Vancouver walks tightrope between protecting panoramas against housing needs

Paris has its Eiffel Tower, Chicago has its architectural skyline and Vancouver has its sweeping ocean and mountain views.

But the housing crunch in the city has prompted debate about the value of protecting the scenic backdrop that has defined the urban landscape versus the urgent need for more housing.

view cones, Vancouver
A downtown Vancouver view corridor. Photo by Gabriel Santiago via Unsplash.

A proposed development by B.C. Crown corporation PavCo in the city’s False Creek neighbourhood could see a 40-storey tower raised in one of the city’s protected ‘view cones,’ also known as ‘view corridors.’

Last week, city council accepted Coun. Raymond Louie’s proposal to allow what he described as a “minimal” intrusion into one of the view cones as long as the building is used for rental housing.

The city has a 0.7 per cent rental vacancy rate and even if the new units are expensive they should help alleviate the housing pressure by creating more supply, he said.

Vancouver has 27 protected view corridors that preserve the views of the North Shore mountains, downtown skyline and surrounding water. The first view corridors were established in 1989 after residents identified preserving those views among their highest priorities in a survey.

Ray Spaxman, one of the key architects of the view cones, came to Vancouver in 1973 as director of planning after working in Liverpool and Toronto.

“I was very interested in the nature of cities and what made them different from other places,” Spaxman said.

When you think of London, for example, St. Paul’s Cathedral comes to mind and Spaxman said when he came to Vancouver, he looked around for notable historic buildings but nothing stood out.

“Then it struck me how unusual it was that we actually had, much like Rio (de Janeiro) has, a mountain that would be there a long time that was quite distinctive in its shape called the Lions,” he said.

The Lions are a famous pair of peaks on a nearby mountain range north of the city. The densification of downtown was already narrowing the view of the peaks, he said.

“I thought it would be valuable if, in the long-range future, people would be able to enjoy the sense of the surrounding natural beauty even when they were in the middle of downtown.”

The process was a long one and Spaxman left the city in 1989 just before the view cones were introduced, setting height limits on developments within the corridors.

There have been several instances where the policy has been reviewed and at least 10 other buildings in the city have been approved to encroach within the view cones since 2001. Others include the Shangri-La, the Fairmont Pacific Rim and the still under construction Vancouver House.

The four most recent view corridors from the Olympic village looking eastward were protected in 2011.

Spaxman said he believes it’s important to review the policy every 10 to 20 years and examine whether it fits the city’s vision for itself. That’s different from haphazard approval of intrusions though, he said.

“The crisis in housing is true and we need to do something about it, but some of the things being suggested are crisis answers to crisis situations and we need to have more of a context of where are we going and what will it be like in 20 years’ time,” Spaxman said.

Louie said the potential intrusion of the development by PavCo, which has not yet entered an application with the city, has been overstated.

“These were subjective lines drawn quite some time ago in 1989 and a decision was made to draw a line at that level. You can see that there’s a number of different intrusions into the corridor already, including trees, street banners, stop signs, traffic lights and such that significantly block the view already,” he said.

“It’s not anywhere close to what’s being described as blocking out the mountains or ruining our sightlines to the mountains.”

It’s also not specific to this one proposed development, he said, but is part of what has been a larger discussion about land use in False Creek, which skirts the city’s downtown.

“I think it’s always a struggle to find the balance between form and shape and location of a structure within its local context. That’s what the city does, we try and find a good framework for us to make those decisions and look at each situation to see whether or not the policy itself needs to be adjusted. In this instance, that’s exactly what happened,” Louie said.

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1 Comment
  1. Selwyn Dodd. Retired Architect AIBC, FRAIC. says

    For decades the City of Vancouver has protected the view cones religiously.
    In my case, under the advice of the then city planner, we requested, and he approved, a minor intrusion for all the right reasons. He was fired. The intrusion was then rejected. The project was changed to its detriment.
    There must be hundreds of similar scenarios. If policy changes now, what of all the past projects? Can we go back and modify them? Of course not.
    THEN BE CONSISTENT.

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