Staying Above Water

Project Watermark Restaurant and Lifeguard Facilities, Vancouver, British Columbia

Architect Aa Robins Architect

Text Ian Chodikoff

Photos Alan Kaplanas

A recent and popular addition to Vancouver’s Kitsilano (Kits) Beach tells the story of one architect’s determination to fulfill his obligations to his client and of his own abilities as an architect. Situated along Vancouver’s waterfront and looking out onto a spectacular vista of the Burrard Inlet, the Gulf Islands, and the North Shore mountains, Tony Robins, along with then-intern John Hemsworth, were able to build a new lifeguard facility, concession stand and an acclaimed restaurant on the second floor called Watermark–despite a three-year process delayed by 15 public meetings, numerous redesigns and expensive legal proceedings.

Food concessions have been operated by the Park Board at Kitsilano Beach Park since the 1940s. Replaced by a concession stand on the current site in the ’60s, the menu remained the same, but today’s health-conscious, consumer-savvy beach patrons demand more than fries and pop. And so in 2002, the Vancouver Park Board put out a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a joint venture between a private restaurant developer and the City of Vancouver’s Park Board–the first public-private partnership of its kind in Vancouver.

The restaurateur first approached Robins–who had already shut down his office and was writing screenplays–to join him in responding to the Park Board’s RFP in March 2002. Initially, the project was to replace the concession stand only, but not the lifeguard facilities or the public washrooms. After being shortlisted for the RFP in June 2002, Robins and Hemsworth presented an initial design that they felt was their strongest. However, the Park Board decided to increase the scope of the project to include lifeguard facilities and public washrooms, and asked them to redesign the building completely over a nine-day period, requiring a new scheme to be taken to the public. And so Robins and Hemsworth essentially sat on Kits Beach for four days in a tent, conducting a survey of the public’s response to this new facility. “The general feedback was that they didn’t like concrete or steel but they did like wood. We ended up completing 400 surveys and received an 89% approval from the public. With that we carried on,” remarks Robins. Meanwhile, neighbours grew concerned, proceeding to sue the city, architect and client. At issue was whether or not the new facility would create excessive noise and whether it was even suitable to engage in a public-private venture in a public park. The courts had to decide whether Robins was designing an accessory building in accordance with the zoning by-laws. Ultimately deemed to be an accessory building, the restaurant was allowed to proceed.

Before the case was won in the BC Supreme Court, measures were taken to appease the neighbours as much as possible. To avoid traffic on Arbutus Street and to maintain the building’s status as an accessory building, all parking was to be contained within the park itself, so people would have to walk 100 feet to the restaurant. Attempting to minimize dissent, Robins met with several homeowners, resulting in five or six redesigns that would include a reworking of the roof deck on top of the washrooms and shifting the outdoor dining area to the front of the service block to protect neighbours from the sight and sound of patrons enjoying a glass of Chardonnay. To satisfy concerns over views to the ocean, Robins and Hemsworth redesigned the building to modify the breezeway and expand the view corridor for the neighbours along Arbutus Street.

Although built in a city park, Robins still had to take the building through a Development Permit (DP) process in addition to Vancouver’s Urban Design Panel. The development permit staff had initially refused the project, but with over 4,200 e-mails and letters sent to the City largely in support of the project, the Director of Planning, Larry Beasley, approved the design, satisfied that a due public process had been met. After going through the DP process, Robins made further changes in response to comments from the Urban Design Panel where one of the design panellists had decided to vote against the design because he wanted a Whistler chalet-style aesthetic. Robins decided to ignore his comments. “If we’d listened to everybody, the project would have been a log cabin.”

The resulting design is organized along a concrete shear wall along a north-south axis dividing the main service block from the dining room and bar above with the concession stand below. The restaurant includes a covered 10 * 100 outdoor deck running the entire length of the dining area. Sliding glazed doors open up the dining room to the deck, effectively doubling the space and blurring the distinction between interior and exterior. The steel-structured building is expressed with bolt detailing painted orange and dark grey–alluding to the ships anchored in Burrard Inlet. The building’s use of clear cedar provides additional visual warmth, and the project includes geothermal heating and cooling, natural cross ventilation, solar screening devices and the use of renewable materials such as bamboo.

Instrumental to the project’s success was Hemsworth, a young intern who essentially became the lead architect. Hemsworth managed the contract administration, co-designed the project with Robins and worked on the many models and renderings necessary for the onerous approvals process. Robins also engaged the help of Henry Hawthorn, an ex-employer whose work he respected and who would assist Robins in the detailing. The final budget was $5 million, but the project was delayed by 18 months. As construction costs escalated by 1.5% a month, certain components were either revised or eliminated.

The project left Robins disillusioned about the process and liability of architectural practice, in addition to providing him with a long-term financial burden. In order to insure the value of the new beach facility, Robins estimated that he will be paying about $5,000-10,000 in additional insurance premiums per year over the next 20 years. Effectively, Robins worked almost for free during his entire three years on the project–over time, as most of his fees will go back into insurance premiums. With one-quarter of the architects in British Columbia being sued, liability insurance premiums have become a disincentive for practice. Robins has decided to live a happier life, running his office on a laptop. Returning to his screenplays, he will still design a house or two every year. Hemsworth has gone on to start his own design firm while Helen Pang, a draftsperson who worked on the project, has also moved on. “John was able to go through an entire building process from beginning to end. None of his friends have been able to do that, so now he is able to get registered,” notes Robins.

When complimented on the end result and what it has given to the City of Vancouver, Robins is very far removed from his accomplishment. “Honestly, I can’t see the forest for the trees. I cannot see whether it’s a good or bad project anymore. It was such a process. I can’t step away and enjoy it all, which is a shame. We certainly put our heart and soul into it.” The building stands as a great addition to Vancouver’s Kits Beach, as well as a testament to the perseverance of architects throughout an arduous process.

Client Barnett Family Holdings Inc. (In Joint Venture With Vancouver Park Board)

Architect Team Tony Robins, John Hemsworth, Helen Pang, Henry Hawthorn

Structural C. Y. Loh and Associates

Mechanical Keen Engineering

Electrical Nemetz and Associates

Landscape Durante Kreuk

Interiors Aa Robins Architect & Box Interior Design

Contractor Stuart Olson

Geotechnical Levelton Engineering

Code Consultant Locke Mckinnon Domingo Gibson and Associates Ltd.

Area 14,000 Ft2

Budget $5 Million

Completion August 2005