Waterfront Tower proposal ignites hub plan debate

Cadillac-Fairview proposed a 26-storey glass tower at 555 West Cordova Street, adjacent to and cantilevered above Waterfront Station at the foot of Granville Street. The office tower with a small public plaza was dubbed the ‘origami tower’, the ‘icepick’ or the ‘blob.’ The proposal sparked an unusual flurry of criticism and public debate.

The City’s Urban Design Panel did not support the application, expressing concern about the relationship of the tower with the historic Waterfront Station building. Panel members noted that the proposed tower would set a new precedent for development under the City’s Central Waterfront Hub Framework.

An ad hoc group of planners, urbanists and others, organized as the Downtown Waterfront Working Group, maintained that approval of the tower would close down options for future development of the waterfront. The group published a draft discussion paper in May and an open letter to City Council on July 23. The group requested the City to not accept any development applications or rezonings in the area north of Cordova until the implementation and phasing plans for the 2009 Central Waterfront Hub Framework were completed.

Cadillac-Fairview subsequently dropped its development permit application and its architects, Vancouver’s B+H Architects and Chicago/Beijing-based Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, held an open house in December on a revised development application.

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Potential Significance
Reactions to the proposed development ranged from excitement about ‘iconic’ architecture and another ‘starchitect’ in the city to concerns about the size and height of the building, its poor relationship to context and its removal of an exceptional public view of Burrard Inlet and the North Shore mountains.

Concerns about the proposal drew attention to the City’s Central Waterfront Hub Framework. Many believed that approval of the proposed tower could frustrate the achievement of the City’s 2009 vision for the waterfront.

The considerable debate over 555 West Cordova demonstrated an increased public awareness of planning and development, broader than the smaller neighbourhoods and communities that typically surround controversial rezoning and development proposals. Concerned residents, city planners, architects, urbanists, heritage professionals and others played a prominent role in drawing attention to a proposed development that they believed was too big, inappropriate and premature. A group of concerned citizens, formed in 2014 to oppose the rezoning at 508 Helmcken Street for failing to respond to urban design guidelines and livability principles, started a Facebook page under the name of the Downtown Waterfront Working Group and released a discussion paper.

Vancouver’s coastal waterfront along Burrard Inlet has been transformed in a few decades from an industrial shipping zone to a mix of residential, recreational and commercial developments, co-located with Canada’s largest seaport and the region’s multi-mode transportation hub serving 90,000 travellers daily.

The central section of the downtown waterfront, a 22-acre site between Howe Street and Gastown, was the focus of a planning program initiated in April 2006 that called for the creation of a detailed urban design and transportation plan for the hub area. In February 2007, Council expanded the program to include evaluation of a Whitecaps Stadium proposal on a site adjacent to the study area.

In June 2009, City Council endorsed the Central Waterfront Hub Framework, with a vision that included a transportation plaza for passengers using SkyTrain, SeaBus, West Coast Express train, buses, and even a helipad. Other ideas included re-opening Granville Street to the waterfront and development of space north of the station and over the railway yards. The Council decision included instruction to develop an implementation strategy to help advance the plan’s objectives. Six years later, the strategy has not yet been submitted to Council.

The Whitecaps stadium proposal did not proceed. The Cadillac-Fairview proposal is the first project to be proposed within the Waterfront Hub Framework area north of Cordova Street.

The initial proposal did not require a rezoning. The site is currently zoned for office use and a building height of up to 300 feet. However the project would require approval of the City’s Development Permit Board.

City of Vancouver (2015, January 6). 555 W Cordova Street – Development Application DE418532. http://former.vancouver.ca/devapps/555wcordova/index.htm

Lindsay, Bethany (2015, January 19). “Critics pan the ‘blob’ as Waterfront Tower proposal proves divisive”. Vancouver Sun. http://www.vancouversun.com/business/Critics+blob+Waterfront+Tower+proposal+proves+divisive+with+video/10746099/story.html

City of Vancouver. Downtown Official Development Plan. Retrieved from: http://former.vancouver.ca/commsvcs/BYLAWS/odp/dd.pdf

City of Vancouver (2009, June 11). The Central Waterfront Hub Framework. Retrieved from: http://former.vancouver.ca/commsvcs/guidelines/C031.pdf

Urban Design Panel. Meeting minutes of January 28, 2015. Retrieved from:

Bula, Frances (2015, January 29). “Controversial ‘origami’ glass tower design struck down by Vancouver panel”. The Globe and Mail. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/controversial-origami-glass-tower-struck-down-by-vancouver-urban-design-panel/article22695709/

Downtown Waterfront Working Group (2015, May 30). “The Future of the Downtown Waterfront: Piecemeal Development or a Cohesive Plan?”. Posted on: http://waterfront.vancouverplanning.ca/index.php/waterfront-issues-2015/downtown-waterfront-working-group/

Downtown Waterfront Working Group (2015, July 23). “An Open Letter to City Council: On the Future of Our Downtown Waterfront”. Posted on: https://pricetags.wordpress.com/2015/07/21/an-open-letter-to-city-council-on-the-future-of-our-downtown-waterfront/

O’Connor, Naoibh (2015, December 1). “Controversial ‘origami’ tower proposal revised: Critic questions short notice of public feedback session”. Vancouver Courier. http://www.vancourier.com/news/controversial-origami-tower-proposal-revised-1.2123471

Downtown Waterfront Working Group (2015, December 4). “An Open Letter to City Council: 555 West Cordova Street and the Future of our Downtown Waterfront”. Posted on: https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=1097093217001733&id=986220264755696

Vancouver City Planning Commission. Website dedicated to Central Waterfront Hub issues. http://waterfront.vancouverplanning.ca/

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