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UBC, Nudists Duel in the Sand

Foes of planned towers above Wreck Beach shift tactics. They fear the cliffs, even more than privacy, eroding.

By Tyler Hopson 7 Jun 2004 |
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In a city famed for its picture window vistas, the University of British Columbia offers a new twist with four planned towers. Residents may (or may not, depending on who's talking) get to glimpse Canada's most famous nude beach.But now the development is under attack not only from naked sun worshippers but activists who warn the project will harm the fragile cliffs that rise behind the shore. With construction showing no sign of slowing down, the Wreck Beach Preservation Society is considering legal action against UBC.A secluded traditionFor decades nudists, students, and curious onlookers have hiked the 200 stairs down to the beach for clothing-optional fun in the sun. Part of the appeal, say beachgoers, is the secluded feeling to the beach, situated below the thickly-forested Point Grey cliffs.But that seclusion is in danger if the new student residence towers go ahead as planned, say Wreck Beach advocates. Because of the height of the towers critics say the top stories of some buildings will be visible to beachgoers.Also at issue is the preservation of the Point Grey cliffs, certain parts of which suffer from serious erosion problems."One of the charms of Wreck Beach is that it appears to be nearly wild," says James Loewen, media spokesperson for Wreck Beach. "Having high rise buildings poking above the tree line is certainly not keeping [it] natural."Petitions, protests, and pamphlets designed by Wreck Beach enthusiasts since early April have not been enough to halt construction. Now they are in the process of collecting money for a "Stop the Towers Fund" to aid them in the battle.How high the towers?It's not the first time UBC and Wreck Beachers have wrestled in the sand. Over the years the Wreck Beach society has fought roads, a ferry terminal, and a restaurant on the cliff above.The two sides share little common ground this time around. "This is probably the most difficult challenge that we've had," says Loewen. He says legal action is not something Wreck Beach looks forward to but that they "will take whatever steps necessary, although we'd certainly resist going there."Dueling photos documenting tower visibility give dramatically different results on both the Wreck Beach Preservation Society and UBC Web sites. Loewen says the top five to ten stories of the buildings will be visible from the beach depending on how near they are to the cliff's edge. But UBC says the first tower, under construction now, won't be visible at all.That building - located furthest from the cliff - will only be 52 metres tall, says Dennis Pavlich Vice President of External and Legal Affairs at UBC. Tests done by UBC show the towers would only be visible from the beach if they were 72 metres tall or more.He says it is not correct to say all the buildings will be 20 stories tall. "We're not sure of that. The likelihood is that the one closest to the beach will actually be lower."As you come nearer to the cliff, then we will drop, if necessary, the height of that building in order to ensure that there's no encroachment on privacy," says Pavlich.However, the original construction plans call for four, 20-story towers.UBC says cliffs are stableWreck Beachers now say their main concern is not privacy, but further erosion of the cliffs.A recent statement issued by the Wreck Beach Preservation Society argues that proper environmental impact studies on the area were not done prior to site construction. The statement says heavy truck movements and construction pile driving will send vibrations to the cliff face and jeopardize the "wilderness-like ambience" of the area.But UBC says the project has been approved by its Board of Governors and the Greater Vancouver Regional District. Pavlich says geotechnical studies have indicated the cliffs are quite stable at the site of construction."This is intended to promote sustainability, not to cause unsustainable practices," says Pavlich.By having students live on campus, by encouraging the use of public transportation, and by not building additional parking on campus, he says sustainability is being promoted.In fact, Pavlich says the towers will actually prevent erosion by not allowing as much water to drain over the cliff's edge. "The water that's caught on the [rooftops] will actually be drained into the storm water system. It's going to help prevent erosion."Alternatives to tower scheme?Loewen says that argument is "beyond ridiculous."One UBC professor says the debate over cliff erosion is a "reactionary approach" to the towers. "I doubt that's true..We're further ahead technologically than to allow erosion to happen," says Michael Larice Assistant Professor of Urban Design.But Larice is still no fan of the towers. Research done this year by Larice and a team of graduate students shows that high-rise towers are the least popular form of housing among students from an aesthetic standpoint. Most popular among students, according to the research, was low-rise, apartment-style housing."There's absolutely no rationale for towers at all," Larice says. He says a number of other possible construction sites would have been just as good as the one chosen.Larice says six-storey housing with the same number of beds and density could likely be put on the same site, avoiding the towers altogether.Students left out of loopFor Sara Koopman, a graduate student who lives next door to the construction site, the new residences are a matter of trust and respect. She says planning for the towers was not done correctly and students were not consulted for their views.Koopman doesn't find the UBC administration's position on the matter convincing. "It seems like students were not respected in the process," she says.Franky Chen, a regular beachgoer, enjoys Wreck's privacy, its easy access from the city centre, and the freedom to be nude and close to nature."It's rare to find a place like Wreck Beach now," he says. "UBC has a lot of other land. They do not need to use the land so close to the beach."The Wreck Beach Preservation Society says it will fight the matter for as long as it takes. Wreck Beach "is one of the jewels of Vancouver," says Loewen. "This cannot be allowed to happen."Tyler Hopson is a freelance journalist and graduate student in Vancouver. He contributes regularly to local and national publications.  [Tyee]

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