July 7, 2021

Buildings That Changed Vancouver – The Observatory

Today’s example is in the City of North Vancouver, and the building is The Observatory (120 West 2nd Street).  At 26 storeys, the tallest in the city, and one that nobody was expecting, even though it was perfectly legal.

When the developer, Cressey Development Corporation, showed up in 1987/88 with plans to demolish the historic St. Alice Hotel and replace it with a tower that tall, the building sent shudders through the community, including City Hall.

Such a building would not be allowed under the recently approved 1980 Official Community Plan (OCP), which set a height maximum of 75 feet – assuming, that is, that when the OCP had been approved, the underlying zoning had also been amended to match the OCP.  But it wasn’t.

The underlying zoning had been in place since 1967 and had no height limit. Several lower towers had already been built in Lower Lonsdale in the 1960s and 70s. So, throughout the 1980s, the City had a 75-foot height limit in the OCP, but no height limit in some Lower Lonsdale zones. It is not clear why this conflict was allowed to exist after 1980. Perhaps there was not ongoing political support for the reduced OCP height. Perhaps the politicians wished to avoid the unpleasantness of a downzoning. Perhaps they were unaware.

Negotiations ensued.  Temporary heritage protection was put into place by the City. A feasibility study revealed that the unreinforced masonry building was not practical to save.  With Cressey being entitled to an outright building permit under the current zoning, the building permit was issued and the tallest building on the North Shore was completed in 1990. At twice the height of other towers in the area, the Observatory stuck out against the mountains of the North Shore.

To address the conflict between the OCP and Zoning Bylaws, City Council quickly commissioned a view study and imposed heights of 120 feet.

Subsequently, as part of a Lower Lonsdale Planning Study in the mid 1990s, staff pointed out that if everything that followed was to be limited to 120 feet, the Observatory would forever stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.  Better to allow a range of heights up to 180 feet (at the OCP allowable density), resulting in thinner towers that would rise towards the Observatory, creating more of a shaped urban skyline.  (Where would they have gotten that inspiration, do you think?) Given the slope of the Lonsdale area, the towers built behind, even if lower, would still keep most of their views to the south.

Consider the irony: if it wasn’t for the egregious imposition of The Observatory, CNV today would have a flat squat skyline, with little prospect that a council would find the political will to raise height limits in the face of public opposition to view-blocking highrises.


With thanks to past CNV planner Gary Penway.

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