No Longer an Alien Invader – A Respectful 555 Cordova Wins over Vancouver’s Heritage Commission

Sometimes development in Vancouver takes a ridiculous amount of time; this is true even in the shoulders of the Central Business District. Back in 2009, City Council Passed a Waterfont Hub Policy that called for an expansion of office towers and transit options surrounding Waterfront Station, along with a new Vancouver Whitecap’s stadium located along the harbour. That plan failed to come to fruition for a multitude of reasons, and in 2015 Cadillac Fairview, a subsidiary of the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan, submitted an application to turn this parking lot into a public plaza with a 26 story office building.

555 Cordova- old rendering.JPG                          Source– 2015 Proposal Rendering

Unfortunately, those involved with the failed Hub Plan, as well as former city officials, were strongly against the proposal, labeling it a blob and an alien invader. As a result, this land has sat empty for the last three years. Now that Cadillac Fairview has reactivated the proposal and made changes to the design, city staff have held an information session with heritage commission to review the proposal and ensure a better outcome for our city.

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The general idea behind this sculpted, steel framed origami building remains the same. However, to show more respect to the historic The Landing and Waterfront Station buildings, the building has been rotated 90 degrees. Also, there is no longer a physical above grade connection to Waterfront Station. Instead, the connections are more subtle, as 555 Cordova’s sculpting has been designed to match the heights and cornices of its neighbours. The benefits to the public realm are clear, as the rotation has allowed space for the future Cordova Connector, as well as opportunities for more public space and views. This new plaza space will have unique pavers, with a pattern that the city may choose to continue throughout the future hub lands, or keep isolated to this location. Though the real improvements to the public realm can be found within the building.

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While the first 7 floors are effectively unusable due to their lack of floor space, the 4th floor in the new design will still have an important role. As the floor is too small to allow for a restaurant or work space it will instead become a public amenity, with great views of the harbour. The rotation and sculpting of the building also allows for views of the heritage buildings to be kept in tact. In fact, at its widest point (the 17th floor), 555 Cordova only overhangs Waterfront Station by a small 6 meters, which should be almost unnoticeable at the street. It was noted that while the renderings make the building appear larger the floorplates have been reduced it size from the previous design.

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Because of these challenges, the building is struggling with it’s economic viability. Despite that admission, the commission was firmly divided on the height of the building. Those in favor of the height believe that it was appropriate for the area. One member even surprised themselves by requesting a taller building, as it would allow for smaller floors and a more interesting design. The opposition generally supported a height decrease of 5 floors, though one member involved with the original hub plan believed that the building should be a boutique tower of only 11 floors. This debate led to the older member and younger members debating policy, rather than the building

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Eventually the chair and council liaison were forced to remind the members that they should offer their opinions on the building, instead of drafting/arguing over neighbourhood guidelines. Despite this, a consensus on issues other than height was easily reached. The commission was unanimous in the belief that this was a much improved design. It was felt that the heritage of the neighbourhood was much more respected, and that Cordova still retained a historical look. The commission was eager to see the project go forward. I’m sure it will be the first of many changes to come, as city staff revealed that the Waterfront Hub Plan, as well as a new Gastown Neighbourhood Plan are on the agenda for 2019.

8 thoughts on “No Longer an Alien Invader – A Respectful 555 Cordova Wins over Vancouver’s Heritage Commission

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  1. Just a bit of clarification on the history – the Hub Study was completed after it became clear that the Whitecaps stadium proposal couldn’t fit on the site. It also couldn’t solve the problem of potentially having ‘dangerous cargo’ parked on the tracks underneath, which is a continued problem for any future development of the railtrack area). The idea was to build commercial space over the tracks, and it also envisaged an office tower here (although much smaller than proposed now at 11 storeys) and at 320 Granville (now under construction, six storeys taller than the Hub Study suggested).

    It looks as if the base of the revised tower sort of fits onto the footprint that the Hub Study suggested, and follows the advice of the Urban Design Panel, who were concerned about the first version’s relationship to the heritage station building. It’s worth noting that the Heritage Commission also supported the first version of the tower, although they’re probably happier with this one.

    This can probably go ahead in advance of any new Hub Study, which will no doubt review what, and how development could occur to the north, over the tracks, and possibly on the Port Lands if they’re interested in a conversation about change there.

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  2. Thank you for keeping all of us up to date on the very busy development landscape around the region. I wondered though if we were are the same meeting on this one. The Heritage Commission meeting of May 14, 2018 was a pre-application workshop only and they were not asked to vote on the proposal.

    While there were comments in favour, there were also many concerns raised. Here are the official minutes of the meeting so readers can judge for themselves.

    Click to access vher20180514min.pdf

    We also note, as documented in the minutes, that the Chair of the Commission, had to make a correction to the agenda, clarifying that this proposal was not consistent with the City-endorsed Central Waterfront Hub Framework.

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    1. Thank you for your appreciation 🙂. We’re happy to provide some information to those who are too busy to attend these events. It’s much better when everyone has a chance to offer an informed opinion.

      Also, thanks for the link to the official minutes, which wasn’t available when we posted our “minutes” on May 23rd. I assume you attended the same meeting, as it’s clear Darren was there, and that he captured the consensus of the workshop. Divided about the height, but united that the proposal was much improved. Of course, some were more vocal in their opinions than others.

      As we alluded to, it’s understandable that some panellists passionately believe that the 2009 CWHF is a static document, while others clearly disagreed. That disagreement may have been philosophical, a reflection of the City’s need for more job space / the Downtown zoning, or an acknowledgement that the Framework will likely see changes when it is reviewed in 2019.

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  3. You are welcome, Hannah. I see the Chair of the Heritage Commission, Michael Kluckner, provided a summary of the Heritage Commission’s comments on PriceTags https://pricetags.ca/2018/06/20/the-icepick-is-back/#comments. He stated “Just to be accurate — 555 was presented in a ‘design workshop’ format to the Heritage Commission and the comments were split for and against. There was no motion presented to support it”.
    So far in all of our discussions, I haven’t come across anyone who believes the 2009 Waterfront Framework is static and we are all looking forward to the review Council asked for in October 2017. We at the Downtown Waterfront Working Group think the best solutions for the waterfront and station area will come out of the refreshed plan. We have been researching waterfront plans all over the world, as well as revitalized railway/transit station areas, and we see all sorts of wonderful ideas can be applied in Vancouver.
    We have also been consulting many experts. I provide a quote for a Herb Auerbach, architect, developer, real estate consultant and lecturer, and author of a new book called “Placemakers: Emperors, Kings, Entrepreneurs—A Brief History of Real Estate Development.” He was unpleasantly surprised to hear that anyone would want to plunk a giant office building in this location. He provided the following response after looking at Cadillac Fairview’s plans.
    “Determining “Highest and Best Use” for a site is highly dependent on who is determining it. 400,000- sf of office space may represent highest and best use to the developer whereas an open space and plaza could and should in this case represent highest and best use for the city. The need for office space which can be located in other areas, is a poor excuse for approving this site for such development. Since there is currently no prescriptive zoning for the site there is no law that says the developer in entitled to the density and height requested.
    When one looks at the city and port owned lands, the private land holdings and the position of this site in the midst of it all, it calls for the land owners to get together with the city and plan in detail the entire area, from Granville to Main Street.”

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    1. Thank you for pointing out that article from the respected author of Pricetags. We’re glad, but not surprised, that the Chair of the commission agrees there were comments both in favour and against the proposal during the meeting. As the minutes provided in your previous post show, that divide is focused primarily on the height.

      I think you would agree the article you shared appears to be against the proposal, whereas our’s is simply an account of the Heritage Commission Meeting. As we are not in the field, we are not in a position to argue with an expert opinion. That said, even expert opinions seem to be divided on this proposal, as the respected experts behind Changing City point out:

      “There are a couple of relevant details that are a bit misleading in the piece. It’s not true that “The Icepick was turned down by City Hall in 2015”…..

      One site in the Central Waterfront Hub Study is already under construction, across the street at 320 Granville, and that’s also bigger than the study envisaged. This would be the second, and while it’s significantly larger than was suggested in the study, it fits the zoning and meets the policy objectives of the Metro Core Employment Plan by putting a lot of jobs on top of transit. It also leaves space for the access road that might be needed if a future Hub Study can get to grips with the practical problems of building over rail tracks that might have Dangerous Cargoes parked on them. (I’m pretty certain the Aquilini family don’t own any of the land in question). “
      https://pricetags.ca/2018/06/20/the-icepick-is-back/#comment-51499

      I think all of us are excited to see the Waterfront Framework move forward, and we share Changing City’s view that this should probably go ahead in advance of that study. We understand there is a common metaphor that compares changing civic policy to watercraft. A city is large boat that is difficult to manoeuvre, and slow to change. Rather than a years long area plan process, sometimes smaller changes, like a small boat, might be needed to respond to the urgent needs of a city.

      Ultimately, we believe developments should be reasonable and responsible, and feel the application has made great strides towards that result. We feel most would agree that sacrificing 7 floors of workspace, adding a public viewing deck, and rotating the tower to help transform the current parking lot into a usable public plaza is a large effort. Obviously it’s early in the process, which means, like any proposal, more work is still needed for that perfect fit, but we do feel that it’s heading in the right direction.

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  4. I thought that was the point of this discussion – to air opinions about an important city waterfront issue, both pro and con. This is to clarify a few points made by our friends at Changing City.

    1) The Urban Design Panel is only an advisory panel and it is staff and Council who make the final decision. Staff and Council had outstanding unresolved issues with the original Cadillac Fairview proposal. The Director of Planning at the time, Brian Jackson, let Cadillac Fairview know that they would need to resolve the extension of Granville Street before the Development Application could be advanced since this was such a fundamental element of the implementation of the Hub Framework, and because Cadillac Fairview (or one of its numbered companies) owns the Granville Street right of way north of Cordova.

    2) Normally a development application does not have to go to Council, but given the inconsistency of this development with the Council-endorsed Central Waterfront Hub Framework, this issue may have to go to Council. Here are Councillor Megg’s comments from December 1, 2016 Council meeting ..”While I think urban design is very important and the design was rejected by the UDP, I think there is concern in the wider community, and it was clear from a story in the media today, that the waterfront hub plan which is a policy of this council, is not being properly supported by some of the proposals that are coming forward.
    ….My fear is that people have lost sight of the plan and its objectives, which are to protect the opportunity for the city to create a central transportation hub which would knit together commuter rail, Skytrain, bus service, possibly the sea plane, and sea bus. And of course the passenger terminal down there which some people hope some day would have high speed trains going up and down the pacific seaboard.
    That’s the reason we have a Central Waterfront Hub Plan and that’s the very big prize which I think many people in the community are afraid could be lost if there isn’t a thoughtful approach to this development.
    I’ve reread the plan and I guess the point of this whole preamble is to say to Mr. Johnston ( City Manager) would he see consulting with his senior team about maybe updating council on the plan….”

    City Council in October 2017 asked staff to undertake a review of the Framework Plan and that work has just begun so it doesn’t make any sense to consider isolated proposals in advance of completion of the review.

    3) Yes, 320 Granville Street (parking garage at corner of Granville and Cordova) is in the Hub Framework and the only site located away from the waterfront on the south side of Cordova. The Hub Framework specifically stated that the 320 Granville project could move forward in advance of all other sites as there were no infrastructure issues tied to the waterfront site. This is not the case for Cadillac Fairview Waterfront Station site. Page 44 (Phasing Plan) of the Hub Framework states that before development can advance on this site, the following infrastructure needs to be resolved:
    Transit facilities: Land Terminal ( concourse and transit mode connections), Land-Marine Terminal connections
    Other infrastructure: Framework area street network including Granville Street Extension, Cordova Connector, Canada Place Extension, Hub Street.

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