Crosstown Examined

Project Woodward’s Redevelopment, Vancouver, BC

Architect Henriquez Partners Architects

Text Helena Grdadolnik

“As a profession, architects have become instruments of private interest, consultants for hire whose authority has fallen into doubt.” This statement, from the publisher’s summary of Towards an Ethical Architecture: Issues within the Work of Gregory Henriquez, is especially true within Canada’s booming metropolises. The publication promises “to explore the role of ethics, activism and critical commentary in contemporary architectural practice.” The book is due to be released in September of 2006, the same year that construction will finally begin on the old Woodward’s department store building after over 12 years of it sitting idle.

When Henriquez Partners Architects (with Westbank Projects/Peterson Investment Group) were shortlisted in September 2004 from a Request for Proposal and their design was chosen from the three finalists, they seemed the obvious choice. Through their work on two low-income housing projects in the Downtown Eastside (Lore Krill Housing Co-op and Bruce Eriksen Place), the firm has demonstrated a long-term commitment and sensitivity to the community where Woodward’s is located. Henriquez Partners Architects were also the designers for the parking structure that will be connected to Woodward’s when the redevelopment is complete. In short, the architects have been steadily building up the acumen and reputation needed to work on this momentous project.

To understand the complexity of the Woodward’s redevelopment it is important to understand the history of the building and its surrounding area. Woodward’s department store opened for business in what was then the commercial epicentre of downtown Vancouver at Hastings and Abbott Streets in 1903. From across greater Vancouver people came to the store to buy everything from food and clothing to household goods. Ninety years later and after many additions to the building, the store closed its doors in 1993 and has sat vacant ever since. Vancouver’s downtown core had already shifted southwest years before, but in the past two decades the area had seen an even steeper decline. The demise of the Woodward’s store was the last nail in the coffin. Ever since, the Woodward’s building has been the symbolic centre of a highly charged debate over the future of the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. Identified as Canada’s poorest postal code, the area has countless social issues including poverty, homelessness, and HIV infection that is spurred on by rampant drug abuse and prostitution.

In 1995, the first redevelopment of the Woodward’s building was attempted: a mixed-use project consisting of condominium units, commercial and retail space. It generated substantial opposition among the low-income community because it did not include any social housing. At the City of Vancouver’s insistence the Province made an unusual move and bought the land, but they couldn’t find a partner for the commercial component of the development and it never got off the ground. Due to the perceived inaction on the site, a number of homeless people and community groups occupied the building in 2002 to demand more social housing in a protest known as the Woodward’s Squat. The City of Vancouver, believing that it was in the best position to find a workable solution for the future of the site and the community, then purchased the property from the Province in 2003.

Larry Beasley (co-director of the Vancouver Planning Department) outlines two factors that make Woodward’s the key to improving the area: due to the location this project is, in his words, “the glue between the Heritage initiatives in Gastown and Chinatown” but, more importantly, the project’s development is highly symbolic of the City’s social efforts for the Downtown Eastside community.

When I spoke to Gregory Henriquez about the difficulties of being the architects for such a contentious site in the city and inquired about their approach to the project, he said that the architecture of Woodward’s was not about what it looks like, but that social ideas and urban issues were of primary concern. He also added that he was disappointed that there was so little community-based architecture anymore. The Woodward’s redevelopment is unquestionably community-driven. Through the years, the community has shown that it wants a say in how the site is developed, so a Community Advisory Committee was formed to include local residents and stakeholders as well as the project team and City of Vancouver representatives. This way, local residents have been able to work directly with the design and development team throughout all the planning stages and they will contribute to the major decisions of the project.

What surprised the city planners was that historical context and density were not the major issues for local area residents as they had been for the planning department. If anything, the community was supportive of more density for the site to create enough of a critical mass of people in the area. The new development includes one million square feet of gross buildable area comprising a 397-foot-high tower, 500 market and 200 non-market residential units as well as office, retail and community non-profit space, and the relocation of Simon Fraser University’s School for the Contemporary Arts. With an overall density of 7.36 times coverage, the project has a lower density than the existing building’s FSR (floor space ratio) of 8.19.

Woodward’s as it now exists is an impenetrable block at the junction between two city grids. The new proposal opens up the block with public space through its core surrounded by retail. Unlike most schemes for invigorating public space, the retail areas will not only be filled with cafs but they will first have to meet basic community needs with a pharmacy and supermarket. Everyone involved in the project believed that it was important to find ways to ensure that the community can use the public space over the entire year, not just seasonally. This is being achieved through a variety of indoor and outdoor spaces and covered exterior areas. Whether inside or out, Gregory Henriquez’s goal is to create a public space closer in nature to a train station than a hotel lobby. Rather than designing a space that is dolled up and pristine, the plaza must accommodate many different activities and be inviting to all demographics.

In their initial design proposal, Henriquez Partners Architects’ approach was to retain only the original 1903 building, rather than the entire mass of the Woodward’s superblock built up over the years. The “W” sign and the faades will be restored to their appearance in 1956 (the high point of Woodward’s as the leading retailer in Vancouver) and the interior wood structural system of the building will be seismically upgraded. The intent of the new construction was not to design a “theme park” of historical styles but instead to develop an architectural vocabulary that is contemporary yet sympathetic to the heritage context, with some inspiration drawn from the construction techniques of the additions to the building that will be removed. For the tower, the design takes massing cues from the original Flatiron building in New York. Although the tower consists of market housing, it will have no penthouse. Instead, the roof will have amenity space and a garden.

It is difficult to talk about the architectural design since it is still at an early stage, but the locations of the programmatic elements have been set–in large part based on political realities. For example, the market housing has been placed to the northwest of the site (closer to the comfort zone of Gastown which would be more palatable to market condo consumers); the non-profit housing devoted to SROs (single-resident occupancy), on the other hand, is located along Hastings Street to tie it to the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood’s core; and the heritage building will house non-profit city space with a
day care that Gregory Henriquez says is a metaphor for the rebirth of the area. He sees his firm’s role in the Woodward’s project as “using architecture as a container for social development.” According to Larry Beasley, the strength of this project is that it shows that architecture can be of primary importance in the shaping of our cities both physically and socially.

Client Westbank / Peterson Investment Group

Architect Team Gregory Henriquez, Ivo Taller, Peter Wood, Christian Schimert, Fred Markowsky, Shawn Lapointe, David Weir, Phoebe Wong, Allan Moorey, Thomas Lee, Erik Roth, Terry Tremayne, Julie Foxall, Beth Davies, Betty Quon, James Tod

Structural Glotman Simpson

Mechanical Keen Engineering Co. Ltd.

Electrical Arnold Nemetz & Associates

Landscape Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg

Interiors Mcfarlane Green Architects

Area 1.1 Million Ft2

Budget $220 M

Completion Fall 2009

Renderings Thomas Lee and Gene Radvenis

Helena Grdadolnik teaches at the Emily Carr Institute and UBC and is a member of SpaceAgency.