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Stop the Dubai-zation of Vancouver

We need a city plan that protects street level texture and involves citizens.

By Patrick M. Condon 10 Feb 2015 |

Professor Patrick Condon is chair of the urban design program at UBC's School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. Find his previous pieces on The Tyee here.

Most Vancouver residents believe we have a city plan. We don't. We have a number of area plans but no city plan. And even our area plans are increasingly ignored. Two recent events make it even clearer that we need a real city wide plan, and a binding agreement from our elected and appointed officials that it be followed.

At stake is the right of citizens to contribute to preserving, or evolving, what they love about their city.

In late January, the BC Supreme Court sided with the "New Yaletown" neighbourhood group, who contended that a veiled, in camera negotiation with developers violated the public's right to fairly participate in planning decisions. The dispute arose in the context of a proposed 36-storey tower at the north end of Emery Barnes Park. As part of a negotiation that included the swap of a city owned parcel for one owned by the developers, the governing zoning was relaxed by council, giving the developer five times more density and four times more height than stipulated in the previously approved community development plan. The court found that, despite the city's protestations to the contrary, the deal was struck more or less in secret, with a public consultation process conducted after the deal was struck. The judges deemed that process "opaque."

How has Vancouver found itself in such a state? In less than a decade we have lost something we once prided ourselves on: political transparency. This is not to suggest that Vancouver was ever a placid political nirvana. Debates over development in this perpetually growing city have always been contentious, leading more than once to complete shifts in power -- most famously with the TEAM party's sweeping victory over former mayor Tom Campbell's NPA in the 1970s. But for the 30-plus years between 1972 and the early 2000s the city's dealings were never labelled "opaque" by the provincial Supreme Court.

A second case seems similarly troubling. Within days of the BC Supreme Court ruling against the city, the public finally saw the fully rendered plans for a proposed office tower crowding the east facade of Waterfront Station. Named the "Origami Tower" by its designers, this provocative building was designed by Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill Architecture of Chicago, most famous for Dubai's Burj Khalifa Tower and Saudi Arabia's Kingdom Tower. Without casting aspersions on this firm and its creative output, it is worth reflecting on how Vancouver has suddenly developed an appetite for the same sort of architectural glitz that litters the deserts of Dubai and Jeddah. Where is the respect for what our own local architects have built? They have textured Vancouver with a very different architectural aesthetic, one that is sensitive to context and the public realm. This aesthetic is admired around the world for how individual buildings contribute to the larger city building project.

Locally made skyline

Very few existing Vancouver buildings have been designed by an international "starchitect." The repulsive former Eaton's department store designed by César Pelli at Robson and Granville, known locally as "the urinal building," is notable in this respect -- a mistake that should have been foreseen and is only now being corrected (its urinal skin is being stripped and replaced with something less appalling).

The vast majority of our city's other major buildings were the product of our local, or in a few cases national, talent. What is it about this moment in time that makes us want to follow Dubai's lead, not our own?

Vancouver has become rightly famous not for its individual buildings, as elegant as they are, but for the way they work together to create a shared public realm. And for how the public and its elected and appointed officials have worked transparently to achieve this end. We are all now the beneficiaries of at least two generations worth of collective effort to make Vancouver a place we all share.

The very essence of this shared achievement is the form and structure of Vancouver's public realm: Its streets, parks, public squares, and waterfronts. Taken together the form and structure of this public realm constitute one of the greatest urban design achievement of the late 20th century. This was incrementally achieved by scores of developers and architects working in concert with citizen boards and their elected and appointed representatives. I believe this is not merely emblematic of what is now called "Vancouverism," but more broadly signifies how the Canadian democratic tradition of intense and protracted public dialogue, frustrating as it is at times, can result in great cities.

During this period all our favorite places were designed and built, almost all by local architects and landscape architects. These designers worked closely and collaboratively with developers who understood the value proposition of using their projects to contribute to larger urban design ideas. Their payback was in cash, their projects gaining value from that public realm context and in turn increasing the value of subsequent additions to the urban landscape. It was a virtuous cycle that never stopped giving.

Why then does Vancouver suddenly lack the courage to continue this tradition, just when the world is flocking here to experience what is now North America's most vibrant new urban realm? Why are we behaving just like Dubai, Houston, Shanghai, Abu Dhabi and any of a score of world cities who are ignoring our success to pursue an endless collection of flashy "signature" buildings, as if all it took to make a great place were enough incongruous architectural knick knacks arranged haphazardly on the tabletop of the city?

Iconic buildings as urban parasites

Increasingly, new "signature" buildings are promoted and built in various cities, often in an attempt to increase their stature, or to help brand themselves in a certain way. While I don't want to call into question this value, I suggest that this enthusiasm often shields the parasitic nature of this process from public view.

Good civic space is largely the consequence of hundreds of buildings collectively contributing to the formation of a shared public realm. This public realm is largely made up of that most pedestrian of civic spaces (pun intended): the street.

Spatially, street corridors are formed by the walls of the many buildings that line them, the distant view terminus (be it a building or a mountain vista), and, of course, the sky ceiling above.

In a "good" city, the network of street corridors occasionally gives way to expanded volumes for civic squares (Vancouver is under-supplied with these) or parks and waterfronts (Vancouver has lots of these).

The occasional signature building can also stand out in contrast to this fabric. The courthouse (currently the VAG) comes to mind. The Marine Building at West Georgia and Burrard streets somehow manages to do both. It thrusts out on its slight promontory where the grid turns, shouldering into key views while still attaching to its neighbours.

But the point is that these buildings have fabric to "stand out against." That's why they are parasitic. They feed on the larger body of the city for their strength. If that word seems too strong you may prefer urban design jargon such as "the iconic building in dialogue with its context" or "the fabric/icon dialectic" better. It's the same idea.

Taking back democratic decision making

Most city dwellers acknowledge the value and pedigree of a signature building. Me included. The problem might come when a city gets too enamoured of the sexy diva and undervalues the contribution of the choir. Certainly this has happened in Shanghai and Dubai. We are a long way away from that, but it's worth taking note when the builders of Dubai come to town.

The two phenomena, a lack of transparency and the Dubai-ification of Vancouver are, in my mind, linked. We seem to be experiencing, not just in Vancouver but around the world, the physical consequences of an international fixation with the architecturally strange. Cities long famous for distinctive sense of place, cities as storied as Paris and London, are now faced with a proliferation of similarly attention-grabbing new buildings, characterized by formal exuberance and an absolute lack of contribution to street level public realm. These buildings are ciphers, often signalling the colonization of the cities by forces alien to the citizens who inhabit them. It is thus no surprise that while civic leaders feel aggrandized by this trend, average citizens feel a deep discomfort. When strange and massive new shapes are suddenly thrust upon citizens, those "iconic" buildings can often trigger a sense that we have lost the ability to influence our common future.

The proof of democracy eroded is when citizens find out later that land use and building design rules have been relaxed behind closed doors. That is the practice in Vancouver, as the BC Supreme Court has ruled. It is not just us. It also happened in New York under Mayor Bloomberg and is happening now in London, England under Mayor Boris Johnson.

Who gets to decide the shape and feel of our cities? Should it not be the citizens, informed by a democratically arrived at city plan, and transparent adherence to that plan in all decision-making by politicians, planners and developers?

In my view this deserves a very robust public conversation, with the aim of reasserting the public's claim on our public realm, and clear rules of the game for how to protect it.  [Tyee]

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