Granville Street should be Vancouver's version of NYC's Times Square: City staff

Jan 20 2023, 5:04 am

What do Times Square in New York City, Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, Piccadilly Circus in London, and Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto all have in common?

Bright lights, excess noise, active commercial uses, and crowds — overall, an electric atmosphere.

Although it still has a very long ways to go to resemble even a small fraction of the iconic commercial districts of any of these global cities, the Granville Entertainment District (GED) in downtown Vancouver obviously comes closest to such hubs in the region.

Vancouver City Council is currently in the process of considering City staff’s recommendation to launch an area planning exercise for the five city block stretch of Granville Street between Robson and Drake streets, for the purpose of revitalizing the GED into a vibrant entertainment district and guiding future redevelopments.

The forthcoming efforts would focus on how to transform the GED into both a daytime and nighttime destination, not just the latter of activity fuelled by traditional nightlife-based establishments.

During Wednesday’s public meeting, when asked by Green Party city councillor Pete Fry on whether City staff would considering updating the GED’s neon sign bylaws for something “more contemporary,” City chief planner Theresa O’Donnell enthusiastically answered in the affirmative.

It should be noted that the sign bylaw last saw some updates in 2017, and City staff previously stated in 2020 they could potentially look into extending the permitted animated (changing lighting) sign area to the south of Nelson Street along the GED.

“I love that idea, I think we should have a neon sign regulation, and it’s absolutely something we’ll be looking at,” said O’Donnell.

“If there were ever a place for Times Square in the Metro Vancouver region, it’s Granville Street.”

1959: A beautiful shot of 1950s Vancouver shows it exactly as one would imagine it today, with the bright colours, cool cars, and neon lights. (Vancouver Archives)

1959: A shot of 1950s Vancouver shows it exactly as one would imagine it today, with the bright colours, cool cars, and neon lights. (Vancouver Archives)

Vancouver has had a love-hate-love history with neon signs.

In the 1950s, Vancouver was the neon capital of North America, with over 19,000 neon signs — more than Las Vegas at the time — found on the Granville strip, Chinatown, and what is known today as the Downtown Eastside, which was previously the city’s central business district.

The vast majority of the neon signs were dismantled when public attitudes quickly shifted towards seeing the signs as a visual nuisance.

But over the past two decades, Vancouver has been attempting to preserve and encourage more neon signs and other creative lighting within the GED. The regret of dismantling these signs was best expressed in the Museum of Vancouver’s years-long “Neon Vancouver Ugly Vancouver” exhibition, which will find its way to The Post redevelopment later this year — when 22 neon signs from the exhibition find a permanent home in a public space within the soon-to-be completed complex.

neon vancouver

Neon signs on Granville Street in 2010. (File photo)

granville entertainment district vancouver orpheum f

Granville Street looking north from Smithe Street. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

As part of Granville Street’s reconstruction with a new public space design in 2009, long vertical streetlamp posts were added to the streetscape to evoke the GED’s illuminated past — adding to any remaining legacy neon signs, most notably the signs of the Vogue and The Orpheum, which was replaced by the City with a new identical sign about a decade ago. However, like the overall public realm of the GED, these lamp posts have been poorly maintained, and some are even missing vertical sections.

In 2020, City Council upheld City staff’s decision to reject Hotel Belmont’s application to install a vertical animated neon sign of three “diving girls.” The reason for rejection: the hotel is located just outside the permitted area for animated signage, which is allowed north of Nelson Street along Granville Street — not south of Nelson Street. The hotel is located at the southeast corner of the intersection of Nelson and Granville streets.

At the time, the hotel operator stated a $60,000 investment had already been made to design and fabricate the sign, which could potentially be operated without turning on the chasing light sequence.

hotel belmont neon sign

Artistic rendering of the animated sequence for the diving girl sign at Hotel Belmont. (Hotel Belmont)

robson granville electronic video screen board may 2020

New larger video screens at the intersection of Robson and Granville streets in downtown Vancouver. (Daily Hive)

While neon signs are slowing fading away around the world, giant video screens have increasingly replaced their function and purpose.

Two LED video screens were first installed on the Best Buy/Winners building at the northeast corner of the intersection of Robson and Granville streets two decades ago, and upon reaching the end of their lifespan they were replaced with two larger screens in 2020. They serve to provide a strong visual anchor for the GED’s beginnings along Robson Street, and reinforce the intersection of Granville and Robson streets as the epicentre of activity in the city.

Over the last few years, the owner of the Best Buy/Winners building has been pitching the idea of the 800 Granville redevelopment project immediately to the south, just across the street. The concept includes placing a massive two-storey tall video wall ribbon along the length of the base of the building, above the active streetfront uses of retail. This ribbon stretches the building’s narrow width along Robson Street, and almost the entire length of Granville Street’s 800 block.

The rezoning application for the 800 Granville project triggered City staff’s interest in conducting an area plan for the GED over the coming 18 months.

800 granville street vancouver bonnis properties

August 2021 artistic rendering of the revised design for 800 Granville Street, Vancouver. The two-storey video wall is depicted. (Perkins&Will/Bonnis Properties)

During Wednesday’s meeting with City Council, City staff indicated they are looking to ban any new additional residential uses for the GED’s three-block core between Robson and Helmcken streets, and instead double down on encouraging retail, restaurants, hotels, entertainment venues, and job space such as offices. Over time, through redevelopments, the intention would also be to remove any existing residential uses within these three blocks, given the incompatibility of residential uses, with excess noise and light emanating from the entertainment district.

Some rental housing uses could be considered for the GED’s southernmost two blocks between Helmcken and Drake streets, where there is already a large cluster of SROs and supportive housing.

Improving Granville Street’s function and efficiency as a transit mall for TransLink buses will also be a major consideration in the area plan.

City Council opted to defer the debate and decision over the GED’s area planning process to January 31, which will also establish the framework for how the 800 Granville rezoning application will be considered concurrently.

Granville Street Planning Program

The overall planning area and different sub-areas of the Granville Street Planning Program within the Granville Entertainment District in downtown Vancouver. (City of Vancouver)

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