Are view corridors preventing iconic towers in Vancouver?

Post by Daniel Fontaine in ,



Fireworks light up the sky in front of the Patronas Towers in Kuala Lampur

Vancouver is known for its beautiful scenery, mild climate and stunning views. It’s what helps set it apart from so many other North American cities and is a key factor in why Vancouver is often cited as one of the most liveable in the world.

Over the last 10 years, the skyline of downtown Vancouver dramatically changed. Dozens of new buildings, including the new 62-storey Shangri-La Hotel, have risen out of the ground. Despite all this change, I would say our downtown skyline still lacks character and definition. It most certainly could use a few more taller towers in strategic locations throughout the downtown.

The only problem is the City has zoned only a few sites whereby developers can propose taller structures. It comes down to what I believe is a phobia regarding tallish towers in Vancouver’s downtown core.

What is wrong with taller towers? Why is it taboo to consider building 80 or 90 storey towers in the heart of Vancouver? In Chicago, they have a tower that exceeds 110 stories. In Kuala Lampur, the Petrona Towers are over 130 stories high. Many of these towers have become iconic architectural wonders.

To his credit, former COPE Mayor Larry Campbell spearheaded Council support for development of the Shangri-La. At 62 stories, it was considered much taller than what Vancouver was normally prepared to accept. Today, the tower is complete and almost everyone agrees it is a wonderful addition to the skyline.

One of the main impediments to building taller buildings in Vancouver has been the City’s view corridor policy. No structures can be built in the downtown core if they impact in any way an “official” view corridor.

For those familiar with Vancouver, I’d like to ask you the following skill testing question. Can you name which of the following is not an official view corridor?

  1. The view looking toward English Bay from Denman and Davie.
  2. The view looking northward from Science World
  3. The view looking toward downtown from Jericho Beach
  4. The view looking toward downtown from Queen Elizabeth Conservatory

The answer is...none of the above. That’s right, these are all great views, but none of them are considered official view corridors. In fact, you probably wouldn’t be able to name a single official view corridor if you tried.

However, development and planning decisions are being made every day to protect “official” view corridors that most people don’t even realize exist. What if I said that one of the view corridors was on Cambie Street, looking north from Broadway. Would that surprise you?

With development coming to a standstill, the time may have come for Vancouver to revisit the whole view corridor policy. With global warming, shouldn’t we be encouraging more densification of the downtown in order that more people can live closer to where they work? Cutting red tape by eliminating the view corridor policy, but keeping good views, might be more palatable today than it was five years ago.

I suspect that many Vancouverites would be prepared to give up a few “official” view corridors if they knew it was going to save the environment and produce a world class iconic structure. What do you think?


I have been to Hong Kong, Dubai and Singapore and would not want Vancouver to adopt the zoning that promotes such very tall structures. It is our setting that makes us so different and envied. Sydney, where I have also visited many times also has a beautiful setting by the ocean (absent the nearby mountains).

And we rejoice in the city's setting, not any ungainly tall structures. Let us not spoil what we have.

I think this issue cuts to the heart of one of the value conflicts that has and will continue to define Vancouver's identity, that of natural versus human inspiration.

I would say that our skyline is considered enviable because it's so compact, so relatively new (post-industrial), and because it has a certain intentional geometry to it with no tall buildings in awkward places. In this way it is almost organic and it quite perfectly compliments its natural setting. It is a downtown that does not interfere.

However, nothing about a skyline can invoke greater awe of the human potential for accomplishment than a really tall iconic building. And to be in awe of one's own potential is a good thing.

Once I took a Greyhound bus to Manhattan and on the way, it exited a tunnel on the other side of the river from the city and I saw the New York skyline for the first time and I said loudly and involuntarily "Holy #*&%" and some lady had to shushh me. I'm sure there is no more out-of-place skyscraper in the world than the Empire State Building, it dwarfs everything and is, by New York skyline standards, in the middle of nowhere. But I think it is the most inspiring building in the world, and maybe that's because it's taller than it should be. I would be suprised if a person could really look at a building like that and not feel a sense of human potential and of their own potential.

And yet what is human inspiration next to the inspiration derived from nature, from all that surrounds, creates and nourishes us? What aspect of the infinite beauty of nature could the human being possibly have created themselves? And if anything destroys nature and ourselves with it, it will be "human accomplishment". Is it not the duty of a city that seeks balance, but nonetheless is a collection of human beings in a place at the expense of a natural environment, to reach back and attempt to stay connected to to what remains "unspoiled" in its environment.

I think Vancouver is an experiment in balancing these two kinds of spiritual inspirations. Is it working?

You said "development and planning decisions are being made every day to protect “official” view corridors that most people don’t even realize exist".

I would expect and hope that development decisions are being made by the City everyday that protect and promote various valuable interests the average citizen doesn't know exist - this part of the role played by professional and expert planners. The brief glimpses of mountains and ocean that Vancouverites enjoy each day are protected, whether they know it or not, by view cones. The policy is probably not perfect, and is partially to blame for a relatively drab skyline, but the protection of various views from the bridges entering downtown, along the streets therein, and elsewhere, are part of what make Vancouver unique and spectacular.

As far as densification goes, there is much potential for increased density in the areas around the downtown peninsula, and surrounding existing Skytrain stations, before there is any need to go higher in the already super-dense core.

Hi Daniel - I appreciate the thought-provoking post. Indeed, 2009 may become known as "the year of the views", as we've begun the first comprehensive review of Vancouver's view corridor policy since their inception. We expect that there will be a lively public debate on this later this year, as everyone with eyes may have an opinion. What may seem at first to be a city design process, may in truth be a discussion of our values as a city.... What is a public view worth to us? What is our "sence of place", our connection to our landscape, the feeling that we're a part of our setting as we move through the city, worth? Do Vancouverites take these views for granted? Tough to quantify the value, and some might say we shouldnt try, as not everything that counts can be counted. But we'll be embracing the tough questions, and people will have a chance to debate them, relative to other public goals such as addressing climate change through city form, achieving other public benefits through development, seizing architectural opportunity.... As I say, a dialogue on values. As a result some corridors may be adjusted, others may be removed, others untouched. The publics voice will be key in this process. Perhaps we can find approaches that are more than the sum of their parts when it comes to the many values we have. Or perhaps the corridors should stay the way they are. We look forward to an engaged discussion in this.

Brent Toderian
Director of Planning, City of Vancouver

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