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Vancouver planning department shatters previous council decision

The Sheraton Vancouver Wall Centre Hotel in Vancouver April 26, 2012.

Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

Developer Peter Wall is finally getting his way on his most controversial building.

His company and the building's strata council have been given city approval to replace the clear glass on the top 17 floors of the Wall Centre, which was at the centre of a major uproar 13 years ago over its dark glass.

The city sued Mr. Wall as the building was going up in 2000 with dark, reflective glass that planners said they had not approved. The city argued Mr. Wall was allowed to build the 400-foot structure at the highest point of Burrard Street downtown on the condition that it look light and transparent.

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Eventually, the two sides compromised when Mr. Wall agreed to put clear glass on the top 17 stories, which gave the elliptical-shaped building the odd look of a two-tone lipstick tube. Now, Wall Financial will put dark glass on those top floors starting this April after successfully making the case that the clear windows, which let in more sunlight, wreaked havoc with the tower's heating and cooling systems.

"We'll be quite excited to see the building as it was really meant to be," said Mr. Wall, who had built two shorter towers with reflective glass on the same site previously. "Those aldermen knew they were wrong. That minority can have their way for a little while, but then the majority takes over and corrects their mistake."

But the move has appalled one councillor of the day.

"Oh, for crying out loud," said former NPA councillor George Puil, part of the team in power then. "That surprises me that they're undoing what a previous council decided. It was such a controversial thing and now it seems you just wait a while to get a new council to get it changed."

Several sources say the decision was made through a simple development permit from the planning department. The city did not respond to a request for an interview with planning.

Strata residents had started a lawsuit against Wall Financial in 2011 over the floor-to-ceiling windows, saying they were leaking air and moisture. The estimated cost of repairing the windows was $7-million, and the council had levied a special assessment to cover it. Strata president Bruce Gleig, quoted in a company statement not yet widely released, said that residents "are pleased to have the support of the city for a solution that meets all of our needs."

Mr. Wall said it will cost his company millions of dollars to put the new reflective glass on the building, just as it cost extra millions to install the clear glass.

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The fight over the glass ruptured relations between Mr. Wall and the NPA, to which he had been a generous donor. He never spoke to mayor Philip Owen again. Mr. Wall now gives even more generously to Vision Vancouver, which has controlled council since 2008, but he said that had nothing to do with the decision.

Mr. Wall is a strong-minded and flamboyant character who has not hesitated to take on the city to build the way he wants to build. He insisted on having a large plaza in front of the Wall Centre instead of building up to the sidewalk as planners had wanted. He called then-mayor Gordon Campbell to get his way.

He said mediocre city planners just did not appreciate the beauty of the glass he loves, which he calls reflective, not dark. "[Architect Arthur] Erickson was wrong when he said concrete is the building material of Vancouver. It's glass. Glass takes on darkness as it takes on light. We have the most interesting light in Vancouver, so you get this glorious reflection of a hundred colours."

The glazing company that sold him the original glass has gone out of business, so he will not be able to get the exact match, but he said it is close enough that the building will look unified, as it was intended to be.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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