Charles Gauthier looks back at 29 years of building Downtown Vancouver BIA

Jun 30 2021, 9:06 pm

Charles Gauthier recalls a sense of excitement for what downtown Vancouver could grow into and become when he first arrived in the city in 1992.

At the time, Vancouver was still basking in the afterglow from its highly successful role in hosting the World’s Fair six years earlier. This city was committed to using the momentum of Expo ’86 for the purpose of reinventing itself.

“It was like maybe a sleepy downtown that was going to become something much bigger and better,” said Gauthier, the outgoing president and CEO of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA), in an interview with Daily Hive Urbanized.

“I got the sense that there was going to be dramatic change because of that enthusiasm. There was a lot of excitement and positivity about where downtown could go, having people live and work in the same downtown area, just as it is today.”

The sea of glass condominium towers on the Expo ’86 lands in False Creek and on the rail yard in Coal Harbour had yet to rise, but there was a concrete plan set to transform downtown Vancouver. Under the municipal government’s “Living First” policy adopted in the early 1990s, eight million sq ft of allowable commercial density was rezoned to permit residential uses.

At the age of 30, Gauthier put his degree in urban planning at the University of Manitoba to good use and joined the DVBIA in 1992. Little did he know at the time that he would spend his entire professional career building and growing the organization into becoming a powerful body for catalyzing downtown’s vitality and advocating on the behalf of businesses.

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Aerial photo of the Central Business District of downtown Vancouver in 1990. (City of Vancouver Archives)

But in 1992, the DVBIA was just two years old and had not accomplished a lot, he said.

“It was still trying to build its legs. It had trouble finding its legs and making its impact,” said Gauthier.

“Frankly, I was concerned whether this organization would still be around in 1995 if it didn’t get renewed. I listened a lot to the members on what they wanted to see, so we put a lot of focus on festivals and events. We had to really start pumping out and showing value to our members.”

The organization was established after businesses called on city council for its formation during a period of uncertainty for the commercial space market, when downtown office vacancy rates were exceedingly high at nearly 20%.

In contrast, as of the second quarter of 2021, downtown Vancouver’s office vacancy is a healthy 6.6%, holding on to the title of the tightest office market for a major North American city centre for the third consecutive year.

Business improvement associations (BIAs) in Vancouver are created and governed by the municipal government, with their mandates and budgets formed with the support of business members which are then renewed and approved by city council. Their budgets are funded annually by business member levies collected through property taxes.

vancouver art gallery north plaza picnic tables

New picnic tables at the North Plaza of the Vancouver Art Gallery. (Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association)

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800 Robson Plaza reopened in late March 2021 with its new permanent design. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

Gauthier emphasizes that putting on and financially supporting public events and festivals has been a key strategy for the DVBIA to support service-based businesses — retail, restaurants, entertainment venues, and hotels — in downtown. For instance, the organization was instrumental to the return of Vancouver’s New Year’s Eve festivities.

This events and festivals strategy is now more important than ever for bringing people back to downtown for their arts, culture, entertainment, dining, and shopping fixes. This is a strategy not only for reversing the deep toll of the pandemic, but also for revitalizing the Granville Entertainment District (GED) — beginning with this summer’s DVBIA-led pilot project of a temporary weekend street closure for activations.

In addition to supporting events and festivals, the DVBIA has also identified a great need for developing physical spaces that are suitable to host such activations, specifically large paved plaza areas designed as flexible and functional spaces for events.

Prior to the recent rebuilds of the North Plaza (West Georgia Street) of the Vancouver Art Gallery and the permanent closure of the 800 block of Robson Street (above Robson Square) to vehicles for a permanent plaza and pedestrian-only thoroughfare, apart from Jack Poole Plaza, downtown lacked suitable large central spaces for event organizers.

The DVBIA was successful in advocating for the creation of both urban plazas, and has been supporting events that activate the spaces, such as free summertime movie screenings before the pandemic and the “BRIGHT Downtown” projection mapping experience this past winter.

During the Spring 2020 pandemic lockdown, the DVBIA partnered with the Vancouver Mural Fest to use the surfaces of boarded up storefronts as a canvas for murals — a measure to deter crime and other illicit activity, and support struggling artists.

Colony Granville Bar 965 Granville Street Vancouver coronavirus mural

Spring 2020 mural by Will Phillips at Colony Granville Bar at 965 Granville Street, Vancouver. (Sketchbork / Instagram)

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BRIGHT Downtown projection mapping in early March 2021. (Victor Quiroz/Instagram)

“The thing that kind of pops out to me, and it’s relatively recent, over the last five years, is the ability to work with others and put on some great festivals and events, whether we’re partners or providing the funding for it,” said Gauthier.

“For me, that is the heart and soul of downtown, creating that strong affiliation and love people have for downtown are those festivals and events.”

Their event-friendly placemaking initiatives also extended to three laneway transformations, most notably the “Alley Oop” pink laneway just south of West Hastings Street between Granville and Seymour streets.

About five years ago, the DVBIA also completed its multi-faceted Reimagine Downtown Vancouver strategy — a blueprint for the organization and others to follow through 2040 — based on extensive consultation with the public and businesses.

The organization’s recent vision for revitalizing the GED builds on the foundation of Reimagine Downtown Vancouver. In addition to identifying a need for placemaking, commercial redevelopment, and investment, the DVBIA’s vision for the GED notes the need for a major destination event.

Alley-Oop laneway south of West Pender Street between Granville Street and Seymour Street. (Mark Busse)

Ackery's Alley

The newly completed Ackery’s Alley next to the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Vancouver. (Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association)

Now entering retirement, Gauthier concludes his almost three decades as the head of the DVBIA today, in the second year of the organization’s current 10-year mandate.

At the end of their last mandate in March 2020, they had an annual budget of $3 million. Their annual budget is now $5 million, providing them with a capacity to do far more moving forward.

In addition to continuing support for events, festivals, and placemaking initiatives, the DVBIA also sets aside much of its budget for supplementary street cleaning and graffiti removal within its jurisdiction. This year alone, it has budgeted $575,000 for removing graffiti.

When the DVBIA was first launched, its jurisdiction — covering the Central Business District — covered 36 blocks. It has since expanded to cover areas adjacent to the CBD, now spanning a jurisdiction of 90 blocks.

Its staff has grown from three, including Gauthier, to over 30, including office staff, cleaning team, and safety ambassadors.

Gauthier says he is optimistic downtown will see a relatively quick rebound when tourism, events, and hospitality are allowed to operate uninhibited, and he is confident in his successor, Nolan Marshall III.

With experiencing in leading major BIAs in New Orleans and Dallas, Marshall was named as the new president and CEO of the organization last month.

“I know it’s not a long time to get to know someone, but I really do feel that he is bringing in a lot of energy and enthusiasm.

“I think he is going to take the organization and downtown to the next level, and continue the great work the team has been doing. I think the organization and board has made an excellent choice with him. He’s just going to bring a fresh perspective and a brand new level of energy.”

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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