One of the trickiest things to watch out for if you are in charge of approving development in a city, is precedent.

It seems fair, don’t you agree, that if you approve a form of development for one person you would want to let another person in similar circumstances have the same right to that form of development? One of the reasons we have zoning bylaws and development guidelines is to let everyone know what the community believes is a fair way to guide change in the city. A Zoning Bylaw that is clear and fairly implemented helps to provide reliability and confidence about what might happen in your neighbourhood. It also helps to provide certainty and confidence to those who serve our communities by developing the buildings that accommodate growth and change. (I wanted to describe developers as i see them.)

So every time you approve something that is a change from what has previously been approvable through existing regulations you might be setting a precedent. You will want to be careful to ensure that it is not a form of development that you would want to proliferate around the city.

An historic example of this that is worth reminding ourselves about is Billboards. During the 60’s and 70’s as billboards began to appear, they became a sort of precedent and eventually grew in such numbers that they became a blight on the city. So much so that the community sought improved control over them. Our first major Sign Bylaw was produced in the 70’s and, with numerous upgrades has served us pretty well. I note that City Council is planning a major overhaul of the bylaw and one hopes they will take urban design into account as well as the dollars that might accrue to various parties. Part of the sign bylaw controls the type of signs that are permitted on tall buildings. This is because the community said it did not want the downtown and other high rise areas to become a sea of flashing advertising signs competing to be bigger, brighter and more sparkling than their neighbours.

You may recall my Feb 8th piece about the proposed Telus sign; “A suspended, back-projected billboard hanging 200 feet up on the west facade of the new Telus building. It will provide us all with lovely coloured light displays of art, community programming and Telus marketing. Just what we need to provide us with improved liveability and citizen “engagement”’

I sincerely hope that this will not become another precedent-setting proposal from Telus. They succeeded in their first one (or two) of getting approval from City Hall to build out over the Seymour and Richard Street right of ways. The building is emerging as an interesting and competent piece of architecture. Notice how much larger in scale and visually imposing it is than anything else Downtown. You can see how Telus may be proud of its new head office. It has a feeling of grandeur and expansiveness about it (especially across the flanking streets!) that invokes the idea that it is probably the most important building downtown. Its principal occupants must be very important to the community to affect this level of grandeur.

We want some buildings to stand out where they warrant special forms of development and perhaps a special zoning. We want to acknowledge and celebrate some buildings for their significance in our community. Public buildings like City Hall, our Civic Art Gallery, our Museum, our main Concert Hall and so on. Dare I say our Urbanarium? Today, as you move around the city, wonder about how we are expressing our most important buildings and places. City’s that have a rich “sense of place” are those which have been able to order the form of the city to express the things they are proudest of, the things they admire most. This is another area where urban design can reinforce our connection to community.

What do you think?

Ray Spaxman