Comments coincide with plan to have separate managers of those two civic functions 

The city’s policy of protecting view corridors has had a negative effect on livability downtown and deprived the city of ‘billions’ of dollars in development cost charges that could be used for social good, said architect Richard Henriquez.

VANCOUVER — Vancouver’s planning and architecture have suffered over the long term from a lack of foresight by City Hall and heavy-handed management, three of the city’s prominent architects said Friday.

From a singular focus on protecting view corridors and restricting height limits downtown to the departure of experienced staff unhappy with the consolidation of power in the city manager’s office, Vancouver’s architectural and planning direction has drifted off course, said James Cheng, Richard Henriquez and Joost Bakker at an Urban Development Institute luncheon.

In comments at the event and in interviews later, the three said city council’s failure to hire a new director of planning and manager of development services since Brian Jackson retired last year has hurt the city.

“Without a planner and a manager of development services, every junior clerk is inventing a process to his job,” said Cheng, whose projects have included the Shangri-La, the Shaw Tower and adjacent Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel.

Said Henriquez, the founding partner of Henriquez Partners Architects: “They are also not prepared to exercise any discretion because they don’t have the confidence, they don’t understand the principles on which the project is based. They rely back on the policies that are written.”

And Bakker, a partner in DIALOG, believes the parade of planning directors who have gone through the city since Ray Spaxman and Larry Beasley 20 years ago has not resulted in a consistent vision for the city.

“I don’t think it has helped us at all. You like to have some certainty, some consistency. You’d like to have a good long run so some ideas can manifest themselves,” he said.

The architects’ comments came on the same day the city finally made public a plan to divide in two the traditional role of planning director and manager of development services.

For all of its history Vancouver has relied upon the director of planning to also be responsible for managing development. But the decision to split the roles is an acknowledgment that they are now mutually exclusive and contain an inherent conflict, with daily development pressures impeding long-term city planning.

Bakker said the split also signals that the city has grown up enough to support the sophisticated and conflicting roles.

“I don’t think this city has seen anything yet,” he said. “People have no idea what is yet to come in the next 40 years and I think some of it is in a lot more exuberant, expensive buildings. We’re starting to see that appear. I think we are at the tip of a new iceberg.”

Under the new plan, the director of planning — a legislatively mandated job under the Vancouver Charter — will report to the new manager of development services.

“You need both a dreamer and an implementer,” said Cheng, who believes the lack of direction has also made it more costly for the average citizen. “It affected the cost of doing business in Vancouver, because everything takes longer. There is nobody there to make decisions,” he said, noting that a decade ago a homeowner might pay a few hundred dollars for a building permit. Now the pre-permit fees are nearly $15,000 just to get the mandatory geotechnical, arborist and environmental engineering reports.

“Think of the poor citizen who owns a 33-foot lot and has saved all his life to build his own house. Before he even gets started he is slapped with all these fees, plus all these months just to get a permit,” he said. “This is not helping affordable housing.”

Bakker said former City Manager Penny Ballem’s consolidation of power has left Vancouver with a lack of senior management with long institutional knowledge.

“The thing I find disconcerting is that … we’ve had a really powerful city manager and a lot of traffic has been directed out of that office,” he said. “You need strong departments. I think we’ve lost a lot of people who were disaffected and took off, and to build that back up is going to take time.”

The trio also weighed in on the city’s long-term policy of protecting downtown view corridors from the incursion of tall buildings. Cheng said in theory it may have been a good idea, but needs to be reviewed.

Henriquez was more direct. Such policies have had a negative effect on livability downtown and have deprived the city of “billions” of dollars in development cost charges that could be used for social good, he said.

“When you are increasing density and you are not increasing the height, you are curtailing the possibility of open spaces. It compromises the livability of the downtown by not having open space and having buildings closer together without enough privacy,” he said. “There is tremendous value in the space up top. If you rezone something overheight, you can use the development cost charges for social housing or whatever. There are billions, billions of dollars at issue.”

All three of the architects were born outside of Canada but chose to make the Vancouver area their home.

Cheng, born in Hong Kong and educated at the University of Washington and Harvard, apprenticed under another Canadian architectural icon, Arthur Erickson. Cheng’s penchant for concrete construction and green glass facades became one of his signatures.

Henriquez, born in Jamaica, had a major hand in formulating some of the striking architecture that has changed Vancouver. He took the old Vancouver Post Office downtown and created Sinclair Centre, and designed the first housing for the re-colonized former industrial lands in False Creek. He also designed the Justice Institute in New Westminster, as well as the Environmental Sciences building at Trent University. With his son Gregory, Henriquez’ company has put an indelible stamp on Vancouver architecture, including the redesign of Woodward’s, the Telus Garden complex and the planned redevelopment of Oakridge Centre.

Bakker, who was born in Curaçao, studied economics and architecture at the University of Toronto. His views of urban issues were influenced by Toronto architect George Baird. His architectural influence is seen in his co-authorship with Norm Hotson of the Granville Island redevelopment, the planned new Student Union Building at the University of B.C., and Richmond City Hall, which won a Governor General’s Medal for architecture.

Source: The Vancouver Sun