West coast architectural adventures
ARCHITECTS AND THEIR DEVELOPER CLIENTS IN VANCOUVER ARE FILLING IN the city’s blank spaces with tall, eye-catching condos, some ingeniously mixed with office or hotel floors or live/work apartments, as well as “green” office buildings, an unusual shopping centre and a model business park.
Some of that boldness calls for soaring buildings, which Bing Thom championed during a spirited presentation to Vancouver city council in August. “We’re in a global market now,” he said. “We have to show everyone that we are not afraid of the future.”
He is not alone. Earlier generations of Toronto condo towers are in fact being dwarfed by much taller versions, particularly along the city’s waterfront. A skyline-topping 65-storey Toronto condo tower is being designed in Vancouver, coincidentally, by Peter Busby Architects, with Page + Steele Architects, Toronto.
The condo/hotel Bing Thom Architects designed for downtown Vancouver is not merely imposingly tall, but clad in iridescent glass which becomes increasingly transparent as it tapers toward a crystalline dome on top.
Just another six stories
Thom can build up to 50 stories on the site of the Georgia Hotel’s parkade, but wants to add six stories, up to 600 feet. City planners demurred, mainly because the extra height would block a view of the mountains from one street intersection. Council nonetheless will seek public reaction and is expected to give its answer this fall.
Whether it’s 50 or 56 stories, the lower half of the tower will be integrated with the hotel and joined at its roof level in a public lobby/garden. The extra height would be spread through the upper condo floors.
“Buildings are usually cut off at the top because of the height limit,” Thom adds. “The additional height will allow us to sculpt the building a bit more. We’re not asking for more density. We want to build a more elegant, better proportioned building with more public amenities, to set a better precedent for tall buildings.”
And possibly a precedent for dauntingly tight sites where large underground or surface parking spaces aren’t an option. Thom says parking for about 180 out of a capacity 340 cars will be automated – hotel valets will take guests’ cars to a seven-storey underground elevator where they will be scanned, automatically deposited in computer– programmed spaces and later retrieved the same way.
While the height limit for downtown Vancouver buildings is 450 feet, a few sites have been exempted, notably the 500-foot, 48-storey One Wall Centre hotel/condo, designed by Peter Busby’s firm, and so far the city’s tallest building.
Then there is the $185-million Shaw Tower, under construction on Coal Harbour, with Shaw Communications Inc. leasing most of the first 18 office floors. Work/live condos on floors 19 to 42 will be occupied by owners who may choose to conduct businesses with a few employees.
James K.M. Cheng Architects Inc., Vancouver, designed Shaw Tower and a number of other condos on or near the waterfront. Escala, for example, designed by Cheng, has units selling for $500 to $600 a sq. ft., roughly double the going price in Toronto. His client, Aspac Developments Limited, has built two other Cheng– designed high-rise condos on that site and plans to build two more.
“Views of the mountain and ocean are everything in Vancouver, so 90 per cent of the units in towers we design on the city’s waterfront will have a view of either or both,” says Cheng.
The Americans are coming
The condo market seems unstoppable, buoyed by strong immigration from Hong Kong and other parts of China. Americans (who now account for about 30 per cent of the condo sales) and Europeans, most of whom want to buy condos on the waterfront, have discovered the city’s charms.
But even without that outside interest, people in outlying parts of Vancouver, who want to be close to the city’s urban energy, are flocking downtown.
Over the past decade about 35,000 people have settled into central downtown and waterfront neighborhoods, according to Larry Beasley, Vancouver’s co-director of planning. The city’s 1991 “living downtown” strategy shifted 8 million-sq.-ft. of downtown residential development capacity out of 35 million-sq.-ft. zoned for office space downtown and on former Canadian Pacific Properties Inc. railway lands at Coal Harbour, and at False Creek, site of Expo 86.
Beasley claims that policy has resulted in “the greatest in-migration of any city in North America over the past decade, even compared to Chicago, Boston and New York.”
“We’re building complete neighborhoods with shopping streets within walking distance and community facilities. (Coal Harbour is within two blocks of Robson Street, the city’s busiest shopping neighborhood). “We completed a new downtown transportation plan in July, which will provide significantly more transit on a tram system and later on a rapid transit system,” he says.
Making investors confident
The city is also creating pedestrian walkway systems and bikeways, requiring larger parks of developers doing larger developments, building new community centres, providing day care in every community, he says, “which makes people feel confident about making investments.”
Busby noted at the time of an interview in August that 17 condo towers are under construction downtown and another 20 were designed. “They are selling out as fast as building permits are issued,” he says.
Conversely, the office market in Vancouver is plugging along at a modest 500,000-sq.-ft. of office space a year being built. “Most jobs are created in businesses with 25 employees or less,” Busby explains,”so the demand for small office premises for high-tech, communication and biotech industries, film making and animation companies has opened up some new areas on the edge of downtown and near new housing developments, where people can live and work in the same neighborhood.”
Bob Rennie, who presides over Rennie Marketing Systems, Vancouver’s leading condo marketing firm, says more people are fed up with traffic congestion and longer commutes to and from work.
Has the Vancouver condo market changed much over the past few years? “Condo suites became too small, under 500 square feet because of the affordability issue or because parents were buying them so their kids might use them later. These days people want a room large enough for a king size bed and an eating area in the kitchen so we’re back to real room sizes, like a 600-sq.-ft. one-bedroom suite.”
Prices range from $315 to $500 a sq.-ft. along Coal Harbour, with “back row” seats at $400 a sq.-ft., “front row seats” overlooking the seawall at $650 and penthouses at $800 a sq.-ft., which trumps most condo prices in other Canadian cities.
Not all Vancouver condo projects are high-rise. Rennie’s firm marketed a seven-storey condo project in an abstract ocean liner shape 200 feet wide and 50 feet deep called Dockside on Coal Harbour, designed by local architect Robert Henriquez. The project includes some live/work units.
Rennie also handles Mayfair Place on the city’s monorail route – seven mid-rise towers with about 1,000 units among them in a lavishly planted garden/park setting. It won an Urban Development Institute award in 2000 as “the most liveable community in B.C.” Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson created the original massing and New York-based architect Robert Stem designed the complex.
Back on the waterfront
In mid-June, the B.C. government announced it had selected Bentall Capital Limited Partnership from among six proponents to negotiate a $500-million public-private partnership that will expand the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre (VCEC).
Bentall Capital’s proposal includes financing, development, ownership, management and operation of the expanded VCEC.
The provincial government considered the expansion as a “key component” of the bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Slow office development
There are only three “high-rise” office towers under way or nearing completion in downtown Vancouver. One of them is 20-storey Bentall Five building at Bentall Centre downtown. The first phase of 335,000-sq.-ft. of rentable area opened in early September. The second phase of 230,000-sq.-ft. on 13 floors is designed structurally to be built on top when the time comes, with minimal or no disruption to tenants. Bentall Centre will then encompass 2 million-sq.-ft. of space.
The 20-storey, green glass and aluminum-clad, 275,000-sq.-ft. PricewaterhouseCoopers Place, a Toronto– based Cadillac Fairview Corporation office building project in the downtown waterfront district, is built on existing foundations that straddle the Waterfront SkyTrain Station. It will be ready for occupancy early next year.
A third downtown office tower – 401 Burrard, will be occupied by federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and Environment Canada employees starting this fall.
This project is unusual, in more ways than one. Canada Lands Company (CLC), a Crown corporation which most frequently disposes of surplus federal property, occasionally developing it into serviced lots for home builders, owned the site and acted as developer for the 19– storey office tower. The client, Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC), supervised the fit– up of tenant spaces, bought the building from CLC in March and will manage it.
…but really green
The 215,000-sq.-ft. building, designed by Architectura, Vancouver, is one of the “greenest” federal government office buildings in Canada.
How green? Environment Canada wouldn’t move into a building that consumed energy and water inefficiently and which didn’t incorporate modern environmentally-sensitive construction technologies that meet or exceed national, provincial and municipal building codes.
Green building features at 401 Burrard include:
* Plumbing fixtures are low water-flow; the furniture is low– emission.
* High-efficiency natural gas boilers, recycling stations, composting units and motion sensor adjustable lighting have been installed.
* Suppliers will be expected to take back packaging from products and tenants will be encouraged not to bring materials into the building that cannot be reused or recycled.
* BC Hydro will provide a “smart” bill, which is said to help companies understand and manage their utility expenditures more efficiently and cost effectively.
* Terrence P. Tetreault, regional director, Real Property Services, PWGSC, Pacific Region, says a Customs House on the site was demolished, and CLC, in its previous incarnation as CN Real Estate, acquired the site probably about 10 years ago.
“The two government departments moving into 401 Burrard, were in leased space in other buildings scattered around Vancouver. They wanted 50,000 to 100,000-sq.-ft. contiguous floor space, in a city where the average commercial lease downtown is for about 6,000-sq.-ft. of space. There were only one or two landlords who could have accommodated that need, so the decision was made to develop our own building,” Tetreault says.
The project was mothballed nearly 10 years ago when the office market nose-dived, and CLC restarted it in 2000. Alan Endal, design architect, says they have created a “public-oriented plaza space with reinforced pedestrian connections, highly public and visible lobby space and the first office floor up higher to take advantage of harbour and mountain views.”
Poster boy of North America
Cliff Bowman, a principal of Builders International Real Estate Marketing Corp. (bireM), Vancouver, who has been immersed in the city’s real estate development scene for the past 12 years, calls Vancouver the “poster boy of North America for its planning process and the maturity of its development.”
Vancouver has produced “great examples of different types of building designs, community centres as part of a master development, redevelopment of former railway and Expo lands, a Sky Train monorail facilitating growth of the Lower Mainland (the suburban cities) and forced neighborhood development faster than other cities.” Bowman can afford to be objective – virtually all of his work is in U.S. condo markets.
Kirkor Architects & Planners, Toronto, have designed several buildings in Vancouver. Cliff Korman, one of the partners, says Vancouver’s urban design review board will only let quality development go ahead, such as point towers with 6,500 to 7,500-sq.-ft. floor plates.
“Height will always be a planning issue and a hard sell in Toronto because planners seem to prefer squat, fatter building profiles to slim and tall (like in Vancouver), which impose little if any shadow,” Korman says.
What’s the difference for architects working in both cities? “In Vancouver, architects are more respected for their projects,” he says. “There is also peer review by an urban design panel, which weighs the benefits of architects’ designs.” Volume, it seems, isn’t everything.
Copyright Crailer Communications Oct/Nov 2002
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