November 2nd Gordon Price takes us to Woodward’s Development

November 2nd, 2010 Review
Written by: Samantha Knopp

We started our 5th Walking Home Carrall Street session at the new Woodward’s Development, one of the largest initiatives currently underway to revitalize the Downtown Eastside(DTES). Since it opened just a few months ago, this was the first glimpse of the development for most of the participants. The group congregated in the public atrium and was introduced to Gordon Price, an urban planner and former civic politician (NPA member of Vancouver City Council from 1986 to 2002) who now works as the director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University (SFU). Given his direct experience in planning and evaluating urban development in Vancouver, Gordon’s perspective would be particularly helpful in navigating the changes in Vancouver’s history and evolution.

As we walked to the brick courtyard outside, Gordon took us back to the late 1950’s when this area was the centre of Vancouver. The original Woodward’s building – which the current development was inspired by and named after – was the flagship store for a retail chain that had outlets across Western Canada and had opened in 1902. In its hey-day, Woodward’s was the Vancouver destination for both residents and visitors, infamous for its elaborate food floor and unique Christmas displays. Woodward’s place as a Vancouver icon was perfectly summarized by the giant rotating neon sign atop the building: a red “W” that marked the Vancouver skyline and made it unique. Unfortunately, the end of the Interurban Railway era, combined with the gradual influx of shopping malls and the slow degradation of the surrounding neighbourhood, forced Woodward’s out of business; the building finally closed for good in 1993. A wave of nostalgia began to sweep over the group, but Gordon explained that while people are often resistant to change, it is nonetheless what pushes society forward, and in the end, change is a reflection of our decisions, what we choose to allow and prevent.


Inside the Woodward building learning the Why of the art installation there (photo credit: Gina Hetland)

To illustrate this point, Gordon’s talk brought us to the West End on the other side of downtown Vancouver, an area familiar to all our participants who attend City School at King George Seconday. He explained that this neighbourhood underwent a radical change during the mid 1960’s. It had been comprised of mostly single detached homes like the Roedde House, built at the turn of the century, but after World War Two (WWII) many of these homes had begun to fall into disrepair and functioned primarily as overcrowded boarding houses for Vancouver’s rapidly expanding population. The city’s planners, however, decided to initiate an urban renewal to make the area more modern, and began replacing these homes with the high-rise concrete towers that characterize the area today. Gordon, who had just moved to Vancouver (and the West End) at the time, remembered vividly the numerous citizens who were deeply upset by this dramatic shift in their urban fabric. He further explained that their reactions eventually helped to slow down the rate of development, but the addition of these new buildings and those that followed changed Vancouver forever – for better or worse, high-rises have become synonymous with the city.

The second stage of this late 1960’s renewal was a freeway proposal known as Project 200. Although the project ultimately did not come to fruition, it too had a lasting impact on the city. The proposal, inspired by the Interstate Highway System in United States, planned to imitate many of the major cities south of the border by running a seamless freeway through the city by extending HWY 99 to Coal Harbour, which would have cleared out whole sections of Strathcona, Chinatown and Gastown. As many of us (unsuccessfully) tried to imagine this bizarre-version of Vancouver, we mostly found ourselves thankful that a large and diverse coalition of Vancouver’s citizenry effectively stopped the project (helping to make sure that Vancouver boasts, to this day, the first intersection on US highway I5 – a stop light at 70th Street and Oak – after driving without any stoplights from Tijuana, Mexico). Although Project 200 didn’t leave a physical trace on Vancouver (other than the Georgia Street Viaduct), the impact it had on its citizens was deeply profound; the city had been charged politically with a flame that has influenced it ever since.

Always learning about the skyline of our city (photo credit: Gina Hetland)

After walking back inside the Woodward’s atrium, Gordon’s story brought us back to the present as he explained the current challenges facing the Woodward’s Development. After the original Woodward’s closed, it moved through various hands for nearly a decade as developers, the provincial government, and the city all vowed to renew it. Finally, in 2004, the government chose Westbank Projects/Peterson Investment Group ([Henriquez Partners]) to redevelop the property into one of the largest mixed-use projects in Canada that would include a forty-storey condo tower, 200 non-market housing units, retail space, non-profit office spaces, and a home for Simon Fraser University’s School for the Contemporary Arts. Gordon explained that there have been many critics who feel the amount of social housing is inadequate, or that the project itself is an attempt to rapidly gentrify this fragile neighbourhood. Supporters, on the other hand, argue that the development will help breathe new life into the area. But as Gordon indicated, only time will really tell how the new Woodward’s will impact this area and the city.

One thing we all agreed on was the impressive scope of this social and architectural endeavour. Gordon explained that, because of the massive construction required in the area, none of the original Woodward’s building was used in the rebuilding except two original facades on the corner of Hastings and Abbott Streets that were kept for heritage value. For Gordon, this compromise was understandably the only viable option but he admitted that for many others, like his friend and fellow urban planner, Michael Short, even this small tribute was too large a concession on the design and budget of the project. Many of us found this idea shocking, especially after hearing from historians for so many weeks previously! But hearing from the urban planning perspective gave us a more informed picture into the debate of historical preservation versus progress and contemporary usage.

Historical vs. Looking to the Future? (photo credit: Gina Hetland)

As we made our way back to the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, Gordon continued to show us more examples of changes that have shaped our city, making it more apparent that change (and history) isn’t something that just happens, but that it’s dictated mostly by intentional choices. The Woodward’s Development showed us that history is not just in the past, but is constantly happening around us. It will be interesting to see how willing this generation will be to accept change, and how that openness – or reluctance – will shape our city in the future.

Sam Knopp

The Map of Where We Went –Nov 2nd, 2010:

Youth Reviews

Freya C.                                                                                                                November 2, 2010
There are few things so sweet and crisp as an autumn day like this, but the dialogue of Mr. Price and the new ideas he presented are definitely two such things. Not to sound like a suck up. I was just trying to find a more pleasant and interesting way to say “he was good, I like walking/speaking days” because, you know, that gets boring after six weeks. But yes, it was a good tour. The new ideas about progress were particularly captivating, and the themes of compromise and change were quite central to the day’s walk.

Shapes and constructs in nature quite often illustrate the path of least resistance. Take, for example, a mountain. Even the greatest mountain takes a reasonable shape: wide at the bottom, narrowing towards the top, shaped by wind and water and sand and even the mountain’s own organic residents. Not only that, but a mountain itself is most commonly formed by the colliding of tectonic plates, or volcanic eruptions (both examples of compromise and least resistance; the plates cannot destroy each other, so instead they deign to rise together whilst the pressure causes lava/magma to seek release by rising as well, finding a place on the surface, and cooling). Consider a tree, and inspect its development strategy. Do you see a lot of straight lines, flat planes, right angles? No, not really. Have you ever noticed how a bird’s nest is similar to the shape of its resting body? It’s the same with beaver dams and bear dens. Imagine the concept of natural shapes, most people will see disjointed lines, curves and uneven planes. And that’s fairly accurate. Shapes and constructs in nature have to take the form of compromise. Man’s constructs do not.

There is no compromise with gravity. Our buildings will not taper at the top if we do not wish them to, and this fact will not make them topple. There is no compromise with wind and water: our structures will not be ground down into non-modular curves and irregularities like trees and mountains, for we shall repair, re-surface and build anew. We do not need harmony, or mutualism with native flora and fauna to succeed. Any benefit to these natural land holders will be simply coincidental on our part, or a learned behavior on theirs. The beasts will adapt to the humans, for we shall not compromise.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s pretty basic human nature. Humans conquer. I am in no way advocating the wisdom or stability of this behavior, but it is fact. That’s why I find it so interesting to observe the physical evidence of humans compromising with each other. If mankind is an indomitable force, how could it dominate itself? As evidenced by the lack of any clear global ruling power, no one has yet managed this impressive feat (not for lack of trying; I could take pages in recounting the various historic megalomaniacs hell-bent on global domination (and no, I don’t currently want to take into consideration the more subtle forces of power over the global masses, such as the hidden capitalist leaders directing our consumer choices. It’s irrelevant to my point, which is purely architectural (have you noticed that I love commas and brackets?))) Anyway, back to the physical evidence of mankind’s internal compromise. As I stated, wind and gravity are not really considerations when deciding the height of a proposed building, but the wills of the people involved are. What if the citizens want their beautiful skyline preserved, as many Vancouverites do? What if a committee thinks the building is ugly? Or what if, in the case of the Woodward’s building we visited, the community thinks it has a right to the space, and the building that is to be demolished has historic significance? Well, my dear friends, then we see men and women compromise. And the results are really quite beautiful, even inspiring.

The remaining facade of the original department store is a reminder of our history, as well as an aesthetically attractive feature of the building. This compromise is called form versus function. We agreed to lose the function of the original building, but retained part of its form. This acknowledges the original building’s cultural significance while accepting the need for progress.

The function of the new building is many-fold. The community was consulted, as the project was intended for them, so the result is as complicated as the people themselves. Not only is it a multi-purpose and highly practical structure, but it is beautiful as well. With its numerous, and sometimes radically different features, the building takes on an almost natural feel, and the well oiled way in which the community moves inside it is also reminiscent of a natural system. There. I think I have quite clearly drawn the parallel between nature and compromise. Thanks for reading.

(photo credit: Gina Hetland)


Rebekah D.                                                                                                          November 2, 2010
Sadly I had to miss last week’s tour of alleys and facades, which I hear was incredible, but I think this week made up for not being there last week. We were very lucky today because we got to hear Gordon Price, a former member of city council, who told us all about downtown Vancouver in the 60’s and 70’s. He told us of the plans the city had during those decades to tear down most of the downtown to put in freeways, and how the West End was the prime example of what neighbourhoods didn’t want – many rental units with a transient population.

I found this week’s session different from previous weeks because for the first hour, before walking to other sights, we spent a good chunk of time standing or sitting listening to Gordon while we were in the Woodward’s building. The Woodward’s building is a marvelous example of how different Vancouver is. The Woodward’s Development is very new and complex, with purposes ranging from non-market housing, to office spaces, to shopping areas, to Simon Fraser University’s new downtown campus, to a basketball court. Gordon was explaining how this multipurpose style of building is the opposite of the West End’s concrete condos, and that the Woodward’s Development ended up the way it is because it had to please the wants of active downtown Vancouver citizens. He made a very good point that if we really wanted to solve the housing crisis, we wouldn’t build buildings like Woodward’s, but do it more in the West End way, much to our society’s horror. The West End is, or was, disliked because it has so many apartments fulfilling the needs of many for housing, but worrying the minds of permanent Vancouver residents, who fear(ed) transient populations in any neighbourhood. This isn’t something I have thought of before today, but it is very true and is worth thinking about. Gordon also spoke about how we (youth) are the future, and soon we will decide how fast we want change in our cities and country. I think it’s required of us to choose fast changes in how we run our lives, and how we live them.

(photo credit: Gina Hetland)


Evan C.                                                                                                                 November 2, 2010
Today we learned about the development of Vancouver during the last 50 years, and how quickly it has changed through those years, making everything more modern. We are changing things so much, and now developers are trying to make things more eco-efficient, which is a wonderful thing to see. I love the fact that we are learning about Vancouver with Walking Home Projects, and the history of the environment that we are living in.

Thank you

(photo credit: Gina Hetland)


Michelle P.                                                                                                     November 2, 2010

Part of the reason I enjoy our walks so much is the diversity of the presenters, which is why this week I decided to write about the program as a whole. I have found this program to be very educational in more ways than one. One of the Walking Home Carrall Street presenters, Bruce Macdonald, sent a follow-up letter to the project, which Gina (WHP Media Coordinator) read to us today. One thing he mentioned about Walking Home Projects is that he likes the fact that instead of learning about a place from a distance, we are living/learning in it. And that, overall, would be the number one reason I enjoy this program: because the place is real and there is no imagining.

(photo credit: Gina Hetland)


Program Guest: Holly Schmidt, MAA                                                            November 2, 2010
Sunshine is such as rare thing in November but there was plenty of it on Tuesday November the 2nd, just as Catherine Pulkinghorn promised. It was a pleasure to spend the afternoon meandering along Carrall Street with Gordon Price and the students from City School. I’ve been up and down this street on many occasions but I’ve never considered it from an urban planning perspective before.

As Gordon pointed out many times throughout his discussion, change is inevitable. I can’t help but agree. Nothing stays static, everything is in flux, particularly in an urban environment. Our relationship to change though, is worthy of consideration.

Living in Vancouver, I find myself attempting to develop a connection with the fabric of the city; an understanding of it’s rhythms and movements. How does change happen here? The Woodward’s building seems to be indicative of the complex and contested processes of change that are enacted. Struggle being an important part of civic engagement in Vancouver.

Many times Gordon discussed the importance of participation in civic processes. He discussed how city council implemented public participation processes that ensures public input on city development. As a city that continues to grow, I wonder how will the citizens of Vancouver choose where change happens, how much will be allowed and who will be impacted?

I also wonder how my perspective, as a relative newcomer to this City, is different because I don’t share in the contested history of many of these sites, such as Woodward’s. This walk stirred these questions in me, and I will return to this experience of wandering down Carrall Street again as my understanding of Vancouver continues to change.

Sessional Instructor, Emily Carr University of Art and Design

Please click below to hear Gordon Price talk about social change in Vancouver from 1968-72: