Architecture
January 21, 2021

Waterfront Station: A Cautionary Tale – Part 2

Yesterday, Michael Alexander told the story of New York City’s fabulous (and fabulously expensive) new Moynihan Train Hall, and the less happy history of Penn Station, which it serves. Today: what are their lessons for Vancouver? And what are Vancouver’s public transit opportunities (and the region’s) for the coming decades? 

Like the glorious original Beaux-Arts Penn Station, historic Waterfront Station is privately owned by a large developer. And as in New York, that private developer wants to maximize its profits. In New York, the result was to bury most of Penn Station in the basement of Madison Square Garden. Here, developer Cadillac Fairview plans a private, ultramodern 26-storey office tower on a wedge of parking lot next to the station. It was quickly nicknamed The Ice Pick.

Nearly 13 million riders pass through Waterfront Station each year, about five million more than users of the next busiest Translink station. As the pandemic wanes, ridership will increase. The historic 1914 building is protected by heritage regulations, and serves as a stunning public entry and meeting hall.

The actual transit facilities are underground, or in a shabby shed attached to the building’s north side, a construction mirroring the tawdry underground Penn Station that New Yorkers and visitors have suffered since 1968.

Connections are so poorly designed that to transfer between Skytrain lines, you go up two flights, through fare gates, down two flights, and through another set of fare gates.

Translink rents this space and office space in the upper floors from the developer, Cadillac Fairview.

That’s not the way it has to be, or the way the city has said it wants it. Since 2009, the city has had preliminary plans which include a great, glassy public hall, a transit and visitor entry to Vancouver, with views of water and mountains, transportation and history, urban commerce and pleasurable public space. Something like this:

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Regular PT commenter Sam de Groot linked to his blog – Dreams and Schemes – when referencing The Icepick, which largely ignored the Hub Framework intended to guide development.  So instead, he has some thought-through ideas for the the Vancouver Central Waterfront (the area between Centerm and Canada Place) worth posting here.

 

Sam: The railyards on the waterfront are an anachronism that beg for redevelopment proposals, and there have been a few over the years like a casino, stadium, bland office towers and transit hub. I started these ideas when the casino was proposed in the 90s, and I have revisited them over time. … My proposal is (to bridge) the railyards to connect downtown to the water (with) a triangular area ….

On this triangle I propose a tight grid of narrow streets around small blocks that get even smaller toward Crab Park. The park is expanded but directed inward.

Looking at the image above, the grade descends from downtown to the water at the right.

On the bottom chord of the triangle, the grade must be high enough to clear the railyards, and along the left chord of the triangle, the downtown grade is preserved to the northern point as the vantage point should be a bit higher than the wharves on either side. The Centerm expansion is assumed and shown in blue, and completion of the Harbour Line and removing the Seabus terminal is also assumed.

Lots more detail on Sam’s blog here – like this:

I have pencilled this in with narrow streets because this is essentially a pedestrian only precinct. ….  The shorter the buildings, the narrower the streets.

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Regular commenter Alex Botta responded extensively to the Return of the Icepick in a post below.  But his remarks deserve this separate treatment, with updated illustrations:

This thing keeps popping up like Dracula’s curse, first on hand then a body emerging from the ground. Cue the night moon, mist and pipe organ. A stake needs to be driven into its heart once and for all. I’m not convinced the Heritage Commission has enough sway to do that, though the majority certainly drove home the message that the Icepick will destroy any sense of heritage preservation with its gross intrusion.

This project cannot be compared to other singular buildings (e.g. The Exchange) because the context is completely different. The proposal is also too clumsy and inelegant by comparison to other stand-alone heritage conversions. The old CPR Station, which will be pierced by the Icepick, resides at the terminus of a preserved low-rise 19th Century streetscape. The closest high rises are separated from the Station by the 26 metre-wide Cordova Street. Moreover, it overlooks the low-rise waterfront (with the exception of the intrusive Granville Square tower). Context is everything.

There is also the conflict between public use (transit) and private use (the Icepick is a private office development as part of Cadillac Fairview / Ontario Teacher’s Pension Fund). The Station is a privately-owned public use space, which seems superficially contradictory, but a dominant public use relationship that could be protected with strong long-term leases. The Icepick will be 100% private space. This is symptomatic of the confusion between public and private, and a diminishment of the role public space has in our economy. Public uses are stabilizing forces while the private economy chugs up and down the market’s peaks and valleys, occasionally getting knocked to its knees by tectonic occurrences, like pandemics that put the question to the need for so much enclosed office space. My view is that good science will win the day and allow indoor social gatherings again, but that still doesn’t justify the Icepick from a design and use perspective.

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At its meeting on December 7, 2020 the Vancouver Heritage Commission strongly rejected the Cadillac Fairview development next to Waterfront Station.*

The vote was 2 in favour, and 8 against. The two members in support did not speak during the meeting so we do not know their reasons.

The Commission sent strong signals that the most appropriate use of the space is a public “Station Square” and asked City staff to explore density transfers to relieve any future development pressure.

Michael Kluckner explained that there are good juxtapositions of old and new, but not all juxtapositions are good. He gave three examples of  downtown projects (Stock Exchange, Royal Bank, and Post Office) to indicate that their evaluation was not a simple “anti-change” perspective.

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* Draft resolutions from the Heritage Commission meeting of December 7. 2020

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In 2015, Toronto-based developer Cadillac Fairview attempted to get approval for a 26=storey office building at 555 Cordova, shoe-horned up against the east side of Waterfront Station in Vancouver. (Cadillac Fairview owns Waterfront Station, and the proposed building site has been the eastern access and parking lot for the Station since it opened in 1914.)

The building, dubbed the Icepick, was withdrawn in 2015, following wide-spread concerns expressed by the Urban Design Panel and the public.  The proposed site is not a separate building lot and far too small to accommodate a giant office building.

Now Cadillac Fairview is back with Icepick 2, a slightly revised version of the original. Responding to design objections, the developer rotated and pushed the building a little further west and north, slightly reduced its footprint, and made it possible to see and walk through the ground floor.

With these changes, the developer seems intent on getting approval at a Development Permit Board Meeting scheduled for March 22, 2021.

It’s important to know that that in 2009, Council-endorsed Central Waterfront Hub Framework to deal comprehensively with the many issues in this part of the city – our most important transportation hub and a last remaining part of the waterfront still to be connected to the publicly accessible

Because the proposed building is not consistent the Hub Framework, in October 2017, Council approved a program to update the Framework and resolve implementation issues. This work is in progress.

The proposal does not conform to planning guidelines for the area. The most recent proposed building is more than twice the suggested height of 11 stories, and six times the recommended floor space. It overwhelms heritage buildings on either side and provides an uninviting gateway to Historic Gastown.

The Hub Framework requires removing the top of the garage at the end of Granville to provide views of the ocean, mountains, cruise ships and access to a public walkway along the north side of the city.  Cadillac Fairview owns the parkade at the foot of Granville but has not agreed to an extension of Granville Street to the waterfront.

Removing part of the parkade’s top level was a central concept of the original Hub Framework. It would open the street to the waterfront, and provide an opportunity to build a public walkway connecting Stanley Park, the waterfront, Gastown, Chinatown and False Creek. This space at the entrance to Gastown would also make a splendid public plaza.  As the most important transportation hub in the region, this site is critical to the future of the city.

Approving Cadillac Fairview’s latest proposal will preclude the current planning process and seriously undermine future options for the City’s waterfront.  Does it make sense to put approvals before planning? Should a private developer be able to sabotage a public planning and design process?

You can send your views to the Mayor and Council, and to the Development Permit Board through kaveh.imani@vancouver.ca.  And you can send your comments to https://shapeyourcity.ca/555-w-cordova-st.

From notes provided by the Downtown Waterfront Working Group

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