Downtown Vancouver church plans to build 56-storey highrise 

Downtown Vancouver church plans to build 56-storey highrise

The First Baptist Church is about to engage in a major redevelopment. It is working with Westbank to build a striking 56-storey, 550-foot tall residential tower behind its gothic church at Burrard and Nelson.

Photograph by: Westbank/ Bing Thom Architects

In an unusual partnership, the First Baptist Church in downtown Vancouver is working with Westbank Projects and Bing Thom Architects to build a striking 550-foot residential tower behind its Gothic-style church at Burrard and Nelson.

The tower, if approved, will be at the peak of the city’s downtown peninsula and will closely rival the Shangri-La tower on the city’s skyline, although it won’t be as tall.

For more than 50 years the church has been slowly assembling land on the block behind it. Now, as the church — the oldest Baptist congregation in the province — wrestles with a lack of space, a growing congregation, a full agenda of community programs and a church in need of restoration, it has decided to redevelop the land and put the proceeds toward those needs.

Darrell Johnson, the senior minister of First Baptist, said the church has been working for two years with Westbank and Thom, the internationally-recognized architect, to redevelop the five lots it owns. The result is a suite of buildings and improvements that will, he said, allow the church to continue its 104-year service to the community in the heart of the city.

The most striking aspect of that redevelopment is a proposed 56-storey tower housing 300 condominium units with a series of community gardens every three floors. Another eight-storey building with 66 units of below-market rental housing will be operated by the church. Between the tower and the stone church will be a glass-enclosed atrium that Johnson hopes will become a community gathering space.

Westbank and the church have not yet filed an application with the city. However, it held two open houses earlier this week, one for the congregation and one for the public.

Johnson said First Baptist sold the air rights to the lands adjacent to its church to Westbank for an undisclosed sum. In return, Westbank will build the new facilities the congregation needs, as well as seismically upgrade the existing stone building. It will also restore Pender Hall, an adjacent two-storey sanctuary that was converted half a century ago for a gym and other programming needs. The church will also get a new daycare and space for a new cold-weather shelter. Johnson said the deal translated into tens of millions of dollars in investment into the church, including seismic upgrading that will cost upwards of $12 million.

Westbank president Ian Gillespie said in an interview this is the first time he and Thom have worked together on a project and the first time Thom has done a highrise tower in Vancouver. Gillespie said he wanted to do the project in part to honour a mentor, Hock Meng Heah, who had worked with him in his formative years at Abbey Woods Development. A portrait of Heah hangs in the foyer of Westbank’s office.

“He was my financial partner and was instrumental in my business, and was a devoted member of the church,” said Gillespie.

Thom said he designed the tower to represent a set of organ pipes to reflect the special relationship the church has with the city. With the 1927-built St. Andrew’s Wesley church across the street, the two churches represent a ceremonial crossroads for the city between the old residential district and the commercial downtown, he said.

“The (new) building itself is an expression of the spirit of the church. The shape of the object is like organ tubes, rising up,” Thom said. “We did a cup shape to the bottom of the building as a way of respecting the church, to allow it to not be viewed as being overpowered by the building next to it.”

Thom said the tower incorporates several features he’s invented, including “sky gardens” every three floors to encourage community-building among residents and a garbage and recycling elevator to replace the traditional unsanitary garbage chute.

Brian Jackson, the city’s retiring chief planner, said the proposed tower is among a number of new downtown projects that continue to elevate the city’s architectural reputation.

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