If you haven’t been to downtown Vancouver for awhile, you might be in for a bit of a shock.
Several new highrise towers have gone up or are being constructed, dramatically changing the downtown skyline.
The southwest corner of Georgia and Homer has an unusual and imaginative new 24-storey office tower that twists in four-storey blocks, like a Rubik’s Cube.
Across the street, the old post office is being transformed into a giant mixed-use project with 1.05 million square feet of office space and 175,000 sq. ft. of retail.
The old post office was already a massive, bunker-like building that took up an entire block. But the redevelopment makes it much bigger, because two glass towers have been plopped on top of the existing heritage building.
The towers aren’t that tall as skyscrapers go — the south tower along Georgia is 19 storeys, the north tower along Dunsmuir is 22 storeys. But they feel enormous, because they go right to the edge of the building and run for the entire block.
Three blocks up Georgia at Granville, the Hudson’s Bay recently announced plans to add a 12-storey glass box on top of its existing six-storey store.
It hasn’t been submitted to the city yet, but the proposal would more than double the building size to 1.4 million sq. ft.
That breaks down to roughly one million sq. ft. of offices in the glass tower, and 400,000 sq. ft. for the store, a reinforced concrete structure that would need costly seismic upgrading and heritage restoration.
This isn’t the only proposal to add a big glass box onto a heritage building downtown — it’s part of a trend.
Bonnis Properties wants to add a tapering glass tower atop the east side of the 800 block of Granville Street that would rise up to 18 storeys. Not just on one or two properties, but over top of almost the entire block, including the historic Commodore Ballroom.
Bonnis also wants to build a 24-storey glass tower at 526 Granville on top of the three-storey Leckie Block, an 1899 structure with one of the city’s last stone facades.
The trend is not new — in 2017, a 31-storey glass office tower was built on top of and around the 1929 Vancouver Stock Exchange building, which was 11 storeys.
But the concept of adding new structures on top of heritage buildings definitely seems to be picking up steam, given the demand for downtown space.
Robert Lemon used to be the head of Vancouver’s heritage department. Asked about the Bay proposal, he said, “I think it’s a very elegant solution, in itself. But I’m not sure we need to have huge buildings on top of already large heritage buildings.”
When Lemon worked for the city, it developed a heritage density transfer program. If the owner of a heritage building restored their building, they were eligible to sell “air rights” or density to developers to compensate for the restoration and/or lost redevelopment costs.
“We assumed that an A-listed, designated building was essentially good as it is, and it isn’t expected to be redeveloped,” said Lemon, a retired architect.
At the Hotel Georgia, for example, the existing building was retained at the same size in a redevelopment and a highrise condo built on its former parking lot. The hotel was seismically upgraded and restored, and the cost was covered by the addition of several storeys of density to the new tower.
But policy has changed. Now you can add lots of density on top, which can trigger a much more extensive upgrade.
“It’s a Catch-22,” said Lemon. “The minute you start to add on top of a building, you make it more expensive to add on top of the building, because you have to upgrade the whole building, all the way through.
“You keep piling on more costs, therefore you need more density to justify the cost of upgrading the building you’re putting the box on top of. It’s a spiralling upward premise.”
Heritage consultant Don Luxton said there is a lot of pressure to redevelop sites downtown. But the city ended its heritage density transfer program several years ago, and owners of heritage properties can find themselves facing costly upgrades.
“We’ve always had vertical additions to buildings, it’s the scale of them that is changing,” said Luxton, who worked on the old post office project.
“That’s reflective of the pressure we’re under from a density point of view — there’s so much pressure to build. There’s an economy that is free market driven.
“What is really important to understand is that the city keeps putting the taxes up, so buildings that you think are perfectly adequate for their purpose can’t pay the taxes anymore, so it drives much of this work.”
It isn’t just bigger heritage buildings that are being redeveloped. At Homer and Pender, Chard Developments wants to add two storeys to the three-storey Hartney Chambers building, a Heritage B structure that was built at 343 West Pender in 1906.
A second, seven-storey building would go up at what is now 424 Homer, on the site of a relatively nondescript two-storey building that currently houses a massage parlour.
But underneath the facade is an 1892 building that was once the headquarters of the Vancouver World, pioneer Vancouver’s top newspaper. Heritage advocate Patrick Gunn said it was designed by one of B.C.’s most renowned architects, Samuel Maclure.
“It’s hugely important,” said Gunn. “That’s Samuel Maclure’s earliest commercial extant structure.”
Vintage photos of 424 Homer show a handsome commercial structure with lovely arched windows. But the original facade has been covered up, and when the Vancouver Heritage Register was compiled in the 1980s, it was missed. Not being on the register, it can be demolished.
Luxton said if Vancouver wants to protect its heritage buildings, it’s going to have to make some changes.
“I think is we need more flexibility in terms of transferring density around, and possibly get rid of the view cones so we can build (higher) in those areas rather than put the pressure on our heritage buildings,” he said.
“And we should we advocating for federal tax credits for heritage. These are all things that would make a difference.”
Former heritage planner Jeannette Hlavach said the city could also put a cap on the zoning and density of heritage sites. But it isn’t likely, given the city’s current push for density.
“There is a way that this could all get ratcheted down, which is if people didn’t have the expectation that they can get so much more density because the zoning is so big,” she said.
“It is all legally possible, but there isn’t the political will to do that.”
So what’s going to happen in the foreseeable future? More projects like The Post and The Bay will likely be proposed.
“In some ways, it is great that people think that downtown Vancouver is an area worth investing in,” said Hlavach.
“Perhaps that’s a good thing. But losing the character of the downtown and some of our really iconic buildings, like the Hudson’s Bay, it’s disappointing.”
Lemon said it “seems like open season” for major redevelopments of heritage buildings.
“You have a heritage building? Let’s just put a big tower on top of it, and get double the density,” he said.
“There’s no benchmark, no baseline for density anymore, everything is sky’s the limit basically. I guess people look at sites that don’t punch the view cone, and then they build up as much as they can.”
The city of Vancouver didn’t make a planner available to talk about the issue. But it did send an email reply when asked why it was approving redevelopments on top of heritage buildings.
“Heritage Policies and the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada generally allow for a modest rooftop addition to a heritage building, as long as it is done in a compatible but distinguishable way,” it reads.
“In this way, the heritage value of the existing building would be preserved while the addition would provide the owner with the financial ability — through additional housing and/or job space — to allow the heritage conservation. The extent of the addition depends on the size of heritage building and could vary from one setback floor to multiple additional storeys.”
Lemon agrees that “compatible but distinguishable” additions to a heritage building are accepted practice. But he questions whether The Post project, for one, meets that standard.
“The measure for an addition to a building in good heritage conservation is, is it compatible, is it distinguishable, and is it a product of its time,” he said.
“In the case of The Post, is it compatible? I don’t think it is, at all. Is it distinguishable? Well it certainly is. Is it a product of its time? Well I guess it is, in that the trend is to add great big bulky modern boxes on top of historic buildings.”
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