Opinion: Central Broadway's job growth potential blocked by mountain view cones

Feb 26 2021, 7:16 pm

Dozens of view cones emanating from public spaces in Vancouver serve to restrict building heights that protect unobstructed sight lines of the North Shore mountains.

The most significant view cone is from Queen Elizabeth Park, which emanates from the park’s viewing area of the downtown skyline and mountains, just northeast of the Bloedel Conservatory.

View cones establish a “view corridor” — an air space where the heights of new buildings are forbidden from protruding into.

While view cones are perhaps best known for curbing the heights of buildings within the downtown peninsula, the Queen Elizabeth Park view cone, also known as View Cone 3.0, severely restricts not only the heights of downtown but also along the Central Broadway Corridor, especially the office and health precinct anchored by Vancouver General Hospital (VGH) and the BC Cancer Research Centre.

The current inflexibility of this particular view cone conflicts with the Broadway Plan’s possible strategy of allowing greater office and healthcare-related density through added height for the general area from the Millennium Line’s future Oak-VGH Station to the new Broadway-City Hall Station transit hub interchange between the Canada Line and Millennium Line.

In their ongoing public consultation on the Broadway Plan, city staff acknowledge View Cone 3.0 is a major restraint for a large stretch of the Central Broadway Corridor between Main Street and Oak Street. For this reason, city staff are suggesting to “review view cones, if necessary, where increased heights are being considered” within Uptown/Cambie North — an area between Oak Street to the west and Yukon Street to the east, and as far south as West 13th Avenue and as far north as 1st Avenue.

uptown cambie north broadway vancouver

The Uptown/Cambie North sub-area of Central Broadway. (City of Vancouver)

It is important to emphasize that the relaxations would mostly be considered for additional employment spaces as a means of capturing the tangible, material, economic and job-creating benefits of the transit investment. This is about generating tens of thousands of additional general office, tech, and healthcare-related jobs within close proximity to a $2.8 billion subway.

The matter of view cones and how they relate to the Broadway Plan are likely to come to a head over the course of 2021, ahead of city council’s decision on the final plan towards the end of this year.

In a motion to be deliberated in a public meeting next month, NPA Park Board commissioner John Coupar suggested the importance of protecting mountain and skyline views from Queen Elizabeth Park, and drew attention to the possibility that View Cone 3.0 could be relaxed under the Broadway Plan.

View Cone 3.0 from Queen Elizabeth Park

View Cone 3.0 from Queen Elizabeth Park’s designated viewing area of the mountains and skyline. Tall trees growing at the park also protrude into this view cone. (City of Vancouver)

“Queen Elizabeth Park is an iconic, highly valued horticultural jewel in our city. Along with the Bloedel Conservatory at the pinnacle of the park, the park is a major draw for floral display enthusiasts and view-seekers, as well as a popular backdrop for wedding photos,” reads his motion, while also noting that Queen Elizabeth Park is the highest geographical point within Vancouver, with its elevation of 410 ft (125 metres).

“The view corridor from Queen Elizabeth Park is irreplaceable. The view has immense, demonstrable value for our city, its people, and the larger city economy,” continues the motion.

“If this view were to be lost and/or negatively impacted through any change brought about by the Broadway Plan, the city would be greatly diminished – not only in the eyes of our city’s residents but also in the eyes of the world.”

Coupar is calling on the Park Board to formally show its opposition to Vancouver City Council and city staff on any change to the protected views from Queen Elizabeth Park.

View Cone 3.0 from Queen Elizabeth Park

View Cone 3.0 from Queen Elizabeth Park blankets much of Central Broadway and the downtown peninsula. (City of Vancouver)

Central Broadway covers a large area of what is considered the Metro Core, which also entails all of the downtown peninsula. Over time, Central Broadway — as reinforced by the Broadway Plan’s principles — is expected to become an extension of the city centre, building upon its existing strengths as the region’s second largest employment centre after downtown.

But the full potential to help meet the region’s broader economic, social, healthcare, and cultural objectives will be limited if severe limitations on height persist.

In virtually every instance where view cones are a consideration for a new building design, whether it be in downtown or Central Broadway, the proposals touch the absolute ceiling of the permitted height governed by the view cone, almost as if they were being forced to be moulded into the position.

Surely, it cannot be a coincidence that nearly all applications use up the entirety of their permitted height.

There are some recent examples of the limitations from View Cone 3.0 being put to the test in and around Central Broadway.

In October 2020, city council approved a 12-storey building with 120,000 sq ft of office and retail space for the site at 24 East Broadway. Despite its location just two blocks west of the future Mount Pleasant Station at Main Street, it could only reach a height of 148 ft (45 metres) by touching against the View Cone 3.0 ceiling crossing above the site.

24 East Broadway Vancouver

View cone height restrictions over 24 East Broadway, Vancouver. (Formosis Architecture/Value Property Group)

24 East Broadway Vancouver

Artistic rendering of 24 East Broadway, Vancouver. (Formosis Architecture/Value Property Group)

Not even social housing is spared from view cones.

In December 2020, a not-for-profit organization submitted a rezoning application to build 135 social housing units for women and their children at 546 West 13th Avenue, just west of Cambie Street and a short walk from Broadway-City Hall Station.

Due to View Cone 3.0, this building’s height is just 133 ft (40.5 metres) at 13 storeys, with zero room to spare between the rooftop and imaginary restrictive line. As a vertical ascension was not an available option, the applicants note they had to increase the size of the floor plates to “maximize the amount of critically needed affordable housing,” but this horizontal increase was marginal at best.

546 West 13th Avenue Vancouver Soroptimist Apartment House

Diagram of the new Soroptimist Apartment House at 546 West 13th Avenue, Vancouver. The View Cone 3.0 height limit is noted. (GBL Architects/Soroptimist International Vancouver/Purpose Driven Development)

546 West 13th Avenue Vancouver Soroptimist Apartment House

Artistic rendering of the new Soroptimist Apartment House at 546 West 13th Avenue, Vancouver. (GBL Architects/Soroptimist International Vancouver/Purpose Driven Development)

For the former MEC store building at 130 West Broadway, just three city blocks east of Broadway-City Hall Station, there is a proposal to redevelop the site into a mixed-use complex with a pair of twin residential towers reaching a height of up to 23 storeys — a peak height of over 200 ft (61+ metres) — sitting on top of a multi-level commercial podium with restaurant and retail space, including a grocery store.

But this project is stalled and has yet to enter the formal application process in large part due to View Cone 3.0, which would snip the height of towers at roughly 145 ft (44 metres).

130 West Broadway Vancouver

Artistic rendering of the MEC store redevelopment at 130 West Broadway, Vancouver. (Neil M Denari Architects/IBI Group Architects)

130 West Broadway Vancouver

Artistic rendering of the MEC store redevelopment at 130 West Broadway, Vancouver. (Neil M Denari Architects/IBI Group Architects)

And all of this only covers the impact of the Queen Elizabeth Park view cone.

There are view cones that protect the views to and from Vancouver City Hall, but they cover a far smaller area compared to View Cone 3.0. Most of the city hall view cone impacts, however, are oriented north-south between the general transit-oriented area of Broadway-City Hall Station and Olympic Village Station.

Another significant constraint comes from the VGH helicopter flight path. This constraint, paired with the overlapping View Cone 3.0, severely inhibits the long-term expansion of the hospital campus and associated research facilities, and the potential for greater office and hotel space in the northwest corner of the Uptown/Cambie North area.

Height restrictions across the Broadway Plan due to mountain view cones and the flight path for Vancouver General Hospital helicopters. Click on the image for an enlarged version of this map. (City of Vancouver)

In January 2020, city council approved the rezoning application for Park Inn & Suites by Radisson at 878-898 West Broadway — the southeast corner of the intersection of West Broadway and Laurel Street, just beyond VGH’s emergency room entrance and immediately west of the future Oak-VGH Station.

The redevelopment will create two new hotel buildings, reaching up to 139 ft (42 metres) at 11 storeys and 13 storeys, containing 438 rooms — a mix of 258 traditional short-term stay hotel units and 180-long-term stay units with kitchenettes — to meet the diverse needs of both tourists and medical precinct visitors, including people working in or accessing medical services and families of patients.

878-898 West Broadway Vancouver View Cone

Diagram showing height restrictions for 878-898 West Broadway, Vancouver.

878-898 West Broadway Vancouver

Artistic rendering of 878-898 West Broadway, Vancouver. (Arno Matis Architecture)

If it were not for View Cone 3.0’s coverage over the east building and the helipad flight path’s coverage over both buildings, the applicant would have pursued a larger redevelopment with more hotel rooms serving hospital and research visitors, and added commercial space.

It becomes evident that the relaxation of the overwhelming View Cone 3.0 is a sensible approach to offset the non-negotiable constraints of the helicopter flight path and the retainment of the smaller view cones that cross through Central Broadway, specifically the view cones relating to city hall. By allowing additional density through height for areas that are only impacted by View Cone 3.0, the city will be able to meet its goals for Uptown/Cambie North, and both the hospital and healthcare-related institutions in the area will gain new flexibility for their expansion.

Vancouver’s future growth depends on secondary core areas like Central Broadway, especially as downtown becomes more built out.

The municipal government’s recent Employment Lands and Economy Review determined that there is significant long-term demand for office and hotel space in the city. But based on existing policies and regulations, such as zoning and view cones, the capacity to meet this demand is mostly located outside of the Metro Core — peripheral areas that do not have the same appeal as the region’s cultural, economic, and financial hub, where there is a concentration of amenities and services, an established business environment, and optimal transportation infrastructure.

View Cones Height Restrictions

View cones and flight path height restrictions over the Broadway Corridor. (City of Vancouver)

Vancouver view cones

Map showing Vancouver’s major view cone height restrictions. (City of Vancouver)

The downtown peninsula’s long-term growth is constrained from expanding vertically due to view cones, west due to Stanley Park, north and south due to the water, and east due to the heritage and inner city constraints of Gastown, Downtown Eastside, and Chinatown.

With the peninsula constrained in such a manner, Central Broadway needs to be Vancouver’s equivalent of what Bloor Street is to Toronto, the Uptown area located north of downtown Toronto.

“Industry experts have advised that the market demand for new space in areas outside of the core Downtown and Central Broadway areas is uncertain, and that Vancouver should consider ways to ensure that the supply of new office and hotel space can meet demand in the Metro Core over the long-term,” reads a city staff report.

“Failing to do so may result in upward pressure on rents and impact the diversity of employers who can afford to operate in Vancouver. This could have significant impacts on resilience and the long-term economic health of the city.”

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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