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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

A New Future for Granville Island?

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A City Conversation held at SFU downtown today.

GI Future

Transformed in the 1970s from a declining industrial area into a centre of arts, culture and food, Granville Island is one of Canada’s most popular attractions, for tourists and residents. With Emily Carr University of Art + Design moving from Granville Island to Great Northern Way, and the loss of almost all the old heavy industry, is it time to refresh the island’s eclectic mix and, perhaps, its caretaker administration? In a recent article, the Vancouver Sun suggested exactly that. Or will it be enough to just find a new tenant, or tenants, for the 200,000 square feet of buildings that Emily Carr leaves behind?

To frame the conversation, we have Daphne Bramham, author of the Sun article, architect Norman Hotson, creator of the hugely successful 1970’s design, and Dale McClanaghan, Chair of the Granville Island Trust.

I have put together a quick storify – only 30 tweets and most of them from City Conversations!


Norman Hotson and Dale McClanaghan opened with a presentation that I could not see. The room had standing room only and I was lucky to be squashed into a corner with a seat and a surface for my tablet.

Dale said that development on GI is “mixed up, tumbled and random” by design. It was originally a sandbar used by the Salish for fishing with a potlach house. It bacame Vancouver’s “first industrial park” until in 1977 a federal government initiative started to review how the Island would be used in the future. They included a group of local people in that process. One of the diagrams showed how the configuration of streets is based on how railcars were moved. Materials arrived by barge, were transformed by industrial processors and then transferred to rail. (Or, presumably the other way around.) The original land use plan did not using zoning so much as the idea of “realms”. They mentioned Urbanics [who I have learned were consultants on the study]. They created a set of principles that have covered use and development and are well followed. Now there is an opportunity for a rethink as 20% of the usable floorspace on the island will become vacant as a result of the Emily Carr decision to relocate. Granville Island Trust advisory, less of governance, operational focus CMHC good stewards. It is fundamentally a place for the residents of Vancouver: “if tourists come that’s icing on the cake” tourism development could be a threat.

Another six development sites are currently available. Over 2,000 people took part in the Speak Up public process. The general consluion was that “We should not mess too much with a Good Thing.” Other modes of transportation do need to be improved. Public spaces can also  be improved, but its the “best public market in North America” so only minor changes are expected there.

Daphne Bramham. “To me its very personal – from the 1983 job interview when I first came here. I now live near there. I walked across it to get here.” But recently she visited San Francisco and saw the new Ferry Terminal where an old building has been repurposed into a market. While aimed at tourism something about it “feels more modern”. Emily Carr leaving gives us that same impetus to see what needs updating. We need to ask people what they want from a day on Granville Island. It is, she said, “pretty close to perfect. We don’t need to copy other places. We need forums like this.” Need to preserve green space. “I don’t want it to be the Gastown of old. Its our island. We do pay a premium to shop there.” She also pointed to the governance model of the port and airport as examples of how federal institutions became locally controlled.


Marguerite Ford opened by asking how the EC site could become an incubator for new businesses

This has been a persistent theme with arts and culture. The problem is that “incubation does not pay its rent.” Balance with nonprofit. Economic model or “where does the money come from?” Local management will need to come from outside CMHC

Someone asked about “spin offs of EC” the library, Opus,

Opus preceeded EC. “It might become a real art store.” One of EC’s staff said the library would move with the rest of the college

No one tenant should dominate

TRAMS Mathew Laird asked if there was anyone who would willing to help fund reopening the Downtown Historic Railway’s streetcar service between Oylmpic Village and GI. He also asked if anyone had considered opening a museum space as they also have a collection of historic buses.

Food, maritime and arts have been the traditional focus but they would not exclude anything.

You don’t build any more parking. Less than half of the people coming to GI drive now.
CMHC could not maintain one old building, so now it’s a parking lot due to lack of CMHC funding.

There is a desperate need for student accommodation in Vancouver – not just for Emily Carr and not just for overseas students. Residences will be part of the new EC site.

A GI printer said that the local CMHC office has no power to make decisions. He wants to rebuild his print works into a sustainable, off grid buidling but can get nowhere locally. He said “students do not contribute to the economy of GI as they are too focussed on thewir school work”. He said the EC buildings could be much needed space for artists, a place to work, purpose built space, tool crib space. He said he was “Totally invested”. The need is for education for people not in school.

Michael Geller asked a question about “respective jurisdiction”

GI is Goverment of Canada land, but there is an agreement with the City – just as there is for the port.

A merchant from the market disgareed with the printer .”Over half of my staff are EC students”. They are also customers for food. “Merchants pay top rents. The market is in fragile state, and we fear of loss of the business EC brings. If the market fails, the island fails.”

Another commenter disagreed on price of produce: she said that local supermarkets charge more

“This conversation should have occurred when the cement plant lease was up”

It is the last industrial operation on False Creek and GI is committed to keeping it.

“I don’t hear proposals.”

We are at an early stage

Frank Ducote housing?

Residents have a different view of “peaceful enjoyment” If housing is developed on GI the other uses will be forced to close

There is a need to dovetail development with South False Creek and the “volatile”  harbour area

Gordon Price observed that it could become an LNG terminal [joke]

Transportation is a critical issue

Bob Ransford: we need a new group:  Friends of Granville Island


I was disappointed to see so few tweets. It is extremely difficult to keep up with a fast moving discussion when typing one fingered on a tablet, and I was not sure if there was any recording going on. Clearly this is something that stirs up a great deal of interest and emotion. Much more now needs to happen both to tap into the information about how GI works now – lots of facts and data please – and more needs to be understood about what is likely to be doable on this site. Clearly, given the lack of resources available from CHMC who cannot even maintain the buildings they’ve got, a new local champion – or group of champions needs to take over. I suspect that the federal government will only be too pleased to download the Island to local organization. It also needs to be independent of the City, in my opinion, to maintain that “its for the local community” first feeling. The greatest threat I see is that someone like Tourism Vancouver or a BIA takes over.

Daphne Bramham is misguided if she thinks the port or YVR are examples of how good things are done in a local community. Neither is the slightest responsive to local needs or desires – and both are direct threats to our region’s sustainability. They are solely focussed on their bottom line and growth.

While I have the greatest sympathy for TRAMS and the DHR, I think what is needed are much better links back into the community. That means something much better than the #50 bus. It also needs to be understood that the DHR is not somehow in competition for funding with the Broadway Subway, on which the City has decided to focus all its efforts. There are different markets and different needs. The DHR is the equivalent of the San Francisco cable car. Jarret Walker expresses clearly the difference between cable cars and actual local transit.

The huge, underused parking lot at Olympic Village Station is the resource I would bring into play. The use of this lot to meet the parking needs of the island would free up space and make the rest of the mixed use traffic areas much less car centric. The “woonerf” idea is working on the island – traffic speeds are slow and collisions infrequent. But that does not make walking pleasant. Nor does the amount of space devoted to parking make best use of a very limited resource. It seems very strange to make people pay for the space under cover but encourage people to circulate looking for “free” 1 hour, 2 hour and 3 hour spots. I would reverse the priorities. Much of the traffic is currently people looking for parking spots. Put longer term parking at Olympic Village and ensure that the parking stub acts as a free shuttle ticket for a modern tram service. Of course the service must be restored to Main Street too – and some extension will be needed at both ends. Sorry Starbucks.

The role of the ferries was pointed out. We have used them a lot, but because I got lucky and won free tickets. I am not sure I would be quite so ready to pay their fares so often. Ideally there ought to be integration of the tram shuttle, ferries and Translink. It’s the sort of thing the Swiss manage easily: and did so long before the days of smart phones and wifi.

I think the idea of “a day on Granville Island” is appalling. I would not want to spend more than three hours there – and that is when two of those hours are at the theatre (we have season tickets for the Arts Club).  We go there frequently, we shop at the market, eat at the SandBar, Bridges, Whet  … We buy bread at the bakery, fresh fish and produce at the market. There is a terrific hat shop, and brilliant place for old fashioned pens and paper. We like walking the seawall, so its a good stop along the way for that – and one of my favourite walks along the old BCER Arbutus right of way, when I dream of what it could have been and might be again. Its also a short walk to Kits for the beach or the Bard. It is not sui generis. It is part of the city – and a very significant component of its urbanity. It looks like the change in the beer rules that a visit to the brewery might last a bit longer in future.

Granville Island is great but it is not now, nor ever has been “perfect” and the very idea is anathema to me. It has to be constantly changing and adapting, but true to its values. It is NOT about “objectives” or “targets” or ROI. It is about being aware of a sense of place and how to keep it vibrant and vital.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 20, 2014 at 6:02 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Of course Daphne Bramham is misguided about YVR and the port’s operators – she’s a business writer. They both work well for businesses and the operators are responsive to business concerns. The local community – not so much.


    March 20, 2014 at 7:06 pm

  2. I was a long time craft day-vendor in the GI Market until a few years ago. You can ask any artisan, business owner or any tenant of Granville Island and they’ll all tell you that the number one problem with Granville Island is the CMHC management. With a few exceptions they tend to lack any kind of passion for the place or vision about where it could go and what it could be. They are mainly bureaucratic bean-counters and like any good government employee, their first and often, only, answer to a new idea is “No”, since that is always the safest course of action in a situation where there are no rewards or incentives for being creative.

    I was curious as to why you said that you thought CMHC would be glad to unload the management to some other body. Is this some inside info you have or just a guess? Things may have changed some since I was there regularly, but I know that the federal government made many millions of golden eggs from this goose, for the first couple of decades of it’s existence. When artists and businesses on the island were crying out for them to re-invest some of the money they made from the leasing and other income, in needed infrastructure, in new development or even in some basic marketing, they did as little of that as possible. Ottawa kept them under a very strict budget (except for hiring staff, which seemed to come from another pocket, I guess) and when I arrived there in the early ’90s the place was falling apart and businesses in and out of the Market were really suffering. You may see the crowds on a sunny summer weekend and think that all is well, but show up on a rainy Tuesday morning in November and you can see the desperation in the eyes of small business owners or craftspeople who still need to pay those rents to CMHC.

    Things are so bad regarding decrepit infrastructure in the Market buildings that for the whole time I was there, toilet backups were a regular occurrence (the sewer pipes were far too small) and any kind of heavy rain caused the roofs to leak in dozens of places. It took years of lobbying to get CMHC to fund the first wheelchair accessible door in the Market, a $5000 expense I was told. They claimed Ottawa refused to fund any capital expenditures, even relatively tiny ones. The electrical wiring in the Market is a dangerous mess, I fully expect to wake up one morning and hear that the Market building has burned to the ground.

    One of the worst examples of neglected infrastructure by CMHC was the old parking garage directly under the bridge – kitty-corner to the Market building. One day around Christmas a few years back a heavy snow fall caused part of the roof to collapse. CMHC and the responsible managers were very fortunate that no one was hurt or killed and not even a car was damaged, because the snow kept the crowds to a minimum that day. Someone could had been charged with criminal negligence because the management knew full well that the state of the roof was fragile, yet continued to claim that they couldn’t afford to fix it and stupidly continued to allow the public to use the building.

    A few years back, it was decided that Granville Island had let their infrastructure fall too far behind and consultants were hired, studies were made, and reports were written. A handful of the recommendations were acted upon and some capital expenditures were finally made, but I believe that the whole process has now slipped off the radar. I can’t even remember the catchy name they had for the process.

    Besides infrastructure, what about new ventures, new directions and new ideas? The artistic community on the island was bursting with them, but anyone who has spent any time trying to talk to CMHC managers about new ideas will quickly discover what a waste of time that is. You can almost hear their thinking about how soon their work day would end as their excuses and rationalizations come out thick and fast about why they can’t possibly do, consider or even talk to you about your suggestions.

    But if CMHC could be made to pry their talons off of Granville Island, who could possibly run it? I agree that it is not essentially someplace for a business to administer with some kind of privatized model like YVR. Granville Island isn’t about the bottom line, although certainly some small concern on the part of management for the welfare of all the small and micro-businesses on the island would be a welcome breath of fresh air. Something more than the half-assed marketing campaigns CMHC was involved in would be key for that.

    Granville Island is a public resource and an artistic soup. It really belongs to the people of Vancouver and area. Since the main problem with CMHC is that they don’t feel the need to listen to local concerns or their own tenants and artisans because they report to Ottawa, I think the natural owner for the Island would have to be the City of Vancouver. They may also have bureaucrats at City Hall who can match CMHC in terms of lack of imagination, but the difference would be that they would be under local control and have to respond to local concerns. If Granville Island is to ever be revitalized, I think that is the only answer.

    GI Artisan

    March 21, 2014 at 7:29 pm

  3. I have no inside information. I simply observe a government operating on a dogmatic ideal of less. Less public spending – yes I know that it has been the opposite but that is still the stated aim. Less government. Fewer civil servants. GI is an odd ball situation. An outlier. It doesn’t fit the pattern. So get rid of it.

    Stephen Rees

    March 21, 2014 at 7:38 pm

  4. Probably quite true, but not if CMHC is still hauling off lots of money from it and putting little back in. I don’t know if this is still the case and they HAVE been forced to spend a little more than they used to on it.

    It’s difficult to find out the figures, CMHC Granville Island staff are very tight-lipped and a few years back I spent a whole evening poring over government web sites trying to see if I could find out what the government earned and spent, but found nothing. At least nothing in a form that a non-accountant like me could interpret.

    I hope if they ever do decide it’s time to divest themselves of it, it won’t be some kind of privatization scheme. That could be conceivably worse than CMHC’s passive neglect.

    GI Artisan

    March 21, 2014 at 7:51 pm

  5. Stephen, I like your ideas about revitalizing Granville Island by moving car traffic and parking congestion away by improving transit, but I would say that a proper light rail line could very easily be established on the CPR railway track – it is already has ONE track built for high capacity, it only needs a second track – downtown historic railway (DHR) could be a secondary use but focus on a fast and higher capacity link from the Canada Line Olympic Village station first.

    It is very unfortunate and misguided that Vision Vancouver has chosen to do everything possible to stifle this project. I hope that in November they pay the price.

    Adam Fitch

    July 6, 2014 at 5:30 pm

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