Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Carnarvon Gardens, or Is That an Echo Down Here?

On November 18th, I received an invitation to an open house regarding a development at 813-823 Carnarvon Street.  Top Vision Developments is proposing to develop a 25ish story mixed use development at the site.  Unfortunately I was unable to make the open house, so as usual I am spouting off on things I found on the internets. 

The current buildings on site are:
  • Couzie’s on Carnarvon Cafe (whose owner graciously let my then recently toilet trained son use their bathroom after closing one time)
  • Two old auto repair/sales shops that appear vacant
  • Dollarama at what was formerly the Centre for Integration

Couzie’s and Dollarama are the only places that appear active, but I haven’t got a sense of what will happen to them after the development.  There will be street front retail but I haven’t seen anything indicating if they will have a right of return or not. 

While this looks like a generally good idea, there are a number of concerns with the proposal, some of which council and staff are dealing with to various degrees, and one they are not. 

The Grand Canyon of Carnarvon

This part of Carnarvon is getting quite dense with towers, and tall frontages that are very close to the street.  On top of the ground level retail will be three stories of offices fronting parking, and fifth story of above ground parking set back two-three feet in an effort to make things prettier. 

While I appreciate the efforts council and planning staff are making on this, setting back the fifth level parking one additional foot is not going to make Carnarvon less of a canyon.  Even fronting offices on the street, while making things somewhat more pleasant to look at, will still contribute to the canyon effect.  When you have a vertical wall 40-50 feet high straddling both sides of a street with narrow sidewalks, concessions like this are practically futile.  The problem on Carnarvon is less visible parkades and more being barely able to fit a stroller or wheelchair around a lamppost without falling into traffic.

Canyon environments can be pedestrian friendly, but they need room for people to breathe.  The place that does this best in my mind is the pedestrian malls in Perth, Australia. The streets have a definite canyon-like feel to them, but with no cars, dynamic storefronts and being able to walk without being pushed into traffic it’s a pleasant experience.  Walking down the sidewalk on Carnarvon feels like the big city pushing down on you, and adjusting setbacks and changing concrete for glass isn’t going to fundamentally alter this. 

Top Vision Development

Top Vision’s website is rather sparse.  They apparently have more than “20 combined years of construction and engineering experience,” and have dealt with single home through high-rise construction.  Their previous projects show two large homes in Metro Vancouver, and two high-rise projects in China.  City records show they have done a number of large suburban houses in Richmond as well.  Top Vision appears to share offices with related businesses including:
  • Yuan Heng Construction
  • Lu Tang Architecture – the archictects for this project
  • Top Vision Realty – also provides strata management services, and presumably will for this project
  • Giant Environmental Technology – no idea if this is related or not
  • Carnarvon Garden Development – the project specific company and New West Chamber of Commerce member

Their record appears decent, but part of that may be their recency.  The BBB has them rated A- with no complaints, but they registered in November, 2012.  Stratawatch gave Top Vision Realty good rating, but there is absolutely no transparency on how that rating is generated. I found some more photos and information on the MINI Impression project.  It appears to be a similar scale to what is proposed here, and has some interesting features if google translate is to be believed. 

However, building a tower in Metro Vancouver is vastly different than building a suburban mansion, and quite different than building a tower in Dalian, China.  Does Top Vision have the necessary experience or partners involved to ensure a safe, durable building suitable for our environment is designed and constructed?  Codes set a minimum, but this tower is expected to last 50 to 100 years. We want to be sure whoever is developing it has a good idea what they're doing. 


As usual, the development is requesting to come up short on parking spaces.  Now that the Front Street Parkade is definitely going (hooray!) we can’t be cutting downtown parking, especially given a significant commercial space will be included in the development.  Give credit where it’s due – proximity to the skytrain, any features they include to reduce traffic demand, but don’t let this create spillover problems into the rest of the area.  Council appears to be holding fairly firm here. 

Commercial Space

One of the proposals from the developer to address the parking visibility concern was to eliminate the top level of parking and expand the parking on the levels below.  This comes with a price, though, elimination of half of the original 23,500 square feet of office space. 

That price is too high to pay.  All of Metro Vancouver has been focused on building out condos as prices have flown into the stratosphere.  It’s quick, (relatively) easy money for the developers, and then they get to go away and leave any problems down the road for the individual unit buyers.  Creating living space but no working space makes an unbalanced community – a suburb built vertically instead of horizontally.  

The land around the skytrain stations is high value, and very limited.  We need to use it to its full potential.  Making a space where people come as well as people go.  The Anvil Centre is a start, and this development will follow with some needed new office space in New West.  I’m glad to see Council holding firm here as well.

Overall, I think this project brings a lot of potential good to the area.  However, it needs to be executed well to deliver that.  If not, it will bring decades of eyesore and grief to the city.  Take the time to get it right now – we’ll be stuck with it for a long time. 

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