Opinion: Metro Vancouver deserves a better Playland and PNE

Dec 19 2017, 2:14 pm

The Pacific National Exhibition at Hastings Park is Metro Vancouver’s oldest and most significant entertainment and cultural institution. However, over the last 20-years, much of the flair and fun of the seasonal amusement park and annual summer Fair at the PNE have been eroded away due to unsettling changes at Hastings Park. What lies ahead for the future of Playland and the PNE?

Ever since I was 7 years old, my family has never skipped an annual Fair at the PNE. It is one of the unchanging family traditions that we have and it was a tradition we upheld this past Labour Day Monday.

Over the decades, we have seen the changes made to the PNE: we have seen both the highs and the lows. However, over the past 15 years, it has been mainly, and largely, the lows.


An Introduction to Mediocrity

The scope and size of the Fair has been downsized enormously since the 1990s when the City of Vancouver decided to demolish more than half of the PNE’s fairground sites and buildings to make way for green spaces. Where it stands today, in its current state, the PNE is merely a shell of its former self.

It no longer has the same flair nor fun, and is significantly smaller than what it had been even before the mid-1990s. And yet, this has happened when demand has continued to increase for a much better and larger PNE Fair and Playland amusement park. This has not happened, and future master plans for Hastings Park could exacerbate the decline of the PNE.

Simply put, Hastings Park is an extremely small and limited space of land. There is not enough space at Hastings Park for both a grand urban green park (which the City of Vancouver and neighbourhood residents greatly desire) and a large-scale and high-quality annual Fair and amusement park (that the entire Metro Vancouver region would enjoy and benefit from).

There is only enough room at Hastings Park for either a fantastic green space OR a fantastic PNE and Playland. Any attempt to have both in such a small space of land would be a futile attempt, the end result would be nothing more than a mediocre urban park and a mediocre PNE and Playland. Neither interests and desires on the usage of Hastings Park will win.

Today at Hastings Park lies a mediocre green space and a mediocre entertainment/cultural institution. And yet, this is only the beginning for what was once the second largest fair in North America. What lies ahead for the future of the PNE and Playland at Hastings Park?

From Heydays to Early Decline

Located in Vancouver’s Eastside, covering 154 acres, Hastings Park is currently the second largest designated urban park in the City of Vancouver (after Stanley Park). Prior to the introduction of the PNE into the site, in 1892 the BC Jockey Club was granted a lease of land that would eventually become Hastings Park (then known as Exhibition Park).

This began the tradition of horse racing at Hastings Park, well before the park lands were considered to be a part of the City of Vancouver; the tradition of utilizing the area for cultural and entertainment purposes began long before the area was surrounded by neighbourhoods.

At the beginning of the 1900s, a group of entrepreneurs desired for a larger Fair in Vancouver – to compete with the Royal Agricultural Show in New Westminster. Market demand warranted a exhibition within the city, and eventually it came to fruition when the Vancouver Exhibition Association was formed in 1907 to organize Vancouver’s own exhibition. It was opened by Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier in 1910 as the “Vancouver Exhibition” (or the “Industrial Exhibition”), it was to showcase British Columbia and Canada to the rest of the world.

The city’s once prominent streetcar was also extended to the fairground in time for the 1910 opening. Just five years later, the Exhibition saw major expansion with the construction of permanent fairground structures and buildings. This, of course, would signal the many expansions and improvements to come – the Exhibition was to become the most prominent fixture of Hastings Park.

Following the Second World War, after the usage of Hastings Park as an internment camp for Japanese-Canadians, the Vancouver Exhibition was renamed to the Pacific National Exhibition (PNE).

Plan of the Vancouver Exhibition Grounds in 1915 (Source: City of Vancouver)

Hastings Park Plan in 1915

Vancouverites loved their PNE, the demand for larger and quality entertainment and attractions grew exponentially. The most significant expansion was in 1926 when a seasonal amusement fair was opened as “Happyland,” now known of course as Playland.

The now renown wooden roller “Coaster” – the last and third wooden roller coaster built at Playland – was opened in 1958. As a crowd favourite, it was even recently named as one of the world’s top 10 wooden roller coasters. Coaster has been Playland’s second most enduring amusement ride, while Wild Mouse – Playland’s third oldest ride – was retired in 2009 due to rising maintenance costs.

Many rides at Playland have come and gone over the decades, there was even an observation tower ride from 1968 to 1979: the PNE Spiro-Tower was as tall as today’s Hellavator and recently built AtmosFear. Other attractions that have ceased to exist even include an aerial gondola from one end of the park to the other end. The original 80-year old ferris wheel was the park’s oldest ride until 2007, when it was replaced with a new wheel.

Ski Labatt Acrobats performance and a view of the Playland Aerial Chairlift in 1979. (Source: CanadaGood)

Playland Chairlift 1979

The PNE, apart from the horse racetrack and Playland, had all of Hastings Park for its own fairground usage purposes. Over the course of its entire 100+ year history, over 50 fairground buildings have come and gone. This does not include the rides and attractions at Playland.

For much of its existence, until 1997, the usage of Hastings Park grounds were highly flexible for the PNE. The old fairground buildings and structures could be readily demolished to make way for new and larger fairground buildings and attractions, as well as rejigged fairground space to accommodate new ideas and programming.

Built for the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games, Empire Stadium was among one of the PNE’s largest structures and provided enormous year-long Fair space for concerts and events (in 1958, Empire Stadium was even home to a ski jump) until it was demolished in 1994.

The Pacific Coliseum was also built at Hastings Park in 1968 in an attempt to attract an NHL team to the city. It was a success, and the NHL Vancouver Canucks remained at Pacific Coliseum until 1995 when GM Place (now Rogers Arena) was completed.

The PNE celebrated its centennial in 2010 with the revival of some of the Fair’s past traditions, including an anniversary parade along Beach Avenue in Downtown Vancouver – a salute to one of the PNE’s long-gone past traditions.

The PNE Fair Opening Day Parade once stretched along Hastings Street from Downtown Vancouver to Hastings Park, it brought the entire community together and signalled the Fair as truly an event worthy of celebration.

The last city-wide parade was held in 1995, ending a tradition that existed for 60-years. In its place, a daily parade was held within the fairgrounds during the Fair, and while it was a high calibre Disneyland-quality parade production in its early years it quickly fell into despair (as did all other programming at the Fair). Today, any parade organized by the PNE has ceased to exist.

PNE Fair Opening Day Parade in 1987 along Hastings Street. Photo taken from Victory Square in Downtown Vancouver. (Source: Canada Good)

PNE Fair Parade 1987

Although the centennial summer two years ago was certainly one of the Fair’s best in recent years, it was still a stark contrast to what the Fair offered even in the early-1990s.

Back then, it was much longer than today’s 17-day affair and not only was there much more to see and do, the programming was more varied and of much higher quality. Today’s PNE Fair and Playland lacks imagination, wonder, and creativity – these traits are what the PNE were once known for. Fun also never used to be as expensive as it is today, the Fair at the PNE was once the highlight “must go to” event of Vancouver’s summer season.

Update: for the 2013 season, the Fair at the PNE was further shortened from 17 days to 15 days with the closure of the fairgrounds on the first two Monday’s.


The 1990s: Sharp Downfall and Relocation Discussions

There was much uncertainty over the future of the Pacific National Exhibition in the years prior to (and after) the 1994 expiry of its lease on Hastings Park.

Due to uncertainties, attendance at the annual summer Fair fell under one million the first time since 1962 (it would seldom exceed or even a reach a million in the following decades; it has hovered at around 800,000 ever since).

Prior to the Exhibition’s inaugural year in 1910, the provincial government owned Hastings Park and like much of the rest of the Lower Mainland, it was still a forest. The provincial government generously transferred the ownership of the lands to the City of Vancouver, which had plans to utilize the property as a park for the Eastside.

This vision dissipated when the PNE began to utilize the lands and it became a mechanism that was difficult for the Vancouver Park Board to control due to the PNE’s financial influence at the time and widespread public support for the Fair.

With the lease on Hastings Park looming closer to 1994 expiration, the Pacific National Exhibition – now a crown corporation of the provincial government (from 1973 to 2003) – initiated plans to move the PNE to another location. It was also during this period that the PNE acquired full ownership of Playland, which had originally been controlled by various commercial interests.

However, indecision was the theme of the decade with regards to relocation, and instead the PNE’s lease was renewed three times over the decade to provide more time to find a new home for both the annual Fair and the seasonal Playland.

Meanwhile, local neighbourhood and activist support grew, and activist campaigns were initiated to return Hastings Park into its original state as a city park. This was a position that the City of Vancouver would eventually support and implement, under the grossly erroneous assumption that the PNE would be relocated.

Relocation options for the PNE included large parcels of land located in the Fraser Valley, Coquitlam, Burns Bog in Delta, and the Fraser River waterfront at Surrey. The latter two options were most seriously considered by the provincial government and the PNE crown corporation, given the close proximity of the sites to the vast majority of the region’s population:

  1. The $500-million Delta Burns Bog proposal was a public-private project to build a vastly larger and superior Pacific National Exhibition attraction of Disneyland calibre – a theme park. The development proposal would have utilized 2,500 acres of the bog, consisting of the aforementioned theme park, an amphitheatre, themed retail areas, movie production facilities as well as residential development and acres of parking. The remaining 3,000 acres of the bog would be designated as a nature preserve. In contrast, Stanley Park covers 1,000 acres of Downtown Vancouver and Hastings Park is just 154 acres. The Burns Bog proposal was ultimately canceled due to immense opposition over environmental and ecological concerns, and this led to the 2004 government purchase of the bog to convert it into a publicly-owned ecological conservation area.
  2. The Surrey proposal was much more modest than the Burns Bog plan. The 200-acre “United Auto site” in Surrey was a waterfront strip on the Fraser River, located directly across from Downtown New Westminster. The PNE even went as far as purchasing the site for $19.1-million, but the plan was canceled by the provincial government when it was realized that the entire proposal would cost $200-million. With the realization that the PNE was to stay at Hastings Park, with a transfer of the PNE’s management to the City of Vancouver, the Surrey site was eventually sold.

Confirmation that the PNE was to remain in Hastings Park came in 2001, and the provincial government transfered ownership and management of the PNE crown corporation to the City of Vancouver in 2004. Under city jurisdiction, the PNE now operates as a non-profit and charitable corporation.

News that the PNE was to remain at Hastings Park surprised the City of Vancouver, which had been busy remodelling Hastings Park into green space throughout the late-1990s under the assumption that the Fair was to move elsewhere.

From 1997 to 2001, when it was known that the PNE would remain at Hastings Park, the City of Vancouver demolished many of the PNE’s fairground exhibition buildings, including the BC Pavilion, the Pure Foods Building, the Showmart, and the Poultry Building.

These were all buildings the PNE depended on for its exhibitions, entertainment, programming, and food and retail booths. In total, over 200,000 square feet of the PNE’s interior space were demolished from 1997-1998 to make way for the Sanctuary (a lake), parkland, the Italian Gardens, and other greenery (all completed by 2001). To put that in perspective, the recently expanded Vancouver Convention Centre building has a useable area of 220,000 square feet.


The 2000s and beyond: ‘Life Support’ Era

Demolition of over 200,000 square feet of interior space has meant that the PNE organizers have had much less space to work with for providing attractions, entertainment, and food and retail opportunities.

With a declining number of (and lower quality) attractions to attract the ticket-paying crowds and less food/retail spaces to rent out, this has correspondingly led to a steep decline in revenues. And declining revenues has also meant that the PNE has been forced to provide even less programming and cut back on quality.

It is a vicious cycle of decline that has forced the PNE into the poorhouse, forcing the PNE to continuously raise admission ticket fees consecutively each year to rates that are far beyond inflation and the affordability of most large families.

As reported earlier by Vancity Buzz, the PNE saw a major attendance decrease for the recent 2012 Fair. Attendance for 2012 is estimated at 775,000, while in 2011 it reached 803,598 and 937,485 in 2010.  (Update: attendance at the 2013 Fair at the PNE was just 712,049.)

About 6 years ago, it cost just $10.00 to enter the PNE Fair at the gate ($8.00 if you buy at 7-Eleven or Safeway).  Today, it will cost an adult $20.00 to enter the fairgrounds at the door ($15.00 online, 7-Eleven or Safeway).

And yet, this is only the admission to get in: PNE makes you pay more to have fun once you are inside. Throughout the Fair, it costs $42.75 to buy a Playland ride pass, and $29.75 for those under four feet tall.

Costs to play midway games and food are also high and have increased greatly in recent years. A small slice of pizza is $5.00, and drinks from the fountain machine are $4.00. During the Playland season (outside of the 17-day PNE Fair period), it costs $29.95 for a one-day adult ride pass ($26.95 online) and $19.95 for under 48″ tall ($17.95 online).

Altogether, at these prices, the PNE and Playland are becoming far too expensive to become a family activity. While PNE officials place low-attendance blame on a high-Canadian dollar, a weak economy, and lower tourism, they have refused to acknowledge (at least publicly) that its costs are becoming far too unaffordable for most people and their families.

Interestingly, for 2012, PNE officials have even directed blame on sunny weather for its low attendance: “we had kind of a slow start to our summer, so maybe everyone crammed in their camping at the end because the weather has turned.”

However, anyone who has been paying attention over the years will know that the PNE has always blamed poor weather for lower attendance (which actually makes logical sense). With major hikes in admission and activities ticket costs, one has to wonder where the revenue is going towards: we certainly do not see any major new innovations, ideas, and improvements with the Fair and Playland. In fact, higher costs might even be doing more harm than good for revenue generation and the PNE image.

To summarize, the Fair and Playland lack value for money. Not only is it unaffordable, more are choosing NOT to spend their entertainment budget on a lacklustre letdown day in the Fair and Playland. It is known today for low-quality and aging rides, games, entertainment, attractions and programming. It is also the same thing every year: tired ideas and programming are reused and recycled.

Instead of recycling old programming and attractions, new, unique and quality ideas are needed to keep people coming back – but that certainly takes money to implement, which the PNE does not have due to its current dilemma.

When it comes to quality, the PNE and Playland aren’t what they used to be. Its grounds are also physically small (bound by the constraints of Hastings Park), and since the early-2000s its activities within the grounds have become even smaller due to park greening. Quite simply, the Fair and Playland have become boring and homogenous.

Furthermore, the PNE has an additional mandate under its new civic ownership: it holds the responsibility of delivering highly expensive year-round maintenance of the recently-built green space of Hastings Park. Unlike its former exhibition buildings, green space is not readily functional space – it cannot be easily used for Fair purposes without the possibility of green space being damaged. Simply explained, green space is not flexible functional space that the PNE, its attractions and exhibitors require.

In all fairness, there have also been other contributors to the PNE’s declining revenues. When the NHL Vancouver Canucks moved out of the Pacific Coliseum in 1995, it also meant the lost of $4-million in annual rent revenue for the PNE’s operations.

In addition, innovations in technology and advertising platforms have also made the PNE a less efficient means for corporations and businesses to advertise their products, services, and brand. Finding sponsorship for special events in Vancouver has also been an increasing challenge with the city’s declining business presence, as seen with the difficulty many events have had with securing their finances including the Celebration of Light and the now defunct Vancouver Molson Indy.

However, the resulting negative effects on the Fair (less and lower quality programming and attractions) from the lost and decline of these two revenue streams (the Canucks and advertising) could have been largely mitigated had it not been for the severe reduction of the PNE’s available interior exhibition spaces.

Further greening of Hastings Park was halted in 2001 in order to better study and evaluate the options of a park that would also include the PNE and Playland. During the City of Vancouver commissioned public consultation process, local neighbourhood and environmental activists bombarded meetings and initiated public campaigns to:

  1. Hand over full control of Hastings Park to the Vancouver Park Board. Hastings Park is currently operated and maintained by the PNE.
  2. Terminate what they have termed as “commercial activity” in Hastings Park (the complete removal of the Hastings Park racecourse, the PNE, and Playland).
  3. Implement the full greening of the entire park site in order to return the park into it’s “natural state.” These activist groups include the “Friends of Hastings Park” and the “Hastings Park Conservancy.”

While they largely represent local neighbourhood interests, these groups do not in anyway represent the interests of the millions of people who enjoy the PNE, Playland, and year-round events held at Hastings Park.

These groups would like to see one of Vancouver’s oldest cultural and entertainment institutions completely diminished, that the vocal minority trumps the interests of the vast majority. It might also be interesting to mention that Hastings Park Racecourse, the PNE, and entertainment facilities have been around at Hastings Park long before residential neighbourhoods began to encroach the park.

For these groups, cultural and entertainment activities that the entire region enjoys is merely “commercial activity.” They do not understand the importance of preserving and expanding one of the few, oldest, and last major cultural and entertainment institutions that exist in the Vancouver region.

For a region of 2.3-million people, we are already severely lacking major cultural events and activities. We are a young city and have not had the opportunity and time like other older jurisdictions to develop the rich sense of community, culture, and enduring traditions that they have and uphold.

There’s a reason why some still call Vancouver a “No-Fun City.” And let’s also face some economic facts: the PNE is also an immense economic generator for the city, bringing events and tourists to the city the region would otherwise not have. It is also the largest employer for the region’s youth.


Hastings Park Renewal Master Plan and Continued Opposition

In early-2011, after several years of public consultation and deliberations, the Hastings Park masterplan was released, outlining a plan that would green Hastings Park while also expanding the scope of both the Fair (from its current state) and Playland.

This city approved plan was widely panned by environmentalists and local neighbourhood activist groups, despite the fact that the plan would triple the amount of existing green space in Hastings Park.

In other words, these environmentalists and local neighbourhood activist groups are unwilling to compromise – they are against the existing master plan that finds a compromise between the two competing interests of greening expansion and the expansion of the PNE and Playland.

They have vowed to continue fighting the plan over its entire 20-year implementation and construction process.

The activities of the PNE, a non-profit company, within Hastings Park is seen by these groups as “capitalist” and “commercialistic,” terms that are used far too loosely by these groups when these revenue seeking activities are the same revenues that keep a public good afloat year after year – profits that are all directed towards the maintenance and operations of the Fair, Playland, and the park grounds.

These same commercial revenues keep a struggling cultural and entertainment institution alive; currently, as seen with declining size and quality, the PNE’s existing revenues barely keep the PNE and Playland afloat. Environmentalists and local neighbourhood activist groups seem to be aligning the PNE and Playland with Disneyland.

For those who have been to Disneyland, the PNE is anything but like the world’s most famous amusement park.

Major highlights of the 2011 city-approved masterplan include:

  • Expand both the PNE and Playland while also further greening Hastings Park, will cost $204-million over a 20-year implementation and construction period.
  • Playland will be expanded by more than 50% in size, from its current 14 acres to 22 acres. Estimated cost, $36.5-million. Playland attendance will increase from 300,000 to 500,000 annually. There will be an interconnected series of paths and plazas in Playland, with shaded seating, patio cafes, and planted trees and vegetation. Playland’s new expanded space will take over existing horse barns, which will be replaced with a new double-decker horse barn to the north of the Hastings Park Racecourse.
  • PNE would receive $89-million in improvements, including renovations to existing buildings and the construction of new buildings to bring the non-profit company more revenue to operate its annual Fair and seasonal Playland. Altogether, this will increase PNE Fair attendance from its current 700,000-800,000 to 1-million annually – an attendance number the Fair achieved annually prior to the 1990s. The PNE does not have the capability to handle more than a million. Improvements to the PNE:
    • $46.4-million to renovate the livestock barn, Agrodome, Forum, Rollerland, and Garden Auditorium. All of these buildings are historical buildings, built between 1929-1940.
    • $48.5-million to to replace some of the lost exhibition space torn down by the city in the late-1990s. This will restore 120,000 square feet of the 200,000 square feet of indoor exhibition space demolished. The new underground exhibition space will be multi-use, highly flexible and versatile for various functions.
    • A consolidated PNE Administration Building attached to the Pacific Coliseum.
    • A new and improved PNE Amphitheatre, with an upgraded and covered stage, improved lighting, sound, and landscaping for festivals and year-round shows.
  • Tripling the amount of green space in Hastings Park from 27 acres today to 76 acres at a cost of $46.4-million. The reconfiguration of green space and the construction of large urban plazas and wide pedestrian corridors will also greatly increase the space available to the PNE for year-round events and the annual summer Fair. Other major greening improvements include:
    • A daylighted stream along a riparian green corridor (varying between 45-100 metres in width) with a saltwater marsh at its mouth in Burrard Inlet at New Brighton Park. Sourced from the existing Sanctuary, this will renew the ravine that once went through Hastings Park.
    • A 3-km perimeter park greenway for pedestrians and cyclists that will also be open to the public during Fair-time.
    • Activities focused park between the Coaster and Empire Fields, including dirt jumps, bike trials area, and hard-surface courts for ball hockey and basketball.
  • A new Hastings Community Centre on the southeast corner of Hastings and Renfrew Streets.
  • A new multi-level parkade on the northwest corner of Hastings Park as well as a parkade within the infield (below-grade) of the Hastings Park Racecourse at a combined cost of $32-million. These new parkades will replace existing parking spaces removed during park redevelopment.

Hastings Park Master Plan (Source: City of Vancouver)
Hastings Park Masterplan

New Exhibition Building (Source: City of Vancouver)

New PNE Exhibition Building

Looking Northeast over the new Hastings Park (Source: City of Vancouver. Click image to enlarge.)

Hastings Park Northeast View Future

If fully implemented, the new plan will serve the interests of environmentalists and local neighbourhood residents who wish to see more of Hastings Park returned to its original state and for recreational use (although, these activist groups certainly want complete conversion rather than partial).

To a certain limited extent, these plans will also improve the PNE and Playland experience. These plans are a small step forward for the City of Vancouver in understanding the importance of Hastings Park as an vital cultural and entertainment institution for the entire region, and will undo some of the trauma done to the PNE in the late-1990s when many of its exhibition spaces were demolished.

However, for friends of the PNE and Playland, there are some major concerns with the master plan.

First of all, it will take 20-years to complete. These improvements to the PNE/Playland, although extremely limited in scale and scope, are already required for today’s generation. The generation of 2030 will require much more than what is being implemented: by then nearly a million more people will call Metro Vancouver home.

Secondly, with all that said, regardless of what improvements are planned (like the ones mentioned in the master plan described above), the existing and additional green space within Hastings Park will serve to always impede, restrain, and constrain the PNE and Playland from creativity, imagination, and further growth and development.

A mediocre park and a mediocre cultural institution will remain as long as both reside together within Hastings Park, both activities and usages have opposing interests and elements that do not complement each other within such a small space.

This begs the question, with only 154-acres at Hastings Park and with much of that space constructed as sensitive greenery (which is anything but flexible and versatile functional space), should the PNE and Playland move out of Hastings Park to allow for their full potential growth as renown destination attractions? (154-acres is incredibly small for all the significant and immensely different usages the City of Vancouver expects from Hastings Park – both the park and the PNE/Playland could end up being “mediocre”)?

Should Hastings Park be reverted back into a full park (with its exhibition buildings kept for community and event use)?

As long as the PNE and Playland remain in Hastings Park, they will be restricted from growing to their true and full potential.

The demand exists today for an improved PNE and Playland, there is no shortage of events and organizations looking for space nor is there a shortage of vendors, performers, and attractions wanting to set-up at the annual summer Fair.

In addition, large plazas, outdoor event spaces, and entertainment venues are severely lacking in the region today: the Hastings Park masterplan will not only largely benefit the PNE and Playland, but it will also provide much more additional spaces for the community to use. As the masterplan report indicates, there is no shortage in demand for more outdoor and indoor flexible space for year-round uses.


Featured image: Vancouver Festivals

DH Vancouver StaffDH Vancouver Staff

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