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Woodward's Takes Shape: 'Nothing like it in North America'

Citizens pushed it outside the box.

Helena Grdadolnik 30 Mar

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Not one member of the public came to speak when the Woodward's project team had two final details to bring to a public hearing before city council on March 21.

Normally, this would be a sign of apathy for a planning project. But the Woodward's redevelopment has demonstrated how political pressure and community activism can empower the public to shape their own neighbourhood. And this time, the quiet response may mean that consensus has at last been formed and the development will finally go ahead after a decade of the building lying dormant.

After a quick look at the design, (a couple of towers and some lower-lying buildings) one can be forgiven for assuming that the development doesn't differ much from others in the city, but the final form is the result of a unique process that was driven equally by politics and community pressure on one side and the realities of local development and economics on the other.

Community demanded a say

The Downtown Eastside community had shown time and again that it wanted a say in how the site was to be developed; particularly in 1995 when local residents shutdown the initial redevelopment plan and again in 2002 with the Woodward's squat. Since the project team of Henriquez Partners Architects and Westbank Projects/Peterson Investment Group were hired after a lengthy competition for the job, a community advisory committee had been set up to work directly with the design and development team throughout the planning stages. The committee included local residents and stakeholders, as well as affordable housing representatives, Simon Fraser University, the project team and planners with the city.

I spoke to Lee Donohue, Downtown Eastside resident activist and a member of the community advisory committee about the process. He said that when he joined the Woodward's Community Advisory Committee people accused him of selling out, but he saw it as buying into the process. "We learned about how this is done, FSR [floor space ratio: the ratio of the total building area to the total square footage of the site] and all. That experience was valuable for people down here."

Donohue believes it is imperative to continue using the process that the Woodward's project has set because it gives the residents a voice. "The community advisory process is crucial. I don't want any other housing project to move ahead in the area without this. I don't think you can find anything comparable in North America. The way to look at this process is that it is precedent-setting, not just for the Downtown Eastside or for Vancouver, but it has the potential to be used across the entire country."

Bring on the density

What surprised the city planners was that what they considered major issues for the area: namely historical context and less density, were viewed differently by the community who welcomed higher densities as a way to bring enough people into the area to support the shops and services that were needed locally. The Woodward's redevelopment will have one million square feet of building area, including over 500 market and 200 non-market residential units as well as office, retail and community non-profit space and Simon Fraser University's School for the Contemporary Arts. Extra height on the 397-foot tower was traded to the developer in return for 31,000 square feet of non-profit space.

The area's residents were not dogmatic about keeping the building's physical form, but instead wanted to keep its spirit. "Heritage has to do with people, not things. To the people who worked there [Woodward's] and went there it was a safe and welcoming place," says Lee Donohue.

Henriquez Partners Architects did not take a typical approach to the heritage of the building. Initially, they proposed only to keep the original 1903 building, but now the facades are to be restored to how they appeared in 1956 (the highpoint of Woodward's as the leading retailer in Vancouver) and the existing building will be seismically upgraded. The glowing 'W' sign will also be restored and maintained, but even more importantly, in the main public space, a mural of the area's living history will be created by Vancouver artist Stan Douglas.

One of the ideas behind the design of the entire site is to make the public spaces welcoming and inclusive. This is meaningful in a city like Vancouver where so much of our so-called public space is actually private land given up through various bonus amenity schemes and designed purposefully not to be inviting for all but a few uses. The public space at the core of the new Woodward's block is designed to be used by all and to accommodate many different activities. Gregory Henriquez, the project's architect, said that he wanted "to create a public space that is more like a train station than a hotel lobby." The retail areas will include a supermarket and drug store, necessary basics for a community, not just more chain coffee shops like Starbucks and Blenz.

Henriquez plus Rennie

Henriquez Partners Architects has been in training for the Woodward's project for some time; their previous works in the Downtown Eastside include two low-income housing projects (Lore Krill Housing Co-op and Bruce Eriksen Place) and the Gastown Parkade. According to Henriquez, the architecture of the Woodward's redevelopment was not about what it looks like, but instead, social ideas and urban issues were their primary concern in the design process.

Some of the design decisions made in the market housing have been politically motivated; the tower will have no penthouse, the top floor and roof will instead be given up to common areas to be shared by all the buyers. That is not to say that there are no premium units, the penthouse has just shifted lower in this building; apartments with generous square footages and large double height balconies are carved out of the building's sides.

Unlike typical developments, floor space ratio was not an overriding concern. The project was not constrained by an FSR value. Nonetheless, the market housing in the Woodward Redevelopment was still designed with a pro forma (developer speak for a business plan). The tower shape is used repeatedly in developments because it maximizes window space and minimizes corridor space outside of the unit (what is known as 'non-saleable' area); for the same reasons, it is this form that is being used for the Woodward's market housing. Realistically, the project needs to work financially for Westbank and the Peterson Group because if it doesn't, the redevelopment would not move ahead and the Downtown Eastside would have to wait even longer for more social housing and community space.

To make this project work, the 536 units need to sell. To do so, Bob Rennie, the undisputed king of Vancouver condo sales, has been enlisted. Woodward's demanded a different angle for marketing; views and the Vancouver lifestyle wouldn't cut it here. The centrefold ads in the free weeklies name Woodward's "an intellectual property". The implication seems to be that savvy people will understand that moving into the area is a smart investment. As the ad states "The smart money gets in early. Vancouver can only grow in one direction - East."

I am not even going to get into discussing the design-a-door contest that Rennie Marketing Systems, mcfarlaneGreen (the interior designers), Westbank and Peterson Group ran at the beginning of this year. The assigned colour palette came from stripes reminiscent of high-end, London-based clothing design Paul Smith on the one side and a skateboard with war imagery (a chopper in army green with stencil letters) on the other.

No cookie-cutter

The Woodward's project is set between the rapidly gentrifying Gastown area and the Downtown Eastside. Adjacencies and politics have determined the locations of various programmed elements. For example, the market housing is on Cordova Street, closer to the western comfort zone of Gastown (more palatable to the condo market); the singles non-profit housing faces the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood's core on Hastings; and the 1903 heritage building at the corner of Hastings and Abbott Streets will house non-profit city space and a daycare.

How the city deals with the Woodward's project has long been associated with its approach to the social problems of the Downtown Eastside because of the monumental and symbolic importance of the site. The redevelopment has demanded a unique approach, for a long time this was driven politically by the former Vancouver city councilor Jim Green. With his insistence and to control what would happen on the site, the province made an unprecedented move in 2001 and bought the land from Fama Holdings; Vancouver took it off of their hands in 2003.

As the Woodward's project reached the stage of design and development, Henriquez Partners Architects and Westbank/Peterson Group continued to direct the project atypically every step of the way; from the involvement of the community to the novel approach to history, density, public space and even, to some extent, the condo housing and its marketing. The unique process that the politically-charged Woodward's site demanded looks all the more refreshing when contrasted with the cookie-cutter development in the rest of the city and region - a formulaic approach that has now crossed the Georgia Straight to Victoria and is being proposed for downtown Nanaimo.

A final public open house for the Woodward's redevelopment will be held on April 8, 11-3pm in the Woodward's Building W Room located at 101 West Hastings Street. The Woodward's Hotline is 604-873-7043.

Helena Grdadolnik is writing an occasional series on architecture in British Columbia for The Tyee. We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts which last year invested $17.6 million in visual arts throughout Canada.

Grdadolnik is an architecture critic and an instructor at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. She can be reached at [email protected]  [Tyee]

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