Ray has more to add on 555 West Cordova:


Have you noticed the special nature of this part of town?

??????????????????????Today it provides several of the few really good urban sequences in our young city. Try walking into the entrance to the CPR Station from the upper plaza on its west side. You will pass from the brightly day lighted plaza with its spectacular mountain views into a fine stairway leading down into the station, As you take the steps down, you will experience the descent into the really grand reception hall of the old station.

While not as grand as Grand Central in New York, nor Union station in Toronto, it is a happier, more colourful place. It has the humane architectural detailing of it’s century old styling.  It also throbs at times with the crowds of different people passing between their numerous origins and destinations. Weaving through the throngs of people and past the ticket booths and coffee shops, you can either turn south and go out by the grand entrance or proceed easterly along the wide corridor to the easterly exit.



As you exit you may feel the sense of pleasure (Sorry about the parking lot!) at moving from the enclosed corridor out into wide open fresh air and sunshine and one of the more spectacular views this lovely city has to offer to visitors and residents. As a bonus you will also note the fine facade of the Landing, another exceptional piece of architecture in our city,  that announces the presence of our founding neighbourhood –  Gastown.

This is where the Martian intends to land. If it lands as proposed it will obliterate  this open space, the expanse of the Landing facade, and the view and leave a mean, winding passageway entrance into the Station concourse.

Waterfront 2


But also see this. Look around and you will notice some very special features along this side of Cordova Street. Here are some of them. Firstly notice the scale of the buildings at this location. There is the grand scale of the station with its  classical entrance porticos, the warm brick and careful detailing that is comfortable to the humans that walk past, as are the retail stores and restaurants. The war memorial sculpture is perfectly located at the transition to the open space, currently the parking lot. The east side of the building works with the Landing to create one of the great missed opportunities in the city – a real urban square. The Landing and the station encloses and define a space that is uniquely perfect for a small urban square. A square with two fine architectural sides and a spectacular view to the north.

Now let’s also look at the scale of design potential that exists here. There are potentially three levels that need special attention. There is the street level with the desire for activity, continuity, and pedestrian interest, comfort and safety.  Then there are the street facades that define the street. They give us the sense of a cohesive place – like Water Street does so well. This can vary in height around 75 to 100 ft in this part of town. It has “eyes on the street” and one senses there are people living or working at their various occupations.

Waterfont 1


If we are to consider higher buildings we can wonder about this third level. These higher buildings stick up into the sky, cast long shadows, can be seen from afar as well as close by and begin to formulate our urban skyline.  This is a skyline which has received a lot of attention in the past 30 years. With the significant density increases that City Councils have approved for the Downtown we need to monitor and revise our high rise and view corridor policies, not to obliterate them, as some suggest, but to bring them in line with current necessities. In the meantime higher buildings provide the opportunity for creating a recognisable and exciting skyline. Hopefully that can be something commensurate with our unique setting and not just a plethora of architectural exhibitionism that is happening in other parts of the world.

Waterfront 3


Urban design is so important to us. It is not a simple matter. I have simply described a tiny portion of the thought process that should go into this proposal.
All major proponents should illustrate what they are valuing or not valuing in their design. Any number of nice words are meaningless without specific illustration. Claiming human scale when it is obvious there is none, or heritage compatibility when there is none, or welcoming usable public spaces when there is none, just should not be accepted.

We want to be able to trust that our planning staff is providing the love and rigour needed to maintain the liveability and inspiration of our city. It is much more than higher densities and increasing the income from community amenity contributions.


UPDATE: Patrick Condon adds this:


The larger architectural trends occurring worldwide deserve some discussion here.

Increasingly new “signature” buildings are promoted and built in cities, often in an attempt to enliven them, or to help brand a city in a certain way. While I don’t want to call into question this value, I suggest that this enthusiasm often shields the parasitic nature of this process from public view.

Good civic space is largely the consequence of hundreds of buildings collectively contributing to the formation of a shared public realm. This public realm is largely comprised of that most pedestrian of civic spaces (pun intended): the street.

Spatially, street corridors are formed by the walls of the many buildings that line them, the distant terminus (be it a building or a vista), and, of course, the sky ceiling above

In a “good” city, the network of street corridors occasionally gives way to expanded volumes for civic squares (we are under supplied with these) or parks and waterfronts (we have tons of these).

The occasional signature building can also stand out in contrast to this fabric. The courthouse (currently the VAG) comes to mind. I would almost put the Provincial Courts in this category if it were more clear – Is it object or fabric? Hmm.

The Marine building somehow manages to do both. It thrusts out on its slight promontory where the grid turns, shouldering into key views while still attaching to its neighbors.

But the point is that these buildings have fabric to “stand out against”. That’s why they are parasitic. They feed on the larger body of the city for their strength. If that word seems too strong you may prefer the phrase “iconic buildings in dialogue with their context” or “the fabric / icon dialectic” better.

So most acknowledge the value of a signature building. Me included. The problem might come when a city gets too enamored of the sexy diva and undervalues the contribution of the choir. Certainly this has happened in Shanghai and Dubai. We are a long way away from that, but its worth talking about as the Martians begin to land. Do they come in peace?


  1. Just a note that if Granville Street is restored as part of the Waterfront Hub plan (slicing off a part of the plaza), that grand set of stairs from the Granville Square plaza will be removed, and the at-grade entrance to the CP Station (like on the east side) will be restored.


    And the whole transportation hub will be transformed to be a beehive of activity.

    The waterfront vistas will move to the north from where they are now since the railway tracks will be built over.

  2. I wish that the parking lot could become an amazing space to linger cantilevered out over the tracks to watch the seabus arrive as you wait for a friend or loved one from the North Shore. But how can you tell a property owner they can’t develop their site?

    1. Shouldn’t be hard. Ask Gordon how they told the CPR they couldn’t develop the Arbutus Corridor.

      The more I read of Ray Spaxman’s thoughts the more I agree. This might be an interesting design (for a glass tower) but it doesn’t belong here. It diminishes the Beaux Arts station and The Landing. Vancouver has always paid to little attention to heritage, let’s not do the same with this location.

      And what is up with Vision’s war on views? It is quite alarming what is being done here. I went by Telus Garden yesterday, what an abomination!

  3. Two years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, British economist Paul Seabright was talking with a senior Russian official who was visiting the UK to learn about the free market. “Please understand that we are keen to move towards a market system,” the official said, “But we need to understand the fundamental details of how such a system works. Tell me, for example: who is in charge of the supply of bread to the population of London?”

    The familiar but still astonishing answer to this question is that in a market economy, everyone is in charge. As the market price of bread goes up and down, it informs our collective behaviour: whether to plant a new wheat field, or leave it fallow; whether to open that new bakery you’ve been thinking about opening on the corner; or simply whether to buy two or three loaves of bread this week. The price thus aggregates an enormous amount of what would otherwise be hidden knowledge from all the people interested in the production or consumption of bread, that is, nearly everyone. By using prices to aggregate this knowledge and inform further actions, the market produces outcomes superior to even the brightest and best informed individuals.

    Although Urban Planning is not the bread market, I think Vancouverites with an inclination for government intervention might take a lesson. Not everything must be centrally planned to yield wonderful results. Indeed, not planning something and allowing the process to be determined by the private choices and decentralized decisions of individual actors, can often yield better results. Perhaps many, if not most, of the most cherished places in cities across the world are not the product of planning, but the unpredicted creations of the selfish decisions of a million strangers.

  4. I think you can see the unfettered “market” at work in many third world cities. You are welcome to it. Sorry, but that is a ridiculous outlook.

    People in this thread asking for a more sensitive place-based approach are not demanding more government control, just more attention to context than what is on offer so far.

    1. Sigh…Vancouver has a taste for benign, paternal, omnipresent government. Fine.

      But quite simply, it’s markets that make us rich. You’ll probably see unjust, re-distributive government institutions and weak property rights (brought about by a legacy of extractive, exploitive colonialism) in many third world cities. Not free markets.

      Jeez, look at any index of economic freedom – where are the third world countries on the list? http://thf_media.s3.amazonaws.com/2014/pdf/Index2014_Highlights.pdf

      So tedious.

      Anyways, all these fickle architects and planners making +150K yearly can afford to constrict economic growth and innovation to maintain their bland aesthetic preferences for properties they don’t own. No wonder young people have to leave Vancouver to find a job. There are no jobs in empty parking lots.

  5. I dissent. That parking lot is terrible and far from a grand open space. Except for the harbour view, which is only seen very far from the street, you get to see the blank facade of the Harbour Center, the dead end of Waterfront Station, and the unvaried facade of Steamworks brewing. Gastown, Seymour, and Richards are so very close, but completely out of view A commercial frontage building is deperately required here.

    When I’m in that section of town and want a view of the waterfront, I go over to the Vancouver Sun building’s plaza. While it has great views, that plaza is unfortunately tucked into a corner, but that can be remedied with a pathway between that plaza and the back of Waterfront Station. The path should even continue to the foot of Cambie street. Build a building on the parking lot and provide a public path and view site in behind.

  6. Let’s get over the demonizing Martian metaphor, architecture does not come from outer space and it is not landing all over the planet, the Martians aren’t coming and we are not entering a War of the Worlds.

    Change is happening all the time in the City. This site is another example of change opportunity. In fact the west stair entrance of the station is itself an addition to the original structure, an opportunity owing to the construction of the plaza deck over grade level parking on the west side of the building.

    The east side entrance provides a route to Gastown if you are willing to run the gambit of smokers hanging around that door, if you are willing to dodge cars in the parking lot, if on a winter day you are brave enough to face the rain, ice or snow, the wind and the cold with a sprint to the corner of the Landing and the protection of street wall with awnings overhead.

    The City is not always a sunny summer day with sidewalk kiosks and folks wandering around in shorts taking holiday pictures and marvelling at the quality of our public squares, which in this case is due to pure happenstance, not planning or public policy.

    This site certainly is a photo opportunity, a perfect place for an all season urban room made of glass and set in an open space contained by walls of history on three sides and for now the edge of the City on the water side. If this site is to be occupied by a building at all then this proposal is a good way to do that.

    So let’s get over it, nothing is being obliterated, there are no mean wandering passageways, this is not a case of exhibitionism. Architecture is a plastic art, sculptural in nature. This proposal happens to be monumental in character, transparent and visible inside to outside to inside, and uplifting in the very spirit of the place.

  7. Along with Ray Spaxman’s comments in the Vancouver Sun today about urban design practice at City Hall, I question how a policy plan that calls for 11 storeys – say 40m or so – can be manipulated to be 117m. I guess this is someone’s idea of the unfettered market at work, rather than considered urban design practice.

  8. In any story involving Cadillac Fairview, it should be noted that the company is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Fund. As such, its only responsibility is the fiduciary one to ensure that Ontario teachers’ indexed pensions are fully funded. Urban design, view corridors, public amenities, etc, are only relevant to the extent they support Cadillac Fairview’s requirement to maximise revenue.


  9. Indeed the Martians have landed & the War of Words began in 2008 between neighbourhood community groups & the “Martians”.

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