Last night was the major unveiling of plans for the Safeway site at Commercial & Broadway, a signature piece of the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan over which we have sweated for four years or more. We knew there would be towers — and boy, are there towers!
[Note that selecting any image will display a larger version]
First, let me say that the event was very well presented, taking over the large hall at the Croatian Cultural Centre, with several dozen display boards around the room explaining various aspects of the project and good-sized models in the centre. The event was generously catered.
The evening began with a 20-minute presentation by a member of the Bing Thom Architects team who rattled through some interesting design choices and did not ignore the glaring problem of moving a 20,000 sq.ft public plaza from the developers’ site to public land over the Grandview Cut (see earlier discussions here and here). The presentation made it clear that, because of Safeway’s requirements (see more below), it was impossible to include the plaza on site.
The presenter discussed the problems Bing Thom had with “Vancouverism” — the podium-mounted single point towers so beloved by Brent Toderian and his ilk that now dominate the downtown and are encroaching on the rest of our fair city. He compared a map of population densities extrapolated from the 2016 census in which the highest densities are downtown with a similarly sourced map showing the population density of children which are significantly higher away from downtown. Their idea is to make the Safeway towers more “family friendly.” There was talk of widening corridors in the towers, allowing more windows, terracing the levels, allowing more personalization of front doors etc., and substantial use of greenery throughout the towers. Conceptually, they said, they wanted to take Grandview’s well used residential streets and lanes and simply tip them up on end to create “a vertical village”.
They propose four residential towers ranging in height from 17 to 24 stories “above the retail plinth” which, I guess makes them in reality 20 to 27 stories in height. The proposed FSR is a high 5.7. They will surround a “courtyard” shown in the illustration above as a soccer field. The height was not mentioned during the presentation — I can’t imagine why not — but one of the boards contained the details.
The retail plinth, three or more stories of it, includes Safeway, of course, but in a new and vastly expanded version, along with smaller retail stores at grade along Broadway and the all-important Skytrain connection. It includes, they claim, a huge amount of public space. However, much of that space is a grand concrete staircase (bizarrely compared to Rome’s Spanish Steps!) and a children’s playground that will only be available when the proposed childcare facility (for tower residents) is closed.
While I thought the architects’ presentation was interesting, the ending of it threw up one of the issues many of us have with this kind of open house. They decided that no questions would be asked or answered from the seated audience. Instead, it was noted that there were dozens of project staff in attendance who would be happy to discuss issues. This provoked an outburst from one of our veteran activists who wondered, loudly and quite rightly, why answers could not be shared with the entire audience. As has become the norm in so many development/planning events, people are required to break up into isolated small groups, thus dramatically (and deliberately) restricting the flow of potentially negative information. I strongly suspect the hand of the expensive PR companies — Brook Pooni and Pottinger Bird — (“devils incarnate” as many now think of them) in this now-standard procedure.
I did take advantage of the attending “experts” to button hole an architect on a couple of matters that concern me. It was said in the presentation and on the boards that Safeway required (demanded?) 55,000 sq.ft on a single level, and that parking be no more than one level away from the store. It is these requirements that have driven much of the design and, in particular, have made it necessary to move the public plaza (a requirement of the Community Plan) away from the site. I asked whether the demands from Safeway were legal contractual requirements in their current lease or were simply what they wanted. After some hesitation, the architect agreed that their lease (which has another forty years to run) was only for the current 38,000 sq.ft. However, if they didn’t get what they wanted there could be no development and Vancouver wouldn’t get the density or the CAC’s they expected. He smiled when I suggested that might suit some residents quite well.
He and I also discussed the Plaza issue. We both agreed (he reluctantly) that, if Safeway stayed at 38,000 sq.ft, or if Safeway could accept a two-level store, than there was plenty enough space on the Safeway site to include the Plaza as written in the Community Plan. We also both agreed that there was no possible noise mitigation possible for the trains going overhead every 45 seconds or so (he suggested we would all “get used” to the noise). He — in line with the presentation previously given — suggested it would be a great meeting space and useful for events and concerts (perhaps he forgot about the train noise); I suggested it would become a vast concrete empty desert of little value to anyone.
I suspect that, if one is a fan of this kind of huge development, then Bing Thom’s concepts will be welcomed and appreciated; there certainly seems to have been some imagination included in the project, and some serious thought given to moving away from Vancouverism. However, leaving aside any other problems, 27 storeys is very close to the 30-storey proposal that the neighbourhood wholeheartedly rejected three years ago, a rejection which brought the entire Community Plan process to its knees for a while.
And then, as always, there is the process. While I am pleased that the developers have brought their ideas to the table as early as they have (though the cynic in me wonders how such carefully crafted concepts as those presented last night could simply be abandoned at this point) but the failure to have genuine community dialog last night with everyone listening to the debate foreshadows typical problems ahead. More specifically, there has been no attempt whatsoever to understand that — regardless of what Vision buffaloed through as a so-called Community Plan — much of the community is opposed to large scale development in our neighbour, and that our viewpoint has to count for as much as Safeway’s.
We vote, they don’t.