Laxton says he may be forced to tear down landmark Evergreen Bldg

Saturday, October 30th, 2004

CITY PLANNING I John Laxton appeals denial of permit to add floors to Evergreen Building

Frances Bula


Vancouver developer John Laxton has told the city he will have to tear down the landmark Arthur Erickson-designed Evergreen Building if he doesn’t get permission to put an extra four floors on it.

In an unusual and public confrontation with the city of Vancouver, Laxton, who is also a prominent lawyer and one-time chair of B.C. Hydro under the NDP government, has filed an appeal against a recent decision to limit the number of storeys he can add.

In his appeal, he warned that, if he gets turned down, “We will have no choice but to proceed with plans for the redevelopment of this site.”

In his submission to the board of variance, which will hear the appeal Nov. 3, he writes: “The issue simply is should the Evergreen Building be torn down or preserved. We would prefer to save the Evergreen Building. However, this will only be possible if we are permitted to build to the full amount of our allowable density.”

The saga began two weeks ago, when the city’s development-permit board unexpectedly refused a permit for more than two storeys to be added to the 10-storey building on West Pender.

Two of three board members said they thought the four-storey glass box Laxton and Erickson proposed to put on top of the terraced structure detracted from an “iconic” building, echoing what people on the board’s advisory panel and some members of the public had said.

That was despite the fact that Erickson himself designed the addition, and the city’s influential central-area planning director, along with staff and the urban-design panel, supported what they called the “light and lantern-like” box on top of the existing 10-storey building.

Laxton abruptly cancelled an open house last week for the Evergreen redevelopment, which will convert the former office building to residential use. That move will approximately double the building’s value even before any extra floor space is added.

Now Laxton has filed an appeal of the development permit board decision — a rare move for a developer.

“I don’t recall in my time a single instance that a developer has appealed a decision of the board like this,” said Dave Rudberg, the city’s chief engineer and one of the three members of the development permit board. “It doesn’t happen very often.”

Board chair Rick Scobie, who confirmed Laxton has filed the appeal, also said it was uncommon, although not completely unheard of.

Rudberg, along with deputy city manager Brent McGregor, opposed the addition and limited it to two storeys, while central-area planning director Larry Beasley supported it.

“It’s a bit of a landmark and so it needs to be dealt with carefully,” Rudberg said.

The appeal will be heard Nov. 3 by the board of variance, an independent body composed of five people appointed by the city and provincial government.

If the appeal fails, the future of the Evergreen is unclear.

Although the building is considered a landmark by many, it has no heritage protection and it was built to only about two-thirds of the maximum allowable building space for the site. In a city where a square foot of residential space with a view sells for anywhere between $400 and $800, that difference means a lot.

Staff had previously encouraged Laxton to get the building, which is 24 years old, designated as a heritage building, which would mean he could get a “density bonus” — a free parcel of imaginary floor space that he could then sell to other developers — as an incentive to preserve the building as is.

But that would take time.

In his appeal, Laxton said the existing zoning on the site would allow him to build a 300-foot tower, “which would be far cheaper to build than a conversion of the existing building.”

Laxton said he is forgoing additional profit by only converting the existing building because, if the current building is converted, it will have 30 units that face onto Pender and have no water view. That makes them worth less per square foot than a new tower he could build, where every unit would have a water view.

Laxton’s appeal says that even with four storeys added, the Evergreen Building would be only 175 feet tall, considerably less than the 300 feet allowed.

© The Vancouver Sun 2004

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