June 2, 2021

An Uncrossable Line in Vancouver

As with most things involving housing in Vancouver, there were probably several reasons why this motion by councillor Christine Boyle didn’t pass at Council last week:

THAT Council direct staff to bring forward recommendations for Council to consider referring to Public Hearing that would allow development of up to 12 storeys (with a corresponding increase in FSR) in the RM-3A and the RM-4 and RM-4N zoning districts where 100% of the residential floor area is developed as social housing, or social housing in conjunction with a child day care facility.

But there was one reason why it probably didn’t have a chance from the beginning.  It was a number:

Twelve.

When she put forward a proposal that would allow 12-storey highrises without rezonings in neighbourhoods where rooflines don’t go above six, Cllr Boyle was crossing a line that has been mostly unassailable in this city, one deeply rooted in our culture and one that most citizens still believe is a line that should not be crossed.

It’s the tree line.

A personal backstory:

Back in the early ’90s, when Council was dealing with the housing crisis (yes, we thought there was one then), it was decided to release certain industrial lands for redevelopment to build 10,000 new homes – one of which was the Arbutus Brewery site between 10th and 12th, from Arbutus to Connaught Park.

When the residents of Kitsilano saw the proposal, they went ballistic.  Highrises!  Council was shocked by the blowback, given that there were other ‘megaprojects’ underway, all of which involved higher buildings.

During the controversy, I remember one day cycling down the old CPR right-of-way just to the east of Arbutus and stopping where 10th Avenue crossed.   Something intrigued me, something I would have missed if it hadn’t been for the controversy.  I cycled a block to the west and saw a view that more or less looked like this:

 

The trees!  They were huge; they were so tall – at least eight storeys high!  Underneath that canopy was room for, my god, some rather tall buildings.

But anything that went higher than the tree line would violate what the residents meant by ‘character’ – a built environment that was respectful and secondary to the natural one.  A neighbourhood where the combination of front yards, boulevards and street trees was so lush that it was like living in a garden.  A Garden City.

When Ebenezer Howard published the book To-morrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform in 1898 and launched the Garden City movement, it was exactly when Kitsilano was being surveyed, the rail and streetcar lines were being extended, subdivisions laid out, and, for the settlers who built their arts-and-crafts houses and planted European street trees, a kind of affordable Eden, unimaginable for most in the places they left behind.  This was something to protect.

By the 1960s, when the first highrises in Kitsilano went up on the slopes below 4th, in view of the concrete jungle of the West End beyond, blocking the views behind and penetrating the foliage above, Kits knew exactly what it didn’t want and fought to prevent it from happening again.  The story is told by Michael Gordon here and by Michael Kluckner here.

With the Arbutus proposal, it looked as though the battle would have to be fought again on the blocks south of Broadway. The developers and the City quickly realized this was a battle not worth fighting.  The initial design was discarded and a new one, with more consultation, was proposed – one in which, it didn’t have to be said, no building would be above the tree line.

That’s why today Arbutus Gardens looks like this:

 

 

Urban planning historians with an eye for detail, however, may remember an important proviso in the design guidelines:

  • The two overriding principles that affect built form are:

  • (a) the buildings should generally be no higher than 4 storeys at the edges of the site and up to 7storeys in the central area of the site; and

  • (b) the exceptions to the above massing principle will be made as follows:(i) where existing buildings exceed these heights and are to be reconstructed in a style reminiscent of the original buildings;

  • and (ii) to accommodate non-market housing.

The first exception was intended for a re-creation of the original brewery (right) and the second, for non-market housing, was never needed.  From above, the Arbutus Lands stays respectfully below the highest trees:

Others will note that there are indeed highrises that rise like peaks above the vast prairie of single-family-like housing – and their even more modest tree lines.  But if they’re not in allowable RM zones, they are, like the tower at Knight and Kingsway, along arterial avenues (left) – a point made by Dan Fumano in a recent story: “Can apartment blocks exist on Vancouver side streets? Why not?” – where even consideration of five-storey buildings off arterials raises pre-emptive hackles.

Christine Boyle’s motion might have survived (it only proposed a staff report back on considerations, after all) if it hadn’t violated that leafy barrier  in neighbourhoods across the city, east- and west-sides, that had no expectation of such intrusions.  No matter how urgent the need for more affordable housing (hey, it’s an emergency!), no majority on Council will put their political survival at risk to do something that might actually lever density to make the numbers work.

And that is why the city-wide plan steadily approaching an election deadline has little hope of passing in any form that might go against something so fundamental about this city and culture that we don’t even have to talk about it to know that it is somehow sacrilegious.

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. A good observation. If it isn’t already, can this 4-6 storey threshold be formally recognized by the zoning code or the city’s urban design guidelines? Giving it a name can help frame acceptance and passage future developments.

  2. Ah, but you’re basing that observation on an ‘artificial’ limit created by non-native species of trees.
    If you consider that the tree atop the Eugenia represents the historic ‘natural’ tree line of the coast forest, then that would perhaps allow towers up to that height?

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