Ah yes, the Miami Beach of English Bay: Ocean Towers.
The design – seen in the 1960s on the left – represented a dramatic break from the early 1950s zoning of the West End, which allowed eight-storey buildings, many of which (like the Sylvia) were built to meet that limit. Buildings could theoretically go higher if they were thinner, and this tower is very skinny from north to south, but almost a full block east to west.
While the ‘Miami modernist’ look was admired by some, the scale of the building and its effect on the buildings behind made it few friends. It was opposed by the Town Planning Commission, the city’s Technical Planning Board, the Vancouver Housing Authority and the Community Arts Council. Council approved it anyway, but the perceived negative impact of this building and a few others built in the same era ensured they would be the last.
Design guidelines required narrower buildings with space between them when later residential areas were planned, and new towers added to the West End. That’s still true today, as the experience of this tower continues to determine tower design not just in the city of Vancouver, but throughout Metro Vancouver.
There has been debate on how much heritage value Ocean Towers should be given. There’s no question of its historical merit; its time and place guarantee that. But it is rather an abominable urban intrusion: it walls off the West End, totally blocking the views of everyone behind for blocks, creates a wind tunnel on Denman, paves over the site from one end to the other, and offers nothing to the passers-by. Not a neighbourhourly building, as City Planning Director Ray Spaxman would say, who did everything needed to prevent it from happening again. Hence the point tower and view corridors, deliberate or otherwise.
But heritage designation can kind of imply that, if it’s worth preserving, it’s worth repeating. And even though I live in one that is a lot like it, if it fell down, it shouldn’t be rebuilt.
Though there’s not much that can be done about its failures, it’s not too late to address one great deficiency – the parking lot at the back.
Imagine that asphalt lot filled with rowhouses along a mews, landscaped as lushly as, of all things, the parking garage next door at the Sylvia. Here’s the contrast.
Would it be appropriate to add more density to a building that is probably at the maximum allowed? Who benefits? What kind of housing? Where does the parking go?
But regardless, is it not time to replace a parking lot with people’s homes?