555 Cordova Street, New Gastown office Building

I HAVE HAD numerous comments from people asking me to look at the 555 Cordova project. That is the one proposed to go on the parking lot that separates our beautiful CPR station and the wonderful heritage Landing building at the entrance to Gastown, our own national heritage site.


One of the biggest challenges is in the way very talented architects, some world renowned, seem able to push through fascinating designs but ones which have given insufficient attention to how they can best fit into the Vancouver environment.

In my time at city hall we took the following attitude to our responsibility in processing zoning and development proposals. We acknowledged that the project architect was, or should be, best able to coordinate the design of the building. The creative energy, especially around the overall architectural design, had to be the architect’s prerogative. However, part of their mandate as a professional is to consult and learn from other experts. One of those experts is, or should be, the urban designer at city hall who has the special role of communicating with proponents what the city knows from its extensive study of all parts of the city and who, in consultation with the communities, has developed design guidelines, policies, and bylaws to provide the community context for development proposals.

Inside the planning department at city hall are acres of design guidelines covering just about everything you might want to know as a developer about being a good neighbour in the city. “Good neighbourliness” used to be one of our mantras. Ranging from sunlight to noise, from views to overshadowing, from scale to proportion, from heritage to land use, from how a building could address the street to how it could improve the skyline, and so on.

So, when you look at the picture above, compare it with this statement from the architects submission: “…and maintains a sense of human scale for the pedestrian experience.”

If you read the whole of the architect's design rationale and then look at the illustrations you may wonder who is smoking what. Now some will tell you not to worry, that this is just the architect’s submission. I believe instead that the busy citizen should be provided with an initial commentary from our own (taxpayers’) urban design staff about their concerns.

But, come to think about it, the staff has already had (or should have had) numerous pre-design meetings with the applicant and the proposal has already been developed to some considerable extent. So, presumably staff already have a good grasp of what is good or not about the project. Wouldn’t it be helpful if staff could outline their own advice. Perhaps they can explain why they support “the sense of human scale” as illustrated above.

It would take much more time to review this design. Basically, it is clear that the principal architect is an extremely gifted and competent designer. But he needed the strong, competent participation of local urban design knowledge before submitting this design. Perhaps this will be forthcoming for there is still time. Or perhaps I worry too much and there are too few people who share my concerns.

More thoughts

The proposed development site lies between Waterfront Station and the Landing.

Have you noticed the special nature of this part of town?

Today it provides several of the few really good urban sequences in our young city. Try walking into the entrance to the CPR station from the upper plaza on its west side. You will pass from the brightly day-lighted plaza with its spectacular mountain views into a fine stairway leading down into the station. As you take the steps down, you will experience the descent into the really grand reception hall of the old station.

While not as grand as Grand Central in New York, nor Union Station in Toronto, it is a happier, more colourful place. It has the humane architectural detailing of its century-old styling. It also throbs at times with the crowds of different people passing between their numerous origins and destinations. Weaving through the throngs of people and past the ticket booths and coffee shops, you can either turn south and go out by the grand entrance or proceed easterly along the wide corridor to the easterly exit.

As you exit you may feel the sense of pleasure (sorry about the parking lot!) at moving from the enclosed corridor out into wide open fresh air and sunshine and one of the more spectacular views this lovely city has to offer to visitors and residents. As a bonus you will also note the fine facade of the Landing, another exceptional piece of architecture in our city, that announces the presence of our founding neighbourhood—Gastown.

This is where the Martian intends to land. If it lands as proposed it will obliterate this open space, the expanse of the Landing facade, and the view and leave a mean, winding passageway entrance into the station concourse.

But also see this. Look around and you will notice some very special features along this side of Cordova Street. Here are some of them. Firstly notice the scale of the buildings at this location. There is the grand scale of the station with its classical entrance porticos, the warm brick and careful detailing that is comfortable to the humans that walk past, as are the retail stores and restaurants. The war memorial sculpture is perfectly located at the transition to the open space, currently the parking lot. The east side of the building works with the Landing to create one of the great missed opportunities in the city—a real urban square. The Landing and the station encloses and define a space that is uniquely perfect for a small urban square. A square with two fine architectural sides and a spectacular view to the north.

Now let’s also look at the scale of design potential that exists here. There are potentially three levels that need special attention. There is the street level with the desire for activity, continuity, and pedestrian interest, comfort and safety. Then there are the street facades that define the street. They give us the sense of a cohesive place—like Water Street does so well. This can vary in height around 75 to 100 feet in this part of town. It has “eyes on the street” and one senses there are people living or working at their various occupations.

If we are to consider higher buildings we can wonder about this third level. These higher buildings stick up into the sky, cast long shadows, can be seen from afar as well as close by and begin to formulate our urban skyline. This is a skyline which has received a lot of attention in the past 30 years. With the significant density increases that city councils have approved for the downtown we need to monitor and revise our high-rise and view corridor policies, not to obliterate them, as some suggest, but to bring them in line with current necessities. In the meantime higher buildings provide the opportunity for creating a recognizable and exciting skyline. Hopefully that can be something commensurate with our unique setting and not just a plethora of architectural exhibitionism that is happening in other parts of the world.

Urban design is so important to us. It is not a simple matter. I have simply described a tiny portion of the thought process that should go into this proposal.

All major proponents should illustrate what they are valuing or not valuing in their design. Any number of nice words are meaningless without specific illustration. Claiming human scale when it is obvious there is none, or heritage compatibility when there is none, or welcoming usable public spaces when there is none, just should not be accepted.

We want to be able to trust that our planning staff is providing the love and rigour needed to maintain the livability and inspiration of our city. It is much more than higher densities and increasing the income from community amenity contributions.

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