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Vancouver's Heart Up for Grabs

Shaping a $300 million arts district: Who decides? A special report.

Adele Weder 29 Jan

Adele Weder is a widely published journalist with a focus on architecture and urban planning issues. She splits her time between Vancouver and Queen Charlotte City.

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Ground zero: QE Theatre

Downtown Vancouver is on the brink of a jaw-dropping transformation that few citizens know much about, but it will change life in the city forever.

The city, province and a handful of alpha-players in the arts scene are hammering out a scheme for a high-budget, architecturally spectacular arts district. The plans are gestating as we speak behind closed doors. If all goes well, within six months there will be an announcement that could finally shed Vancouver's reputation as merely a resort playground, and present the city as something of a cultural destination.

The question is: whose culture will it be?

The site in question is a two-block parcel of land next to the Vancouver Public Library, bounded by Georgia, Dunsmuir, Hamilton and Beatty streets. The city owns this land, and the aging Queen Elizabeth Theatre stands proudly on one block, but a lot of arts organizations are vying to plant spanking new edifices atop it. It will be Phase 1 of the city's ambitious "cultural precinct," a long-term plan to establish a concentration of respectable arts facilities, finally, in the centre of the city.

You can see the lay of the land yourself in a late-October city council report, co-authored by cultural manager Sue Harvey and cultural precinct manager Ken Dobell. The report is on a hard-to-find niche of the city website rather than on the roster of regular council meetings, but once found, it reveals both the complexity and the huge stakes behind the current in-camera talks.

As the council report notes, there are far more proposals for the site than money and space to accommodate them. Even if nothing much is said in public, the behind-the-scenes politicking is frenzied. This is a dogfight.

Culture on the block

The cultural precinct will be developed over a 15-year period, but there is already rough consensus for Phase 1. The three-point plan consists of:

1. Renovating the QE Theatre. (That's pretty straightforward.)

2. Establishing those two blocks as an "Olympic Live Site" to "showcase sports, arts, culture, the city and the future cultural precinct." (That gets a bit trickier.)

3.After 2010, building up the site with cultural facilities that are deemed "both viable and desirable" by the cultural-precinct planning process. (That's the trickiest.)

Number three is tricky because the whole concept of a "cultural precinct" has morphed a lot in the past year. Last April, the premier's office announced an impending "cultural precinct" championed by architect Bing Thom. Since then, Thom's original vision for a more decentralized collection of smaller institutions has been replaced with a focus on that two-block lot.

What concerns Thom is that a single cultural facility might end up grabbing the lion's share of the site, the public attention, and the funding. That facility, by the way, would be the Vancouver Art Gallery, whose ambitious, high-powered director is Kathleen Bartels.

Nothing's confirmed yet, say insiders, but momentum is building for an international design competition to design a brand-new, high-budget and spectacular VAG. (The rest of the lot will be filled in with a revamped QE Theatre, a government office tower and a handful of other cultural facilities. In the running, among others, are the National Aboriginal Art Gallery, Coal Harbour Arts Complex and the Asia-Pacific Museum of Trade and Culture.

Thom: Vancouver's different

Thom is still an aspiring participant in the new vision, but if the future VAG building is likely to be the centrepiece of the lot, it might end up shoving aside smaller institutions that would provide a broader cultural diversity for the area.

Thom worries that civic culture is sliding into the control of a few select, giant institutions that grab a dominant share of publicity and public money. He argues that as Vancouver grows, it is in danger of mimicking other North American metropolises in adopting the same dominant assumptions of what constitutes important culture: opera, symphony, art gallery.

But Vancouver culture is unique, argues Thom. For example, it's more informed by First Nations and Eastern Asian values than other metropolises, so we shouldn't necessarily adopt an a eye-stopping, starchitect-designed grand projet. The federal government maxes out its grants to cultural facilities at $30-million per institution; Thom wants the pie to be carved up in as many pieces as possible.

Who owns the VAG?

But if the power structure determines the program, and the VAG is the centrepiece project, we're in for some convoluted dealings, for the power structure of the VAG itself is a labyrinth.

The VAG's legal status is that of a charitable institution, not "owned" by anyone but rather existing for the benefit of others.

The actual building itself, though, is owned and managed by the City of Vancouver. But it currently sits on land owned by the provincial government (the onetime Supreme Court of B.C. -- which, in a stroke of irony, might end up housing the National Aboriginal Art Gallery). The VAG Board of Governors -- comprised mainly of A-list entrepreneurs -- decide the big stuff: which director to hire, whether to search for a new home and where that home should be.

When the top show dogs of government, culture and the private sector mix it up, there's almost inevitably some inbreeding.

Complicating things further is that Ken Dobell, who has served as right-hand man to Campbell since his Vancouver mayoral stint, is now being chided by NDP leader Carole James for double-dipping. He remains Campbell's paid advisor while simultaneously on the payroll of the city to lobby the province to help implement the cultural precinct.

In this web of stakeholders, there's one voice missing from the picture thus far: that of the Vancouver general public. The sole mention of public process in the city council report is a vague bureaucratic one-liner: "The Cultural Facilities Priority Plan will be developed through the Creative City Task Force public consultation." But it doesn't say when, where and how.

How much public say?

Architect Joost Bakker, whose firm Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden is reconfiguring the CBC block next door, knows a lot about public process. If a competition is in the works, says Bakker, the specifics of public need have to be woven into the terms of reference before the competition is even established.

"You have to respect there is a power structure," he says, "but should the power structure then represent what the detailed program becomes?"

That is: the basic size, program and urban context should be informed, if not wholly determined, by public need and consultation. "It's ironic for an architect to be saying this, but we're putting the building first," says Thom. "We should get the ideas rolling, and then think about what kind of building we want."

Officials at both the VAG and the city reply that it's just too early to say anything to the public about the in-camera mudwrestling for the cultural precinct. They have a point: complex negotiations would melt under the klieg lights of a public free-for-all, and we do pay our community leaders to lead.

But should the public have a say on the basic shape and content of the cultural landscape -- or is that best left to the politicians, bureaucrats, cultural leaders and private donors to wrestle over? To make a megaproject both viable and desirable is no mean feat.

"What constitutes the public is a complicated question," notes Matthew Teitelbaum, director of the Art Gallery of Ontario, in a telephone interview with The Tyee. "Is it our neighbours? Our 55,000 members? The international art community?"

'You can compromise boldness'

Teitelbaum is currently stickhandling Frank Gehry's ambitious expansion of his gallery, and a long, multilayered public-consultation process was part of the package. But the decision to expand and the choice of Gehry as architect was their own, made from their vantage point as cultural leaders.

"Our obligations are surely to our neighbours, but also to people who are connected to this international art institution and who want it to grow," says Teitelbaum. "The big knock against community-based input is that you can compromise an architect's boldness."

Public input can result in offensively inoffensive design-by-committee. Dream City author Lance Berelowitz echoes that view: "If you just ask the public, you get the full spectrum of an uninformed straw poll." Best, it seems, is to have cultural and political leaders lead--but have checks and balances to make sure they acknowledge the greater public good.

In this reporter's own straw poll, a few respondents snorted at the thought of a government office in a cultural precinct. But however irksome our government might be, we need more people actually working downtown, as opposed to sleeping, vacationing, and gallery-hopping there. Bring it on. Also, we'll need that money.

$300 million revamp

The redevelopment budget will likely be in the ballpark of $300 million, according to a city hall official. (The lot value alone is an estimated $50 million, adds the official.) In fact, the Coal Harbour Arts Complex and National Aboriginal Gallery are now underdogs for getting on that site, since by October they had failed to reach the fundraising criteria laid out by the city.

So now what happens? If city hall is to be believed, work will begin this spring to refurbish the QE Theatre. (Actually, it must begin in April to get finished by 2010, according to the council report.)

Also around that time there should be a splashy announcement of an international design competition for the Vancouver Art Gallery on that prized plot next to the Vancouver Public Library, the biggest-scale competition since the library itself.

Then be on your guard for what happens next. At the minimum, the city and the VAG should follow the lead of the Art Gallery of Ontario by implementing a bona-fide public process. And they should consider what the fabulous new VAG will do to street life, and to its neighbours. Downtown Vancouver, with its view corridors and bumptious culture, is nothing like the site of Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim, and big cities attempt to replicate the Bilbao effect at their peril.

A huge, separate, standalone building -- no matter how artsy the function or how famous the architect -- would be bad news for street life in that area of downtown, says Joost Bakker. The area is already home to too many disconnected monoliths, which deaden pedestrian activity. (His firm master-planned the very public and very successful Granville Island.)

"What's really important is that we have great art," says Bakker, who himself is on the board of the Contemporary Art Gallery. "Having great art does not necessarily equate to having a huge monument."

Architect left in the dark

Vancouver's most prominent, VAG-connected artists tend to support the Bartels vision, not surprisingly; and, by all accounts, Bartels herself is brilliant, tireless, well connected, and most likely to pull in the big donor bucks. What unsettles the skeptics is whether our city's architecture and cultural manifestation should be swayed to such an extent by a single individual and institution.

For such a momentous and expensive and very public project, the process has been left to ferment -- or languish -- behind closed doors. Even the architects are occasionally left in the lurch.

Michael Maltzan, a prominent California architect hired to design alternatives for the VAG to expand on its current site, presented his findings to Director Bartels, and was then dropped like a stone. In fact, this reporter's phone call was the first news to Maltzan that the VAG had decided to expand on a new site instead.

The firm the VAG hired to handle the search for its new site, Henriquez Partners, is appropriately tight-lipped on the proceedings.

Thom, for his part, shows no reluctance to speak his mind: "This is the most important city block we have left," he warns. "It's a tremendous opportunity to be an incubator for small groups. We have to look at it very carefully."

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