Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Paradise Makers 3 – The Developer

with 3 comments

Friday, April 4, 7 pm (SFU Harbour Centre)

Stanley Kwok

Photo by Jason Vanderhill

The latest interview with people who shaped Vancouver features Stanley Kwok – architect, developer, planner, consultant (he’s hard to classify) – definitely a key influence in the shaping of the Vancouver Style and the way we plan our city. From the co-operative planning process that evolved in the 1970s to the megaprojects of the 1990s, Stanley Kwok was there.

Audio Podcast

In 1972 Canada introduced the capital gains tax. CIL a chemical company had extensive land holdings and much of that was surplus land – 72 properties across Canada. Because of the tax change CIL established a new company and its VP of properties invited Kwok to join. He had come to Canada in 1968. Prior to that had been an architect in Hong Kong and had built 200 buildings. He was born 1927 in Guang Jo and brought up in Wu Han and then went to Shanghai where he studied architecture. He thought that his frequent moves in childhood were a good preparation for arriving in Vancouver where he knew no-one.

The training he received was based on the Architectural Association of the UK whose concepts were very contemporary:he did not spend much time studying classical architecture. The AA teaches that one should start from the organising principles with no preconceptions. He said his influences were Gropius, Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. The basis of design is that form follows function: he was mainly interested in buildings for people. In Hong Kong he did every kind of building including homes, housing estates, hospitals and factories: the only type he has not done is a church, which is something he would like to do. He dealt with everything from windows to sewers. His first job was to restore a bombed out hospital which he said was good training in understanding how a building functioned. An architect is like a conductor – co-ordinating client, contractor, city and workers. Development is like that too only now you have to add the architect to those being organised. In 1948 he had just graduated and his professor referred him to a new firm being set up in Hong Kong.

In those days Hong Kong was all four storey buildings with a population of 1m people. He spent 20 years working with Eric Cumming and left in 1968. He said that if he had had a crystal ball he would not have left. He came to Vancouver due to the uncertainties of what would happen at the end of the British mandate. At that time China was being run by the red guards and the future seemed very uncertain. He wanted to go to an English speaking country and decided that could not afford to send his children to university in Britain. The US was in the Vietnam war and he did not want to expose his sons to the risk of call up, Australia and New Zealand were too far and did not welcome “visitors” while Canada had none of these negatives.

He had been a visitor to Vancouver in 1966, which included a trip to Whistler. A cottage there could have been built for $7,000 including land but he was unable to persuade the owner to sell him a plot. He did a management course which taught him problem solving and decision making: “Very few architects do that”.
He said that what he learned on the course helped when looking for a house, it enabled him to set his priorities, and he settled in Kerrisdale.

In response to a question from Gordon Price he said that he had never felt any discrimination here. He said the problems are mainly to do with communication: if you do not understand what is being said and cannot respond appropriately that instantly creates a barrier. But if you can speak English “if you don’t think about it, it’s not there.”

One of his first projects for CIL was Laurel Point in Victoria which used to be paint factory. The Mayor at that time, Peter Pollen , turned down everything. They decided that housing and a hotel would be the best use for the site. They designed five different schemes and then invited the people of Victoria to come and look at them. Most people agreed that anything would be better than an old paint factory. 2000 people did turn up and half answered questionnaire. 95% agreed with the idea of redeveloment and most picked a walkway on the waterfront. When they went to the city with the results of the public consultation they got unanimous approval from the City council. The process of public consultation was unusual at that time.

His first building in Vancouver was at 2nd Ave and Burrard and is now a car dealership. While CIL put in the land, three pension funds put in the money. CIL decided to sell the company when it got too big. He always had very large dreams including doing developments in New York City. He said he was never scared. “There is always risk.” During the 1970s he did mainly individual buildings as CIL was mostly owned by ICI in UK. They tried to keep projects below $10m to stay below the approval level which would have required approval from Millbank. [The huge ICI headquarters which looks indistinguishable from the outside from the big government departments in that part of London. ICI had a bureaucracy that rivalled the biggest ministries.]

Vancouver had a population of 1.2m in 1968. We had to add 2/3 of that in the next 40 years. “How do we absorb another 1m. Stalin and Mao could not curb population growth in Moscow and Beijing, so it is not possible for a democracy to hold back the people from coming here. It is not greed that drives development but the need to accomdate growth. You need to plan the transit first: then you develop around the stations.” The City’s approach of bargaining density for benefits is wrong headed. The City should get value for the additional floor space ratio and then decide for itself how to spend the money. In that way the developer will know in advance the cost of the development and there is less haggling over details. It would be a much more efficient process

He was invited to join the board of BC Place. The land belonged to Marathon (CPR) and they did not get along with the City. They did a deal with province on the North Shore of False Creek for both the Expo and a stadium. The existing PNE stadium was too far away and too small. The idea was to use city lots in the evening for event parking to keep cost down. Jimmy Patterson decided to exchange board members between Expo and BC Place. Kwok said that he took it on as caretaker and his first job was to “pacify Chinatown”. They did not want to be next to a parking lot, but wanted to see development to connect to Gastown and downtown, so he started with the North Park development. He suggested to Vancouver Mayor Mike Harcourt that they do it jointly and he got Ray Spaxman to be the planner. (This area is now Keefer Park).

Gordon Price said that he saw a common approach to Kwok’s projects – solve the conflicts before you start designing. Stanely Kwok agreed: there were 176 public meetings with many suggestions, and whenver possible they included the good ideas when they could , and told the public about that at the next meeting. The type of co-operative planning had not been done anywhere before.

North Park was a kind of laboratory of what Gordon Price called “mega project planning” and “the birth place of Vancouver style”. Stanley Kwok said it came from starting with a list of things the development must achieve including pedestrian friendly, open spaces, social housing. The podium and tower design was used because they wanted to use the centre of the block for parking, with town houses round the outside and the tower on top. This was because they wanted to avoid digging down for parking. Eliminating underground parking would have cut the price of housing but the city planners objected that it made the blocks too big.

Li Kai Shing knew many his clients in Hong Kong and in 1987 he invited Kwok to develop what became the Concord Pacific Place after the Expo land was sold. Kwok came up with his “lagoon scheme” which was endorsed by Jack Webster on CTV and thereafter he did not get any bad press. However the city planners thought it was “too elitist” so “instead of a blue bay we had a green bay”. In other words the water was replaced by a park because he felt the properties needed views. Very few cities have that much space close to centre.

In Dubai in 1997/98 he did a similar type of development but with waterfront shops facing on to the central canal. In reality these turned out to be restaurants, as it became very popular to sit outside with a view of the water. “Now is too small” – the scale of development in Dubai is much bigger now.

He also did the Crystal in Burnaby – a shopping centre with a hotel and condos. It is a circular building “Which I will never do again. Getting around there is not easy. The diagonal walkway was what the City wanted, but was a big mistake as the centre has no control over it.”

South East False Creek he said is a “waste of a good site. Why do you do that when you have a park and water to look at?”

He thinks that Vancouver should really make good use of the transit stations. It is much better to build high rises there than to “eat up farmland”.

“You have to build high.”

Vancouver can show the way we do not need to borrow from other places.

He mentioned two principles he had learned early on – let him have his blue bathroom – and look inside the client’s head.


Should not the transit station development include employment?

“Look at the total city. The best [shape for a] downtown is a jelly fish, with pockets of residential in between the employment. You can’t always do live work everywhere. Office location is based on access and rent and depends on economics. [I think he probably meant star fish – a jelly fish is usually just a blob.]

Coery Newcomb asked: “What do you see as the advantages of the city “selling density” over the amenity contribution system now in use by the city?”

“You cannot ignore property rights. Zoning is what determines value. For example the FSR on Cambie is between 1.1 to 1.7 now. If that is raised to 3 or 4 the developer can pay for that extra floorspace but then he gets to decide what he needs for the development and the City gets to spend the money on its projects.”

There was then an incoherent question, and the battery died in my lap top.


I was very glad to hear him say that you have to do transit first. This is a point I have been making for years here. We build transit after the development has been finished for years, and are then surprised that people continue to drive. We also refuse to provide transit on the specious grounds that there is not enough population to support it. Successful development requires that the transit line and station is built first and the trains are then running when the first people arrive. The idea of driving seems absurd when there is a good transit system already in place.

Secondly it is obvious to me that it is easier to get high density in the vicinity of stations when there are no residents to object to the high rises. Of course development on empty sites is easier than redeveloping existing neighborhoods, and retrofitting a working community is the hardest of all. The price of having to subsidize the transit system more heavily in its initial years is a small price to pay for Transit Oriented Development.

Where I used to live in Malvern – now one of the worst edge suburbs – in north east Toronto there was a right of way left for eventual extension of the Scarborough LRT. But when the TTC suggested actually building it, the residents along that right of way – who knew when they moved there it was intended to be a transit line – were the loudest objectors. So it did not happen – and the decline of the neighborhood was dramatic, as it was so remote and difficult to get to any of the employment centres.

In places like Stockholm the height of the buildings declines as distance from the station increases. Seems to be a very simple organising principle to me. Some people can get to their train just by boarding the elevator.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 4, 2008 at 11:59 pm

Posted in Urban Planning

3 Responses

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  1. My question was: what do you see as the advantages of the city “selling density” over the amenity contribution system now in use by the city?

    Sorry, I have a quiet voice.


    April 5, 2008 at 12:25 am

  2. No I was distracted – sorry I did not know it was you. I would like to have met you in person but I had to leave to get to work.

    Stephen Rees

    April 5, 2008 at 6:43 am

  3. […] can read it here on Stephen’s […]

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