Opinion: Arbitrary view cone height restrictions are strangling Vancouver's potential
There is no question that the view cones, a policy enforced by the City of Vancouver that limits the heights of the buildings to protect sight lines of the North Shore mountains from a number of arbitrary perspectives, have hurt the city’s true economic potential.
This is not to say views of our mountains are not an iconic asset, however, the lengths to which Vancouver will go to protect these views speaks to the concerning dependancy the city places on its nature-based vanity. Indeed, at some point, the sheltering of these outward views only serves to hinder badly needed inner development and the opportunity for creative urban maturation.
At times, it even amounts to an affront to common sense, especially when the city is facing an affordability and supply crisis with office and residential space.
A blanket approach to the view cone policy, mixed with other newer variables, such as designs that avoid shadowing on public parks and intersections, is severely curbing the creation of highly viable, efficiently-designed buildings.
This hinderance to take advantage of economies of scale has resulted in higher office and residential prices from design inefficiencies, and has contributed to Vancouver’s ‘horizontal’ growth – threatening heritage buildings and areas – in the absence of the ability to gain verticality. When pent-up market demand is forced to scatter, this adds to the already-elevated property prices.
Even though Vancouver’s civic leaders perpetuate themselves to be at the forefront of the green movement, some of their decisions that restrict height and density are anything but environmentally friendly.
Even transit-oriented developments are inhibited by view cones
Vancouver’s approach to its view cones has pushed growth into other less-centralized and even far-flung areas of the city, as well as the suburban municipalities, where transit is far less available, resulting in more vehicle usage.
And billions of dollars of public transit infrastructure investments in downtown Vancouver are adjacent to buildings that are, for the most part, no taller than around 20 to 30 storeys due to the view cones. This is certainly not an efficient use of transit-oriented development space.
Meanwhile, true transit-oriented developments around SkyTrain stations in the suburban municipalities are seeing taller general heights that rival the tallest buildings in downtown. In fact, given the trend of growth occurring in the less-pretentious suburban municipalities, the tallest buildings in the region will soon be located outside the City of Vancouver.
The municipal government’s approval last year of a short seven-storey commercial building replacing the two-storey Original Joe’s restaurant building at the southwest corner of the intersection of West Broadway and Cambie Street – the interchange junction of two SkyTrain lines, the Canada Line and the future Broadway Extension, representing nearly $5 billion worth of transit investments – is a testament to what is simply poor planning with little emphasis on sound economics.
The height of this corner site is restricted by the view cones from Vancouver City Hall and Queen Elizabeth Park. In Burnaby, Coquitlam, or Surrey, a site like this would at least be several times taller, and without any drama and theatrics.
It’s time to ‘weed out’ the less consequential view cones
Prominent Vancouver architect James Cheng, who has had an immense influence on Vancouver’s architectural style, believes there is a need for the municipal government to review its overall view cone policy so that it balances aesthetic and economic considerations.
“I feel the City really needs to look at the number of view cones they have and weed out those that are less consequential and really stick with the really important ones, and allow the other ones to be abolished,” Cheng told Daily Hive. “If these view cones are restricting the growth of Vancouver and it’s causing the land value to go up, there is no question about it. But it has certain benefits that I do support.”
“I’m all for a thorough review of view cones to really free up more space, but I’m not all for abolishing 100% all of the view cones because I know what a disaster the city would be if we did that. But then if we have too many view cones, well if you look at the view cone map, pretty much the entire city of Vancouver is covered with view cones. And that to me is ridiculous.”
Cheng says the view cones initially had good intentions, but over time they grew out of control with the addition of view cones from arbitrary locations.
There are now currently over 30 view cones, including six from the peak of Queen Elizabeth Park, four from the Granville Street Bridge, two on the Cambie Street Bridge, and one from the plaza at Olympic Village.
“The first batch of view cones was for major public spaces to look at The Lions’ twin peaks on the North Shore and other mountain landmark peaks. I think those were very good view cones,” he said.
“But after that, people started tinkering with that and added more and more view cones, and this has resulted in redundant view cones or superfluous view cones.”
He cites the example of view cones from the middle of the decks of the Cambie Street Bridge and Granville Street Bridge as being completely pointless.
“That to me is a useless view cone because you can imagine a person walking or a car driving, that’s only a short moment in time. And you’ve got views all the way around to the east and you see all the other mountains,” said Cheng. “The view cones that are transitory or transitional are not right because with those changes, you only get a few seconds of it.”
Exceptions for buildings of a high architectural standard
Cheng believes views of major landmarks of the mountains from well-established, well-used public spaces should be protected, and at the same time exceptions should be made for certain buildings of a high architectural standard to protrude into the view cones.
“The example I would use is in all the European towns where the cathedrals are always taller than anything else, and they become a part of the view,” he said.
“If we have a civic building or something that is important to the city of Vancouver that deserves to be a landmark that can stand up against the mountains, I am all for that. But all the other people who are doing it for greed, they should respect the view cones for the public good.”
But Cheng emphasized the importance of not having the pendulum swing too far the other way either.
“We don’t want it to be like New York or Chicago where they have no mountains to relate to,” he said. “It’s like Calgary and Toronto. The downtown silhouette in both cities are the signature skyline for Calgary and Toronto. But in Vancouver, our signature skyline is our mountains in contrast with the buildings.”
‘Overly complicated and contrived’
Jason Turcotte, the vice-president of development at Cressey Development Group, agrees with Cheng’s general assertions – that there is a need for view cones, but they are currently too extreme.
“View cones certainly serve a purpose, but I believe there are far too many and complicated to understand. I think it would be wise to simplify them, pick the view cones that are really significant, and provide a broad benefit to broader areas. It is so overly complicated and contrived, and the cost far outweighs the benefit,” said Turcotte.
“But there are certainly some view cones that have maintained and rightfully so because the benefit is broad. I think we would be well served to simplify the number and relax some areas where the benefit is not as great. I definitely do see the value of view cones, and I don’t see it as something that needs to go away altogether.”
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Editor’s note: This article discusses Vancouver’s general view cone policies, and does not weigh in on any specific project being considered.