A great anecdote told by a first-hand observer – Ray Spaxman when he was Director of Planning – about attitudes to growth and development in the Vancouver of the 1980s:

This is an event that probably illustrates some of the good and not so good parts of the development control processes that we were developing in the mid 70’s and early 80’s. …
When I came to the City in 1973 one of the first priorities was to produce a Downtown Plan to guide change over the next 20 years or so.  …
As a result of years of community work in developing the Downtown Plan, we had overhauled the whole system from the overall vision of the Downtown through the urban design guidelines, from views, overall shaping and details of those things that made the place more liveable, like canopies and signage, to development control processes and zoning. Council.  …
Some strong feelings about development had been expressed by the community. They did not want to see the public realm go underground into malls and passageways. They wanted our mild climate to be experienced primarily at grade.  They were looking for neighbourly developments that emphasised good relationships between buildings and to the street. They wanted active pedestrian streets. They were looking for well designed buildings that enhanced the overall cohesive vision for the area, not  individual “stand outs.” At the time there was much debate about the height and shape of future highrises, the overall shape of Downtown and there was a strong lobby to retain the views of the mountains and especially the iconic “Lions” from important public places in and around Downtown.
Developers were informed about these policies when they came to ask about the city’s plans and generally went off to prepare their plans in that context.
At one time, (I cannot remember the exact date, as I write this draft), a development group came to my office with their proposal for development of the Georgia, Burrard, Alberni, Thurlow block. I do not yet recall what process they had been through but my recollection is that there had not been much contact with us before this meeting …


Alberni 1

The block today


As I reviewed their presentation I began to see numerous features that were not compatible with the City’s plans for the Downtown. I described where their plans were in conflict and suggested they needed to revise accordingly. They were shocked that the grand plans that they were so proud of were not accepted by me. They said they would take their case straight to the Mayor. I said that was of course their right, but explained how our plans had come about and they could expect the Mayor to support those plans.
[I should explain here that the developers, while having a local development consultant advising them, were internationally renowned developers and architects from New York. They conveyed the sense that we were rather a small, unsophisticated sort of place that would be best advised to see the special benefits of their scheme.]
A few days later I briefed the mayor about their proposal and how it related to the city’s policies. The subsequent meeting with the developers was held in his office. …
At one moment, when we seemed unable to communicate with them and they continued to push us about how good their scheme was, the Mayor took them to the window, which looks north across downtown to the spectacular mountain ranges. Changing the tone somewhat, he described the scene and then asked them where their proposed big highrise would be seen from this point of view.
After some reflection, one of them said, something like this, “Well, if you look at the mountains behind Downtown you can see a couple of small but noticeable peaks sticking up. Do you see them?” The mayor said, “Yes, I do.  We call them the Lions.”  “Well,” said the developer, “Our tower would be right in front of them from this viewpoint.”
The Mayor suggested we return to the table and said he would like to summarise his position for them. He then came up with this description.
“I can summarise our position under three headings. I will call them the three Ms: they are Moles, Mountains and Monuments.” He went on to explain that we did not want to develop an underground city, we wanted to preserve the views of our iconic mountain forms from important public places, and were not looking for stand-out monuments. He suggested they rethink their proposal.
They went away looking perplexed and annoyed. I don’t remember ever seeing them again, although the local consultant, to this day, tells the story about how wrong the City was.


    1. I think there is a middle ground … plenty of places achieve high quality and dense and not crazy tall all at the same time. I think Vancouver is a bit unique in that these are always at odds.

    2. That would depend on the site. Unless you want a huge East/West massing like the Burrard Building, this block tends to dictate height if density is desired.

  1. … and the general disdain for underground passages also extends to avoiding multiple underground passages to SkyTrain stations.

  2. As a side note, the corner of Georgia and Burrard is zoned under the Higher Buildings Policy for the tallest currently allowed in the city – 700 ft.
    There are no view cones over the site (or most of it) – so it can actually achieve that height – unlike the lip-service the policy pays to other sites that are ultimately constrained by more restrictive view cones.

    1. That site is being considered. If it’s zoned for 700 ft. does this lessen the squeeze the city can exact? If so, would that make it more or less valuable?

      1. “… curated right to view …” Excellent phrase that encapsulates the issue!
        However, I would say the right to light dims in our wet winters when the sun — when you can see it — is a scant 20 degrees off the horizon.

        1. Done elsewhere … I’ve used Arup to do so on White City in London … not that hard to do during design – people do shadow studies already, this isn’t that much more difficult. Of course there are allowances for low winter angles … its a right to light for X percentage of the year for Y amount of day. I can imagine a neighboring building geometry that would make summer sun worse than winter sun (the ‘Central’ building with the bridge on Main St., for instance).
          As a daily quality of life issue, sufficient light is more fundamental to view. If you can get both – bonus.
          (there are studies about exposure to nature … but I would argue that this is different than ‘view’ in the sense that most use view, and able to be managed differently – european courtyard blocks are an example [my building in Oly Village has one])

      2. Re a right to light – Ray has consistently been our most outspoken critic about “selling zoning” to generate bigger and denser developments that have, among others, a very big adverse impact on our access to natural light.

  3. Vancouver has been able to grow and prosper while preserving the view cones. The foresight of this is to be celebrated. There are places for extremely tall buildings and other places, such as the one scheduled to be developed by the new VAG, where lower development is deemed more appropriate. It’s a differentiated skyline.

  4. Interesting discussion. Some of us abhor going underground for transit and/or shopping while others of us don’t mind. The city can and should accommodate both “types” of city dwellers. Also, masses of high buildings close together produce wind tunnels and lower temperatures at street level in downtown Vancouver; we get those daily ocean breezes off the sea. This effect also requires careful consideration when looking at increased density in the “squeezed” city of Vancouver.

        1. Or, a good bit of history which describes a point in which Vancouver definitively chose X path over Y … how else are such things known if they aren’t documented?
          How can you have a discussion about these matters if you don’t know the background of why the current condition exists?
          The city might have been wrong, or right, lets discuss that.

  5. Hi.
    At the end of my 3 M’s piece I said “I don’t remember ever seeing them again, although the local consultant, to this day, tells the story about how wrong the City was.” I included this because I thought it fair to note that there was and, as we can see from some of the comments received, a variety of opinions about this example. When we look at events that occurred 3 or more years ago we know so much more about how successful, or not, the implemented policies were. I try to respect people who have different points of view and also respect people who express them fairly.

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