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Canada Post drops plans to sell downtown building

August 12th, 2009 · 22 Comments

For the last couple of years, the potential sale of the grand old Canada Post building on Georgia Street, that massive memento of 1950s architecture, has been of great interest in the planning and development community. There was a bidding process at one point and the city went to great lengths to make sure the message was clear that this site could not be used for just another condo development.

Then there was talk that it might be used for a new Vancouver Art Gallery. But now, according to the blog of the guy who has access to better inside city-hall chatter than I do, Councillor Geoff Meggs, all those plans are now dead. I am not sure if that’s because that site is now officially inside the city’s new expanded office zone or what — perhaps not running for mayor could enlighten us.

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  • rf

    A memento of 1950’s architecture? That like saying Herpes is a momento of the 1970’s….

  • I’m disappointed. I was convinced the Post Office was going to be part of the new industrial development at the airport…which would have made sense. Frances, while the site is in the OFFICE ZONE, that would not have prevented a thoughtful redevelopment which combined a mix of uses with a re-use of some or all of the building.

    I suspect the key factor is the land claims issue…and the sooner we can deal with this ongoing challenge, the better.

    Notwithstanding its architectural significance for some, I think its an unfortunate building on a very strategically located site. It offered great possibilities for an imaginative re-use and redevelopment. Oh well! One day, it will happen.

  • Not Running for mayor

    Haven’t heard anything via cityhall on this one, I imagine Meggs source from the union would be valid though.
    What I have heard via outside sources is the land treaty dispute threw a major wrench in the feds plan, as they intended to build a 500,ooosqft single floor new building next to the airport as the feds control that land already and it’s a much more convinent location for them, but due to the lack of money the feds have at their disposal they couldn’t begin to build the new place until they managed to sell the old building, they intended to lease it back for a few years until the new building was complete. With a potential legal battle aheadon any sale that could take years before the sale could be realized, bidders backed off and the feds have had to reevaluate what they do. I imagine it’s still Canada Posts long term goal to make the move but they will probably need to resolve the land issue before placing it back on the market.

  • Not Running for mayor

    Beaten to the punch by Gellar, damn phonecalls. 🙂
    Gellar is correct in that on a site that large it is safe to assume residentail would find it’s way into it. There is enough space for significant office space, residential plus cultural amenties.

  • jack the bear

    It’s a little easier to get behind keeping the old library as an example of the period than the old PO, and rather difficult to imagine what ‘downtown’ use the existing structure could be amended to; it’s such a warehouse. It would be interesting to hear what inspiration, if any the structure gives to our architecturally inspired sorts.

  • gmgw

    By all accounts the VAG was not at all enthusiastic at the prospect of moving into the Post Office building…. the experience of moving into an adapted building once already (the old courthouse) has soured them on the concept. It would appear that they would prefer to anchor themselves in something brand new, modern, and of considerable architectural significance.

  • Darcy McGee

    …and the problem of our society’s “use once then dispose of it” bias continues.

    If government funded institutions like the VAG can’t encourage the re-use of resources, what hope is there?

    Wal-Mart contracts with landlords to build huge stores which they inevitably outgrow after destroying downtowns. When they move onto new locations, the old vacant hulks remain, mocking merchants run out of business by it and unable to make use of its vacancy.

    How is the VAG any different if they’re insisting on something “brand new, modern, and of considerable architectural significance.” (The latter point a matter of opinion of course…I’m not fond of Safdie’s Library building, and have not much more hope for this.)

  • gmgw

    Darcy said:

    “How is the VAG any different if they’re insisting on something “brand new, modern, and of considerable architectural significance.” (The latter point a matter of opinion of course…I’m not fond of Safdie’s Library building, and have not much more hope for this.)”

    I’ve despised Safide’s kitsch-a-rama since it was first proposed, but when you put major design choices to a public vote the public is going to go for crass and flashy every time.

    Perhaps I misspoke myself when I made my earlier comment, which you quote. What I meant to say was that the VAG wants a new home that’s custom-built to their specifications, so they no longer have to undergo the Procrustean struggle they’ve had to endure since they moved into the courthouse. And it’s hard to fault them for feeling that way.

    Along with being able to attract major, lucrative traveling exhibitions– an opportunity that has significant appeal for small and medium-sized, cash-strapped institutions that can’t afford to put together their own “big” shows– the VAG also wants to be able to have more than 15% of its permanent collection on rotating display at any one time, which (they say) is the figure their current space restricts them to.

  • Frothingham

    …land claims issue??!! Are we serious? WTF!
    When are we going to put this bad dream to rest. There is no way in hell that any of the Downtown Core should be held ransom to such nonsense. Enough is enough.

  • td

    As if the new Tate suffered from adapting an old building. And as if showing more than 15% of the VAG’s holdings was desirable.

    Suspicion is, the VAG wants a more iconic building, with curvy titanium and exploding bits, a big bang yapping for attention like a giant puppy dog. At least a Gehry, better yet a Zaha Hadid.

  • gmgw

    These days cities everywhere want a Gehry of their very own, so much so that Gehry has begun to plagiarize himself (he must be singlehandedly keeping the international titanium and stainless-steel industries afloat). If Gehry was to accept a commission from the VAG (let’s not even get into who would pay for it), no doubt there are those on the VAG board and on other bodies who would demand yet another clone of the Bilbao Guggenheim, or “something like” the AGO. This would actually be quite appropriate for Vancouver, a city that so frequently imitates and so seldom innovates.

  • This time, I agree with everything that has been said so far!

    I was on the VAG board and there is no doubt that the Director would like a new building, not another re-use. Michael Audain, the generous patron of the arts, who has been asked to oversee site selection and future fundraising, believes that it would be easier to raise money for a new gallery than the re-use of an older building.

    While I was a minority voice, my personal preference was to see the gallery stay on its present site, and expand below grade, and into Robson Square.

    However, this was not supported by Arthur Erickson, who was one of the leading proponents for a re-use of the Post Office structure!

    Today, attention is focusing on one or more False Creek sites. But now is not the time to raise the hundreds of millions of dollars that would be required…so I am not going to get too exercised about the matter. Although I keep thinking that it might be quite exciting to re-work the existing facility in a manner similar to what was done with the Model and Normal Schools at City Square at 12th and Cambie…(I would just make sure the parking was designed so that visitors could eventually find their cars!)

  • Phlomas

    I suggest that Mr. Geller et al should ask for a comprehensive tour of the post office building. The edifice is a virtual bomb shelter. I think the costs of demolition would be astronomical. If the Tories thought they could have sold it off, they probably would have by now. They had a fire sale for other federal assets. When the Bush/Harper days are finally behind us, perhaps we can look at a more creative use of federal (our) assets. Perhaps the post office building could be used for a galleria/office/community space in the downtown while remaining in the public realm so we can all benefit. It’s not architectural marvel as far as I’m concerned, but neither is most of Vancouver.

  • Old Postie

    I worked in the bowels of the Main Post Office for a number of years in the late 90s and was often fascinated by the possibilities that the building could offer if postal operations were to move elsewhere.

    The architectural significance of the building is limited to the exterior and the impressive public space on the Georgia St. side of the building, but the utility of the building should not easily be ignored.

    The location is perfect — right in the middle of an already established cultural precinct, with the main library, CBC/Radio-Canada, The Centre, GM Place, BC Place, VCC, Playhouse and QE Theatre close at hand. Street level and underground parking abounds.

    Certainly, and in retrospect, the VAG’s move to the adapted old courthouse was a poor choice in the long term. But the relatively narrow confines of the old courhouse stand in stark contrast to the massive hulk of a space that is the MPO.

    The building is the object of a host of theories and rumours that may or may not be true. One suggestion was that the three basement floors (yes, it goes three stories underground and boasts a tunnel that connects the building to Waterfront Station – the lease on the tunnel currently runs to 2055) were intended to function as a bomb shelter in the event of nuclear war.

    Leaving aside the top three office/cafeteria floors above the main hulk of the building, the ceiling height is enormous and the floors are supported by widely spaced pillars. The large windows offer magnificant natural light. The building is already wheelchair accessible. At least three of the bottom floors are connected by ramps that regularly bear the weight of fully-loaded tractor trailers.

    Given the MPO’s impressive size, I suspect that the VAG could only hope to utilize one or two of the eleven floors if it wished to display 50% of its collection or mount major international shows (of course, one might ask whether displaying more than 15% of a mediocre collection is worth the trouble). It begs the question: what else could could the building offer?

    Another gallery or three could occupy other floors.

    The sizeable rooftop could be opened as a free outdoor cultural/public plaza five storeys above street level.

    The two floors of offices could be used for cultural bureaucracy. The basement floors offer unparalleled downtown storage space for various collections.

    The cafeteria could be retained as… a cafeteria.

    Small theatres, studios, and rehearsal spaces could be intergrated into the building.

    On the cost side of things, I understand there to be two significant issues. First, there is the extensive use of asbestos that would have to be dealt with regardless of whether the building is demolished or renovated. Second, the demolition costs aside from asbestos would be significant. I understand that, at the time it was completed in the late 50s, the MPO was the largest welded steel structure in the world. It’s as solid as they come.

    As an aside, I note that although Clr. Meggs is correct that the Sinclair Centre/Larco sale was immediately challenged by the Musqueam First Nation, the Federal Court of Appeal actually overturned the injunction that had been granted to restrain the sale on the basis that the use of the property upon disposition (an office building) would not change.

  • Phlomas

    Well said, Old Postie. There are many creative things that could be done with the MPO as you put it. Just let’s keep it in the public realm. I’m sure the City of Vancouver could work out something with the Tories who have had their ideological bell rung in the past year or so, especially if there is a fall election looming.
    Perhaps we could ask the MP for the area, Dr. Hiding Fry, her views.
    Old Posties never die, they just get smarter.

  • Denis

    I drove trucks in and out of the place for 13 years. Got involved in the Health and Safety committee. The place is big but as an earlier poster mentions, asbestos was a big issue. PCB’s were as well. There were lots of issues as anyone who ever read the Federal Safety inspections would confirm. When a company gets around 170 violations on one inspection , one can only believe that safety wasn’t a big concern, to the coproration. But other than that, the access, vehicle loading docks, vehicle storage and access to the upper loading and unloading areas could be an asset to somebody else. There was talk years ago of selling the place and moving the operation out east of the city. The old tunnel was a neat deal and a lot of stuff was stored there for years. I don’t think the thing was ever used to haul mail from the old railway lines. If it goes, I for one won’t lose any sleep over its loss. If it stays, be prepared to spend big bucks to clean it up. Almost forgot, it has been handling a lot more mail per day than it was designed to handle so anyone offering to buy should get a pretty good deal if they play their cards right

  • Tessa

    I personally would find it a shame if that building were redeveloped in a way that damaged its architecture. I love that building. It stands out on that street, and it adds to the variety of architecture in the downtown, whereas any redevelopment would invariably lead to the usual glass walled whitewashed crud. Plus, as others have noted, if the post office does choose to move there are plenty of options for the space, though I would be disappointed if they moved to somewhere that made its workers and operations even more dependent on car transportation.

  • jimmy olson

    Keep the facade. Junk the rest.

  • Stephanie

    My partner works there. He says they’ve known the sale was dead for six months or so. My position on the matter is entirely personal – I’m just glad that he and his co-workers aren’t going to be displaced to hell and gone.

  • gmgw

    Say, didn’t someone say that the City is looking to build a new City Hall? Has Canada Post got a deal for you, Gregor! I’m thinking that the tunnel to Waterfront Station will be a particularly strong selling point; it could come in very handy as an escape route for the Mayor & Council when Vancouver’s citizenry, having finally had enough, decides to stage its own version of the Storming Of The Winter Palace (No doubt with A.G. Tsakumis at their head; he’s already bald, of course, but would need to grow a goatee and drop the glasses. Suzanne Anton, of course, would be a shoo-in for the Kerensky role).

  • A Reader

    Obviously, we need to keep the post office downtown.
    Remember those people walking around delivering the mail?
    How would they get from Richmond to downtown?
    Don’t we still need mail delivery?
    Can’t we do without another bland looking collection of condos in it’s place?

    Let’s be sensible people!!!!!

  • Joe Just Joe

    Mail would still get downtown just like it gets to other parts of the city now, you just wouldn’t need to sort it there. A couple of smaller post offices across the core and a modern sorting facility by the airport makes more sense in terms of efficiency. Which is what they were looking at before the snag.