A Reflection on Vancouver’s Woodward’s Redevelopment Five Years On
This article, by Kristen Gagnon, was originally published in Arch Daily on December 22, 2014.
Officially opened in 2010, the Woodward’s Redevelopment project designed by Vancouver based Henriquez Partners Architects and situated in the city’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), was a contentious proposal from the time of its inception, and has continued to be so in the almost five years since its completion. Yet as the large-scale mixed-use complex, and its role in the community, nears the first of many milestone anniversaries, it offers us a chance for critical reflection and allows for perceptions and understandings to be gathered and assessed.
What has made Woodward’s an interesting case study, however, is the project’s attempt to act as a model for responsible development with respect to the regeneration of its surrounding urban and community context. Yet there has also been much criticism, with fears over rapid gentrification and claims that it has displaced some of the community’s most at-risk residents. For managing partner Gregory Henriquez, however, it was seen as an opportunity to introduce a place of inclusivity into the neighbourhood and as a chance to “share a portion of the wealth created in real estate development to support the greater good.”
Experiment in Inclusivity
The project itself – which is comprised of over 530 market and 200 non-market residential units in addition to various retailers, services, educational facilities, and a large public atrium space – is situated in the former location of the flagship Woodward’s department store, which went bankrupt in 1993 before sitting vacant for over a decade.
These years of abandonment were due largely to the context of the site, acting as a threshold in the city physically at the point where the two street grids come together, as well as socially, sitting on the ever-sharpening and contracting periphery of the DTES; often cited as Canada’s poorest urban postal code and a part of the city which struggles disproportionately with marginalization, homelessness, addiction issues, crime, and mental health, among other concerns.
The challenges of the site and its neighbourhood were seen by Henriquez as an opportunity to create social change through architecture, believing that the project became “a lightning rod for community activism,” and a chance “to try and figure out if there was some way to try and deal with these larger social issues” in the area.
Henriquez also saw the project as a microcosm of the city as a whole, with its program as an experiment in inclusivity. This is most clearly evident in the project’s ability to have both built and sold hundreds of market-rate condos at the same address as single room occupancy replacement units (SROs), and non-market family dwellings.
“In terms of success,” Henriquez states, “the goal was to have the spatial relationships so that everyone could co-exist, but they had their own entrances and they had their own amenity spaces, and everyone felt that they were equal citizens in a new collective. So for me, spatially, the most important space is the public realm – it’s the atrium, it’s the plaza, tectonically it’s the [umbilical cord-like] ‘rebirth stair’… it becomes very important architecturally because it has a public use right away on it, so everyone is allowed to be in there.”
This sense of equality, and of a non-discriminatory space, has therefore been the greatest indicator of the project’s success for Henriquez, who believes that, “[while] maybe architecturally it’s ok… it has aspirations to really unite humanity” in terms of its social dimension. As such, Woodward’s has strived to be an integrated part of the community at every level.
The architecture itself is large in its massing of multiple towers conjoined by a unified base, keeping with the brick warehouse aesthetic of the neighbourhood, and restoring a portion of the original 1908 building. It is however muted stylistically, acting equally as a backdrop and centerpiece for the social life of the community. The scale of the building, and the multiple amenities it brought back to the area has also made it a socioeconomic hub in the community, with the architect’s main aim being to bring about a project that was about inclusion – a sharp contrast to the site’s former program.
According to Henriquez, “The architectural issues which we had to confront with were really not aesthetic to the same degree… Fundamentally it had to have enough body heat, and enough of a mass of people living there, working there, shopping there – all the things you have in a healthy, normal city – in order for it not to be an abandoned, vacant hole in the middle of town.”
The city itself led a three-month community consultation process with residents and service providers in the DTES, in order to envision what they thought Woodward’s should become and to get the community to buy-in to the project. Then, following their success at the competition stage, Henriquez Partners began their own consultation phase, meeting monthly and bringing together a group of people who had previously often conflicted, including poverty-based groups, residence associations, and Business Improvement Associations (BIAs).
“We went through all the issues from ground-up as we went through the project.” Henriquez explains. “And they were at the end of the day the group that was responsible for pushing the planning department to allow us to build more density.” This was due to a concern that there would not be enough activity or people on the site to populate it at all times of the day and night – ultimately resulting in the design’s multiple towers.
Henriquez’s concerns for the viability of the project continued, however, worrying that while any businesses, organizations, or groups who indicated that they wanted to be a part of the project would be welcomed, they might not come once the project was built – whether it be the National Film Board or a drug store. “But everyone, at the end of the day, showed up. Even the city came down, and they moved social planning down there… as well as federal offices,” Henriquez says proudly. And in doing so, it is evident that Henriquez believes they were able to regenerate the site in a way that was socially inclusive while still economically sustainable.
Development for the Greater Good
While Woodward’s was meant to be a practice in social good through architecture, Henriquez is quick to explain the positive lessons he took away from the project in the art of working with developers – having not worked with one prior to Woodward’s. One such lesson for Henriquez is that there exists the opportunity to start creating mutually beneficial bridges between the often profit-driven world of development and people-focused, not-for-profit-based community groups and city functions to facilitate partnerships, affirming, “I think it is a very powerful way to start to do good.”
But the criticisms for Woodward’s have continued. When asked why he thinks this has been the case, Henriquez answers frankly, saying that of those who were on the initial committee, about two-thirds have been happy with the results, while the other third believe that the change happened too quickly, with the project becoming a victim of its own success.
“It was too successful,” Henriquez claims, almost ironically. “In the course of the four or five years since we opened, the entire three block radius [around the site] has gone through a sort of renaissance in some people’s eyes, in the sense that you have dozens of incredible restaurants, services, and retail stores opening up. In other people’s eyes the change has been too fast, and much too affluent for some of the more humble people who are struggling in the neighbourhood.”
Henriquez continues, “I always say that as a model it’s perfect. If every project was that inclusive, if every project had 40% social housing, it would be a beautiful world. In terms of model of scale, maybe its not appropriate all the time – it’s a little big – but it was necessary at the time to give an adrenaline shot to the body so that it would come back to life. We had to really kick-start things. None of us had any idea it would be as successful as it was. We were all worried no one would buy a condo… [But] it had the zeitgeist of the city at the right time. People really wanted to be a part of change and something good.”
The problem for Henriquez, therefore, lies in the reality that other developers have begun to see the DTES as a highly profitable and marketable location for those seeking “an alternative place to live.” This is resulting in mass displacement and social shifts in the neighbourhood, and has required the city to create the Downtown Eastside Local Area Community Plan to better control development in the neighbourhood. The plan, which is meant to help improve the lives of the DTES’ most marginalized residents, was officially implemented in March 2014 and includes a section pertaining to the built form, land-use and place-making of the community over the next 30 years.
In regards to gentrification and development specifically, the plan acknowledges that the area requires a “thoughtful and balanced approach which means regulating, supporting, and encouraging development that benefits the existing community (including low-income residents), while allowing the area to evolve over time. This enables reaching the goal of ‘revitalization without displacement.’” At a tangible level, this includes only allowing rezoning to be considered for projects which include 100 percent social housing or which conserve heritage buildings, as well as ensuring that parks are programmed to be welcoming to all, “[recognizing] the importance of the park as an ‘urban room’ that serves the DTES community.”
This is in addition to strict guidelines on building heights, densities, and lot sizes, with a focus on maintaining a vibrant and pedestrianized street life. The report, however, also details recommendations for topics including community well-being, housing and arts and culture, among many others, indicating a holistic approach to the concerns of gentrification within delicately balanced communities.
Yet with Woodward’s market-rate condos now being worth hundreds of thousands of dollars more than originally purchased for, it is hard to determine whether this is an indication of its own success or a part of the larger social changes happening in the community, and which Woodward’s redevelopment most likely quick-started.
But for Henriquez, the good outweighs the bad. “I see it as part of the continuum of the role this large site played in the Downtown Eastside, but I also think it’s legacy is a model of inclusivity,” he maintains, believing that we need to avoid both “enclaves of poverty” and “enclaves of exclusivity.” He continues, “In our country we always aspire to inclusivity but we don’t always articulate it in our built form. We segregate.” And for Henriquez it is deep-pocket developers who may be able to help rectify this condition.
Five Years On
Ultimately, when asked about his thoughts on the project at its almost five-year mark Henrqiuez reflects: “I am very happy with the four years. I think the debate’s healthy. I think the building’s doing well… I am very excited about it. As long as everyone stays engaged in the debate, and stays engaged in trying to make the space work, I think it has a lot of potential.”
And the debates will continue, with many questions still surrounding both the actual and perceived effects of gentrification and the physical or social displacement it often results in. For while Woodward’s seemingly took these concerns into consideration, the momentum it has created in the DTES has since resulted in less socially-minded developments coming in for the profit-rich environment created in Woodward’s wake, and which are rapidly shifting the demographics of the neighbourhood.
But the alternatives are hard to think of when you consider the previous state of the site in decay and the social good that has come from the project. From the inclusivity of its various housing units, to its communal spaces used to host community dinners, as well as venues for non-profits and the arts, the architecture of Woodward’s Redevelopment has taken a respectful backseat to its socially minded programming, planning and initiatives.
Either way, there is no doubting that it has, indeed, become “a lightning rod for community activism.” And the next five years are sure to only continue the debates that surround one of Canada’s most sensitive yet resilient urban neighbourhoods, with Woodward’s always on the periphery.
Kristen Gagnon is the Ottawa editor for Spacing Magazine, a Canadian urban issues publication. She is also completing a PhD focusing on the current conditions and possible crisis in popular architecture criticism.