I have written a number of posts about Boffo Development’s proposal to build an enormous tower at Commercial and Venables, most recently about the “open house” last Monday evening. One of the commenters to that piece, someone whose views I generally respect, suggested “this proposed building looks better and has a better orientation than the Lions’ building across the street.” I disagree with that remark so strongly that I feel the need to lay out all the reasons I think this proposal is so bad and should be scrapped.
A Retreat From Public Services
To start, let’s look at the way the project is put together. Local developer Boffo Developments wants to build a large market-driven condo tower in Grandview for no reason other than to make profit. No real complaint there so long as we live in a capitalist system. Local mental health support non-profit organization the Kettle Society wants to expand their drop-in services and add some supportive housing options for their clients. I fully support that. The issues arise when these two desires are bundled into the same package.
Let us assume, as I believe we should, that the Kettle’s needs are genuine and will, in the long term, help to make life better both for those suffering mental health issues and for society in general. It is the duty of society to help meet these needs, and this was recently recognized with the 100% tax-payer funding of the Kettle’s new facility on Burrard Street. We should be shocked that the City/Province has now decided, for this project at least, that these services should rely on for-profit corporations.
The City’s refusal to pay the full tab for these necessary services is an appalling retreat from the progressive attitudes to which Vancouver pretends to aspire. This is especially upsetting given the photo-ops that Mayor Robertson arranges to state his alleged concern for mental health issues in our City.
Height and Weight
In the context of Grandview’s overall scale — generally a low-rise residential neighbourhood — the proposed tower is a monster. Boffo have not released a final project design yet, but there is an admission that twelve to fifteen storeys will be required to house the 150+ market units Boffo say are needed to pay for the Kettle’s 30 housing units + admin space.
Height is clearly a concern to most residents in the area. As mentioned above, Grandview is quite deliberately a low-rise neighbourhood, with two storeys as standard and four storeys as a maximum just about everywhere. That alone makes this project unacceptable. However, height is only one dimension. A study of the image above shows that this proposal is massive in width as well as height, with all the concomitant issues of shadowing and disruption of views that cannot be denied even by the proposal’s supporters.
Some supporters suggest that the new proposal merely matches the existing Adanac Towers building that was built about fifty years ago. That is simply not the case. Adanac Towers is set back off the Drive, is nowhere near the mass of the Boffo Tower, and is surrounded by large mature trees that go some way to ameliorate its disruption to the neighbourhood.
As can be seen, any design of this kind will create a massive and unattractive wall along Commercial in an area where we are used to light and sky. The developers say there will be a passageway toward some kind of plaza west of the building. But a massive wall with a small passageway is still a massive and unattractive wall.
Precedent and Block-Busting
Supporters of the Boffo Tower who point to Adanac Towers as a precedent should ask themselves why no other such tower has been allowed for the last fifty years. Obviously, it is out of scale and unwanted.
A more important concern is the precedent that the Boffo Tower would have for additional high-rises along the section of Commercial between Venables and Hastings. Once the City gets its way and upzones Hastings for massive buildings, there will be strenuous development pressure to continue that kind of growth in the northern section of Commercial. The Boffo Tower will be a beacon to all those developments. “If Boffo can do it, why can’t we?” will be the whine of Vision’s cronies. This Council regime has shown its inability (or lack of desire) to oppose such criticisms. The high-rise building creep will begin. That will be good for the developers; devastating to the neighbourhood.
Transit, Transportation and Parking
The Community Plan to date has consistently recognized that the #20 bus — the only transit link in that part of the neighbourhood — is already overwhelmed. Adding an additional 300-400 residents at the intersection of Commercial & Venables — plus the increase in the number of Kettle clients, both resident and drop-in — will add further pressure to a system that already cannot cope.
Moreover, adding so many residents and their cars goes directly against all the multi-year efforts to reduce the traffic on Venables/Prior.
The work on the Community Plan has also recognized the lack of parking throughout Grandview. This project will not only add directly to that problem, but will also eliminate one of the few car parks we have in the neighbourhood.
Heritage Protection and Performance Space
The Boffo proposal will eliminate the building that most of us still call Astorino’s. It might not be the prettiest building in the neighbourhood but its importance as a site of cultural heritage is unmistakable. Thousands upon thousands of residents, most especially those of our important Italian community, have shared important parts of their lives in that building. Its cultural importance is significantly more powerful than, say, the Waldorf which has been protected.
To simply throw away our cultural heritage for private profit is outrageous. Even more outrageous is the fact that senior Kettle staff have actually laughed at such an idea as if cultural history should play no role in the decisions we make.
Award-winning heritage activists have demanded that, at the very least a Statement of Significance be drawn up before any demolition permit be granted on that site.
It is also worth pointing out that Grandview is very short on community space, for both groups and performances. This obvious fact is highlighted by the fact that so many Community Plan and Citizens’ Assembly meetings have had to be sited at the Croatian Cultural Centre, outside the boundaries of Grandview. Many of us believe that the lack of cultural space adds weight to the need to save Astorino’s.
An Alternative Proposal
I am sure there are other objections that could be made about this project (including the politically indelicate suggestion voiced by many over the years, including at Tuesday’s Round Table, that perhaps the Kettle should not expand in this neighbourhood; and the very odd process history of this proposal within the Community Plan) but the above-stated issues are the ones that concern me.
So, if one has no objections to the Kettle expanding its services but one has objections to the proposal at hand, it seems reasonable to suggest an alternative. The alternative that I personally favour is a City-owned and funded four-storey structure using the Kettle’s current property plus the car park to the north. I believe that a progressive and creative architect could design a building in that space that would meet all of the Kettle’s needs within those constraints.
This proposal would keep the project at a Grandview-appropriate scale and eliminate the need for a private for-profit corporation to be involved in the delivery of such vital services.