For many architects, the community planning process can be a daunting one. The idea of design by committee, where hundreds of residents contribute their two-cents worth on new projects, can often produce dubious aesthetic results.
But for Vancouver architects Mark Ostry and Russell Acton, whose firm Acton/Ostry had to accommodate neighbourhood input on the proposed Rize Alliance project at Kingsway and Broadway in Mount Pleasant, the process was a unique kind of "crystallization" of community needs and concerns.
The process was often fraught, with the proposed mixed use tower and low-rise development in many ways a "guinea pig' for the new Mount Pleasant community plan introduced in 2010. As such it was the focal point for a broad range of concerns about affordability and livability and arguably faced increased public scrutiny in an area that now has several high-density, mixed-use projects in development.
Those include a new Aquilini project at Main and 2nd by Francl Architects that had its building, massing and public space redesigned after Mount Pleasant Implementation Committee input as well as a new nine-storey building by Arno Matis at Main and 7th.
In what has now become the norm for the area, The Beedie Group is beginning community outreach on their plans to densify and redevelop the early seventies era Kingsgate Mall years ahead of a likely rezoning application.
And Mr. Ostry himself – whose firm designed the Stella – a 13-storey high-rise that, since no rezoning was required, was erected in 2008 without much public fanfare a few hundred metres from the Rize Alliance site – is at work on another mixed use housing project for Edgar Development at 11th and Kingsway.
Still, despite the often heated city council meetings of early 2012, where the likes of groups like past mayoral candidate Randy Helton and his NSV (Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver) movement voiced spirited opposition, Mr. Ostry feels that "the process made for a better project."
He admits to being frustrated at times by the public misconception that community input relates directly to architectural design. "That's not how it works," he explains, near his 8th Avenue office a few blocks from the Rize Alliance site. "The Community consultation stage for rezoning is really about massing, uses and density – not about design per se."
This did not stop concerned residents from offering architectural design suggestions before rezoning was approved in April, 2012. But when city council and Mount Pleasant community groups asked for significant changes to the original plans as part of the rezoning approval, Mr. Ostry found the design challenge a useful tool for improvement.
"It's a positive thing for an architect to have community engagement," says Mr. Ostry. "The more certainty there is around community values and desires the better."
"The process took us from focusing on a single project to looking deeper into the neighbourhood as a whole – and that helped us," says Rize Alliance VP of Development Christopher Vollan. Mr. Vollan has become something of an expert on Mount Pleasant's history – from Herbert Lee, who built the 1912 Lee Building as part of a plan to create Vancouver's "new downtown," through a mid-1970s mini development boom, and into its current and future transformation into a transit oriented high-density hub. Mr. Vollan, who plans to move from Gastown to Mount Pleasant in the near future, is enthusiastic about the area, noting local barbers, café owners and culturally significant buildings like the Goh Ballet school during an informal walkabout.
In an intensive year-long process that involved going "back to the drawing board" quite literally, Acton Ostry Architects reviewed community input and council comments and studied both the fine grain of Mount Pleasant and of neighbourhoods around the world.
The result is quite a different project than the somewhat Vancouverist traditional tower and podium originally planned. The architects looked to towns sited on hills around the world for inspiration. What they came up with was a more nuanced and richly textured approach to high density that reflects the neighbourhood character.
The massing and scale were broken down with a single building morphing into five different ones, and the architectural styles became more variegated. Each of the five structures that include three low-rises, town homes and a tower now better reflect the individual natures of the streets they face.
A central residential entrance on the Watson block side offers access to all buildings, and a sense of community is further engendered by a courtyard/green space designed by PWL Partnership Landscape Architects Inc. that offers gardens, public art and even hammocks. The tower itself – which had been the focal point of community concern (and was lowered substantially during the rezoning process) had its programming flipped with deletion of a second floor commercial space.
The texturing and colour of the tower were inspired by the abstract paintings of Linda Day and the photoconceptualist work of Emmanuel Buenviaje. The tower – at the acute end of a triangulated site with a "flatiron effect"– now shadows the site itself, offering shade for the inner courtyard and mitigating sunlight loss along Broadway.
The Broadway and Kingsway block seven-storey low-rises boast robust exteriors to buffer traffic noise, while the Watson street block low-rise reflects the bohemian feel of the lane-like street, with coloured screens breaking up massing, and balconies that open up into the public realm.
The two-storey town homes facing East 10th and its existing bicycle lane will benefit from a new public park. And a grove of trees planted on top of the tower's roof garden will beckon like a new civic beacon.
While the entire process has been exhaustive – and often exhausting – and must still pass final development approval – Mr. Ostry who has been involved for most of the seven-year journey – seems pleased with the results so far. Mr. Vollan hopes that if all goes to plan, ground will be broken by the spring of 2014.
"It's been a real lesson for me," says Mr. Ostry, "in how to take community angst about a project, and turn it into something design-positive."