Crystal Court bogged down

August 24, 2008 at 11:01 pm 8 comments

I guess it comes as no surprise that a plot of land that used to be the edge of a mud flat is now home to a proposal that is bogged down–stuck in the mire with no end in sight. Says the Victoria News’ Keith Vass:

After being consistently told by city planners their designs have been too tall for the sensitive site, with negative impacts on views from the Inner Harbour, Westbank was back at City Hall Thursday to ask council to forward its latest model – five metres shorter than the 53.1-metre design they showed in July – to a public hearing for rezoning.

But minutes before the meeting was to begin, Westbank architect James Cheng handed planners yet another design with another five-metre height reduction, down to 43 metres, but still more than double the site’s existing 21.5-metre height limit.

The move prompted councillors to table their decision until planners have a chance to assess the latest change, now the fifth version Westbank has brought forward.

I have a thick stack of renderings stashed in my filing cabinet dating back two years showing the various versions of the mixed-use condo project Westbank has dubbed Crystalview. It’s really been a comedy of errors–ripe humour if it wasn’t for the vast amounts of money spent in endless consultation, architectural revisions and development fees.

It started out as a condo tower with a satellite gallery of the AGGV beside it. A much needed amenity but some community activists protested loudly about the height of the tower and the fear that this would be the start of a new rush of high rise towers ringing Beacon Hill Park, Manhattan style.

The neighbouring Queen Victoria Inn would love a tall tower as it would pile the density to the east of the site, preserving the northerly views of the hotel’s guests. The AGGV wanted the stand-alone gallery because, hey, free gallery. And the tourism focus of the gallery fits the existing James Bay plan.

The site is in James Bay although it sits at the conjuction of three neighbourhoods, including Fairfield and Downtown. The fact that it is separated from the rest of James Bay by the Provincially-owned Legislative Precinct earned the CrystalView site the nickname James Bay’s Kaliningrad.

Once community pressure killed the art gallery plan (it had to be stand-alone for security and safety reasons) Westbank literally went back to the drawing board. City Planners hinted that a spread-out density model, similar to the new Aria condo across the street would be easier for decision makers to swallow. There seemed to be consensus behind the scenes at City Hall that more density than that provided by the little motor court motel is justified but no-one could agree on how that density should be massed, ie: how high is high enough.

Unfortunately for Westbank, no-one at City Hall could supply them with a floor count. One version of the discussion that was related to me was that the developer could submit a plan and wait to see if it gained acceptance. If it didn’t pass muster they were welcome to submit another plan. The original single tower/art gallery morphed into a twin-tower/art gallery, then a twin tower/retail. Then back to a single tower/retail. Then a shorter tower. Then a still shorter tower. And yet another shorter, squatter tower stripped of its dramatic sleek curving curtain wall, redesigned to guarantee acceptance due to its standard rectangular brick-clad facade found in several other recent buildings around Downtown. Unfortunately, (have I used that word too much already?) the most recent appeasement came too close to Council’s Committee of the Whole deadline to give Council sufficient time to digest this latest variation. So it was tabled yet again.

I agree with the activists in that the residential only aspect is a downside. There will be a retail component, likely a cafe, but this site would benefit from uses that would attract locals and tourists alike and the art gallery was a perfect complement. Unfortu — er, sadly, whatever is built there will likely be of middling quality. A result of years of compromises.

Yes, height is an issue here and we should be extra cautious when contemplating significant architecture within a stone’s throw of Rattenbury’s masterpieces. But we must ensure that whatever ends up on the Crystal Court motel site is worthy of inclusion in this attractive and constantly changing neighbourhood.

After last week’s Committee of the Whole meeting where the proposal was tabled I debated the latest concept with writer Yule Heibel and a vocal community activist or two. A passionate discussion in the antechamber at City Hall was captured by the Vic News’ Vass and was briefly reported as follows:

Fairfield land-use chair Wayne Hollohan also criticized councillors for letting the application continue without scaling down the size. “I’m shocked that it’s still being considered and such minor changes could actually keep this topic alive,” he said.

But Downtown Residents’ Association chair Robert Randall took the opposite view and urged council to finally send the project to public hearing.

Randall, echoing comments from Victoria urban design critic Yule Heibel, called the building’s series of design changes “death by a thousand cuts,” noting it’s morphed from a distinctive tall curved-glass form to a generic masonry-and-stucco building.

“Our goal shouldn’t be to design buildings that disappear, our goal should be to design buildings that look good from any angle,” he said.

What I was advocating was not necessarily approval of the design. I simply felt that Westbank’s proposal should have been given a public hearing, sink or swim. If it’s voted down then so be it. But we have to stop being so wishy-washy with developers. If extra density is desired on a certain site then let’s talk about how much and how to mass it in order to respect viewscapes and view corridors, keeping in mind modern architecture must complement heritage and not be subservient to it. To do otherwise courts aesthetic and economic disaster.

Entry filed under: architecture, arts and culture, media, urban design.

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Yule Heibel  |  August 25, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    Great commentary on and summary of this sorry saga, Rob.

    It’s no secret I was rooting for the first iteration, the one that included the free-standing Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.

    I feel that since then, the designs have suffered — you’re right that the residential-only aspect is troweling things on too thickly, and I guess the Art Gallery was the most salient counterweight to that. A coffee shop or restaurant doesn’t have the same pull.

    Council made some bad decisions for Victoria by not letting that original concept go to public hearing, for that’s the one that should have gotten a hearing.

    I also truly think we’ve got a split Planning Dept that’s playing politics (split insofar as some don’t want tall buildings while others do, with politics entering insofar as staff members hedge their bets as to who’s going to win in the November election), and we have a Council that thinks it can be Planners, but making decisions about height based on personal prejudice, not on the merits of the proposal.

    Reply
  • 2. Davin Greenwell  |  August 25, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    Can they not bring the first design back to the table with a public hearing in mind?

    Reply
  • 3. robertrandall  |  August 25, 2008 at 10:49 pm

    Davin, I suppose they could but the 19 to 21 storey height was a big sticking point.

    Based on talks with some of those involved, I believe that if Westbank had simply lopped a few storeys off the top (and perhaps squashed the building down a bit, making it less slim) it would have likely met with City approval; say something in the range of 15 storeys.

    There is one aspect that disturbs me: there has been no serious discussion of the shadowing issue. Regardless of what may or may not happen on the Crystal Garden block, the north side of Belleville (the lawn bowling green) would benefit from direct sunlight. If it becomes a gallery/plaza, the sun would help ensure its popularity as a public gathering place.

    But a short, wide building will block more sun than a tall, slender one.

    This is why I was not concerned about shadows cast by Westbank’s Falls condo project: the tower’s shadow fell mainly on Douglas Street during most of the day. Crystalview is another story.

    Reply
  • 4. davin  |  August 26, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    The shadow aspect is one that I certainly haven’t considered in my (shallow) reading and thoughts on the scenario.

    Can’t disagree with you, people seem to like the sun..

    Reply
  • 5. robertrandall  |  August 26, 2008 at 10:14 pm

    Shadowing and view corridors are huge issues that are frequently ignored in the height frenzy that envelopes most development discussions. I fear the compromise with Crystalview will be short low-rises that block the sunlight on the north of Belleville.

    Dockside Green is another lost opportunity. In the panic to squash the towers views from Tyee to the water were mostly lost. Going down Tyee you’d hardly realize you were right along the Upper Harbour.

    However, one of the drawbacks to piling density on top of a tower is you lose lower suites (more affordable) and gain high suites (less affordable.)

    Reply
  • 6. davin  |  August 27, 2008 at 3:29 pm

    Certainly it sounds like there is some sort of ideal height with a balance between affordability and width/view-blocking. What is the ideal height?

    Reply
  • 7. robertrandall  |  August 27, 2008 at 10:04 pm

    Affordability on this site isn’t really an issue. It will either be high end or luxury high end. You can arm wrestle the developer for a couple of CRD-sponsored housing units but that’s about it.

    Ideal height is a difficult one. I believe in the “clustered height” model for Downtown’s skyline where small groupings of highrises are scattered throughout the Downtown as opposed to a “mountain” skyline where all the height is piled into one area.

    Anything higher than around 15 storeys on the Crystal Court motel site is going to stand alone. Not that it’s good or bad, just that it likely won’t have any neigbouring highrises so it would violate my clustered high rise vision.

    But if it’s an architectural masterpiece it could very well stand alone successfully. A mediocre design would be an eyesore. A good one is a respected landmark. That’s what we should be obsessing about!

    Reply
  • 8. robertrandall  |  August 27, 2008 at 10:10 pm

    Before anyone gets into a tizzy, I’m not advocating skyscrapers! That’s an architectural form I don’t think this city is ready for. Nor do I advocate high rises in Victoria outside the Downtown core.

    One of the things that makes Victoria special is the clear delineation between the urban and suburban environment.

    Reply

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