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Two neighbourhoods face change as Woodward’s, Mt. Pleasant centre open

January 17th, 2010 · 22 Comments

It was a busy weekend for central-city urbanists, what with the Woodward’s party Friday night and then the Mount Pleasant Community Centre opening Saturday.

Woodward’s obviously got a lot of attention. A huge crowd gathered in the plaza to ooh and ah as the new W lights were turned on — a New Year’s Eve for geeky urbanists, as I twittered. And others were drawn down for the launch of the book about Woodward’s, Body Heat, or to look at Trevor Boddy’s exhibit on Vancouverism, or to go to the colloquium about the Woodward’s development in the new Milton and Fei Wong theatre.

But it was interesting to hear many of the same sentiments I heard at the Woodward’s opening when I went to the Mount Pleasant opening.

People gathered in the gym, not a theatre, at Mt. Pleasant and there weren’t any dialogues with the architect or developer. But there were almost as many people there and some fascinating parallels. Both events talked about how essential partnerships had been to making the projects work. Both buildings seemed to take forever to build (the centre, especially). Both are snazzy new green buildings that mimic the old brick and terracotta of the historic districts they’re in. And both are seen as catalysts for their neighbourhood.

Of course, there’s less public fear with the Mount Pleasant centre than there is with Woodward’s that an historic neighbourhood for the poor will be gentrified. But really, there should be.

Yes, Woodward’s is going to change that area. It was so palpable Friday night, as streams of people converged on the building. There’s life there again. And on Abbott, the next block south from Woodward’s, I saw a couple of little alternative businesses — a funky skateboard shop and a store that seems to be selling hipster handbags — in storefronts that haven’t seen legal activity near them for quite some time.

But the Mount Pleasant community centre is also going to change the area, bring even more people to what had been a strip of car dealerships and repair shops, surrounded by three-storey apartment buildings with some of the lowest rents in the city.

The neighbourhood’s been changing for a while, as Kitsilano refugees take over the buildings. It will change more. That’s what happens when the city decides to invest in a big reno.

The question for all of us who watch our city carefully is what kind of change it’s going to produce. We’re all anxious to find that balance where we can somehow make an area work better and look better, but we don’t drive out the people and businesses who have been there forever, the ones who moved there because it didn’t cost too much and then made it into a neighbourhood.

Other thoughts on my weekend forays:

– Artist Stan Douglas said he chose to do a photograph of the 1970s-era Gastown riots as the public art for the Woodward’s atrium because he wanted something that symbolized a moment of challenge and rupture. A perfect companion piece, a few people I’ve talked to have mentioned, would be a photograph of something very similar that happened more recently: the massive squat by homeless people that happened around Woodward’s in 2002, also well attended by police, which provided the political impetus to save the building.

– The Mount Pleasant Centre feels like the Canada Line already — too popular for its own good. The place was packed on Saturday and I suspect will be every day. The Busby firm had to squeeze a lot into that building — library, daycare centre, fitness centre, gym, umpteen meeting rooms, and then 98 apartments on top. As a result, it sometimes feels a little squashed, especially when there’s a crowd there and you’re trying to make your way along the narrow hallways and stairs. Thank goodness that there’s so much light, thanks to the work the firm did to make it the greenest building in the city — daylight is always cheaper than electric bulbs so all the rooms have loads of light coming in from outside.

– The after-Woodward’s partiers (me and my friends and a few others) had a HARD time finding a place with an empty chair Friday night. Bao Bei, the hip new Chinese brasserie on Keefer Street that had a soft opening Friday night, essentially told us to get lost because they were so overwhelmed and didn’t want to stress out their kitchen staff. (I thought maybe it was because we looked too old and dowdy, but we went in another younger, hipper-looking delegate and he got the same treatment.) About six other restaurants in Gastown all said we’d have to wait at least an hour to get so much as a pretzel. Many of us decamped over to Campagnolo, which was also packed but not quite to the gills. Whew.

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  • Already the gym and library are quite busy at the MPCC, but it hasn’t been crowded when I’ve gone so far. It’ll be interesting to see how the cafe does, with Gene right across the street.

    The two housing developments right there (Social and District, I think) will do more to change the neighbourhood than the community centre. They’ll bring more people to an already busy neighbourhood, and those people will likely pack The Whip and Cascade even more. Hopefully we’ll see some commercial development off Main, because the density should be able to support more smaller stores.

  • I was at they gym last weekend, and although it was busy, I never had to queue long for a machine. I figure it will get less busy as the people forget about their New Year’s resolutions.

    The new facilities are great. I’m not sure if they’re changing the area, but there are two big condo projects going up next door – Social and The District.

  • SV

    It’s also going to be interesting to see how the Park
    Board budget cuts affect MPCC-I know our local community centre is having to look at a range of options-shorter operating hours, higher fees, etc-depending on how the Park Board decides to spread their cuts around.

    (apologies for the unwieldy “sentence”-I apparently need something stronger than coffee on Monday mornings)

  • landlord

    My wife and I also went for dinner after the Big W event. There was plenty of room at Foo’s, the only restaurant in town that makes no mai gai, boneless chicken stuffed with sticky rice and deep-fried. Joanne, the owner and chef, doesn’t care if you’re hip or not, she just wants to feed you.

  • I was pleased to stand with Kip Woodward on Friday night as the big W was lit after 2 decades of darkness.

    Everyone who has been involved with this project will likely have a slightly different recollection of the events leading up to Friday night. I was involved on two different occasions and at the urging of some city hall colleagues, I have decided to document my version of the story. If you are interested, you can find it at

    Let’s hope the project will have benefits for the community commensurate with the time, effort and money that has been put into it.

  • Just one comment re: the Mount Pleasant Community Centre which I walked by last night after the Matt Hern salon at Rhizome Cafe. (Frances, you are speaking at an upcoming event…you should tell your readers about it.) But back to the new building…

    ” daylight is always cheaper than electric bulbs so all the rooms have loads of light coming in from outside.”

    That may be true, but unfortunately, some of the fluorescent desk lamps along the street level windows shine out at night, resulting in a very unpleasant effect. To make things worse, for some reason, the bulbs are different shades of white.

    I do hope this is somehow fixed. It is most unbecoming for such a prominent building in such a prominent location.

  • Bill Lee

    The Mount Pleasant Library, wherever it has been located is a pleasant non-shopping refuge out of the weather elements.
    Still it was not made big enough.
    See the new Kensington library branch on Knight and Kingsway (‘under’? the Pricesmart store). Nice building and ambiance, but full up already on weekends–not a chair to be had.
    Libraries are more than books these days.

    And when I am pedalling through Chinatown at night, tourists who ask where are the Chinese restaurants?, I tell them to take a bus to Fraser and 25th and walk back a block or two, as they’ll find a good half-dozen there that are open late at night.

    Another reason that Chinatown, (and boy will foreigners be disappointed by all the closed doors in the evenings–what a dead city), should be torn down or rebuilt is to bring retail life back to the city.
    The Rennie frontage along with Beijing Lounge has killed that north side of the zero block of Pender, the failing Cultural Centre messing up the south side. So much for the two ‘gates’ to China town which in hindsight everyone should have listened to their guts and refused as overly expensive and needing more upkeep than they deserved.

    As for the former Superior Tofu place at 163 Keefer Street, it may work for a while, but what happens when the Night Market occupies their front in the summers? Will they welcome the non-hip people milling about then and the street food selling?
    The real Hong Kong (Horlicks!) Gold Stone Cafe at 139 Keefer is the real thing and will continue to do a roaring business during the day, leaving the evening to the night market and Hon’s WonTon.

    It’s sad, but then the main customers for Chinese food have been Chinese and they like clean, new places which are all on the outskirts and suburbs these days, not in the old “Dupont Street” ghetto. No need to go downtown for old haunts and nostalgia. It’s all closed off in reality and in our minds.

  • Michael, I’m looking forward to your review of the evening at Rhizome, as I was unable to attend at the last minute.

    For how to do a small-ish library right, people could do worse than check out the branch of the Vancouver Island Public Library in Courtenay. It is beautiful, spacious, and a true community centre, but not particularly big.

  • Stephanie

    What I find most interesting about every single account of the Woodward’s redevelopment I’ve read or heard on radio – including Mr. Geller’s contributions – is that the occupation and squat of Woodward’s has been completely erased from the narrative. Amazing, really, considering the role of the squat in the civic election of the time.

    In the middle of all this self-congratulatory hoopla, a quick reminder that people lived in the cold and wet for months, and endured police beatings, harassment, and arrest in the struggle for social housing on the Woodward’s site.

    Anyone who’s interested in the “other” history of Woodward’s would do well to read “Woodsquat,” the excellent edition of West Coast Line edited by archivist Aaron Vidaver. It’s out of print now, but is available in PDF form online. There’s a link to the PDF on this page:

  • Stephanie

    Quick note: no, Frances, I’m not lumping you into the “self-congratulatory hoopla” crowd. Apologies if my comment reads that way.

  • Brenton, I’ve posted a few observations for you and anyone else interested in the Matt Hern ‘salons’. They are at

  • Frances Bula


    Good thing you cleared that up. I’m so touchy and defensive.

  • Stephanie

    Ha. Just didn’t want to be sloppy, that’s all.

  • Urb Anwriter

    Ah, Woodwards… how is it, exactly, that everyone has forgotten that a significant number of the hotels in today’s DES were, once, considered fairly palatial? The Metropole, with barbers and baths in the fully tiled basement, for those rooms not provided with private baths for instance. Or the Broadway, the West, and numerous other buildings that offered hot and cold running water, electric light, and daily maid service long before every home in Vancouver had all the ‘mod cons,’ maids not included.

    Yes, some were the period version of ‘Motel 8,’ if not the Bates. But having flush toilets was an improvement on some of the ‘back houses’ still visible in pictures of developing Vancouver.

    And this revisionist history that suggests either the ‘riot,’ or the closure of Woodwards was the ‘the’ event that defined the sad decline of the area is a bit much.

    One could look at post-war prosperity that funded ‘suburbs’ within the City – think Oakridge – built in 1959, and all the people who viewed that as a vast improvement on going ‘downtown.’ Or, perhaps, it was moving ‘movie row’ from Hastings, both East and West, up to Granville?

    I’m afraid some of our ‘historians’ have elected to tell the story they wanted to tell, rather than the story that actually ‘was.’

    And the West Coast Line ‘Woodsquat’ issue, and all of its pretentious fluff? The best quote in the entire piece was in reference to the fact that half the people in the ‘squat’ wouldn’t have been there had they not already been involved with one of the bigger non-profits in the neighbourhood.

    Oh, and the ‘riot’ as precipitating the decline? Just go check the number of vacant buildings prior to the riot. Up to Special Collections, get the old ‘directories,’ and from the end of ww2 to 1970 count the decline in telephone listings… Or look up ‘Larry the Landlord,’ all tell a significantly different story than the ones being pushed right now.

  • Stephanie

    My grandfather worked the docks down here, for Empire Stevedoring for a lot of the time. He and my grandmother used to go dancing at the Metropole. As my grandmother describes it, in their time it was a “classy”, dress-up place for working class folks.

    As for Woodsquat (the event and the book): the on-the-ground stuff was a lot more complex than that. Even allowing for plenty of reasonable cynicism, Urb’s two-line dis of the book unfairly represents it (and he does himself little credit in the process).

    Woodsquat is an interesting collection of documents generated during the squat (including city memos and police surveillance reports obtained through FOI requests), some later writings by the squatters, and a bit of legal and academic stuff. The editor makes no claim to disinterest, but in this case that means that the writing also looks at what went wrong externally *and* internally. Hamhanded city intervention and police brutality are covered, but so are things like lousy squat politics, internal divisions, and the role of non-profits as agents of “soft” control.

    I think it’s an interesting read. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

    Meanwhile: has anyone read “Body Heat” yet? I’m curious to hear opinions of it.

  • Gassy Jack’s Ghost

    I got my hair buzzed at Uptown barbers last week, sitting in the chair watching the constant flow in and out of the MPCC. Geller’s right, the lighting is bad.

    I now have to leave work early a couple of days a week for split duty tromping a little group of kids down from the elementary school – the kids didn’t used to need a chaperone to go across the park to the old MPCC after school. So most of the kids that used to go to the old centre to play in the gym don’t go to the new one… at least not yet.

    On the other hand, there are lots of new kids from the east side of Main that now gravitate to the new gym, library and youth centre after school, and for this the new MPCC is clearly very successful: bringing people from all over the MP neighbourhood, rather the sleepy little local area it mostly served before. It’s a big city, urban centre now. The transplanted staff have never worked so hard!

    To purists, the “W” is, of course, on the wrong building, and way off centre from its original place on the skyline. The view looking at it from the east is just plain wrong, and the balance of the whole area is off kilter now, literally and figuratively, thanks to the hulking masses of ugliness that have been erected. Goodbye history, hello Geller’s world!

    I miss the old lady who used to sit near the corner of Hastings and Abbot, tape her home flag to the wall behind her, and chant hymns all day while tapping a tambourine. She was there ever since I could ever remember (at least the early 90’s), right up to just before demolition day. Haven’t seen her since. It would be a small miracle to see her return to her spot now: a TD Canada Trust.

  • “Goodbye history, hello Geller’s world!”

    Let me add, for the record, what I said to Alan Herbert on Friday night. While I have great admiration for Gregory Henriquez and many of his accomplishments at Woodwards, I do not like many aspects of the building design, especially the ground plane including the bulbous concrete stair case that seems to have landed from another time and another place.

    I find the much of the outside of the building, including the new courtyard somewhat ‘institutional’ and while it might soften over time with use, it is a shame that there could not have been more detailing in the brickwork and less raw concrete.

    I am told that the area is not finished, so hopefully there will be some refinements, but in many respects the concept of Woodwards is significantly better than some of the architectural detailing (although I do really like the metal filigree and predict that it may ultimately remain without the vines growing up it…most condo owners will not like looking at the backside of the vegetation…and the dust that may collect on their windows…but I could be wrong.

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    Stephanie, thank you for Woodsquat.pdf.

    I have my own photography of one afternoon early in the occupation. It is a sign of a city in trouble, disarray if not chaos, of a failure to demonstrate capacity to communicate across cultural, social and political difference.

    Has that deficiency been addressed? Hope so.

    I’m still not ready to comment on Woodward’s beyond the fact that its footprint within the original townsite plat should have directed everyone to a stay within the historic typology of this part of our city.

    That brand of “architectural preservation” practiced on the rest of the neighbourhoods will kill something of fundamental value to our collective community and our civic pride.

  • Gassy Jack’s Ghost

    Sorry Michael, couldn’t resist.

    I dug out an old DVD that my neighbour, an old NFB documentarian, made for a CTV special a few years back regarding the planning and architectural competition for Woodwards. Quite an amazing inside view of how these types of big projects pass through the hoops. Seeing Jim Green fulminate over one of the losing bids is rather an awkward moment, to say the least. I think Michael’s suggestion that the concept is/was perhaps more noble and well-intentioned than the final execution really hits the mark, esp. after seeing this film again.

  • MB

    A sidebar.

    The Woodwards squat was indirectly alluded to in several episodes of Da Vinci’s City Hall, sequel to Da Vinci’s Inquest, a couple of very good shows with excellent Canadian talent, which were locally shot and didn’t shy away from controversial social themes centred in the DTES.

    These imaginative products of producer Chris Haddock’s mind went on to yet another show, Intelligence, using many of the same actors but in much different roles (cops became drug dealers …).

    All these shows were cancelled in mid-story by the CBC in their race toward mediocrity and disimagination. However, all are now available on DVD from VPL. Haddock promised to provide endings, but being abruptly cut off from TV revenue in all three cases, I doubt that ever happened.

    I’m happy to see The Whip at 6th & Main has survived intact. It will no doubt do even better with the MPCC and adjacent private developments. I’m told my neice was conceived in the suite right above the entry to The Whip, but before it became a cafe. I’m thinking of taking her there for her upcoming 28th birthday, but something tells me to stay out of the line of fire when she woofs her asiago crepes with bison jerky in Hoisin honey syrup after I share that little tidbit with her.

  • Longtime Mt. Pleasant resident

    Given that the building is owned by the city, I had hopes that the rental units above the Mt Pleasant Community Centre would be reasonably priced and so contacted the city a while ago to find out how to get on the wait list. They told me back in the fall that the building management was going to be handled by Colliers real estate.

    Today I saw an ad on Craigslist for the building and called the number.

    Starting at $1200 for a one bedroom apartment. I realize that it’s not low income housing, but really, City of Vancouver – is that the best you can do? grrrr That’s > $200 more than the median rent for a downtown apt.

  • Jon Petrie

    Re the rents charged for the units @ 1 Kingsway (100 meters from 5 bus lines).
    If the city chose not to subsidize private cars on city property and converted the apartment’s underground parking area to a commercial self storage facility every apartment could be given a monthly Translink pass and the apartment rents could be reduced by $100 with the city not loosing any revenue. (Current asking price for parking at 1 Kingsway $35. A converted parking facility at Laurel and Broadway – Broadway Store-All – averages over $200 for self storage in an area equivalent to a parking spot and the self storage area includes both the parking spots and about half the area formerly needed for car access to those spots. Construction cost of each parking spot @ 1 Kingsway, circa $30,000.)