Opinion: This redevelopment is the key to revitalizing Granville Entertainment District

Feb 4 2021, 9:24 pm

By now, it should be abundantly clear that the long-standing gentle, passive policies and strategies intended to prevent the further decay of the Granville Entertainment District (GED) in downtown Vancouver have been ineffective.

It is time to try something different — and such action must be taken now, it absolutely cannot wait.

There is a real danger that the GED, without proper timely interventions, could falter even further and become a miniature Downtown Eastside.

Vancouver’s storied commercial street is struggling from rising homelessness, public drug use and intoxication, and violent crime and sexual assaults.

None of this supports a healthy environment for businesses, and the efforts to turn around the negative public reputation the district has gained. The longer there is inaction, the harder it will be to turn around issues that will become more entrenched into the urban fabric of the district over time.

We already know what the effective solutions are, we just need a lot more of it.

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Construction progress on Cineplex’s The Rec Room in the Granville Entertainment District. (Karm Sumal/Daily Hive)

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The historic Orpheum Theatre entrance on Granville Street. (Karm Sumal/Daily Hive)

There was reason for some optimism for the GED’s future just before COVID-19, such as the 2019 opening of Colony Bar Granville, which replaced the 15,000 sq ft former space of Caprice Nightclub. It is an all-in-one entertainment destination on its own, currently a one-of-a-kind on the GED — a sports bar, restaurant, and fun activity zone with arcade games and an indoor bocce court.

A version of Colony Bar on steroids will open in late 2021 or early 2022, located just up a city block to the north, in the form of Cineplex’s The Rec Room entertainment centre, filling the long-vacant Empire Theatre complex. This entertainment centre will have 45,000 sq ft of floor area spread over four levels, including 100 arcade and amusement games, multiple dining options such as an upscale casual restaurant and several sports bars, and an 11,000 sq ft performance and event venue in the basement for up to 640 people.

While such new businesses will help attract a far more diverse range of people to the GED, compared to the narrow range generated by the nighttime businesses on the street, it does not address the overwhelming need for the critical mass of people in the area, especially during the daytime.

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Spaces co-working, temporarily tenanted with Deloitte, at the former Tom Lee building at 939 Granville Street, Vancouver. (Karm Sumal/Daily Hive)

In 2019, just next to Colony Bar, the former Tom Lee music building was converted into a Spaces co-working office location. It was completely leased by Deloitte for its temporary Vancouver headquarters until its new permanent space at the Deloitte Summit office tower is complete.

Prior to the pandemic, there were as many as 700 employees with Deloitte working in the 70,000 sq ft co-working location. Another 2,000 sq ft of new retail and restaurant space is on the ground level.

The high density of office workers provided the area’s businesses with a big boost. According to Charles Gauthier, the president and CEO of the Downtown Business Improvement Association, retail and dining establishments in the area reported that they “benefited immensely” from having Deloitte’s employees in the area during the daytime, compared to only having a nighttime population attracted by the bars, pubs, and nightclubs.

Now imagine the positive penetrative impact on the GED from 800 Granville Street — a proposed mixed-use commercial building with 377,100 sq ft of office space for the properties just south of the east side of Robson Street. This is five times the amount of office space compared to Deloitte at Spaces Granville, but this simple calculation does not fully reflect the efficiencies from 800 Granville Street’s large open office spaces, with most of the floor plates spanning almost the entire length of the city block.

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Artistic rendering of 800 Granville Street, Vancouver. (Perkins & Will/Bonnis Properties)

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Site of the proposed redevelopment at 800 Granville Street, Vancouver. (Karm Sumal/Daily Hive)

There is enough office space at the 800 Granville Street redevelopment, as first reported by Daily Hive Urbanized last month, to accommodate up to 4,000 office workers.

This is not only the right medicine for the GED’s ailments, it is also the dosage it needs.

Analysts estimate as many as 2.8 million pedestrian movements will be made on Granville Street from office employees entering in and out of the building. That is an average of about 11,000 pedestrian movements per weekday, with office workers spending $23 million on shops and about $5 million on food and beverage establishments in the immediate area.

Moreover, downtown Vancouver lacks large office floor plates, despite the high demand for such spaces from larger companies, especially tech firms. The large office floor plates within the repurposed former Eatons/Sears building kitty-corner from 800 Granville Street attracted high-profile tenants such as Microsoft, Sony Pictures Imageworks’ international headquarters, and Miller Thomson LLP. Massive floor plates within the Canada Post redevelopment, known as The Post, currently under construction, prompted Amazon to pre-lease the entire office component of that complex.

All of the office density for 800 Granville Street is plopped on top of 86,300 sq ft of retail and restaurant space within multiple levels at the base of the entire building, which is double the commercial space within the existing buildings on the development site. It will also provide a much-needed refresh of the building’s street frontage — a length of 425 ft of the streetscape.

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Artistic rendering of 800 Granville Street, Vancouver. (Perkins&Will/Bonnis Properties)

The commercial spaces will range from small retail units to large retail units suitable for big box stores, including the possibility of a flagship store for Uniqlo, which has had a difficult time with finding an appropriate, centrally-located, large retail space in downtown.

The shortage of right sized retail spaces at appealing locations forced a growing number of major retailers — such as Uniqlo, Muji, and Simons — to establish their first presence in Metro Vancouver in suburban locations. This pattern of retail entry is almost unheard of in major metropolitan areas; normally, such brands open their first local operations in the city centre.

800 Granville Street will also have a substantial restaurant component that covers an upper floor area the size of half the city block.

The foot traffic generated by this retail and restaurant space is estimated to be over four million pedestrian trips annually, an increase of 204% over the pre-pandemic volumes.

Nearly all of the existing buildings on the development footprint have heritage value, and most will see their heritage facades preserved as a bare minimum. Special attention and treatment will be provided to the Commodore building, which houses the historic Commodore Ballroom and Commodore Billiards bowling alley.

The entire Commodore building and all of its contents will be preserved and restored, while also integrating it as a unique part of the massive redevelopment.

Shared back-of-house improvements to both the Commodore Ballroom and Orpheum Theatre will allow for more events to be held, increasing the annual attendance at each venue by about 75,000 attendees each year.

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Artistic rendering of the new performance venue for the Orpheum Theatre and the outdoor cultural space at 800 Granville Street, Vancouver. (Perkins&Will/Bonnis Properties)

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Artistic rendering of restaurant patios at 800 Granville Street, Vancouver. (Perkins & Will/Bonnis Properties)

The Orpheum Theatre’s heightened attendance also comes from relocating the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s (VSO) rehearsals to a new 14,000 sq ft performance hall on an upper level. This $45-million performance hall funded by the developer, owned by the City of Vancouver upon completion, can be used for other events and functions when not in use by the VSO, effectively freeing up time at the Orpheum Theatre for events.

In the process, addressing the current back-of-house and VSO rehearsal challenges would ensure the long-term financial success of both venues and ensure their viability for the future, while also drawing more people to the area. The redevelopment would also revitalize and reactivate the Orpheum Theatre’s dead historic box office entrance on Granville Street, which is currently not used as an exit for spectators.

“This project is a win-win in so many respects, and it checks all the boxes,” said Gauthier. “I think we can make an argument that this could become a centrepiece for the heart of the downtown. It would become a landmark, at some point, we would be very proud of it.”

He emphasized the importance of revitalizing Granville Street through densification to create more mixed commercial, cultural, entertainment uses, rather than the decades-long shift of focusing on only the nighttime businesses.

“The foot traffic numbers that are forecasted to be in the new development will be phenomenal for the area, and I think it’ll draw people in the office towers north of Robson too. There is an invisible line where people currently don’t see many options south of Robson Street,” said Gauthier.

“With this particular development, it brings people right onto the block, and that in itself will attract retailers and restaurants to be close to that, and it’ll help buoy up dining establishments in the area.”

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Artistic rendering of 800 Granville Street, Vancouver. (Perkins&Will/Bonnis Properties)

This density (650,000 sq ft of total floor area for a floor space ratio density of 11.5 times the size of the land the building sits on) is necessary not only to turn the tide for the entertainment district and its businesses, but also to ensure the public benefits of preserving the Commodore building — providing a new additional $45-million performance hall, and improving the back-of-house facilities for the existing performance venues — are feasible for the developer.

In an interview with Daily Hive Urbanized early last month, Kerry Bonnis of Bonnis Properties, the owner and developer, made it clear that if the proposed density is rejected, the project and all of the public benefits provided will not be financially viable.

The new 14,000 sq ft performance hall with its three-storey high ceiling takes up a volume of what could be three levels of leasable office space. When this new city-owned performance hall space, ancillary supporting spaces, and 17,000 sq ft of shared entertainment space between the Commodore Ballroom and Orpheum Theatre are accounted for, the developer is forgoing the potential for approximately 80,000 sq ft of additional leasable office space.

Preserving the Commodore building entirely without disrupting its interior uses is also extremely costly, says Bonnis. This is only accomplished by the engineering feat of building a mid-block bridge over the Commodore building, spanning a length of about 175 ft.

“If the density is rejected, we’ll just go back to operating the existing buildings as they are, we’ll lose this opportunity, and we’ll do new long-term leases. We’ll try to continue to improve the entertainment district, but without the sort of component and merit that this development would bring forward. It just won’t be economically viable to reduce the density,” said Bonnis.

“We’ve spent the past decade coordinating leases, synchronizing them so that we can redevelop a large section of the 800 block of Granville Street, specifically the buildings north of the Commodore building… If we can’t get something approved soon, we’ll have no choice but to pay mortgages on these properties and rent the spaces. This opportunity will evaporate if we don’t get prompt approval on it. We hope the City of Vancouver and all stakeholders will recognize the size and scale this project merits a quick consideration and approval of it.”

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Artistic rendering of 800 Granville Street, Vancouver. (Perkins&Will/Bonnis Properties)

The only potential concession that may be feasible, says Bonnis, is a redistribution of the density. Currently, the building is nine storeys at its southern end near Smithe Street and it gradually ramps up to its peak of 17 storeys (260 ft) at its northern end at Robson Street.

The density of the northern end’s height could be redistributed to the shorter sections of the building, but without reducing the actual density of the total floor area. But Bonnis also notes this sloping building form is intended to provide a more gentle transition between the taller towers in the formal area designated as the Central Business District north of Robson Street, and the shorter buildings to the south.

Bonnis also stated funding the construction of a secondary street entrance to the Canada Line’s Vancouver City Centre Station at the southeast corner of the intersection of Robson Street and Granville Street — where the Lennox Pub is currently located on the site of 800 Granville Street — is out of the question due to its additional high costs.

Theoretically, the City of Vancouver would need to allow significantly more density than what is currently proposed by Bonnis to offset both the added costs of allocating ground level space that could otherwise be a revenue-generating commercial retail space and the construction cost of the underground pathway to the other side of the street.

The underground space needed for such an entrance to the SkyTrain station would also affect plans for a large cycling parkade and end-of-trip facilities. There will be some vehicle parking in the redevelopment, but not a large amount, as the underground levels will only be within a 200-ft-long footprint between Robson Street and the Commodore building.

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Artistic rendering of 800 Granville Street, Vancouver. (Perkins&Will/Bonnis Properties)

This project is key for generating the immediate revitalization impact of providing the critical mass needed to support existing and new businesses, and many more eyes on the street to fulfill a Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design principle, and the longer term revitalization impact of catalyzing new commercial redevelopment projects along the strip.

Bonnis owns a number of properties elsewhere along the GED, and redevelopments are planned for several of these sites.

They intend to eventually redevelop 798 Granville Street — the multi-level retail building just across the street, at the northeast corner of Granville Street and Robson Street. This building is known for its Best Buy and Winners tenants, and an investment was made last year to replace the aging giant LED video screens with new larger models.

The idea, he says, is to redevelop 798 Granville Street into a far taller tower than 800 Granville Street, with office floors above and retail spaces.

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New larger video screens installed at the “Best Buy/Winners building” at 798 Granville Street. located at the intersection of Robson and Granville streets in downtown Vancouver. (Karm Sumal/Daily Hive)

Construction could soon begin on the redevelopment of 950 Granville Street, a large mid-block site just south of The Roxy Cabaret and across from the former Tom Lee building. This site, including the building that previously housed Republic Nightclub, will be redeveloped into a four-storey commercial building with a total floor area of about 72,000 sq ft.

The original plans call for about 16,500 sq ft of office space on the fourth level and 47,000 sq ft of retail and restaurant space on the first three levels, specifically for the potential for larger format stores. The developer is seeking permission for two additional office levels to bring the building up to six levels.

While they would like to see multiple levels of retail, he says, the market will dictate whether the mid-levels are used for retail or office. They are in discussions with several potential tenants.

Bonnis has completed site preparation work for its The Seymour strata office tower at 809 Seymour Street — at the southwest corner of the intersection of Seymour Street and Robson Street, immediately east of 800 Granville Street. When complete next year, the narrow 13-storey office tower will have about 62,000 sq ft of office space and over 4,000 sq ft of ground-level retail and restaurant space.

“For us, it’s really important to see as much density as possible in downtown Vancouver. It will push arts, culture, jobs, and the economy, and especially now as there have been more vacancies in retail,” added Bonnis.

“We believe that office space, in creating jobs and economic opportunities, is critical for the growth of our city. There is a shortage of office space, even with COVID-19. We need to address this quickly or else we will lose the opportunities to bring tech, headquarters, services, and even clerical offices. We need to build in the downtown core. It will have immense positive attributes.”

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Artistic rendering of the 4-storey concept for 900-950 Granville Street, Vancouver. (B&TB/Perkins&Will/Bonnis Properties)

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Artistic rendering of 809 Seymour Street, Vancouver. (Perkins&Will/Bonnis Properties)

Cities are not meant to be static places. They need to adapt, grow, and evolve as conditions for thriving, not merely surviving, change.

Stagnation is associated with death; without change, it is death to businesses and civic life. Vancouver has gained a reputation for being hung up on small details, seeking an unattainable level of highly subjective perfection, failing to be nimble and competitive, and refusing to look at conditions, problems, solutions, and opportunities holistically.

Stagnation has greatly contributed to Robson Street’s decline, particularly west of Burrard Street.

The city’s West End Community Plan only calls for retail buildings up to three storeys for the three city blocks of the Robson Street retail strip between Burrard and Jervis streets, but this street would highly benefit from many floors of office space above the retail — not dissimilar to 800 Granville Street — to drive more foot traffic into the area and its businesses.

Instead, the city has prioritized maintaining a “village” character with primarily low-rise buildings in this retail district.

“I was flabbergasted to walk around the heart of downtown Vancouver and see single- and double-storey store buildings with nothing else above, along Robson Street and Granville Street. There is nothing like this happening in other global city centres,” said Avi Friedman, an architecture professor at McGill University, in a previous interview with Daily Hive Urbanized.

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Site of the future redevelopment at 950 Granville Street, Vancouver. (Karm Sumal/Daily Hive)

Stagnation is killing Chinatown, too.

Significantly greater densities through added height in Chinatown for the critical mass needed to help revitalize the district were short-lived, after city council capitulated to activists in 2018, and banned the taller and wider building forms that had been allowed since 2011.

At the time, activists argued gentle, passive policies and strategies — such as community programming, historical designations, policies to protect heritage character, and public realm improvements — are preferable tools for revitalizing Chinatown.

Three years later, the highly superficial experiment failed to protect the district from the overwhelming forces in play. Chinatown did not even stand a chance. Chinatown has fallen far deeper into the abyss of the Downtown Eastside’s social issues, and morale amongst the dwindling number of businesses has never been lower.

Critical mass through densification alone will not solve Chinatown’s issues, but it is by far the most powerful tool in the toolbox.

So what would happen if the status quo policies and strategies are maintained for the Granville Entertainment District? What if we continue to move slowly on the changes needed? What if we did not consider and use every tool available in the toolbox?

While the decade-old public realm of Granville Street built in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics, for example, could certainly see improvements to help catalyze revitalization, this approach even when conducted alongside using other passive tools will only go so far to address the serious underlying issues with the GED.

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Artistic rendering of 800 Granville Street, Vancouver. (Perkins&Will/Bonnis Properties)

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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