Opinion: North Vancouver must remain focused on National Maritime Museum aspirations

Dec 19 2017, 2:32 pm

For much of the past decade, the City of North Vancouver had been progressing with a proposal to build a National Maritime Museum at its Lonsdale Waterfront. However, funding for the project from provincial and federal governments has since fallen through and the municipality has instead turned its eyes towards less ambitious ideas for its prime waterfront precinct, including a satellite Vancouver Aquarium facility.

The National Maritime Centre for the Pacific and the Arctic was to have been located at the historic Pier development site in Lower Lonsdale, just east of the SeaBus terminal on the North Vancouver waterfront. The 110,000 square foot museum would have served as a new world-class facility for the aging and insufficiently small City of Vancouver-owned Vancouver Maritime Museum in Kitsilano. The existing Vancouver Maritime Museum can currently display only 5% of its vast collection within its cramped facilities, a relocation to the premier waterfront location at Lonsdale would also relocate the Vancouver Maritime Museum’s exhibits, including the famous St. Roch, and allow the institution to showcase much more of its vaulted artefacts.

Aside from a relocation to a world-class facility located at the centre of a rapidly growing Downtown North Vancouver, the location for the National Maritime Centre would also have been ideal from both a heritage and historical viewpoint. Its location would have paid hommage to the shipyard industry that once thrived on the site – the construction site for much of Canada’s World War II naval fleets – and one that will flourish again for the next 20-years, with Vancouver Shipyards (located adjacent to the site of the National Maritime Centre) having been recently awarded an $8-billion contract to construct vessels for the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Coast Guard.

The National Maritime Centre at its large, prominent, and centralized location in Lonsdale would have renewed the Vancouver Maritime Museum as a an prominent cultural and heritage institution in the region, it would have brought the Museum into “destination museum” status (where the current antiquated pod-like facility at Kitsilano has failed to do so: a facility that is also falling apart from age and is inadequate to protect treasures such as the St. Rock and artefacts from the sunken Titanic). It would also have been an opportunity to weave the Museum’s institution within the cultural fabric of the region, very much like the recognition enjoyed by both the Vancouver Art Gallery and Science World. The Lonsdale location would also have been the only site in Vancouver Inner Harbour (Burrard Inlet) that could host water-based festivals and events with a wide range of vessels, including tall ships, deep sea vessels, and naval vessels – the new Museum would have been the centrepiece to such festivals.

Initial funding difficulties forced proponents to be less ambitious with museum plans, cutting down on the size and scope of the museum to allow for a smaller and, hopefully, more tolerable budget: from an initial $106-million project up until 2008, then $90-million, and finally – before it was completely axed – a likely lacklustre $70-million facility. Although the provincial government had previously committed its continued financial support, it failed to provide the new Museum with a further $20-25 million due to economic challenges. The federal government had also previously committed $20-million to the project, but such funding was contingent on equal funding from the provincial government.

The City of North Vancouver has since deviated from its plans for a National Maritime Centre on the site, pondering on ideas that include a kids waterpark, ice rink, and even a satellite campus for Capilano University. Last week, North Vancouver City Mayor Darrell Mussatto announced an idea to bring a small 10,000-15,000 square foot Vancouver Aquarium display (a large fish tank of non-mammal species) to the site. The Vancouver Aquarium is no doubt one of Vancouver’s most popular and proud attractions, and it is currently undergoing a major multi-phased $80-million expansion and retrofit on its aging and outdated facilities and attractions at Stanley Park.

What North Vancouver needs to ponder over is whether such a use for a rare, beautifully located, and prominent piece of land is appropriate for the site. It is true that the Vancouver Aquarium is a popular attraction, that Capilano University is in need of expansion space, or that the City is in need of more recreational space for its growing and dense Lonsdale city centre community. However, are such uses worthy of such a historical and prominent location? Does it bring anything new to the table for the City and the region as a whole?

Here are some of our conclusions:

  • A waterpark and more general green/public space: No, it would be more of the same uncreative usage – what generally makes up the Lower Mainland’s premiere waterfront spaces. Other nearby green spaces, including Waterfront Park just west of Lonsdale Quay, could see better utilization if a park renovation is planned.
  • Capilano University campus: No, it would also be more of the same. While it would certainly be a convenient location for Capilano University’s students, a satellite campus at the Pier would not be a publicly accessible/useable space and would have little widespread public benefit.
  • Vancouver Aquarium: No, it would be more of the same of what we already have just across the Inlet. Is there really a need for another aquarium exhibit so close by? We can certainly be much more creative and bold with our ideas, although a miniature Vancouver Aquarium exhibit tied in with the National Maritime Centre would certainly be bold.
  • National Maritime Centre: Yes, it is a bold new idea – an idea very worthy of the location. North Vancouver has an opportunity to bring yet another culturally important attraction/institution to the region, adding to its list which includes the Capilano Suspension Bridge and Grouse Mountain. While it may be true that the lack of funding is stalling the project, to the point that the City of North Vancouver is contemplating abandoning the project, there is (should be) no rush to develop the vacant waterfront site at Lower Lonsdale: the City of North Vancouver should remain focused on its original vision, one that few municipalities have dared to dream. 


Written by Kenneth Chan, a Columnist at Vancity Buzz. Follow me on Twitter: @kjmagine

Featured image credit: City of North Vancouver

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