Vancouver council approves 'bold' Westbank tower project

Project designed by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels

This model of the Westbank development project at the north end of Granville Street Bridge was revealed at an open house last February. It was the second of two open houses and attracted 403 visitors and a total of 51 comment sheets — 71 per cent in support, 14 per cent opposed.

Vancouver council voted unanimously in favour of the Westbank development proposed for the north end of Granville Street Bridge following a public hearing Thursday night.

The decision came after councillor after councillor praised the architectural merits of the project designed by celebrated Danish architect Bjarke Ingels of Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). Vancouver firm Dialog is collaborating with BIG on the project.

On the Howe Street sites, the development features a 52-storey tower with 407 residential units and a 10-storey podium with retail and 95 residential market units. On the Granville and Pacific sites, it will feature six-storey buildings for retail and office purposes.

Vision Vancouver Coun. Raymond Louie called the tower "bold" and "stunning" and said he was very pleased to support the application, although he hoped efforts would continue to find ways to mitigate shadowing.

"I do have faith in the developer that he'll design a high-quality building and make sure that the public realm at the base is fully animated with support of many other commercial activities at the base as well."

Vision Coun. Heather Deal remarked on the uniqueness of the development site and ambitious design plan.

"What we don't often see in the city is extraordinary buildings," she said. "We see some really nice buildings, some great buildings. But I had it explained to me when I was first getting into politics that given the price of land it's very unlikely that we were to see these really world extraordinary-type buildings and here we have one. I'm really thrilled. I think we're going to look back and be so proud of the fact that we said yes to this project. And I love the podium. I love the shape and the form and the way it's broken up."

Green Coun. Adriane Carr called attention to some residents' concerns about the tower's height of 52 storeys, as well as concerns about over-development and the impact of density on livability, air, light and traffic congestion.

"These are all issues that we must address. The sustainability of glass towers — we need to look at that, as well as whether or not a city of glass towers is a green city, especially in terms of the use of resources in terms of both building and maintaining those buildings, and the impact on views," she said.

But Carr also voted in favour, explaining she weighs general concerns and the specific context of the decision in terms of city policy, along with public input. She noted the majority of feedback supported the development.

"I believe my job as an elected official is to represent the views of people and the views of people have come, in general, in support of this project," she said.

"I think it's clear this building is of such architectural excellence as to be a landmark in this city. Many of you have heard me speak quite passionately against towers and against excess height, but I've also said to you I'm not against all towers. I'm not against all height and there are locations for it. I know some residents have said not in this spot. That's not what our policy says. I look to policy to direct me in my decisions. In terms of my own feelings, I like this building. I think it's innovative, I think it's exciting and I think it will be a landmark, so I will be supporting this application."

NPA Coun. Elizabeth Ball said she loves old heritage buildings, "but this building, as an artist, just makes me catch my breath.

"I think it's beautiful. I mention heritage buildings and I think this will be a heritage building that Vancouverites will be very proud of for decades and decades to come and I look forward to the refinements that I'm sure will be brought about as the development continues."

Vision Coun. Andrea Reimer said the building is about choices and there are consequences of choices.

"I think when we make absolute statements like density is always bad or glass towers are always energy inefficient or whatever it is, we do come up with pretty cookie-cutter solutions," she said. "This building, in all respects, speaks to what happens when we get away from those absolutist statements and look at problem solving and what's possible."

Mayor Gregor Robertson also said he loved the project.

"It meets the test at every respect — gorgeous architecture, turning a dead space into a vibrant public space with animation and job space. The housing is diverse and much needed... People have used the word iconic — I think it's remarkable design to combine so many elements on a tough site," he said before the vote. "It's an extraordinary project that deserves strong council support."

Reaction from speakers during the public hearing was mixed.

Several residents living nearby the site, as well as business people and architecture students, lauded the development proposal.

"In exchange for density in height, the city will make use of land that's otherwise derelict," said one man, who said he was excited about the design, which he said would produce a strong and dynamic statement.

A UBC architecture student described the project as "remarkably creative in its design" and said it will "stretch the design vocabulary that our city will have."

Another commented: "I couldn't be more excited about this project. It's super awesome, with the emphasis on super awesome."

But the development has its critics who are worried about the tower's location, its height, the shadowing it will create and the density the project will add to the area.

A 16-year resident of Beach Avenue spoke "with regret" against the project.

"I'm excited about the idea, but it's not an excuse for bringing in density," he said.

Another speaker said: "Everyone wants vacant land developed, but the location is not suitable for this height of tower."

The development's twitter handle, @Beach_and_Howe, welcomed the favourable vote with this tweet:

"With @CityofVancouver's unanimous support for @Beach_and_Howe, we are eager to add to Vancouver's architecture & city-making history."