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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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