The Illusion Of Choice – Balfour Block’s Six Year Plan Gets Busted By The Urban Design Panel

906-982 W 18th Ave and 907-969 W 19th Ave (Balfour Block)
In a few days, Hannah and I will mark a milestone anniversary, as it will be five years since we first attended an open house meeting. Like our relationship, this applicant’s involvement with the Balfour Block predates that event, as they purchased these lands in 2015 (pg 3), three years before the Cambie Corridor Plan was approved. A year later, they submitted a proposal rooted in the foundation of those guidelines, only to see it crumble at this Urban Design Panel review.

Granted, they’ve departed from that policy somewhat, as they chose to forgo the ability to sell some strata homes to triple the rental housing offered today (pg 7). Together, 50% now include two or more bedrooms, which is 15% higher than required, and demonstrates a future focused on families. That said, after city staff showed these volunteers a simple doodle (pg 163), it became apparent the decision to pursue a concept outlined, but not illustrated in the community vision, had doomed that timeline.

Unlike the nearby multi-million dollar property owners who oppose this reality, every panelist appreciated this mix of housing, and even the most acrophobic member was fine with these missing middle heights. Conversely, the majority considered the level of density unlivable, as its effects on a feature intended to pay homage to the site’s existing green strip demonstrated. They worried that future linear public park was overburdened both by shadows and stairwells that also served to hide it.

In their view, the alternative corner park option handled this better, and they appreciated it would have allowed for a more usable amenity space. That was something they believed was absent throughout the site, as the daycare hosts the lone children’s playarea, and a rooftop amenity was only included on the strata apartments. There was supposed to be a strip of patios, and greenery along the southside of the rental building, however that will now be enjoyed by car traffic.

Several were shocked that there were separate parkades for the rental apartments, condos, and townhomes, and this was made worse as they each have their own access point from the lane. A common entrance divided underground would have remedied this, though one individual was concerned additional landscaping would hamper firefighting efforts. The applicant noted that for safety reasons, those emergency services never use laneways, yet their attempts to correct other erroneous assumptions were silenced by the chair.

Ironically, there were some self-inflicted wound too, like their muffled presentation, which was only resolved when city staff advised moving their microphone closer. Perhaps the biggest was opting to wait until the development application stage to provide more detailed information about the colours and tones that would clad these buildings. The resulting large grey blocks were described by many as monotonous, bulky and out of style with the neighbourhood’s character. Then again, revealing their source of inspiration didn’t help either.

The choice to evoke Oak Street’s apartments, rather than Douglas Park, located a ~5 minute walk away, drew strong criticism. Some thought this articulation made the mid-rises appear too busy, and others questioned whether four floor townhomes were the context for this inner residential block. That could have been mitigated had the single bedroom homes been stacked below those geared towards families, but the most extreme voice wanted to see buildings four and seven removed entirely.

These comments were all considered equals, as there were no recommendations in the unanimous call for this project’s resubmission. The applicant team were clearly frustrated an “illustrative sketch” had essentially ruined their work, forced a rethink of their assumptions, and jeopardized the public benefits they could include (pg 9). It’s safe to say this decision, and the vocal opposition, means a major revision will almost certainly be required, meaning your comments could have a big impact if you leave them here.

You can view more photos from this meeting here on our Instagram.

Applicant Team Information:

Developer – Wesgroup Properties
Architects – Formwerks Architecture
Landscape Architects – Connect Landscape Architecture

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