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Comment: The Ice Wars: Vancouver's Ice Pick and Victoria's Iceberg

Telus towers proposed for Vancouver and Victoria are not a good fit

A commentary by a former Victoria city councillor.

As reported in the Times Colonist, “a controversial plan to erect a 12-storey office tower with a massive glass facade at Douglas and Humboldt Streets will advance to a public hearing despite concerns about its height, density and infringement on street views of the Olympic Mountains.”

The building proposed by Telus goes to public hearing on Thursday. It is nearly twice the mass of what is envisioned for the site, in addition to being significantly overheight. In responding to a question about why the proposed design did not respond to planning regulations, or the fact that it was in a Heritage Conservation Area, the consultant’s response was that they felt that the site should be considered as unique unto itself.

The glass-clad triangular form of the building is evocative of an iceberg and invites a comparison with a current, and equally controversial proposal, adjacent to Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood, nicknamed the Ice Pick.

Both buildings propose an architecturally aggressive approach that speaks more to personal/corporate ego-building than it does to city-building and dramatically exceeds the current zoning.

Buildings that thumb their noses at their context and, rather than proposing an elegant, sensitive and contemporary design, favour a “starchitecture” approach that can be considered iconic and highly visible but often for all the wrong reasons.

Mayor Lisa Helps has supported the project, citing the creation of the clean, well- paying jobs that the building would accommodate.

Neglecting to mention that Telus is planning on simply relocating their existing 250 staff members who are already working in Victoria. Relocating existing employees into space that Telus will lease, not own.

Citing the opportunity to create a “centre for innovation” also neglects to point out that the rest of the building will simply be available to lease, without specific requirements on the nature of prospective tenants.

In terms of clean, sustainable development, the glass curtain wall aspect of the building flies in the face of recent building code requirements that encourage/require the limitation of glazing related to building energy performance and global warming.

Glass buildings have been singled out as climate disasters, both in terms of performance, and in terms of the embodied carbon in glass.

Other councillors spoke with such positive fervour that they created the impression that the outcome of the public hearing was “a fait accompli” as they rhapsodized about how people in the future will marvel at the audacity of council to support such a vision.

A very puzzling statement, as councillors are required to maintain an open mind, in advance of a public hearing, as they await the opportunity to formally hear from the public.

The fact that the property is city-owned raises a number of issues. Should the city not be seen as upholding its own zoning and planning policies? Could council be seen as being in conflict, in terms of the size of building that is approved, since the $8.1-million sales agreement includes a potential $1.1-million bonus, depending on the size of building approved?

In Vancouver, since its inception in 2014, the Ice Pick has gone through a series of rejections and withdrawals.

Planners, architects, community members and former city councillors have spoken out expressing their concerns about the proposal. In Victoria, as the Telus Ocean proposal has advanced through the process, the voices of the public have been greatly muted by the pandemic restrictions.

A public not only wearied and preoccupied by how to carry on with their lives during these restrictions, but also many who feel that their concerns fall on deaf ears at City Hall.

I expect that that council will hear from the “public” on Thursday, but I also fully expect that the public will include those who have been encouraged to participate via a public relations campaign on the part of the proponent.

This is something that is being seen more and more at public hearings and where the voices of informed residents are drowned out by the public relations efforts orchestrated by corporations with very deep pockets.

With the application for Vancouver’s Ice Pick currently withdrawn, there is hope that, if Victoria council makes an informed and principles-based decision in not supporting the Telus Ocean proposal, both cities will have won the Ice Wars and the audacity of city council will be recognized, in hindsight, when an appropriate project is constructed, and celebrated on the site.