Geller on the future of our Downtown

Post by Michael Geller in


Downtown Vancouver

On April 21st, 2009, while most Vancouverites were in front of their televisions watching the Canucks defeat the Blues in overtime, a very small group of people was gathered in the Vancouver City Council Chamber at a Public Hearing. It is a sad irony that so few people were watching this ‘game’ since its ramifications for our city will be even greater than a Stanley Cup victory. Let me explain.

The purpose of the Public Hearing was to consider a staff report, almost five years in the making, under the heading: Metro Core Jobs and Economy Land Use Plan: Part One, Proposed Downtown Policies. The proposals before Council included zoning changes affecting the Central Business District (CBD) and adjacent lands. The thrust of the initiative was to provide sufficient job space potential in the Downtown to meet future demand, to strengthen and intensify commercial uses in the CBD, and to maintain the commercial mix of historic Yaletown.

Now I appreciate that these seem like noble goals, and one might wonder what the problem is. Let me explain.

I do not have any disagreement with the overarching goals set out in the staff report. The problem is the manner by which the Director of Planning is proposing to achieve these goals. More specifically, the recommendations include increasing the permitted commercial density by 2.0 FSR across the CBD. I support this.

However, the report also recommends ‘the removal of residential as a permitted use across the expanded CBD to ensure that potential development capacity is not taken up by residential, and that land values remain reasonable for commercial development as a result of reduced land speculation for residential use.’ I do not support this.

As respected former City Planner Chuck Brook, one of only seven speakers at the meeting passionately told Council, what distinguishes Vancouver from Cleveland or most other North American cities is the inclusion of residential as a permitted use in the CBD. This is what has contributed to the vitality of our downtown neighbourhoods and allowed an increasing number of people to walk to work. It is what has made Vancouver distinctive.

Now, there is no doubt that as Trevor Boddy and others have exclaimed, in many instances city planners may have gone too far in allowing residential development to replace commercial development. Boddy’s fear is that Vancouver is “heading towards a fate as a dormitory suburb” and ‘resort city’, rather than a major commercial centre. I do not entirely disagree.

I would point to the conversion of the former West Coast Transmission building, the cabled box on Georgia Street, from office to residential use, as a perfect example of what should not have been allowed to happen. However, to now propose that we protect job space potential by eliminating residential as a permitted use is simply wrong. It is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I also disagree with the concern that permitting residential development will result in land speculation that will prevent office developments from proceeding. Office developments will proceed when policies encourage commercial development, and there is a market for more space. A speedier and less convoluted approval process will also help.

At the Public Hearing, a number of councillors expressed their desire to see new large corporate head office buildings in the downtown. However, as Mr. Brook cleverly responded, given the changing trends in corporate office development, these types of buildings are becoming ‘the Hummers and Escalades’ of urban development. Instead, vibrant mixed-use buildings and developments are what we should be striving to achieve.

I attended the meeting on behalf of a client who controls the block along Georgia Street between Richards and Homer Streets. Under the proposed zoning changes, he would not be allowed to build any housing, even though the site is adjacent to L’Hermitage, a mixed-use development that was recently completed on a site sold by the city for the purpose of mixed use development!

This irony was not missed by a L’Hermitage resident who spoke at the meeting on behalf of his neighbours at home watching the hockey game. He moved into the development with the expectation that it would be a vibrant new neighbourhood. He did not want to be surrounded by commercial only buildings.

I encouraged Council to seek zoning changes that would encourage more commercial development, while still permitting vibrant mixed use developments. I noted that this is what City planners, architects and developers have been working towards for the past twenty-five years. In response, the Director of Planning agreed that mixed use developments were indeed desirable, and advised Council that they would still be possible…. through a rezoning. He reminded Council that a rezoning process would also allow the city to extract the desired financial contributions and amenities from the developer.

In other words, the city should downzone properties by removing residential as a permitted use, (even though we agree it adds to the vitality of the city), on the understanding that developers can always apply for a rezoning and hopefully offer sufficient ‘public amenities’ to be allowed to do what they should be encouraged to do in the first place.

This is the wrong way to plan a city.

Council should reject the current proposals and direct staff to come forward with revised zoning schedules and other policies that encourage commercial development, while allowing mixed-use where appropriate. These should include Development Cost Charges and Community Amenity Contributions that address any additional costs associated with residential development.

In the lobby of the HSBC building is a giant pendulum. I enjoy watching it swing. However, in the case of theses proposed Bylaw changes, the pendulum is swinging too far. I hope Council agrees we should not remove residential as a permitted use in our downtown, and insist that the Director of Planning continue Vancouver’s tradition of thoughtful, carefully crafted Zoning Bylaws to create a city worthy of international acclaim.

Council will make its decision at 2 pm on May 5th. Hopefully there’s no hockey game to divert our attention.


Michael Geller (B.Arch, MAIBC, FCIP) is an architect, planner and development consultant who has been involved with both commercial and residential developments in Vancouver’s downtown for the past 35 years. He was also a unsuccessful City Council candidate in the last municipal election.


Well said Mr G.

What is it about City Planners that they recommend one type of zoning, in this case "no residential", while at the same time agreeing that residential might be ok, subject both to an application for rezoning and doubtless the extraction of a "pound of flesh" from the developer for the favour?

Surrey is very similar. Surrey's zoning bylaws in commercial zones require large setbacks from street frontages. At the same time, their planners and council don't support these large setbacks. The name of the game is "we want you to reduce setbacks, but because this now requires variances we'll have to negotiate something from you in return for granting the setback.

It's a weird, contradictory and a very frustrating way to do business. It serves no reasonable purpose as far as I can see.

We need mixed use in all urban areas. It reduces traffic, allows for uses such as restaurants to be open longer and in an overall sense reduces our footprint on the planet.

Planners from all over the world come to see our City and learn how we made it so workable. Now this crowd wants to change that which made it so successful. If this policy change succeeds there'll be no need to declare Vancouver as a "Foreign Planner free City." They won't come here anyway!

Hello Mr. Geller,

Thank you very much for your thought-provoking post.

You mention the on-going possibility of case-by-case rezoning within the CBD to allow mixed-use, a negotiation which would likely involve the extraction of "amenities" funding, or maybe just plain-ol' funding. To what degree would you say that this is the point of the rezoning, essentially to increase the bargaining power of the City vis-a-vis developers?

Does it appear to you that there is a genuine push towards much higher commercialization of the CBD or do you expect that there will be so many exceptions to the rule that the only significant changes will be in the amount of money (or amenities) the City receives and, naturally, the inflated price of CBD-area residences?

Developers are not altruistic. If they can make more money by building residential properties that is what they will do. And for the last ten years that is what they have done. And commercial property renters will most certainly take the square foot rental costs in mind when planning expansions and new space acquisitions. As you well know, zoning is set to mold the development in the way that the City staff and presumably the residents want. Zoning may well have to stand in the face of developers who do not want profits adversely affected. Maybe the mixed use thought has merits ( I am not well enough informed to judge) but it would have to consider the fact that the pendulum had swung too far in recent years.

Our company - - is a website services company with clients in the U.S., UK and Canada.

We work from a home office or from mobile platforms when traveling. Our business is small - just two partners - but we employ freelancers and use many local business services.

Small businesses like ours are creating more jobs in Canada than any other sector, at a time large corporations are slashing payrolls. To base the entire city's future and downtown zoning on an outmoded 20th century manufacturing model of large corporate HQs, is at best shortsighted, and at worst portends a failed economic strategy.

People living downtown are crucial to Vancouver's viability and vitality and home offices are the key to future job growth, innovation and economic development.

Small, locally-owned creative businesses are the future of our city and should take priority over large, imaginary HQs that have yet to be identified.

PS you are showing your biases in your writing on this issue. Not a simple explanation of the facts

To Sean's point, I understand the vast majority of companies working in Vancouver require a maximum of 5000 sq feet (that stat is from memory, so if anyone can correct please do).

The operations requiring large amounts of floor space in Vancouver either don't exist, or are government offices.

I don't know if the City's report responds to that directly or not, but I think it's fair to state that demand for large corporate offices is not in the cards for Vancouver anytime soon. On the contrary, we're a place that has a lot of mid to small size enterprises that can employ a lot of people. Vancouver will build upon the attraction of live/work balance, walkable/bike-friendly cities, and a safe and vital downtown thanks to those who live (and work) there.

Thanks very much for posting this, and for promoting discussion on the future of the central business district job space. All such discussion and debate is valuable and adds significantly to the quality of our planning. There is a danger, though, after 4+ years of intense and complex analysis, public and stakeholder discussion and debate, of over-simplifying the discussion at the last minute.

Proper planning for the central business district (CBD) is critical to the city, the region, and the province. Its isn't just downtown Vancouver... Its downtown B.C. The CBD makes up, currently, only 15% of the downtown peninsula. To be clear, residential isn't being proposed to be taken away from the CBD - it hasn't been allowed there for at least as long as the Central Area Plan (CAP) has been around (passed by Council in 1991). Further, the CAP always anticipated an expanding of the CBD, and it was the recognition that such office expantion sites were being taken up by much more valuable residential development, that led Council in 2004 to pass interim policy for the CBD expantion area. This policy allowed residential in the expantion area only in limited circumstances (on large sites, or to preserve on-site heritage or SRO uses), to protect the capacity and give us time to study how much office/job space we would need for a balanced downtown in the future. Again, to be clear, it's not proposed to take more residential potential away than the interim policy had already taken away since 2004 - rather, its proposed to make such residential limitations permanent, adding some new possibilities for mix, while adding more density for job space. There is no "over-swing" of the pendulum proposed.

The downtown contains the largest concentration of job space in the province by far, and the vast majority of triple A office in particular (the "5 star hotel" of job space). It's where triple A space in the province wants to be. Despite some occational mythology out there, jobs have been consistantly growing downtown and across the city over many decades. Our analysis has confirmed that if we don't take appropriate planning steps though, both to protect job space potential, and to grow it, we will run out of such job growth potential in the downtown in a surprisingly short time frame. After the most comprehensive economic and space analysis the City has ever done, we calculate we need to not only protect existing job space downtown, but to grow it by an approximate 5.8 million square feet. This is needed to maintain a strong CBD and a healthy, truly mixed downtown over time.

15% of the downtown peninsula - such a small area of land, but unique land, and perhaps the most strategic land in the province for our economy. Its also critically important to our social and environmental sustainability when you consider all the dynamics of the work-to-home relationship.

Some who support even more residential development in the CBD, hold this up as an issue of mixed-use (and isn't that always better?) and vitality (won't it be homogeneous without residential?). They position it as a choice between mixed use and homogeneous places. This is a false choice - not what we're really discussing. I encourage readers to listen to the staff presentation to Council on the web, hear what's really being proposed, and what's at stake if we don't properly address the need for CBD job space as part of a sustainable city.

To be clear, with these proposals there remains room in the downtown peninsula for almost 40,000 more residents even without any new rezoning, and even in the proposed expanded CBD we will continue to have real opportunites for residential. Enough for vitality, in combination with the thousands of people living a very close walk to the CBD. Add to that all the other uses that will add to the CBD mix - restaurants, clubs, social and cultural uses, etc, etc. This is mixed use. This is far from homogeneity. But we will have clarity and stable land values (without residential speculation and higher taxes pushing out job-space potential), and that is what office providers need to be ready for the 7 year development cycle of office space construction. Office development is about being patient, and having land available when the 7 year cycle comes around.

As Vancouver city planners, mixed- use is usually our "default setting". The vast majority of the downtown peninsula is, and will remain, just such a vigourous mix, although the significantly higher value of residential development has made the acheivement of such a mix challenging at times (some have spoken about the "homogeneity of residential streets").

For a CBD though, the mix must be special, and artful. For a downtown, the mix can be over a larger area (the whole peninsula), and doesn't have to be the same on every block. It can't be over-simplified.

I look forward to further discussion on all aspects of the future of our downtown, as this is a big year for downtown planning!

Brent Toderian

I welcome the articulate and passionate response from the Director of Planning, and am sure that many readers must now be confused! What is Geller talking about? Is residential permitted in the CBD or not? If not, why is the Director of Planning requesting that it be removed as a permitted use?

I would like to try and briefly respond. There is a portion of the CBD where residential uses are not permitted under existing zoning bylaws. Whether or not they should be is not a matter on the table for discussion. However, there are two areas adjacent to the CBD core, referred to as CBD 'extensions' which are zoned for residential use, generally as part of a mixed use development.

However, since May 2004, Council has placed a 'moratorium' on any residential development in the CBD or CBD extension, pending completion of a comprehensive planning study. This study has now been completed, and it is the basis upon which staff is recommending that the zoning be changed to not allow residential as a permitted use, even as part of a mixed use development (unless approved by rezoning)>

This is what I am objecting to! I do not agree that the CBD extension areas should be 'commercial only', just to retain the capacity for potential commercial development. I also do not agree that this is necessary to prevent land speculation.

Let me add that I took the unusual step of writing this guest editorial since few of us participated in the discussions leading up to the 'temporary moratorium' in May 2004.
Furthermore, very few people were aware that these zoning changes were going forward on April 21st. Otherwise, I am certain there would have been more people in the gallery and on the speakers' list, hockey game or no hockey game, either speaking for or against!

Let me conclude by saying I share the Director of Planning's wish that there be further discussion on all aspects of the future of our downtown. I therefore urge Council to defer this decision until such discussion takes place. I think we should all hear from Think City, the Planning Commission, the Urban Design Panel, the Architectural and Planning Institutes and citizens at large on the specific proposal of whether residential should be excluded as a permitted use in the CBD extension areas.

And hey, there's no need to rush this decision since the moratorium is still in place, and few developers are banging down the doors to build either office, residential or mixed use buildings in the CBD extension areas at the moment.

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