From Frank Ducote: “This letter to Council may be of interest to Price Tags’ readers.”


April 13, 2015

To:  Mayor and Councilors, City of Vancouver

Re:  Procedural Fairness for the Proposed Re-zoning Application at 508 Helmcken Street (RTS No.10912)

Dear Mayor and Council,

We are a group of Vancouver urban planners and academics including former City of Vancouver planners who are concerned about the future planning direction in the city.  Our concerns relate to both the need for an overall planning framework for the city but also many individual project approvals which ignore long held planning values about the need for new developments to fit in with their surroundings.

In this regard we are very concerned that the proposed development at 508 Helmcken Street is out of scale with its surroundings.  This was confirmed by the initial Urban Design Panel (UDP) review which rejected it 7-0.  It is our understanding that the UDP panel reluctantly approved the project 5-3 when it was considered a second time, following very minor modifications, and only after an extraordinary intervention by the General Manager of Development Services who urged approval.

While we acknowledge this project is in a unique situation we believe the current application warrants another review by the UDP prior to consideration at Public Hearing. This will provide the panel an opportunity to assess whether earlier concerns have been addressed. It will also allow new panel members to comment.

This review will also hopefully provide guidance to Council and staff on how far the city should deviate from accepted zoning and planning guidelines in order to achieve much desired affordable housing and other amenities.

We therefore respectfully urge city staff and Council to refer this application back to the UDP prior to another formal Public Hearing.

Thank-you for your consideration of this request.

Yours sincerely,

Ken Cameron, Former Manager of Policy and Planning, Greater Vancouver Regional District; Adjunct Professor of Urban Studies, Simon Fraser University

Patrick Condon, Chair, Master of Urban Design Program, UBC

Frank Ducote, former Senior Urban Designer, City of Vancouver Planning Department

Michael Geller, President, The Geller Group; Adjunct Professor, SFU Centre for Sustainable Community Development

Dr. Penny Gurstein, Director, School of Community and Regional Planning, UBC

Colleen Hardwick, CEO, PlaceSpeak

Scot Hein, Urban Designer, Campus and Community Planning; Adjunct Professor of Urban Design, SALA, UBC

Ray Spaxman, Former Director, City of Vancouver Planning Department; Principal, Spaxman Consulting Group

Erick Villagomez, Principal, Metis Design Build


A dilemma for PT readers: If you were a councillor, would you vote to reject the Brenhill project because of process and urban-design issues if it meant the social-housing project would not proceed (even if the blame could fairly be placed elsewhere, notably because of the lack of senior-government housing programs and support)?


  1. The bottom line here, as i have long argued, is that we should have a city plan. Said city plan should set a target for market rentals and truly affordable (which is to say subsidized) housing. Payment for these social benefits should come from development cost levies evenly applied on all new buildings whatever the scale. Discressionary zoning is the cuddly little cub born in the 70s that has become the terrorizing man eater in 2015.

    1. Patrick, please do not confuse discretionary zoning with the current rape and pillage, CAC driven, let’s make a deal backroom negotiations. Discretionary zoning was/is meant to allow designers more flexibility to respond to site, neighbourhood, etc. conditions. It has a set maximum conditional FSR of say 3.0 in some zones and an outright FSR of say 1.2. The designers then had to earn the 1.8 difference based on how well they met the applicable design guidelines.

      There is no rezoning involved with conditional use zoning. Development permit applications are approved by the Development Permit Board consisting of the Directors of Planning and Engineering another senior staffer and industry reps. This process was intentionally made to be arms length from Council and political whims. Sadly that independence no longer exists.

      It’s an excellent system that has proven itself over the 1974 to 2008 period.

      The current CAC process was championed by Larry Beasley in the 90s producing some Ok, but also pushing the envelope in more ways than the obvious, projects resulted downtown. But, it’s been taken by the current crowd and perverted beyond any informed persons wildest dreams.

      1. This sentence above should read: “The current CAC process was championed by Larry Beasley in the 90s producing some Ok, but also pushing the envelope in more ways than the obvious, projects downtown.”

  2. Can somebody elaborate on the opposition to this proposal? Is this just about the height of the building or is there more to it?

  3. So in the opinion of the most august members of the Gang of 10 the proposal is out of scale and does not fit in and yet according to the existing planning processes and the duly elected representatives of the rest of us that are not in the Gang of 10, are we to conclude on the basis of these pronouncements that all the rules should be changed so that outcomes will be more pleasing to their whimsical tastes? No not!

  4. J Olson:

    As per Patrick Condon’s comment, were there a committment to a REAL city plan that addresses the multiplicity of social and economic issues in this town, we could have more hope for a process that was far less antagonistic. Which means far less costly (in so many ways) to the citizens and those in the public service of this city.

    The real question you should be asking: Why ISN’T the City making a committment to a city plan? When there is too much latitude in process and planning, all sorts of ‘funny’ stuff can go on. While you can’t please all of the people all of the time, you can certainly attempt greater public participation and buy-in from the start. And what you can end up with is something that fulfills the aspirational as well as the practical needs of a city’s inhabitants. Once they are truly engaged, I think it is possible to have people express, both as individuals and collective communities, what they DO want, as much as what they do not want. And surely, we should be able to opt into participating in building our city. Aren’t we worth far more than one lousy vote each at election time?

    I certainly do not understand your comment about ‘exisiting planning processes’. Whatever planning is now, in the City of Vancouver, it is proving to be neither ‘planned’ nor ‘process’ driven, in the classical sense of the terms. It only seems ‘designed’ in its efforts to exhaust the will of neighbourhoods. That looks unlikely to happen any time soon, however, given the current mood of the court.

    As for your ‘duly elected representatives’ reference, that does not give them special, absolute license or grace and favour to do with what they like with those city planning processes. Though they sure as hell are giving it a good try!

    Perhaps ‘whimsical decision making’ is the kindest way of defining how ‘planning’ is currently undertaken at Vancouver City Hall.

  5. I’d go one further and suggest that we need a ‘city plan’ for the whole region. Oh, wait we do! It’s called the Regional Growth Strategy. No, I’m not off topic. Great document, but not enforced.
    What’s happening in Vancouver is also happening in other Metro muncipalities, albeit on a lesser scale. Community push back is not a new phenomenon.

    While I know and respect some of the signatories to the letter to council, I believe that the opposition to the Brenhill project is politically motivated, not by most of them but others ‘out there’ As well, the condominium owners don’t want any more ‘affordable housing’ in that area. Pure and simple to me. Some of the area residents who live in a non-profit project told me they were approached by CANY people and urged not to support the Jubilee House proposal as they had too much social housing in the neighborhood.

    Certainly, as Patrick Condon suggests, we should do a city-wide plan. But even then, I’d like to see a framework that clearly manadates inclusionary principles and doesn’t take years to complete. Process isn’t necessarily progress. So let’s do it. But get Jubilee House built first.

    1. CANY supports more social housing in our neighbourhood. See the initial petition that CANY drafted in June 2014 with the active participation of neighbourhood social housing residents: .

      Note: The above petition is now out-dated. To support CANY’s efforts, please sign the new petition at:

      CANY strongly supports the right for residents of Jubilee House and other social housing to remain in the neighbourhood they call home. It is truly unfortunate that the City’s illegal actions have caused such a delay for Jubilee House residents to move to a new home in their neighbourhood.

      CANY is a non-profit neighbourhood association that is strictly non-partisan. We have no affiliation with any political party. Our members include people who have voted for each of the major political parties, as well as those who have no political affiliation.

      CANY supports new developments in our neighbourhood that
      – conform to the Downtown Official Development Plan;
      – conform to the Downtown South Guidelines;
      – create additional low cost and affordable social housing; and
      – are approved through a fair and legal public process according to the City’s by-laws and the Vancouver charter.

      The development at 508 Helmcken is none of these.

  6. This proposal should not be coming forward to public hearing.
    There are much better ways to provide real social housing than giving away the farm.
    In addition to being far too huge at 36 storeys and 17.5 FSR, this project and land swap is not to the public interest. The city is leaving $40 million or more on the table.
    It only goes to show that the city under the Vision direction is abandoning long held planning principles and processes that earned Vancouver its previously highly regarded reputation for planning that are currently being abandoned at an astonishing rate.
    Good for these esteemed professionals for speaking out.

    1. That may be true but what were the alternatives to Vision in the last election? Kirk LaPointe’s system of counterflow expressways in and out of the city? Meena Wong’s insistence that the Burrard Bridge cyclelane slowed commuter times into the city from Richmond?

      I’ve actually heard from a number of people within the planning community that the real problem is dealing with the heavy hand of Penny Ballem. She has a reputation of jamming things through at all costs, her way or the highway and Gregor is just a puppet.

      1. The city manager was put in place by the Vision council because she would do as they said.
        They knew her style of management.
        The city manager takes direction from council not vice-versa.
        Council has given her direction and she is delivering.

  7. @ Tom Durning

    This proposal is only replacing the units for Jubilee House. The $40 million or so the city is leaving on the table should build two or three times more real social housing.
    CANY have publically said so and are not opposed to the upgrade or replacement of Jubilee House.
    The problem is this completely incompetent city deal.
    Jubilee House should be upgraded or replaced without ruining the liveability of the neighbourhood by impacting Emery Barns Park and creating such a grossly oversized building.
    The city could negotiate a better replacement option for Jubilee House.

  8. At the risk of soundilng like a Vision shill, that’s NOT for you to decide, Elizabeth. It’s for the people of Vancouver in the next elecion. As I said, the opposition is politically motivated. You know very well that to put every rezoning to intense and overwhelming public scrutiny would render the system unworkable.

    Or, this is how Andres Duany put it:

    Is this what is happening in Vancouver?


  9. An interesting take on the public process, Tom Durning. Still, the author of that piece sees the value of it in bringing in citizens. I think the point is to engage far before the development signs and building permits go out.

    I have also seen disparate viewpoints within neighbourhood communities (and here, Andres Duany is wrong—neighbourhoods are their own communities) addressed quite successfully–once the particiapnts are brought together. Interestingly, people seem able to trade off some of their own interests, once all the cards are on the table.

  10. Tom, I think your heart is in the right place, but you are mistaken.
    I agree that social housing needs to be provided.
    I actually worked as a Senior Project Development Officer for BC Housing in delivery of social housing projects in the days when there were senior government programs.
    My experience is that if projects are physically in scale and character with the surrounding neighbourhood and well managed, the community will accept these projects.
    It is when they grossly change the character of the neighbourhood that it becomes an issue.

    In the past the city had checks and balances in place that gave the community much more input than today. This was largely responsible for Vancouver becoming a very liveable city without a freeway system into downtown or the urban renewal of the 1960’s. These checks and balances, brought in by Mayor Art Philips in the 1970’s and implemented by then Director of Planning Ray Spaxman, lasted for decades until they started being unravelled in the early 2000’s. Vision has dismantled this legacy by putting development on steroids and this is why there is such a public backlash.

    Proper process would bring better results for everyone.

  11. Regarding a city-wide plan, how much time do the advocates of a new consultation process have to design one? The letter above seems to be so much griping without offering any solutions except throwing the project back to the drawing board.

    City Plan was an admirable process that not only garnered lots of public input in community workshops but afforded each household a chance to fill in a detailed questionnaire as part of composing a Neighbourhood Vision. The knocks against City Plan were that it was incomplete, it was time-consuming, it was expensive and it allowed some activists with narrow agendas (pro or anti-development) to control some neighbourhood committees.

    Vision was bitten hard over development in established neighbourhoods, yet they still managed to win council for a third time. Get over it already. Every majority party needs a strong opposition, but credible alternatives to the current planning and development processes have not been presented yet by the opposition, at least not in a formal and detailed proposal.

    Lo and behold, the devil incarnate — Vision – proposed the Citizen’s Assembly process when the previous Grandview Woodlands planning process blew up before the election. Yet no comments by the above esteemed individuals have been, to my knowledge, registered on this little nugget although it was formed months ago. The Assembly consists of 48 individuals who applied within a set of principles that were carefully crafted to be equitably representative of the neighbourhood. Further, there are several workshopping committees, not just one, so it’s almost impossible for a narrow-minded activist group or strong-willed individuals with preset urban design ideals to take over the works.

    So let’s stop fighting the results of the last election and cut the reactionary griping and have a proactive conversation about the overall planning process. And admit that ANY process with a deep public consultation policy, whether Neighbourhood Visioning or Citizen’s Assemblies or a mélange of the two, will be time consuming, expensive and potentially risky regarding completion schedules or radical changes during limited political mandates. Learning to live the results will also become an issue.

    1. MB,

      I’m assuming the judge in the Brenhill case wasn’t politically motivated.

      While any process for public consultation may possibly never ‘be good enough’, the learned jurist found the current one, in this case, lacking.

      Therefore, this is the perfect time to conduct reasonable efforts at better neighbourhood engagement. Grandview-Woodlands may well be the bar that all other such efforts can be measured by.

      And if not, try, try again…

    2. Section 4.0
      “City Council will have the final authority to accept, modify or reject specific
      recommendations from the Assembly at its discretion. ”

      And you wonder why people are not so willing to spend several hundred hours of their time taking part in the Citizen’s Assembly? Given how the City’s own planners were shunted aside in the previous plan?

    3. Bar, council risks annihilation in the next election if they ignore the deep set wishes of established communities, especially with such an involved process. Of course that clause exists, because council is the approving authority. It’s presence doesn’t automatically translate to rejection.

  12. PS For those of you who want to change the channel by suggesting that this is all about politics or that, having been voted into office, that politicians owe no consultation to citizens, I have a remedy: put all of these projects on the other side of the civic election ballots, like the ‘Capital Plan’.

    Then, you can see how the voters truly feel. 🙂

  13. Please be careful when characterizing any part of the Brenhill project “social housing”. There are a total of ZERO additional social housing units created (they are simply replacing one for one the Jubilee units) and making off with millions in profit and a huge development of luxury condos and market rentals (not even below market rentals). The facts are out there. Don’t let Jackson and Brenhill’s high paid PR people bamboozle you…

  14. What the letter objects to, in part, is the absolute disregard of the well-established Downtown District ODP, where the built context of this site is generally comprised of developments of g5FSR and 6500sf floor plates, and this application comes in at 17.5FSR and over 10,000sf floor plates. Does that make any sense whatsoever? These numbers nay not mean much to a lay person but a supposedly professional one like Jolson should know something is out if whack here,

    What is the point of having planning policies if such rampant disregard takes place, whatever the purpose? Do we deserve a city where all decisions are made willy-nilly like this? The Urban Design Panel had great discomfort (7-0 opposed the first time) with the application and essentially zero changes were made when it came to them again, with only begrudging support, and even then without full knowledge of the deals that led to such an oversized proposal.

    There is little hope for a citywide plan when even the ones we do have are disregarded so flagrantly. Political motivation, indeed.

    1. There were two parts to the commentary above. One, rejection of a troubled project. Two, the call for a city-wide plan.

      Have the commenters now dropped discussion on the latter because there is “no hope”? How very politically convenient.

      1. MB – I’m expressing my own frustration here. There is still a strong commitment from other individuals in this ad hoc group for an overall plan for Vancouver. They are fully capable of answering for themselves, and this is clearly not the end of the discussion on that subject. Burnaby, which you may know something about, has had effective TOD plans and others for some time now, so you should know about their usefulness.

  15. Wow. I never realized how messed up things are in this town now. That’s pretty depressing. I’m moving back to Auckland.

  16. The Gang of Whimsicals is down from 10 to 9 with the flight of the award winning writer and commentator on urban affairs. His name is gone and his who I am statement is gone, and even the comment that he made about telling the Whimsicals not to use his name is gone. He has been disappeared Frank and the rest of the Whimsicals should take the hint and disappear as well because they are not in charge and it is not their project and singing the “we don’t like it” song is only for the laying around people not for the professionals who should know better than to sing folk songs in public.

  17. If nothing else, the CANY court outcome and the current public hearing may help lead to improved processes, transparency, restored and emboldened urban design analysis, respect for existing viable policies and even perhaps reduced levels of density applied to small downtown sites.

    Some of us actually look forward to such a modest step forward. If no one speaks out, what do you think will happen, Jeff?

  18. Dear Frank,

    I have noticed that every time that you get sore over something I wrote you call me Jeff. You need to stop doing that or people might start thinking that I am someone that I am not. Let’s keep things crystal clear just like the Oragami tower. I am answering your question but only under protest over you calling me a name that I do not answer to.

    In regard to your amusing thought about – if no one speaks out, what do you think will happen? There will be silence Frank, and nothing else. But the question is really academic because the City has received over 200 comments regarding this project. I do not know how long the speakers list is for the Public Hearing but if people are going to get up and talk about terrorizing man eaters then it is going to take a long time to hear everybody out.

    In regard to your other musings;”improved processes, transparency, restored and emboldened urban design analysis, respect for existing viable policies and even perhaps reduced levels of density applied to small downtown sites”, this is nothing but trash talk, because you know that you can not apply for a rezoning without providing an urban design rationale statement, and it has to be truthful and convincing before you get anywhere near a Public Hearing.

    1. If you’re not Jeff Olson I offer my apologies. I’m more than happy to keep the discussion civilized and on topic.

  19. Getting back to the question that Gordon Price asked in his main post above, “If you were a councillor, would you vote to reject the Brenhill project because of process and urban-design issues…?”

    Personally I would vote against this proposal for several reasons.

    1. The proposal is far too large in height and FSR for the site and neighbourhood character and a lack of consideration of planning and urban design principles.

    2. Negative impacts on Emery Barns park.

    3. The land swap is not in the public interest. The city claimed the difference in land values is only $6 million when in fact it is $50 million. 508 Helmcken is assessed at $59,432,000 while 1077/1099 Richards is assessed at $9,541,000 for 2015. Way too much is being left on the table.


    This proposal should be sent back to staff with the direction to find another site to use for the land swap so that the Jubilee House replacement currently under construction could proceed. The direction should be to keep the revised proposal to be in reasonable scale with the neighbourhood and to be consistent with good urban design principles.

    The existing Jubilee House could be renovated for an increase in social housing units once current tenants leave for the new site or it could be demolished for the previously planned park expansion.

    There are options for replacing real social housing without giving away the farm.

    What the Vision council will likely do is ignore all the issues and options while they use their majority to push the proposal through unchanged, just because they can. Such is the state of Vancouver.

  20. I have also always assumed that those buildings on the Emery Barns block would not be replaced, but rather added to the park, when it comes time to demolish them. (park phase 3 ?)

    The way one condo tower will sit on that block is weird, and almost undemocratic in essence.

    The land swap shouldn’t have occured and is effectively against the best public interest.

    Social housing (or other “noble cause”) financing needs is a lame excuse which shouldn’t go in the way of good and well agreed urbanism principle (if not:, when we gonna start to sell Stanly park to finance all the city project?).

    So to the question:
    “If you were a councillor, would you vote to reject the Brenhill project because of process and urban-design issues…?”


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