In the late 1970s, a teenager named Kevin Head wandered Granville Island in search of his future. He knew he loved art. But how does one make a life crafting beautiful things and sharing them with the world? That question propelled him to visit the studios sprouting under the Granville Bridge.
Head found this ramshackle world to be far more exciting than any classroom. He’d rather soak up what he could learn from people like Gordon Payne, who made his own paints, and Bob Kingsmill, a potter and muralist.
The community Head discovered reflected a vision developed in 1976 by five people called the Interim Trust of Granville Island. The board, chaired by a federal rep — the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation that controls the land — and composed of prominent locals, decreed the place should develop “a unique character” rather than be “merely another in the city’s inventory of parks or shopping centres.”
About one-fifth of Granville Island’s built area, it said, should be devoted to arts and culture and performing arts, the rest divided among industrial, maritime, recreation, retail and other uses.
Within a few years, thanks to a “remarkable process” of design and policy making, says Ray Spaxman, Vancouver’s director of planning at the time, Granville Island became an “urban gem,” winning global awards.
Head grew up to become a fixture on Granville Island, where he co-owns KROMA Artist’s Acrylics. “The paint guy,” as he’s affectionately known, says in those early days Granville Island was like “stepping into the land of Oz.”
Kingsmill, who still makes and sells pottery on Granville Island, also looks back with nostalgia. In earlier times, Granville Island was a home for arts and culture — “dramatically, not in any artificial way.”
As recently as 2012 a report by a business group on Granville Island explained the place’s special advantage. Arts-intensive neighbourhoods tend to gentrify, causing rents to rise and driving out the artists, it noted. But because the island is federally owned, it could be immune from such market forces, nurturing arts indefinitely.
But the same report found that “a process of gentrification is underway,” due to changed leasing practices by the landlord, CMHC.
Granville Island turned 40 this month. For Head, Kinsgsmill and some other artisans based there, it was not a particularly happy birthday.
The Tyee spent several weeks interviewing members of the Granville Island community. Most said their relations with CMHC are badly frayed. They want decision-making wrested from federal bureaucrats and given to a council of arts-minded locals, not only to protect Granville Island’s unique character, but to re-invigorate it.
That’s just what was recommended 2.5 years ago by a team appointed by the Trudeau government to take a fresh look at Granville Island.
Documents never before made public obtained by The Tyee show the process, called Granville Island 2040, included a sub-report by Michael Goldberg, professor emeritus of UBC’s Sauder School of Business.
Goldberg noted the “lacklustre business operations and a flat-lining of revenue” on Granville Island, and laid the blame squarely on CMHC managers and “the tightening of bureaucratic control from Ottawa.”
“Granville Island as currently organized and governed is severely constrained in its capacity to implement the bold ideas and diverse activities envisioned for Granville Island 2040,” he concluded.
Goldberg said he and others working on the Granville Island 2040 project had been undermined by bureaucrats.
“Virtually all of the consulting team working on Granville Island 2040 have experienced defensive and unimaginative attitudes from local management — including delay and deferral tactics whose sole purpose seems to be to generate a negative reaction in Ottawa by biasing significant ideas and recommendations.”
Goldberg recommended ending CMHC’s control over Granville Island. There should be a “locally managed, independent organization” with the power to hire and fire top managers and handle its own communications. Its members should possess expertise in arts and culture lacking at the CMHC.
Goldberg envisioned a council of locals operating free of CMHC meddling, while “fully accountable to the CMHC and the Government of Canada and its diverse stakeholders.”
But Goldberg’s criticisms and recommendations were kept secret and missing from the official report, published by the federal government in May 2017.
Granville Island 2040: Bridging Past and Future did include a range of rejuvenating ideas. But many tenants say they are exasperated by the slow pace and firm grip of the CMHC.
CMHC officials told The Tyee such fears are unfounded. They point to a few changes, say more are coming, and urge patience.
All sides seem to agree: Granville Island is still a gem, but pitted with empty holes and in need of new polish.
The federal government claimed ownership of what is now called Granville Island almost from the moment settlers pushed Squamish and Musqueam people off the once resource-rich area they call Sen̓áḵw. By the early 1900s, Mud Island, as it was then known, served as home to industrial chain makers, a concrete factory, and several sawmills. By the 1950s the island had become a run-down eyesore, having severely polluted False Creek.
Granville Island falls within the Vancouver Centre riding, which from 1968 to 1979 was represented by Liberal MP Ron Basford. He wanted to “do something as significant for Vancouver as Toronto’s waterfront development,” recalls urbanist and former Vancouver city councillor Gordon Price.
Basford drew on experts to drive a bold vision, says Price. Michael Geller, now a developer, was at the time employed by the CMHC helping to map the island’s transformation. It was to be “a special zone in the city,” he says, designed to “appeal not to tourists but to locals.” A place that supported arts and culture, preserved heritage and incubated new ideas, urban design experiments and business models.
Granville Island would not just retain many corrugated tin buildings from its manufacturing past; it would remain home to a concrete producer, its trucks rumbling past shops, studios, eateries and buskers. In July 1979, the Granville Island Public Market opened its doors, ushering in a golden age, say island veterans, that lasted through the 1990s.
“We were all part of a big weird project together,” says Mike Vandermeer, a Vancouver artist for 27 years and Granville Islander for 20 of them. “It felt very collegial.”
Eighteen years ago, Pernilla Ahrnstedt was a young jewelry maker with no solid business plan, thrilled to be given a chance. “We wouldn’t be able to have a shop like this anywhere else,” she says of her combined studio and storefront, Aurum Argentum, shared with two others. She and the other two tenants and the CMHC shared a bond of “amicable” trust, she says.
That feeling began to die in the early 2000s, say Vandermeer, Ahrnstedt and a number of others interviewed by The Tyee. Some asked to remain anonymous, for fear of angering their landlord the CMHC, or violating non-disclosure agreements the CMHC has required them to sign.
“When I first started I felt I was indispensable. Now I’m replaceable,” says Vandermeer, who claims CMHC now treats artists as “underperforming tenants.” He says he was renovicted by the CMHC from his longtime spot and moved to a different studio with little warning or courtesy. “Our primary purpose is paying rent. Our primary purpose used to be to make this place amazing.”
Sebastian Lippa, the CMHC manager of planning and development for Granville Island, acknowledges that for too long “things definitely were not as transparent as they should be,” leading to bad feelings. He says his team has improved communication. “Anything where we are going to be impacting tenants, we make the effort. And that was not always the case, I will be the first to admit that.”
Those complaining now are a small minority among the 3,000 people who work on Granville Island, Lippa says.
It’s been a challenging time for Granville Island.
In summer 2017, Emily Carr University of Art and Design moved off the island, taking with it over 2,000 students and employees, an exit announced more than four years earlier.
Other notable shutterings included the Gallery of B.C. Ceramics, managed by the Potters Guild of B.C., and the Cats Social House restaurant.
Today the eastern side of the island feels particularly barren, a jumble of shipping containers occupying one of its parking lots. Very few visitors linger in its quiet depths, if they make it there at all.
In January 2017, former SFU president Michael Stevenson, hired by the Liberal government to consult the public and write the Granville Island 2040 report, filed his draft to the Ministry of Families, Children and Social Development.
Four months later, the official version was released online. Notably, Stevenson was not identified as its author. Instead, the report adopts the passive voice, merely declaring the report “presented to CMHC — Spring 2017.” Stevenson told The Tyee his contract with the CMHC prevents him from commenting on what he submitted.
In his nine months of research, Stevenson drew on consultants in land use, transportation and governance, as well as an advisory board of local experts. He also met with ministers, Vancouver politicians and Granville Island tenants.
People who worked alongside Stevenson, or attended public meetings, say they sensed an urgency to make things happen. At several meetings, Hedy Fry, Liberal MP for Vancouver Centre, drew cheers when she expressed enthusiastic support for the ideas raised and federal funding to make them happen.
In the official report are key prescriptions which people heard Stevenson voice in public meetings. They include:
Pump up the presence of arts and culture on Granville Island, which as a ratio of activity there had fallen two-thirds below the level mandated in 1978. The island should add a new flexible performance space, and the largest of the now empty Emily Carr buildings should be turned into an “arts and culture hub” with studio and gallery spaces, a cafeteria, and an artists-in-residence program.
Expand and update the public market, creating a market district.
Fix up buildings and infrastructure. Too much of the island had fallen into disrepair, flattening the public energy of the place.
Involve First Nations in the development of Granville Island, including the creation of a First Nations Cultural Centre.
Rethink how public transit delivers people to Granville Island. Too many cars clog it now, crowding pedestrians and eating up valuable space with parking lots. Among the fixes proposed: Build an elevator to deliver bus riders from a stop on the Granville Bridge down to the island, or run a tram along existing tracks connecting the island to Olympic Village and beyond.
All of this was ambitious enough to cost serious money. The federal government should be prepared to invest at least $100 million, the report said.
The critical issue was who would implement the changes. Goldberg’s confidential draft report looked at a locally based model like those governing the Vancouver airport and the Port of Vancouver.
Stevenson apparently agreed. In a Feb. 1, 2017 email to CMHC official Evan Siddall, Stevenson presses for the “strong case for autonomy on the model of independent Crown corporations.”
Siddall pushes back. If the federal government is to invest significant money in carrying out the Granville 2040 plan, “the desire for independent governance could be more challenging.”
The official draft of Granville Island 2040: Bridging the Past and the Future does propose a Granville Island Council be created. Members still have not been appointed; Lippa told The Tyee, “We are waiting for the minister to announce the names in the coming weeks.”
But many Granville Islanders told The Tyee they already are soured on the council’s potential, because they see it robbed of the autonomy they were promised, given how the CMHC has retained influence over its makeup and operations.
A notice recruiting candidates for the council says it will be “composed of seven members: two appointed by CMHC, the remaining from the local community including one appointed by the City of Vancouver.”
That raised red flags for Alma Lee, who founded the Vancouver Writers Fest in 1988, locating it on Granville Island and serving as artistic director until 2004.
“If there are CMHC members on the council, it is no longer an independent body,” Lee stated. She notes that the head of the committee now deciding who will be nominated for the council is the general manager of CMHC Granville Island.
Lee is a fierce critic of the way CMHC runs the island now. “Their management style is a top-down, authoritarian approach,” she told the Vancouver Sun. “That doesn’t work in a place like Granville Island.”
Gordon Price, who was on Stevenson’s 2040 advisory board, said it was clear that “governance is a big problem” on Granville Island. Its “relationship with the federal government should change.”
The CMHC is unlikely to cede authority. “Specific decisions about the structure of governance are the prerogative of the Government of Canada, and evaluation of management is, strictly speaking, outside of the Granville Island 2040 mandate,” it noted.
Lee says that if CMHC wants to calm fears among tenants, it should offer longer leases. “That would make people feel more secure and open.”
“I can’t think of a time we asked a tenant to leave,” the CMHC’s Lippa told The Tyee.
But a different story is told by Lynn Chong and TC Lee, who co-owned the Net Loft Café until, they say, they were pushed out by the CMHC in 2017. When they bought the business its menu was fine with their federal landlords, they said, so they kept it.
“It’s a success, why change it?” said Lee. In fact they tripled their sales over six years, without raising their prices.
But then, he says, CMHC reps forced them to shift to a month-to-month lease and said they weren’t satisfied with what they offered customers. Chong and Lee told The Tyee they tried their best to come up with new designs and menus, but couldn’t get CMHC people to even come and taste the new food. When the CMHC suddenly refused to renew their lease, they were left with expensive inventory and anger.
“We wanted to make Granville Island flourish. We love it. It’s full of activity, full of life. I liked to interact with the customers. I liked to sell them on Canada,” Lee told The Tyee.
But he and Chong soon learned that as recent immigrants they lacked the connections and money for lawyers it would take to fight their landlord.
“How? You are dealing with the government of Canada!”
They appealed up the line to the CMHC’s regional manager and head in Ottawa, getting no response, Lee says.
Before coming to Canada, Lee says, he ran shopping centres. “We treated our tenants so well, with respect and dignity. We said, ‘Because they are successful, I am successful.’ I don’t know how this happened.”
The Net Loft Café was swiftly replaced by the Thai food spot Sen, which has since moved into the main Public Market.
After the relocation of Sen, the space stood empty for a year.
Jewelry maker Ahrnstedt believes the trend on the island is towards “deeper pocketed” restaurants and groups.
Ahrnstedt sees this trend dovetailing with a “more tourists” message she has heard from management. She fears Granville Island will turn into something like San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf or Venice’s Saint Mark’s Square, where all you see are “tourists looking at tourists.”
“I’m not here as a tourist attraction,” she says.
Bob Kingsmill says it all comes down to who has the power to decide who leases on the island and how they are treated. “If Granville Island is a healthy place it will naturally attract people. If it just becomes a place of selling clothing and knick-knacks it becomes irrelevant.”
Thirty months after Stevenson submitted his proposals and more than two years after the CMHC published its report, Emily Carr’s two vacated buildings — more than 20 per cent of leased space on the island — remain empty. The smaller south building is being renovated to become the new home for the children’s arts school Arts Umbrella, a long time tenant on Granville Island.
For repurposing the larger, 125,000-square-foot north building, no clear plan or committed timeline yet exists. The CMHC began seeking ideas last year saying it hopes to open the renewed complex in 2021.
Vandermeer is not convinced that CMHC is serious about turning it into an arts and culture hub. He watched the CMHC pull a lot of art-making equipment out of the building, including a pricey furnace. “If they wanted artists in there, they could have just been in there,” he says. The infrastructure was already in place. Now it’s not.
CMCH’s Lippa says that converting the building is a “massive” undertaking with an estimated cost of $40 million, so it can’t be hurried.
“A lot of due diligence is required for a project of that scale.” The goal remains, he says, for a space with “multiple users open day time and night time, with lots of opportunity for public to engage with arts, see things being made, be inspired by some of the city’s leading creative workers, a place for people to come and have fun.”
Critics point out the CMHC has had over six years to plan and execute. That the cavernous Emily Carr space persists as a vacuum of activity at the heart of Granville Island only reinforces doubt that the feds are serious about carrying through on all their report promises.
Michael Geller, who was on the 2040 advisory board, speaks for others when he says he feels “disappointed with what has been the follow up.”
Advisory board member Gordon Price has come to believe the 2040 plan will only lead to more “incremental changes” while “real decisions will be put off.”
Bob Kingsmill fears that the 2040 plan “will just be slipped into the garbage.”
Lippa points to signs of progress, including eliminating free parking, mounting some outdoor events on a new portable stage rolled into a cordoned-off parking lot, and collaborating with Musqueam artist Debra Sparrow who created murals around the island. Studies and talks with the city about fixing transit, including the Granville Bridge elevator idea, are ongoing, he says.
None of this is big enough or fast enough, nor does it go to the core of concerns, says Alma Lee, who insists the federal authority that originally helped bring Granville Island into being now is smothering its potential. Only a local, transparent, democratic and autonomous council of citizens can restore a sense among Granville Island’s artisans and small-business people that they are the heart and soul of the place — not, as Mike Vandermeer says, “replaceable.”
“Vancouver has a problem with artist spaces,” says “the paint guy” Kevin Head. “Granville Island is more important than ever because of this.”
Sebastian Lippa acknowledges that “for the cultural workers on the island there is a pervasive anxiety working in this city. But I don’t feel it’s fair for Granville Island to be accused of being part of the problem. It was structured in a way that we have a mandate, a social purpose, to provide space for arts and culture. The city of Vancouver won’t say a certain percentage of its space will be devoted to arts and culture. We say that.”
In the meantime, Kevin Head, who as a teen wandered under the Granville Bridge 40 years ago, continues to cling to the vision that pulled him there — that “Land of Oz” where artisans, spared the harsh logic of the region's real estate market forces, can make beautiful things, and experiences, for others to enjoy.
“If you really understand Granville Island,” he says, “it’s the coolest thing. It’s worth protecting and defending.”