Peter Busby, Architect, Order of Canada, and former Vancouver planner Penny Gurstein, oppose Vancouver casino

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Peter Busby and Penny Gurstein have co-signed an op ed opposing the Edgewater mega-casino development. Peter Busby, Order of Canada, is a world-renowned architect and is Founder and Chair, Canada Green Building Council. Penny Gurstein is Professor and Director of the School of Community and Regional Planning and the Centre for Human Settlements at UBC.

Below their op ed, you will also find Peter’s notes detailing some of the environmental, architectural, urban planning and economic problems with the casino plan.

Insular megacasino would add no value to Vancouver’s downtown businesses

Also printed in the Vancouver Observer.

On April 9 and 10th, 2011, Vancouver City Council is holding rare weekend public consultations on the controversial proposed megacasino project adjacent to BC Place.

Council’s ultimate decision on the project will test the fundamental values Vancouver has worked hard to achieve and will set forth a vision for the city’s future.

Vancouver has made great strides distinguishing itself from most large North American urban centres. It’s a city where urban-planning techniques and architectural styles are based on the core values of sustainable, economic, social and ecological development. Vancouverites see these values reflected in the growing collection of innovative green architecture, vibrant neighbourhoods, transit options, green space and lack of highways bisecting the city.

The proposal by Crown-owned BC Pavilion Corporation (PavCo) and Las-Vegas-based Paragon to build this mega-casino, boasting a gambling floor the size of two NFL football fields and 1500 slots, does not reflect a city renowned for its lifestyle, natural beauty and diverse cultural integration.

The presence of this megacasino in the downtown core threatens to undermine Vancouver’s values while running contrary to the vision of a municipality that aspires to be the greenest city in the world in less than a decade.

The project does not align with Vancouver’s vision of pedestrian and cycling-oriented neighborhoods and mixed-use architecture that integrates and enhances the surrounding communities. Instead, its massive floor plates will make it the bulkiest building downtown, a dominating form in a city that prides itself on its livable urban scale.

Inwardly focused and insular in design, casinos are by their very function a narcissistic drain on society. Through a combination of financial incentives, including inexpensive food and alcohol, casinos create tempting scenarios that dominate a visitor’s reason for travelling downtown. As a consequence, casinos have limited benefits for surrounding neighborhood restaurants and businesses.

This is evident in the PavCo/Paragon proposal, with its vague and limited street-level retail, which it describes as being located to draw pedestrians into the facility as opposed to enhancing the community fabric. In fact, only one of nine eating/drinking venues is accessible from the sidewalk. This plan removes existing pedestrian access on the street, inhibiting movement and access in the heart of the city, leaving the area devoid of human scale and texture.

As part of the development of a provincial property, this site should make significant contributions to the public domain, adding to the vibrant atmosphere Vancouver currently enjoys. Instead, above the ground floor, a multi-storey blank wall becomes the most dominant feature of the proposal, running along an entire city block. The proposed exterior illumination schemes discourage pedestrian thoroughfare and will become outdated quickly. The casino has essentially made this block of Smithe Street its own – an unfortunate terminus for the world-renowned urbanism of the Downtown South neighbourhood, known for its extraordinary livability.

The proposal fails to advance the area with regards to housing diversity, office space, or mixed use development. It would however require a great deal of infrastructure that doesn’t currently exist there and would increase the need for water, energy and food without providing a net increase to the overall sustainability of the area. The amount of parking the proposal recommends anticipates that many patrons will drive to the casino and will exceed the minimum parking requirements by a few hundred parking spaces, increasing vehicle traffic in the downtown core.

Provinces like Ontario and Quebec have documented the severe gambling addiction problems associated with their casinos and more often than not, affecting the financially vulnerable. One study published by Cambridge University Press suggests that for every dollar earned by a casino, it will cost society three dollars to manage problems like addiction, extra policing, bankruptcies, and family breakdowns related to gambling debts and other factors. Vancouver has a myriad of social problems pertaining to poverty, substance abuse and homelessness. Building an edifice that will amplify our existing social problems seems counteractive.

Land in Vancouver’s downtown is finite. A mega casino is not an appropriate use of this limited, valuable, waterfront area. There are numerous and better options for this site. The Costco store by BC Place and Home Depot near Cambie St. and Broadway demonstrate how larger retail stores can provide a community-appropriate amenity to a neighborhood. Vancouver’s downtown should be brought up when people talk about Melbourne and Portland, young cities with fresh perspectives on livability and sustainable development, not mentioned in the same breath as Las Vegas, Windsor, or Atlantic City.

This opposition to the PavCo/Paragon Casino does not signify anti-development. Rather, it reflects a demand for urban development that is consistent with Vancouver’s civic values of social, ecological and economic sustainability.

Vancouver City Council must not approve the expansion of a gambling industry that can be socially toxic and economically dubious. It must reject the expansion of the Edgewater Casino. Vancouver can and must do better.

Peter Busby – Notes on the Edgewater Casino / BC Place “Entertainment Complex” plan

1. Social and Urban design issues:

· As part of the development of a provincial property, this site should make significant public contributions to the public domain. Instead, above the ground floor, a multi-storey blank wall becomes the most dominant feature of the proposal, running an entire city block. The proposed exterior illumination schemes will date quickly and seem gaudy in no time.

· As a public facility, the stadium should be as accessible as possible from all sides. Not only does the proposal dead-end the circulation ring around the building, compromising public circulation in the area, but it forces pedestrians approaching from the west to access the stadium from Expo or Pacific Boulevards. The area around the stadium is one of Vancouver’s least pedestrian-friendly environments, already challenged and devoid of human scale and texture. Removal of any existing pedestrian permeability on the street will inhibit movement and access in the heart of the city

· The casino essentially has made this block of Smithe Street its own – an unfortunate terminus for the world-renowned urbanism of the Downtown South neighbourhood, known for its extraordinary livability.

· The massive floor plates of the casino will make this the bulkiest building downtown, a dominating form in a City that prides itself in the successful urban scale of most places and projects.

· What about the social cost? Other provinces like Ontario and Quebec have documented the severe gambling addiction problems associated with their casinos and more often than not, affecting the financially weak. BC has taken the high road on so many other social issues; why shouldn’t we be standing strong against this?

· The size and scale of development is not in keeping with the goal of walkable, pedestrian and cycling oriented spaces.

· Casinos are inherently black boxes – inwardly focused and insular, the proposal shows extremely vague and limited retail at grade that is described as being located to draw pedestrians into the facility – only 1 of 9 eating/drinking venues is at grade

· Reports suggest that almost all of the revenue from the Edgewater casino is generated from “locals” who, on average visit 2-3 times a week for 25 hours/week – this is an addict – most new users are to come from “out of town” This paints a picture of users as a lethal mix of tourists who are visiting Vancouver (not for its beauty) and local addicts.

· Land Downtown is not endless. Is this an appropriate land use for such a prime location? There are much better uses for this site. Costco down the street and the Home Depot near Cambie and Broadway show you can put in larger retail stores and still provide an amenity to a neighbourhood. We probably want our downtown to be brought up when people talk about Paris, Vienna and London, not Vegas, Reno and Atlantic City.

2. Environmental issues
· How does this project contribute to the goal of the Greenest City?

· The project is 1.967 acres – “generally 2 acres or more” is needed to be applicable for a large site rezoning in the city – this site should be subject to the EcoCity requirements

· There has been no attempt to address the high energy usage of the casino by leveraging the adjacent residential land uses or using/developing district energy (Screening Study required under EcoCity to determine feasibility for district energy)

· There has been no recognition that hotels and casinos are massive users of potable water – lost opportunities to retain water and recycle for facility uses

· Their proposal to be “33% better than MNECB” (the Canadian Model National Energy Code for Buildings is the weakest energy code in the Western world, except for the USA, which doesn’t have one!) will mean they will not meet the Vancouver energy code when the building opens. That means it’s 22% better than ASHRAE 90.1-2007. Since the CoV’s energy code takes precedent at the time of building permit (and the building permit for this building won’t likely be complete until 2012 at the earliest), this building won’t be designed to meet the CoV’s newest energy code (ASHRAE 90.1-2010 to be adopted soon). They would be at least 3% worse than the building code before the building ever opened. If they open in 2015 they will be 30% worse than the building code at the time. It’s something that they and the CoV need to clear up. The bar is constantly being raised. We need to design to anticipate higher standards!

· The proposal doesn’t plan to pursue the rainwater quality control credit. Given they are on a brownfield, and right next to False Creek this is of concern, especially given the area of parking shown. Where’s all that dirt, grit and oil flowing?

· Generally the whole issue of “equivalence” is impossible to verify. Without a third party to review their work they can claim credits like durable building (which they show on their spreadsheet) and never produce a document to show compliance with the credit requirements. They’ve also thrown some pools up on the roof and the new ASHRAE modeling requirements don’t let you ignore that stuff anymore (that and the crazy plug loads from slots and the other gambling machines they want to put in there).

· They can’t design to LEED equivalence. “Ensure all new provincial government buildings meet LEED® Gold or equivalent green standards.” http://www.energyplan.gov.bc.ca/efficiency/ . If ICBC, VCH, and everyone else needs to design to meet LEED Gold why doesn’t the BCLC? It is a provincial government organization.

· The electrical loads in a casino are extremely high. It’s like a server room with all those slot machines, especially when it’s open 24/7 365. Adding something like this to an already dense area is going to make it pretty hard for BC Hydro and the province to meet its carbon reduction goals.

· From a LEED ND perspective this adds nothing to the area with regards to housing diversity, office space, or mixed use development. It would however require a great deal of infrastructure that isn’t there right now and would increase overall the need for water, energy and food without providing a net increase to the over sustainability of the area. The amount of parking they are adding suggests to me that they are anticipating this will be a driving crowd (exceed the minimum parking requirements by a few hundred parking spaces). This is nothing like the people who live in towers next to Costco and bring their stuff home by hand.

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