Carrera. Luckily Carrera and their consultant have responded to that request to meet with us to share our concerns and so that we can hear theirs. We don’t know why Cadillac Fairview aren’t here today, they just don’t wish to engage and I think that goes forward with a certain amount of confidence that what they come forward with will be approved.
8. The tourists coming off cruise need to be included in the pedestrian mix and need to be able to walk to destinations and connections. We want an aesthetic view of the waterfront for people arriving from the north side. The building for the parking lot should respect the heritage character of the area.
Steve: It’s not a 20-metre wide street, it’s a 20-metre-wide right-of-way. In most of our streets, 20 metres is pretty much the narrowest right-of-way that we have except for in the Olympic Village where we went to 18 metres in some areas. That width has to accommodate all the utilities underneath, and trees, sidewalks and so on. So the street itself is about seven metres of actual paved street, which is the minimum for emergency access for fire trucks so they can pass if it gets blocked by a vehicle. And it’s primarily for the transit circulation. There is an 8-metre wide pedestrian connection that connects up to the seaway and provides the connection to Gastown that we asked for, and a cycling connection that we get to the seawall as well.
9b. What is the process for further work to ensure that the infrastructure analysis to support the plan is done? These large buildings will have to have their weight taken down to below the railway tracks with a system of seismic resistance, usually done through the elevator cores.
Steve: During the hub study, we did a lot of work on those infrastructure and building issues because of the challenge of the rail tracks. We had a structural study. We had a building consultant and rail consultant, and looked at how all of those things would be placed and how you reconfigure the rail tracks. We worked with CP Rail on some options, and they said that they still needed to get some more work done as it went forward and didn’t want to sign off on anything. We went through the components of how the core would land down, how you would provide some of the parking elements, and how the structures of all the roadways would go in. That was done as part of the hub study.
Graham: As it was our development on our land, we certainly went through the whole structural analysis with rail yard relocation and structures. It is not at all easy, and the multiple devils are in the details. And that’s one of the things that will have to come into play from down below as we look at things like view corridors and access up above.
9c. A clear message has to go back to Council that the concept requires further public process because prior to this, most people are completely unaware of what has been going on.
10. A charrette could bring integrated clarity into what is a truly challenging proposition. One of the legacies of our city is a legacy of integrated precinct planning. There is a precinct here, and it seems like there is a piecemeal component here. Appreciating that a protracted public process may be challenging, has there been any discussion of an integrated design charrettes, perhaps over a week as people like Larry Beasley facilitate in other cities, and intensive week with all the stakeholders and including the economic dimension.
Anita: That’s certainly something that we can take away and think about.
Frank: I think staff have recommended for the next phase of the application to have at least an Urban Design Panel workshop. But a fulsome event that engages a few more people and all the stakeholders that is maybe visible by the public either with some representation of interest groups of interest groups might be a good idea.
11. Reflecting on some of the comments today expressing concern and the urgency of this conversation, could you provide an overview of why the conversation died down since 2009. What are some mechanisms that are being put in place or should be put in place to make sure that this conversation continues to happen?
Anita: I guess one of the reasons why it died down was there was no development proposal that came into play until the recent VIA tower proposal at 320 Granville, which it didn’t have a direct effect on the road networks and the delivery of the infrastructure north of Waterfront Station, or on integrating part of the neighbourhood with the downtown, which is an important component of the overall hub plan. That project went through a rezoning and is underway.
The project that triggered the conversation is 555 Cordova. It brought up the questions about the waterfront hub framework plan – How does this fit? How does this work? Are we going to achieve our objectives with this concept? That’s still the question for us. So in terms of the conversation, I think getting people to understand the complexity of the waterfront hub plan, and the vision, is really important. The vision of the hub plan and the complexity both need to understood, because it’s extremely complex. As Steve said, we went to an inordinate amount of detail to understand it from a true physical structural aspect to understand, because we didn’t want to develop a plan that wasn’t real. What we know about this plan is that it’s real, it can be built as it is conceptually presented. It’s not saying that things can’t change and adjust if there is a better idea. But we know it’s a real concept.
12. This is far too charged a site historically, politically, and economically. And in terms of the potential opportunities and risks here, they are too great for us to go ahead and approve it on the basis of one single interest… There are a lot of moving parts here. And lots of different and equally legitimate positions on this issue, including the legitimate development rights of land owners who acquired property and are making investments and taking risk. That should go without saying. On the other hand, I think the City also needs to demonstrate some leadership. I can tell you from my own personal experience that in the past, under various directors of planning and various political Councils, we have had lots of examples. There are plenty of precedents for much more integrated and comprehensive planning processes. We’ve done that on the Central Waterfront Port Lands policy statement that I worked on for Larry Beasley and his team. There are all kinds of projects that folks like Jim Cheng and others have worked on, like Official Development Plans for Coal Harbour, Concord Pacific, etcetera. So we have the examples. What we don’t have yet is the political leadership that would give power to the planning department in order to go out and do that properly.
So what I suggest, with all due respect to the process and legitimate development rights, that we put some kind of a moratorium on this particular toe in the door until we know what we want to do overall as a comprehensive study. And then we bring all of those parties to the table, including a legitimate public process, and we have an extensive planning process that revisits the hub plan which I, too, think is a very admirable project that is lacking the critical implementation piece. And then we get the political buy-in support for this. And I totally agree with Anita that it also needs other agencies and senior levels of government to buy in. Because this is a huge project with ramifications beyond just the citizens of Vancouver. It’s also the provincial and federal interests at stake here.
I really do think that this is a premature moment, and it’s a dangerous moment if we allow this project to go forward as is or as some variation thereof that meets the development process permit, which is a very narrowly defined and limited process that the City is imposing upon this particular developer. Then I think we will have missed a key opportunity. So my plea – Anita, back to your staff and senior management and Council – let’s put a stop on this for a moment and do whatever it takes, whether it’s a week-long charrette or a six-month planning process or something in between those two, to get this right. And to make sure that all of those interests are at the table and hear each other. And we make the right kind of trade-offs. This is far too charged a site historically, politically, and economically. And in terms of the potential opportunities and risks here, they are too great for us to go ahead and approve it on the basis of one single interest, which is Cadillac Fairview who, unfortunately, aren’t in the room.
Graham: I like the sentiment in the room that we don’t have to do it all on our own. Our client has instructed us to get going with a plan. And that’s why I wanted to not presume about the public process. And the Provincial and Federal Governments that Anita referred to are the key to some of this. But we have to go out and are putting something down.
Anita: The Federal Government came to us and said they would like to explore the possibility of adding density on the Sinclair Centre site. We told them that 25 years ago Council said the development on the site of Sinclair Centre is capped. So we took an issues report to Council asking if Council wants us to enter into a discussion with the Feds given the previous Council’s decision. And Council said we could explore ideas about adding some density on that site. That is not to say that it will be successful. The Feds gave a number of up to 1 million. We don’t know because we haven’t begun that testing exercise yet. So they are exploring how they could add more density on that site.
13b. Are those top-heavy buildings safe in an earthquake?
Anita: They have to meet our building code and all the seismic requirements, whatever the shape of a building might be