Woodward’s Tests an Architect’s Passion

Woodward’s Tests an Architect’s Passion by Kelly Deck was originally posted in the Globe and Mail on March 20, 2009.

There is a gargantuan new residential and commercial development on the site of the old Woodward’s building in Canada’s most troubled postal code, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The project is an exciting attempt to, in a single stroke, remake a depressed community. As it happens, for the past three years, the project has been going up just down the street from my office, and as it’s climbed above the Gastown skyline, its ambitions have intrigued and inspired me.

Of the development’s 536 suites, about 40 per cent are going to non-market housing, which means the place will be an admixture of the advantaged, less advantaged, students (the property will house Simon Fraser University’s new Centre for the Contemporary Arts), shoppers and workers (at the drug and grocery stores, non-profits and other retail units).

The man behind the master architecture plan is Gregory Henriquez. Not only will his vision reshape the atmosphere of the Downtown Eastside, his ideas of integrated development may become a model for cities worldwide.

I caught up with Mr. Henriquez recently to tour and talk about the project.

Tell me about yourself first, and what you bring to this work.

I’m a fourth-generation architect. The sort of work that I’m passionate about is work around social justice. It’s really what I call cultural sustainability. It’s the buzzword nowadays: Everyone talks about sustainable buildings – the green stuff. But the best thing that you can do in terms of sustainability is design a building that society values and will be around in a hundred years.

The big issue that my profession has to confront now is how to engage the ethical role of architecture in society. The thing that makes Woodward’s special is that this is the first time on a large scale that there’s non-market housing and beautiful market housing integrated in one community.

This is a community with a patchy history, and figuring out what it needs is no mean feat. How did you approach it?

We have the Portland Hotel Society, a group of non-profit service providers on the Downtown Eastside. I’ve also worked in that community for a number of years and I have an understanding of the spatial issues people confront. For example, in one section of Woodward’s are 125 units of single, non-market housing – and everyone has bicycles and all the stuff they bring in. In Vancouver, all the bicycle rooms are in the basement, which would be insane, so we developed a way for them to bring bikes up into their units and mount them on the wall.

What do you anticipate the property will bring to the community?

There’s going to be thousands of people there every day. There’s SFU, which is going to have five performance venues and five practice venues and a thousand kids on-site every day. We’re going to have a London Drugs and a Nesters food store, and the first bank to move back into the Downtown Eastside in 20 years. There are a series of spaces for non-profit groups in the community as well, in addition to the National Film Board and a bunch of other federal offices.

As a single project, its diversity is unparalleled. It’s a huge social experiment and it’s going to be very exciting.

When does it come to life?

The project has been under way for six years. We hope to have people in some time in May or June, 2009, then through to September with phased occupancies. Then the institutions will move in.

What was the hardest part of the project?

It was just crazy in terms of its scale and complexity. It is the most complex mixed-used project in the history of Vancouver, and people in my office have dedicated their life to it. The difficulty is the number of moving parts.

How has your being a West Coast designer influenced the project?

I don’t see myself as a West Coast designer, I see myself as a downtown Vancouver designer. I believe in density, in urbanity; I think that the diversity of our community here is something that’s beautiful and it should really be embraced as a model for other parts of the world.

The future is in hybrid projects – where market, rental and affordable housing get merged into the normal fabric of our city. I think that if we embrace the philosophy, in one generation we could end the homelessness and affordability problem. We’re such a wealthy country, the fact that we can’t deal with this important issue just seems silly.

When you talk urban vitalization, whom do you talk to?

It’s mostly the community activists. Some planners get involved. Very few architects, sadly. Generally speaking, the architects often get more involved in the aesthetics of the project and become the fashion victims.

Did you look to other projects internationally where this has been done?

There is nothing like this anywhere we know of. This is really a one-off.

This is a genuine milestone for you. What’s next?

We’re still in the middle of this, and this is as good a project, program and site and client group that I could ever imagine having. If this is the end of my career then I’m okay with it. I’ve done more than I ever thought I could do in one life.

They’ve sold all of them, haven’t they?

Yes, they sold out in about eight hours. There was a lineup overnight around the block. I was worried that no one was going to buy. But it’s all working out better than I imagined.



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