By James Bligh…
The partnership of developers and city planners has left cities stung on frequent occasion. Developers are perceived by some to be driven solely by the fiscal opportunities inherent within land, while city planners seem to be misguided in their ambitions. Vancouver may reinforce these stereotypes with its homogenous skyline, although the frequency of highly acclaimed work arising from these partnerships has been increasing. The story of 564 Beatty suggests that Vancouver is improving in its ability to create a vibrant and successful global city, and all the players involved can have a positive influence.
564 Beatty Street: Downtown Development Done Right
In 1985, the SkyTrain was built for the Expo, which caused 564 Beatty to go from a mid-block low-rise heritage building (built in 1906 as a result of the nearby CPR expansion) of little consequence to sharing a corner lot with rapid transit and a plaza. The value of the land skyrocketed despite its low density zoning and heritage designation. It was only a matter of time before a developer became imaginative enough to find a way around those obstacles.
Since 1985, Vancouver has grown in more ways than just land value; developers have become more creative, and city planners have become more critical. Jon Stovell, President of Reliance Properties Ltd, describes several reasons for a shift in developer strategies, which include an increased demand for quality design amongst metropolitan consumers, idiosyncratic “infill” sites as the only land remaining to build upon, and certain developers gaining the prosperity to fund their personal image of community. Reliance Properties Ltd, the company who developed this site, was influenced by all three of these factors when they opted to collaborate with the city for 564 Beatty.
On the city’s side, it may come as no surprise that change has also been brewing, especially with the distasteful memory of discontinued highways, leaky condos, dogged over-use of glass and steel panels, and a growing critical discourse on urban design. The planning director, Brent Toderian, wanted to make certain that this development, a visible heritage project on transit, was going to deliver – “design” was selected as the most important score by which to judge the property for permit.
The result of this collision of motivations included a heritage rehabilitation agreement, variances, a heritage consultant (Donald Luxton & Associates Ltd.), impressive structural ingenuity (John Bryson & Partners), and three architects (Rob Leshgold of Reliance Properties Ltd, IBI Group Inc, and Bruce Carscadden Architect Inc). The end project was creative within the context of its heritage, ambitious with its sustainability objectives, and capable of contributing to the urban fabric of the downtown area.
Juxtaposition Magnifies Heritage
The formal parti is a rectilinear extrusion of the property hovering over the heritage building; a reading which the developer creatively designed to convince the city to add density to the site. The significance of why this parti resonated with the planners is that the new form which floats over the old creates a juxtaposition that manages to amplify ones awareness of the existence of Vancouver’s heritage while producing newly useable space.
The interior, much like the exterior, uses the apposition of old and new to deepen ones’ connection to the heritage of the city. Where possible, the existing levels have been left intact. However, necessary structural upgrades have put the history of the building into a greater perspective. Old growth 4×4 timbers support 2x4s on end in a floor system that (for price) would never be re-produced today; the existence of this system is hyper-accentuated because it is being sandwiched between a new structural system of smooth concrete columns intended for the office above. Other moves made to further the project’s juxtaposition include:
-the lower heritage floors have contemporary new growth wood finishes while the upper floors re-use demolished old growth structure from below
-the parking level has a polished concrete drive visibly butting up to original granite foundations
-the seventh level is set back from the parapet to separate the contemporary office from the heritage building
-there is an enormous punch window with frit through south façade of the heritage building
-pilasters have been removed for lighting, such that the arches “hover” in mid-air along the east façade
The project is equally successful in evoking historic memory as it is in showcasing sustainable practice. The developer was further convincing by scoring LEED points. While the merit of the LEED system may be under question, showcasing green design is a respectable ambition. The evident accentuation of brise soleils, glass frits, and a tenant-accessible green roof indicate future possibilities of contemporary building practice in the city.
Variety to Urban Fabric
With respect to the demands of the city for architecture which helps to break Vancouver out of the banality of its spandex urbanism, the project will boast one of the first “truly European” experiences in the city. The developer is building out the ground floor (which is level 4 as a result of the impressive four-storey change in grade between Beatty Street and the alley below) as a chic restaurant (Chambar) to look over the Keefer Steps and Stadium-Chinatown SkyTrain station. The confluence of individuals with no vehicle traffic and steep grade change will privilege the European notion of flânerie, which in a contemporary context could be interpreted as lounging and people-watching.
A constellation of factors, from challenging land prospects, to demanding consumers, and the evolution of developers, city planners and design offices, may be awakening Vancouver into a truly vibrant city. 564 Beatty shows us that this is possible, and hopefully the trend continues.
James Bligh is a Master of Architecture thesis student, under the guidance of Professor John Shnier, at the University of Toronto’s Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design; James’ studies focus on the phenomenological bonding that takes place between people and architecture, and the strategies architects use to develop those bonds within the current discourse.
More photos of 564 Beatty Street:
Before and after photos: