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Vancouver's Granville revitalization plan focuses on new development, public spaces

The city plans to re-energize its entertainment district, but some unhappy with pace of change
Vancouver's Granville strip is at the centre of the city's entertainment district

When Joe Chou first came to Canada in 1991 from Taiwan, he experienced a very different Granville Street than the one he works on today.

“When I came to Granville, it was packed with people. To me, it was like the prime area in Greater Vancouver,” he said. “I feel that now it’s different. It’s not as meaningful walking on the street anymore.”

Chou works with his family at CloudCity Vape Bong and Gifts near the intersection of Davie Street and Granville Street. After the shop was broken into twice last year, the business put plywood in its windows instead of glass.

On his block, Chou said, many of the stores are vacant.

“No one wants to rent them,” he said. “I believe the reason why they don’t want to rent them is because the prime of this area has faded out and to me that’s such a waste.”

Over the last year, street conditions on Granville have improved, Chou said, but more needs to be done. Safety and cleanliness remain his biggest concerns.

One of the City of Vancouver’s founding streets, Granville has been a hub for commerce and entertainment throughout the city’s history, according to the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (Downtown Van), a non-profit organization dedicated to business improvement across the downtown core.

Granville Street has had lower foot traffic since the pandemic, a lack of development opportunities due to zoning restrictions, vacant storefronts and encampments, said Jane Talbot, interim president and CEO of Downtown Van.

“The current zoning and lack of redevelopment opportunities have made the area stagnant and tired,” Talbot said in a statement to Glacier Media. “The perception of public safety in the area prevents some people from going to Granville Street.”

The city has plans to revitalize the area.

On Jan. 31, city council approved the 18-month-long Granville Street Planning Program, which aims to revitalize the city’s entertainment district.

It will be “the most comprehensive plan for the area in decades, so it is a big deal,” Talbot said, adding that Downtown Van has been asking for resources to be dedicated to the area “for several years.”

Planning under the program will focus on supporting retail and office space, live performances, entertainment, tourism and dining, according to the program’s report.

This plan offers the opportunity to invite new development and improve existing venues, said Thomas Daley, one of the city planners leading the program.

“We’re going to be exploring all types of opportunities. Not only through the spaces themselves but also through programming [on] the street,” he said. “It’s something we want to explore, as we rethink the actual street itself and the public realm.”

Even with the program, some remain concerned about how long it will take to meaningfully improve the district.

For Kerry Bonnis, a developer and Bonnis Properties co-principal, the city’s “snail’s pace” on the issue is problematic.

“There has been so much research, so much study and intense meetings for decades with all stakeholders with the business improvement association, and there is no need for a year-and-a-half study,” he said.

Long timelines associated with approvals, rezoning and construction in Vancouver will further delay progress, said Bonnis.

“The soonest we’d see anything actually developed would be seven to eight years from now. We wouldn’t see the impact for a decade. This is unreasonable, this is unacceptable,” he said.

Cleaner, safer streets foundational to improvement

Chou’s chief concerns – safety and cleanliness – were two issues raised by city council when its Granville Street plan was first proposed, and they will be key focuses of the program, said Daley. Planning will include stakeholders such as the Vancouver Police Department and Good Night Out, a B.C.-based non-profit society that focuses on the prevention of sexual assault.

“It is a challenge, really across downtown from the activity on the street. But we also recognize the difference in people who already live and work in the area. And working with business owners to take an equity-based approach to how we address safety for everyone in the area to improve overall accessibility,” Daley said.

In terms of revitalizing the area, Talbot recommends that the city promote the densification of commercial spaces such as hotels, offices, retail storefronts and restaurants, and adding infrastructure that supports street festivals, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and more permanent, weather-proof patios.

Daley said that widening the sidewalks is being considered, along with supporting more street closures.

He highlighted The Rec Room Granville by Cineplex Inc. (TSX:CGX) as a project that will work to bring more foot traffic to the district. Located in the old Empire 7 cinema, the venue will offer food and arcade games, and is expected to complete in late 2023 or early 2024.

“That’s the perfect fit for some of the new types of venues that we’re seeing in the area, and it really speaks to the idea of expanding daytime and nighttime activities and broadening the invitation for different types of people,” Daley said.

Bonnis’ development company will be modernizing the 800-block on Granville by adding commercial and office space above existing venues like the Orpheum Theatre and Commodore Ballroom.

“The 800 Granville development is an excellent example of how development and heritage preservation can be achieved through redevelopment; the Commodore venue will preserve its look, feel and function,” said Talbot.

“It will be essential to retain the historic fabric of Granville, and one of the ways we can do that is by preserving the area’s unique heritage character.” 

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