Park Place

PROJECT Oppenheimer Park Activity Centre, Vancouver, British Columbia
ARCHITECT Mcfarlane | Green | Biggar Architecture + Design Inc.
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT space2place design inc.
TEXT Tanya Southcott
PHOTOS Martin Tessler, unless otherwise noted

On any given day, Oppenheimer Park is alive with activity. The first Saturday of this summer is no exception. In the middle of the open lawn, a water fight breaks out between a youngster and her older brother while a crowd of spectators erupts to the clangs coming from a rowdy horseshoe match across the promenade. A staff member from the community centre hollers out, “Last call for the public washrooms!” as late-afternoon shadows from the historic Japanese cherry trees dance across the curve of the park’s only permanent structure. At 190 square metres, the new elliptical building is small in size, yet sophisticated in program, and is largely responsible for the atmosphere of civility that welcomes park-goers to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. Designed by the architectural firm formerly known as McFarlane | Green | Biggar Architecture + Design in concert with space2place Landscape Architects, the new park pavilion and surrounding green space has made Oppenheimer one of the most intensively used parks in the city since reopening just two years ago.

Located at the heart of the city’s first neighbourhood and home to many of its oldest buildings, the civic block between Powell, Cordova, Jackson and Dunlevy Streets was opened as the Powell Street Grounds in 1902 by Vancouver’s second mayor and eventual namesake of the park, David Oppenheimer. Historically, the park has supported a socially and culturally rich community, albeit economically less advantaged than elsewhere in Vancouver. As the nexus for the Japanese-Canadian community prior to their internment during the Second World War, the heterogeneity of the neighbourhood has also accommodated First Nations and other immigrant populations who were less than welcome elsewhere in the city. An important civic space in the evolution of Vancouver, Oppenheimer Park has served as a staging ground for protests, rallies, ceremonies and memorials while continuing to host the city’s longest-running annual community celebration–the Powell Street Festival.

During the postwar period, this area was largely rezoned for industrial use, and the infrastructure that once supported a thriving community has long been neglected. Over the decades, limited availability of affordable single-room-occupancy (SRO) housing and a decline in job opportunities for unskilled labour, compounded by an increased population suffering from mental health and substance abuse problems, has placed further strains on the neighbourhood. Since the late 1980s, the Downtown Eastside context has become more widely known for its high incidence of poverty, sex trade, crime and violence than its earlier social and cultural vibrancy. In particular, the hard-drug trade and its associated problems have kept many visitors away from Oppenheimer Park, further stigmatizing the area.

Nevertheless, the park has recently become a linchpin for the Downtown Eastside. The drive behind its recent renovation stems from a broader effort to revitalize the area through a gesture of greater inclusivity. In contrast to other civic parks typically designed to discourage vagrancy, the quality of the public realm achieved through improvements to both the landscape and pavilion design respond to the neighbourhood’s unique social context by balancing concerns for safety and maintenance with strategies to respect the needs of lower-income and homeless groups.

One of the key project objectives was to create incentive for the public to enter the park by breaking down barriers–both physical and perceived–that had discouraged through-traffic in the past. The design team completed an extensive view analysis of the site and surrounding neighbourhood to ensure visibility into and through the park especially from the perimeter sidewalk. Planting is limited to short grasses and trees with high crowns, eliminating moderate and low-lying vegetation that could be used to screen illegal or threatening activity and contraband. With the exception of the baseball diamond backstop (not so much a regulation-size sports field as a tribute to the legendary Asahi, the Japanese-Canadian team based out of Oppenheimer in the early 20th century), all fences came down. Throughout the park, various surface treatments are used to imply boundaries between different zones of activity which, for example, may delineate between an open playing field, the children’s playground, and the many ball courts, along with sitting and gathering areas. Generous paved paths have since replaced worn desire lines caused by pedestrian movement coming from the street corners through the park. The paths now converge at the new park pavilion, a focal point for the site.

Far from the traditional field house or storage shed, the pavilion or activity house is the product of an intense community consultation process involving both programmatic and design issues guided by the Carnegie Community Centre. The facility includes a multi-purpose activity room, a small servery for food prep and service, an office for park staff, and public washroom facilities. The pavilion offers social, educational, recreational and cultural activities six days a week, and can accommodate a large number of neighbourhood events organized by local community groups.

With no clear front address or obvious street façade, the pavilion is designed as an object in the landscape to be welcoming and approachable from all angles. A building without blind spots or corners, its elliptical form responds directly to a concern for personal security by creating the experience of moving past something safely for those using the park. During the daytime and operating hours, the building physically opens itself to the community. Lightweight aluminum screens slide into the walls, revealing generous covered exterior space carved deep into the building. In contrast to its hard outer shell, the heart of the building is glazed, allowing for continuity between interior and exterior spaces with a clear connection to the park through enhanced visibility. The overhangs provide much needed shelter from Vancouver’s wet climate and expand the usefulness of the building by increasing its programmable area. At night, when both the park and pavilion are closed, low-level interior lighting glows through the translucent screens so that the now taut form becomes a beacon or lantern, thereby creating a presence in the park that feels safe for pedestrians even after dark.

Designed to be a backdrop to the park’s activity, the building itself is modest in materiality and finishes yet distinctly civic in character. Constructed from simple, durable materials that are easy to clean and maintain, the wood-frame structure is an economical and sustainable solution to a more organic form, while the charcoal-coloured porcelain tile cladding helps keep the overall facility low-maintenance and humanely scaled. The interior material palette includes polished concrete radiant-heat floors which provide seamless transitions between inside and outside spaces, and floating wood ceilings that bring warmth to the public spaces. From the exterior, the muted colours are offset by elements of rich golden and rose hues–in the playground structure and washroom doors for example–that tie together built elements and offer another tribute to the Asahi, a word which means “morning sun” in Japanese.

A number of historic elements on the site, such as the Sakura maple trees planted by the Japanese-Canadian community and the carved totem erected by the Squamish Nation have been retained and celebrated within th
e overall design. The new elements to the park intentionally avoid any cultural affiliation or symbolism that would narrow the experience of the park to that of a specific group. Instead, the focus is on a dynamic space that changes as often as its users do, prioritizing the collective experience of the park as more meaningful and authentic than deferring to prescribed notions of cultural identity.

Officially reopened for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, both the park and pavilion have since been recognized for their design excellence by the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects and the Architectural Institute of British Columbia. Modest in scope, this high-profile project sets a clear tone for future growth in the Downtown Eastside community that favours the needs of the area’s low-income residents over rapid, large-scale redevelopment. With pressure from local developers to increase both height and density restrictions in this low-lying historic neighbourhood, the city has put a moratorium on new development proposals in order to create a comprehensive local area plan through extensive community consultation and asset-mapping exercises. In the interim, projects which favour social and supportive housing (at a minimum of 60 percent of the total residential units) continue to move ahead with the hopes of both improving the livelihood of those in the area and preventing the displacement of long-term residents.

While the reality of gentrification threatens the stability of the existing community, a variety of housing types and tenure is critical to the community’s long-term prospects. The influx of social housing targets a clear gap in the availability of affordable housing city-wide, but it remains to be seen how much this particular neighbourhood can absorb. With the inevitable growth and development in Vancouver, the solution for Oppenheimer Park depends upon change that is not polarizing, but which benefits all the residents in the community. Oppenheimer Park is an excellent example of a community’s ability to help its most vulnerable make and sustain space for themselves in the city. CA

Tanya Southcott is a Vancouver-based architect and writer.

Client Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation
Architect Team Steve Mcfarlane, Jean-Philippe Delage, Rob Grant, Hozumi Nakai
Structural Equilibrium Consulting
Mechanical Jade West Engineering
Electrical DMD Associates
Landscape space2place design inc.
Interiors Mcfarlane | Green | Biggar Architecture + Design Inc.
Contractor Bynett Construction
Area 200 m2
Budget $1.9 M
Completion Spring 2010