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Old July 16th, 2007, 12:27 PM   #1
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Vancouver Eyes Building Up

'Culture shift' takes skyline higher
Vancouver, pressed by condo and office demand, builds up -- and the 'burbs imitate city's blueprint
Vancouver Sun
14 July 2007

The skyline of the Lower Mainland is about to see a dramatic change in the next few years as new towers sprout from Vancouver to White Rock to Langley.

Developers, spurred on by the cost of land and increasing tolerance for density throughout the region, are banging on the doors of the region's city halls to build higher.

Vancouver, under pressure to accommodate both a hot condo market and a campaign for more office space in a tightly restricted downtown peninsula, is considering whether to lift current height restrictions.

And even the most suburban of municipalities are opening the door to heights and densities they wouldn't have considered a decade ago. They're encouraged by Vancouver's successful new downtown neighbourhoods, new kinds of residents, including immigrants, who are comfortable with the idea of highrise living in the suburbs, and the current planning mantra that says cities can save the planet by building more compactly.

"There appears to be a kind of culture shift in the region," says University of B.C. Prof. Patrick Condon, one of the leading advocates for more sustainable urban planning.

A move to clusters of towers throughout a region is part of the typical growth pattern of a metro region. But both Condon and UBC planning Prof. Tom Hutton say the intensity of what's happening here is unique.

"I think this is the only place in North America where this phenomenon is mature," said Condon.

Langley township is the latest suburban area to follow the trend, as its council voted Monday to take the first step in a change to its official community plan that restricts any residential building to four storeys.

The proposed change would allow mid- and highrise buildings up to 20 storeys, with that new density concentrated along 200th Avenue from the freeway to the neighbourhood bordering Langley city.

Langley's debate comes at a time when cities like Port Coquitlam and White Rock have approved their first highrise towers. Coquitlam has 13 towers, some up to 37 storeys, being built or planned around its town centre.

Burnaby has a dozen towers going up along the SkyTrain line on former industrial land near Brentwood Mall.

And Surrey has a half-dozen new towers in the works for its City Centre neighbourhood.

Many councils are planning for density and towers because they say they have no choice if they are to preserve green space.

"White Rock has limited land," says Mayor Judy Forster. "We need to take advantage of the airspace. Why not go up instead of out?"

Some are also asking for -- or being offered -- other much-needed community benefits in exchange for letting developers go higher.

In White Rock, the new tower development will help the city get parks and cultural spaces. In Vancouver, developers are offering social housing in exchange for height. And in Surrey, the city is looking at developing a specific policy that would give developers bonus density in exchange for contributions to an affordable housing fund.

Although the tower and density boom has been getting a series of approvals throughout the region, there have been sharp differences in local resident opposition.

The White Rock highrise development generated a fierce battle, one that many thought might cost Forster her job in the last election. In contrast, Maple Ridge's recent approval of a 16-storey tower passed almost without comment.

Coquitlam's spectacular highrise boom has generated little protest.

"We're very attractive to people coming from other countries," says Coquitlam Mayor Maxine Wilson.

But in Langley, the move to allow towers and density, which is not pegged to a specific project application, has generated a passionate debate about whether it will destroy Langley's rural feel -- a debate highlighting the different reasons people move to the suburbs.

Coun. Kim Richter said old-timers who moved to Langley years ago want to keep it the way it is.

"But we're getting a lot of young people moving in who don't remember what it was like. They're probably a bit more tolerant."

Hutton said that kind of division is becoming more marked in suburbs, as some people go there for lifestyle and others because it's what they can afford, even though they prefer the city.

"There is still a culture clash," says Hutton. "Some people move out consciously to get away from the city, the other half want Starbucks and highrises."

Another Langley councillor, Jordan Bateman, agrees there is something of a split.

But, he says, everyone comes to appreciate the area's rural quality, where no one is more than two minutes from farmland.

He has mounted an energetic campaign at council to oppose towers, saying that if Langley has to create denser forms of housing, it can do it through more low- and mid-rise buildings.

The push to go higher in Vancouver is likely to set off an especially vigorous debate.

City planning director Brent Toderian says the city has had several applications and inquiries from developers with building plans that exceed the city's current height limits. (Those are between 90 metres and 120 metres -- 300 and 400 feet -- depending on the area of downtown. A few sites have been approved for up to 180 metres.)

Keenly aware even a whisper of allowing extra height is enough to encourage a speculation frenzy among realtors and developers, Toderian warns Vancouver is not necessarily going to do anything fast, especially since there's no money for a planning review at the moment.

"It would be a mistake for anyone in the industry to pay more than the current rules allow."

But, he acknowledges, there are all kinds of factors pushing Vancouver to consider going higher. The city needs to expand job space in its limited-capacity downtown peninsula. Higher towers could create a dramatic architectural statement for the downtown. Allowing extra density can give the city bargaining power to get trade-offs for theatres, housing and parks. And adding density is a priority throughout the city, as part of its EcoDensity initiative.

"Development pressures and public interests are leading us to take a fresh look."
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Old July 16th, 2007, 03:55 PM   #2
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It's about time. They should have done this 15 years ago.
'Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood."
-architect Daniel Burnman
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Old July 17th, 2007, 08:38 AM   #3
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^ I'm glad they didn't. Imagine a boom of early 90s stucco pink condos spread across the region. They would all be nicely stained green from algae by now. At least with the current boom most towers are quite sleek, with lots of glass, even as far out as Abbotsford.
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Old July 17th, 2007, 05:21 PM   #4
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?? This is not about the cladding material, it is about the height. And as it stands in Vancouver there is a sea of midrise buildings at roughly the same height. A mixture including high rises would be nice! And, on the lines of colour and material, it really is time to move away from the limitations to blue, green and clear glass for more variety. I think this is good news for Vancouver.
'Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood."
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