How much height is appropriate around the Broadway and Commercial SkyTrain station? That was one of the key questions at the long-anticipated City of Vancouver sub-area workshop, held Saturday, February 21, at the Croatian Cultural Centre. But it wasn’t the only important question, as groups also discussed ways in which the character of the Commercial Drive business district can be extended into the area as it redevelops.
A week earlier, the city held a workshop on Hastings Street, also recounted below. This series of seven sub-area workshops wraps up on March 7 with one concerning Commercial Drive itself. These workshops will help inform the efforts of both city planning staff and the Citizens’ Assembly on the Grandview Woodland Community Plan.
The format of the Broadway and Commercial Drive workshop was a little different than the others, and focused more on building consensus on three key issues: public space, housing, and jobs and services. The building heights that participants considered appropriate were generally lower than at a similar workshop held 18 months ago, following the controversial June 2013 city proposal which called for as many as a dozen high-rise residential towers (See Goals, Directions and Emerging Policies).
In all, there were 12 tables and 91 community participants, half from Grandview-Woodland and most of the rest from Kensington-Cedar Cottage to the south. At the end of the day, four groups of three tables sought consensus on height. One group called for six to 12 storeys on the Safeway site but with one participant favouring 50 storeys; the second group thought six to 12 storeys was OK and no one wanted more than 16 storeys; the comfort level at the third table was at eight storeys; and the fourth group’s views ranged from turning the whole site into a public plaza to allowing 36 storeys, with the majority falling in the four- to 12-storey range.
In the summer of 2013, there was a higher tolerance for towers on the Safeway site, and the handout suggested a consensus range of 10 to 18 storeys, and a total range of six to 28 storeys. The consensus heights this time around would, said one participant, pretty much preclude the possibility of the city gaining any significant community amenity contributions from a developer of the site.
Without a lot of dissenters jumping into the breach by calling for taller buildings, conversation often turned to other issues, mainly around improving the public realm and extending the fine-grained, independent business character of Commercial Drive south past the Grandview Cut and up toward 12th Avenue. The area immediately around Broadway and Commercial is widely viewed as seriously deficient in both regards.
The Grandview Cut itself was often cited as an under-utilized asset, and many asked that the city look at ways to make parts of it accessible to the public, although a few expressed concern about protecting wildlife and public safety. The Bridge across the cut was cited as a barrier that keeps the Drive’s activity from extending further south. Some wanted to activate the bridge by extending businesses along either side, while others wanted telescopes and viewing platforms that would make the area more park-like.
Even though a straw poll suggested there were few renters in the room, protecting existing rental housing stock and not displacing the area’s renters was a key concern.
A focus on ground-oriented housing, even along Broadway, was another. One group suggested more encouragement for infill housing in the duplex-zoned area west of the Drive. On Broadway near Nanaimo, there was even a call for a two- to three-storey limit. The area, much of which currently zoned for single-family or duplex housing, was proposed as a four-storey apartment zone by the city in 2013.
On Commercial Drive itself, most favoured four to six storeys, while some were prepared to go as high as eight. Wider sidewalks and pedestrian amenities were also frequently requested. Activation of laneways was debated.
One group suggested that the city encourage a hub of non-governmental organizations around the SkyTrain station, and in general there was a desire for mixed use that focuses on bringing jobs as well as homes to the area.
Retail principles clear, details need work
Sometimes, as a result of the consensus building and the necessarily reductive reporting out of group results, more specific ideas were lost. During one table’s group discussion, the Commercial Drive Business Society’s planning consultant, Lance Berelowitz, produced a drawing that showed how the area under the SkyTrain guideway might be better animated. He noted that the lots to the west along the Drive are shallow and, as such, have limited development potential that could be enhanced by allowing shops to front on the guideway area as well as the Drive.
The area under the guideway could then become a public pedestrian plaza that could include an open-air public market component, which would provide independent businesses with low-cost access to a large pool of customers. Improving the realm under the guideway, which with the exception of the MOBY Community Garden has been a wasteland since the completion of the Expo line 30 years ago, would also connect it to the greenway that extends south under the SkyTrain beyond 12th Avenue. One workshop participant noted that noise from the SkyTrain is an issue, but steps could be taken to mitigate its impact.
A public plaza, proposed by the city at Broadway and Commercial but also possible on the Drive south of East 10th, was on pretty much everyone’s wish list. Safety at 10th and Commercial, the site of many bike accidents, was also identified as a concern. In general, people wanted wider sidewalks and more amenities for pedestrians in the area, because of the often-crowded conditions.
One of the key factors in fostering the character of the Drive, with its independent businesses, is the narrow frontages and small floor areas. Chains usually look for larger locations. A couple of people argued that the city should require small shops as retail redevelops around the SkyTrain station.
Proposing a better pedestrian and Commercial Drive retail realm was the easy part. Agreeing on building height was harder.
At one table early in the day, conversation began with a survey regarding maximum heights on the Safeway site, and the results ran something like this: four, eight, two at 10, 12 to 16, up to 24, and up to 28. One participant cited the 18-storey King Edward Village project as a good precedent for the Safeway site. He argued that community amenities created by allowing additional density are valuable and necessary. (Child care has been cited by many as a particular need.)
For some, how any new development would integrate with the existing community was as much of an issue as height itself. “I don’t like towers,” said one longtime Grandview resident. “I don’t think people know each other in towers.”
A few discussed how towers might be planned so they more effectively create community, both internally and out the front door. One person cited Grandview resident Charles Montgomery’s book Happy City, which suggests something as simple as a window with a place to sit on each floor can alter how high-rise residents relate to each other. Far more often, however, people asserted that ground-oriented housing is more livable and more consistent with Grandview Woodland’s existing character.
While a conversation about existing parks began with the idea of expanding W.C. Shelley Park (at East 8th Avenue and Woodland Drive), there was a stronger desire to enhance it and Cedar Cottage Park (at 11th and Clark) to improve their use.
Then the conversation veered into ancillary issues. One person wanted to slow traffic on Clark to make the street more pedestrian and bike friendly. Another wondered about potential for a bike underpass in the Cut near Clark and 7th. A third expressed concern about drugs and drink in Cedar Cottage Park.
Plan holistically, count on unpredictability
As with the previous workshops, Grandview Woodland lead planner Andrew Pask provided some context throughout the day.
Again he reminded the participants of the context and limits of the planning process, and encouraged the participants to recognize that neighbourhoods do change, and that they should use their imagination to plan 30 or 40 years into the future. He urged people to think holistically, and plan in a way that integrates housing, cultural, service and transportation needs. He reminded people that the city will continue to grow, must accommodate newcomers, and the city’s job is to effectively manage development pressure. He noted that planning is not an exact science. “It’s really difficult to anticipate how growth and change will take place.”
In that regard, it’s surprising that census numbers cited in the workshop backgrounder show the population in the area actually declined by more than 500 between 2001 and 2011.
Pask also identified the very familiar community concerns: gentrification, protecting affordable housing, not displacing existing residents. He noted that the city’s proposal 18 months ago for a group of towers up to 36 storeys was not a great idea and suggested people look on the city’s website at the variety of drawings that explored possible futures for the Broadway and Commercial.
However, when asked by one participant if towers in any form have in fact been taken off the table, as some asserted prior to the November civic election, Pask said that while the city took its existing proposal for towers off the table he didn’t think any building type should be removed completely from consideration.
Pask also reviewed past city proposals and community feedback, outlined in the workshop backgrounder. Principles to guide planning include building “complete communities” while “being diverse and weird”. “Context and character are important,” the backgrounder said. “The area should be true to its local roots.”
The challenges of planning in the Broadway area were also discussed. He said it’s very difficult to create public benefits from redevelopment without rezoning for additional density. He argued that while the city is getting better at creating midrise developments, “we don’t have as many good precedents as we ought to.” And he asked people to think about what exactly constitutes a good height transition, suggesting that the presumption that we must scale down from higher buildings through lower ones can be a bit doctrinaire. Setbacks and street trees, he said, can make the taller buildings far less apparent.
He also talked about the jobs and services, noting that the area has become a health hub, will expand its immigrant services, and that affordable office space is in short supply. What else, he said, should be part of the jobs and services mix? The day would prove that the subject needs more discussion — even though it was designated as a key consideration, it didn’t garner much attention.
Nine members of the Citizens’ Assembly were at the event, and when they introduced themselves some urged those present to take every opportunity to let the Assembly know about their concerns.
When the four groups of three tables reported out at the end of the day, the concerns and desires were fairly consistent on limiting height, encouraging independent commercial activity, and improving the public realm. These were among the additional suggestions and concerns.
- Traffic safety around Laura Secord Elementary
- Improve of East Eighth as a key bike route
- Learn from the unfriendly pedestrian environment west of Commercial on Broadway and not make the same mistakes in redeveloping to the east
- Draw on New York’s High Line model for additional public access to the Grandview Cut
- Soften the areas immediately around the station with greenery
- Limited attachment to the community garden under the guideway because it doesn’t invite the community in
- Carefully consider the difficult challenge of integrating bikes around the station area
- Limit property assembly to maintain the fine grain of the community
- Better appreciate the importance of market low-income rental housing in creating the neighbourhood’s character
- Don’t undermine the affordable rental housing west of Commercial on Broadway
- Conversely, one group wanted to allow six storeys on Broadway between Commercial and Clark, and another would allow housing up to eight storeys in some locations
- All groups wanted relatively low heights on Broadway east of Commercial
- Seniors housing was cited as an often-ignored community need
- Vary heights along the Drive, generally four to six storeys, but some wanted to allow up to eight in key locations
Jobs and Services
- Focus on jobs on the Safeway site
- Acute concern about the loss of affordable retail spaces
On issues of divergence, some groups said they didn’t really discuss those, and one noted that building consensus was a challenge in the time available. However, some key issues weren’t extensively discussed, and didn’t show up in the verbal reporting out. Density and height on East 12th, where big signs now advertise groups of properties for sale with “multi-family potential”, wasn’t mentioned in the reporting out. Nor was Victoria Drive.
Density for Hastings, but not at expense of industry or affordability
A week earlier, at the Aboriginal Friendship Centre, the community considered the other area in Grandview-Woodland that’s slated for some high-density redevelopment. Parts of Hastings Street, which has been defined in the past by the adjoining industrial activity and the street’s history as a car-oriented commuter route into the city, are lined by large lots of “let go” industrial lands slated for residential, commercial and mixed-use development. To the west, Clark Drive is a key truck route for the Port Metro Vancouver. To the east, a burgeoning high street straddles Nanaimo in Hastings-Sunrise.
One of the defining characteristics of the area is its significant aboriginal population. One workshop participant from Newfoundland, who sits on the board of an aboriginal services organization, talked about how much that’s meant to her. “It’s where I found a sense of home when I first came to Vancouver.”
Planner Andrew Pask’s opening remarks dealt with some planning objectives for the area, based on city-wide objectives and neighbourhood feedback. The former includes a rapid bus interchange at Commercial Drive and Hastings with linkage up Commercial, subject to the results of the upcoming regional referendum on transit improvements. The latter includes a community desire to create high street–style linkage between Commercial Drive and Hastings-Sunrise. There are also plans for a public plaza on the north side of Hastings.
In general, he said, the community has been approving of more density on Hastings, particularly toward Clark, but it wants modulated building heights. Supporting the expansion of key aboriginal services on Hastings is a key goal for the city.
Six members of the Assembly spoke to the 56 registered participants. One said her objectives are to protect the diversity, affordability, heritage and pedestrian-friendly streets in the community.
The morning group work was in line with past workshops, where people were asked to identify qualities they like, problems that exist, and changes they deem appropriate.
Important virtues identified at one table included the abundance of affordable housing, the area’s idiosyncratic character, the value of industry as an employer, and the use of industrial spaces by artists.
Key concerns included the impact of odour from the large chicken processing area northeast of Hastings and Commercial, the bleak pedestrian landscape west of the Drive, and the speed of traffic on Hastings.
Participants wanted more street trees, and one person suggested closing Garden Drive just west of Nanaimo to create a connection to nearby park space.
Regarding the chicken odours, Patricia Barnes, executive director of the Hastings-Sunrise Business Improvement Association, said that producers are working hard to meet guidelines, and there’s been real improvement, but plans for increased residential density nearby are still a concern.
“Buyer beware,” said one participant, noting that potential residents should be clearly informed about the neighbouring industry.
The city’s proposal, just south of Hastings toward Nanaimo, to rezone single-family residential areas for apartments and townhouses was a cause for concern. Many didn’t want to see any changes to zoning on Pender, particularly east of Victoria Drive.
Hastings-Sunrise high street faces risks
Another concern is the potential with redevelopment for chains to supplant independent businesses on Hastings. Barnes said proposed changes to zoning near Nanaimo will increase land values, taxes and speculation. Major property developers are already assembling land along the corridor.
The Commercial Drive business society has expressed some interest in limiting property assembly to preclude large redevelopments. Barnes has said in the past that Hastings Street property owners are less interested in such restrictions. While her association wants to protect the independent small businesses around Nanaimo, she said some larger commercial development is appropriate along Hastings, and it’s possible to oversaturate the market with small storefronts.
Barnes has also said industrial areas on either side of Hastings needs more careful attention from planners, and that residents often don’t have the tools they need to encourage the city to plan for the renewal of industrial zones. At the workshop, she identified potential conflicts along the alley just north of Hastings as a particular cause for concern. Toward Clark, there’s a busy hiring hall for the port, and it’s an active industrial area with some businesses that have been there for 60 or 70 years.
One participant expressed concern that the new No Frills grocery store on Hastings west of Commercial reflects a lack of attention by the planning department to the future needs of the street. Several people talked about restricting the frontages of businesses, presumably in the high street area to the east, to maintain the fine-grained retail character. Design guidelines were also discussed as a potential solution.
The disruption created by transitional periods was raised as a concern, as were vacant retail spaces in new buildings. One participant pointed to the city’s strategy in the Downtown Eastside of encouraging interim uses to avoid vacant shops.
The common denominator for many participants was an aversion to high-rise residential and generic retail. “We’re seeing it happen all over the city, and we don’t want to see it in Grandview-Woodland,” said one.
When appropriate heights were discussed, participants generally wanted to reduce what the city proposed in Goals, Directions and Emerging Policies, but only somewhat — especially when compared with Broadway and Commercial. The views down Commercial Drive and toward the mountains from Hastings were concerns. Gentrification and the resulting ripple effect through area’s affordable rental was another (the aboriginal population of the area is markedly declining). Impact on independent business was a third.
One participant wanted development guidelines that include monitoring, assessment and follow-up with the community on the impact of new development.
On height, one group’s consensus was four storeys east of Victoria, six between Victoria and Commercial, and eight storeys from Commercial to Clark. For some groups, the city’s height proposals between Commercial and Victoria were acceptable. On the north side, this backs onto the chicken processing distric. On the south side of Hastings, redevelopment would be downhill from existing apartments, and would offer views to the northwest.
One participant accused the city of proposing unacceptable heights to soften the community up for more density, and suggested that if the city is defining the terms of give and take in that way, the community should play the same game.
The day concluded with reporting out from the themed afternoon tables. Transportation called for closing portions of Garden Drive, pedestrian enhancements on Hastings, improvements to the Mosaic bike route, and a plaza at Commercial Drive.
In general, the group was OK with four to six storeys, and would consider eight with varied heights and frontages, community benefits and good design. One outlier in the group was comfortable with eight to 12 storeys.
The Public Realm table also wanted to use Garden Drive to connect Hastings to Pandora Park. The group discussed the idea of a boulevard on Hastings, and wanted measures to mitigate the noise and speed of Hastings Street traffic. There was also a call for a new park, and even an orchard, to serve both new residents and existing industry employees.
The first of two Housing tables called for density around the transit nodes, with attention to sunlight access, locating higher buildings on the north side, and limits on consolidating frontages. Heights of six to eight storeys were considered appropriate west of Victoria, with 15 storeys acceptable at Clark. The group was split on four or six storeys as the maximum east of Victoria, and wanted nothing more than townhouses as a change in zoning on Pender, south of Hastings.
The second Housing table called for urban design guidelines and modulating height to avoid excessive shadowing, and used a little planning jargon. “There was support for housing typology along the continuum,” said the facilitator. Varying types of housing, including social and affordable housing, was a key desire. Consensus called for the greatest height near Clark Drive. At Nanaimo there was clear divergence: some wanted a limit of four storeys, others wanted to allow eight.
The Heritage, Culture and Community Well-being table said there was altogether too much emphasis on built form in the day’s conversation, and not enough about the natural ecology, including the potential to plant trees that reflect the neighbourhood’s natural history.
One aboriginal participant, who works with the Urban Native Youth Association, said that for aboriginal youth their heritage is their identity. “They just want their presence to be known,” she said, calling for more opportunities for artistic representation of the area’s culture and history. UNYA has been on Hastings for a quarter century, and the Aboriginal Friendship Centre since 1970. Nearby Cedar Cove at the foot of Victoria, of course, was a seasonal Aboriginal village long before there was a Vancouver.
On height, 10 to 12 storeys was deemed acceptable toward Clark, but with an arts hub as a benefit. Preserving industrial use was a priority, as was varying heights to protect views and limit shadowing.
The Local Economy table wanted to support local independent business by requiring careful design and small frontages. Activating laneways was deemed desirable. Modulating heights in the four- to eight-storey range was the goal on density, with design guidelines. One participant added that the province should be pressured to change BC Assessment Authority rules so that buildings are taxed based on actual use, and not the potential use or adjoining uses. Is it possible, the person asked, to preserve a one-storey building?
Andrew Pask said the city is discussing the issue of “taxation hot spots” as the city grows and changes, but he acknowledged there is more work to be done.
At both workshops, to borrow one of Pask’s phrases, not everything was resolved, but the dial did move forward. For the Citizens’ Assembly, which meets again on Saturday, February 28, at the Vancouver Opera rehearsal space, the hard work of synthesizing all this input now begins in earnest. The Assembly meets with the public on March 5 to discuss proposed neighbourhood-wide recommendations, and will develop sub-area recommendations, using input from the local workshops, later this spring.