Calling the implications of a planned down-zoning of a Johnston Road property “truly staggering,” a former Vancouver city planner – now employed as a consultant for the in-limbo Lady Alexandra project – is urging the City of White Rock to consider a new, “improved” design for the 12-storey building.
Brent Toderian was to have spoken at a Feb. 25 public hearing on a bylaw to change the zoning on the Lady Alexandra site – at 1310 Johnston Rd. The hearing was postponed until this Monday (March 11) at council’s 7 p.m. meeting at city hall.
Toderian, who will be in Europe at that time, has pre-recorded a 15-minute video statement to be viewed by council in five-minute increments, between other public comments.
In it, he warns the city of legal challenges and “devastating reputational damage and credibility damage” should the down-zoning bylaw be passed.
The mixed retail and residential use building had its development permit approved by council in 2018, but has since been held in abeyance by the city’s newly-elected council, which rode to victory last fall on a wave of anti-highrise sentiment.
Lacking only a building permit, the project was clawed back under a provision of the Municipal Act, while council considers down-zoning the property – still home to the Leela Thai Restaurant and several other businesses – to a six-storey maximum.
In his video, posted to YouTube, Toderian says that as someone who worked as a city planner for over 27 years – and now works as an independent consultant advising developers on the viability of their proposals – his primary focus is “always on defending the public interest.”
“I’m not a developer…I’m not a ‘hired gun,’” he tells council.
But he says the current process with regard to the Lady Alexandra project is unlike anything he has encountered in his experience as a planner.
“In 27 years, I have never seen a situation where an official plan was put in place, a rezoning was sought and approved for a particular development, the permit was sought and approved… then at the stage where a building permit would normally be applied for, the city initiates a down-zone process after an election,” he says.
Not only is it “devastating” to the property owners, he says, “but there is a ripple effect in terms of the reputation and the credibility of the municipality as a good faith partner, as someone who doesn’t change the rules at the 12th hour.”
Toderian says the building permit process is a final check that technical work is being performed and previously agreed-upon rules are being adhered to, he says, not an opportunity to rethink entire projects.
He adds that the proposed move has a serious impact on financing and lease-ending decisions that have been made by the developers in the reasonable expectation that the project was moving ahead.
“The only reason the building permit hadn’t been applied for yet is the applicants had a good faith interest in continuing to listen and improve the design,” he notes.
In an email to Peace Arch News this week Toderian said the new 12-storey design (which was created by a different architect than the current, approved design) has a “cleaner” architectural style and visual appearance that is better suited to the lower Johnston Road streetscape, including the Blue Frog Studios recording studio and live venue immediately to the north.
The revised podium design creates a better “human-scale” for a more walkable street with a three-storey podium and set-back to the building’s fourth floor, he said, while the design is improved by the removal of architectural embellishments at the top of the podium which would have made it seem taller and larger.
“Similarly, that smaller podium blocks less of the public view down the street toward the water, which is an improvement,” Toderian said.
“And it also will represent a ‘better neighbour’ in terms of podium size to the adjacent Blue Frog building.”
Paul Rhandawa of GSR Capital Group, who leads the proponents – a pool of investors he describes as “family and friends”– told PAN by email that they had switched designs due to a “personal preference of working with a smaller architect firm.”
“The proposed new design is mainly a revision to the exterior with other small enhancements over the currently approved original design,” he said.
“(We) delayed applying for the building permit because after the development permit was obtained last year, the team spent time considering all the comments by the design panel and made a decision to incorporate the comments into the project,” he added.
“The goal is to make changes to the building so that everyone appreciates it in its entirety.”
Toderian says in his video presentation that the proposed tower is much narrower than the current norm in Greater Vancouver. Limiting height at the site to six storeys, as council is proposing, would produce a much thicker, more squat building, he says.
“A taller, slimmer, well-designed, set-back building can, and, in this case, does perform better than a shorter, fatter, perimeter-block building that blocks views, casts more shadows and is actually less neighbourly to adjacent (properties) as in the case of Blue Frog.”
But improving the design, Toderian contends, hinges on council rejecting the down-zoning.
“Because we’re on a fast track to a legal challenge, if council approves the down-zoning…there’s no opportunity to continue to work on that design and perhaps even further improve it.
“Now you’re in court, and court is a place where there’s no design conversation. It’s a black and white, binary choice at that point. Does the developer have the right to build the previously-approved design, or does the city have the right to limit development to six storeys? The problem with that binary choice is it’s a no-win situation for everyone.”
Toderian said that if the developers win the case there will be no chance to pursue a better design that both they, and the community, want; and if the city wins in court, development of the site will not be economically viable, and the site will likely remain vacant.
“My concern, in terms of the public interest, is we’re on a collision course to a worst-case scenario here,” he says. “I urge council to stop this process.”