Vancouver’s most inviting atrium

A neighborhood (or “neighbourhood” in Canadian) called the Downtown Eastside (DTES) borders Vancouver’s sparkling downtown peninsula to its east. It is the poorest postal code in Vancouver. A Gastown tourist who strays a couple blocks east on Hastings into the DTES will surely do a quick 180.

The 43-story central tower of Woodward’s. In the foreground is the Dominion Building, Vancouver’s first steel-framed high-rise. A contemporary of the original Woodward’s, it was constructed between 1906 and 1910.

Located at a pivotal corner in Gastown where the DTES ends and downtown Vancouver begins is the most welcoming building atrium I’ve ever seen. It is directly below the “W 43” condo tower of Woodward’s, which towers 43 floors above the corner of Abbott & Hastings.

Woodwards’ atrium–truly a place for everyone

While at the world’s largest placemaking conference in Vancouver last September, I heard several internationally recognized urban planners raving about the place, so I checked out the project in detail after the conference concluded.

Beautiful central tower of Woodwards; it rises straight up over the central indoor-outdoor public space. NOTE: on some browsers, this preview might be sideways, but the full version, which is well worth the click to see if the preview is sideways, should be correctly rendered.

Granted, Woodward’s was *already* on my “must-see” list of places in Vancouver, along with several “Country Lane” places (which might be featured in a future post!) that are known only by almost no one outside the Vancouver placemaking world. As you can tell by now, I never post about places that are on tourists’ radars. 🙂

My Vancouver notes for this trip had the following as my Woodward’s entry: “A game-changing building that Brent Toderian shows every visiting chief planner.” If one of my biggest urban planning heroes shows it to top planners from all over the world, that’s all I needed to know!

View of the atrium from the top of the spiral staircase

I was blown away; I had never before seen an atrium like this. Within or directly connected to the multi-story atrium are, for starters: a neighborhood grocer, interactive art exhibits, numerous places to sit, a daycare center, a piano that anyone can play, W2 Community Media Arts (which includes a café, meeting space, an arts society and Co-op Radio), a drugstore, other nonprofit offices, a bank, the National Film Board of Canada, and Simon Fraser University’s new School for Contemporary Arts. Plus, there are great overhead views to the tower–part of its abundant natural daylight.

An extension of Simon Fraser University’s downtown Vancouver campus, the new School for Contemporary Arts, is directly connected to the atrium.

Just as importantly, the atrium is part of a block-long public right-of-way intentionally located at a key center for the community. One of my favorite features of any dense urban environment is a car-free mid-block thoroughfare, as seen in Vancouver’s West End or Portland’s Pearl District. But Woodward’s takes the concept much further (beyond even the typical European model); it incorporates such a thoroughfare at the very heart of a $400 million multi-tower development. Its multi-purpose public space is the true centerpiece of the project, ensuring its long-term role as a place for ongoing discourse about a myriad of urban challenges.

A graceful, car-free connection from atrium to the outdoors that more cities in temperate climates should have

Large-scale redevelopments of historic urban neighborhoods are occurring in every city I visit, and they’re increasingly featuring these beautiful pedestrian thoroughfares. But this was the first such project I’ve ever seen that did *not* feel like it catered only to those who spend considerably on dining and entertainment.

Hive Sweet Social Impact and Sole Food Street Farms are two of many great nonprofits located in or near Woodward’s. Sole Food Street Farms is featured in a wonderful podcast episode by Chris and Melissa Bruntlett:

Even the atrium’s stairs were designed with community regeneration and literal uplifting of spirit in mind. The “rebirth stair” intentionally resembles an umbilical cord, and the top of the spiral staircase offers a great view. Key parts of the original building were restored in the atrium, as well, and they’re incorporated into the nonprofit spaces.

The atrium’s famous “umbilical” spiral staircase

I also love that these communal spaces are mainly covered; after all, it does rain on occasion in Vancouver. 🙂 But the ends of the atrium are totally open-air, which also makes sense, because Vancouver’s climate is quite mild.

Natural light fills the entire indoor-outdoor atrium and simultaneously provides great views and protection from the rain

When I was there, a colorful 25-by-25-foot map of Vancouver covered the circular concrete area at the atrium’s center. Artist Marcus Hynes created the map for the city’s first-ever POP (Power Of Placemaking) Crawl , the *amazing* treasure-hunting, music-filled final event of our conference—surely the greatest grand finale of any conference I’ve ever attended.

625-square-foot map of Vancouver neighborhoods, a starting point for many conversations about housing and other socioeconomic issues.

Never one to tire of urban adventure, I was probably the only one of the 1500 attendees (and thousands more from the public) to have all 47 places stamped on his POP Crawl passport. 🙂 The story and amazing pictures from that event alone (including the incredible alley visited by many Pro Walk Pro Bike attendees) might make a fascinating post!

Robson Square, the launch point of the inaugural POP Crawl created in honor of Placemaking Week. Look for balloons and music at each spot, and don’t forget to get your passport stamped!

I saw every race and challenge (income/physical/social/etc) imaginable while spending considerable time at Woodward’s, although they were not captured here out of respect for their privacy. I could clearly see that this was a place where anyone could safely wander to and through. I enjoyed sharing turns at the piano with an Asian woman and a young African American man; I can’t walk by a piano and not test it out. 🙂

It was fun taking turns playing the piano with various folks coming in and out of the space

Experiencing the incredible connectivity and welcome feel of this public space made me wonder how other large urban mixed-use projects could incorporate such a welcome, covered space for all who enter. I have since read a lot about Woodward’s redevelopment, and it was *much* more complicated than I thought, but it still shows what can be done to provide “places for everyone” in incredibly expensive, rapidly gentrifying cities. But first, here’s some history to put it all in perspective.

A very abridged history of Woodward’s and its redevelopment

Now a complex of several towers, Woodward’s was originally built between 1903 and 1908; it was Vancouver’s premiere shopping destination a century ago. Several of Vancouver’s most beautiful historic skyscrapers are nearby and were also built in the early 20th century.

The Sun Tower, completed in 1912, is a view-corridor-protected landmark two blocks due south of Woodward’s

A still-famous icon that was fortunately saved in its redevelopment is the “W” sign that was placed on top of one of the buildings in 1944. Surely contributing to its landmark status is that the “W” actually rested atop a model of the Eiffel Tower. Most of the original Woodward’s was demolished, but key parts of the 1903-08 building were saved, along with the “W” neon sign and, of course, the Eiffel Tower model.

In the foreground is the original neon “W.” In the background is a new “W” that’s been placed on top of the historic scale model of the Eiffel Tower.

Speaking of which, here are two little-known facts: 1) the 25-meter Eiffel Tower model is exactly 1/12th scale (though not an exact scale replica), and 2) Philadelphia’s City Hall would have been the tallest structure on Earth, but it took so many years to build that the taller Eiffel Tower and Washington Monument were completed first.

Anyway, being in the increasingly challenging Downtown Eastside, Woodward’s sat vacant for decades, save for a housing occupation that ended up jump-starting its redevelopment. The 2002 “Woodward’s Squat” was a three-month-long occupation of the site by affordable housing activists. Under pressure from them and from City Hall’s newly elected Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE), the City bought the provincially owned land in 2003. City Council member Jim Green (who died in 2012, two years after the project’s completion) asked the DTES community how they wanted it redeveloped.

This is just outside Woodward’s, where Gastown meets the DTES. Downtown Vancouver’s physically protected cycle track network is expanding rapidly; it’s surprisingly safe to bike from nearly any location downtown or even the West End all the way to the DTES. And with Skytrains arriving every 3 minutes at many stations, car-free living is becoming increasingly appealing in Vancouver.

The housing portion of the $400 million project includes 536 market housing units, 125 furnished apartments reserved for low-income singles, and 75 large units reserved for families, 80% of which are rented at highly subsidized rates.

Both residents of the multi-tower project and the general public have direct access to many services, nonprofits, meeting spaces and other amenities

It’s important to keep in mind how unusual such a development is; it contains many housing units reserved for among the poorest and most afflicted residents of Vancouver, in by far the poorest part of town—in what’s otherwise a high-end project. And it’s not just any subsidized housing project; fully two thirds of the 200 affordable units rent for housing shelter rates, which are lower than those of single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels in the DTES.

Many Woodward’s residents formerly lived in SRO hotels, which were so dangerous that people often preferred to sleep outside. One new resident shared in an interview with Tyee Solutions Society how much she now enjoys walking into friends’ rooms down the hall; she reports not having a single thing stolen since moving to Woodward’s. A man interviewed said that the move was “transformative,” continuing that it “totally changed my life. I didn’t have to fight anymore. I wasn’t sitting in my room listening to people conspiring to kill other people, making weapons, thinking they were going to come for me. Now I leave my door open and nobody will go into my room. I have my own space. I cook now, and cook whatever I want.”

Many signs of encouragement were sprinkled throughout the public realm. Public dialogues on housing and other socioeconomic issues are encouraged.

Another resident, who suffers from bipolar disorder and PTSD, expressed the same gratitude about finally feeling safe again. Many residents reported being able to finally catch up on sleep.

Every severely low-income resident is checked by staff, either in-person, over the phone, or on a security camera, at least once every day. Some residents understandably don’t like the intrusive nature of these check-ups, but longtime building manager Jerry Abbott-Brown says that many lives have already been saved through these room checks.

The entire perimeter of the 43rd floor is lined by trees. Several Vancouver skyscrapers are adorned with trees.

In order to meet a myriad of financial, historical, cultural, psychological and other demands (I could go into more detail about this and all the ongoing controversies, but the post would easily triple in length), the project was built with enough density to ensure a good flow of people and activity both day and night.

It was designed by Vancouver-based Henriquez Partners Architects. In a 2014 interview with ArchDaily, Gregory Henriquez worried 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. “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 has been very pleased with his project, and he believes that the site was redeveloped in a socially inclusive way while remaining economically sustainable.

Henriquez also is quick to point out some great lessons he took away in working with developers. One is that there are opportunities to create mutually beneficial partnerships between the profit-focused development world and people-focused nonprofit community groups, as well as the City.

Clearly no major civic project comes without major criticism, and Woodward’s is no exception. A few people on Henriquez’s committee have found change happening too quickly—the classic “victim of its own success.” And it is true that many blocks surrounding the site have seen major renovations, causing fears of rapid gentrification. And there are complaints that the project’s grocery store is not for low-income people, among other complaints regarding both subtle and outright prejudice toward low-income residents.

Gentrification is visible in the very shadow of Woodward’s. This is a lunch scene at the base of the 43-story tower, right next to the iconic neon “W” that marks the project’s center.

Henriquez stands behind his project, though: “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 it’s 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. I see it as part of the continuum of the role this large site played in the Downtown Eastside, but I also think its legacy is a model of inclusivity.”

While fascinating new places are rapidly opening up in the blocks surrounding Woodward’s (this is a block away), Vancouver will always be a highly international city. Hopefully its income diversity and inclusivity can start to match its racial and other diversity.

Henriquez also affirmed his strong desire to avoid both “enclaves of poverty” and “enclaves of exclusivity.” His interview concluded, “In our country we always aspire to inclusivity but we don’t always articulate it in our built form. We segregate.”

And for good measure: a couple of alley shots. What do you think about repurposing them?

Just to inspire some additional thoughts, here are a couple of interesting alley pictures. The first is an existing alley a block away from Woodward’s:

And a few blocks to the west, at the northeast edge of downtown proper, is a re-imagined alley behind 450 Granville Street that was probably the favorite spot of the POP Crawl:

Is re-enlivening/re-activating these alleys a good thing? I happen to love them; I’m a *huge* fan of the “Laneways” in Melbourne, Australia. I could do many posts on this topic alone.

But…Do these newly activated, super popular alleys merely accelerate gentrification in places like the DTES, which (being a very historic neighborhood) is full of alleys with potential such as this? Is this the natural course of popular big cities? What do you think?

And would you like me to do a separate post on Vancouver Placemaking Week? I only took about 3000 pictures that week. 🙂

Bye for now! 🙂

6 thoughts on “Vancouver’s most inviting atrium”

  1. Thank you, Tim, for your excellent article on the Woodwards Building. I shopped there for many years until it closed and I’ve watched it change over the years. By the way, the DTES neighbourhood is not only the poorest postal code in Vancouver, it’s the poorest postal code in all of Canada or at least it used to be.

    By the way, it was Bill Cooper who turned me on to your blog.

    Leanne Egerton

    1. Thank you so much for your comments, Leanne! Your question is perfect and timely. I originally had included more detail about the DTES postal code, along with many other details, but they were deleted; I feared that my post was already getting far too long.

      So, to answer your question: There are technically some poorer postal codes in Canada, but at last check, the DTES has the poorest postal code of all large (minimum 3000 residents) postal codes found in any urban area in Canada. Granted, the DTES is changing rapidly, and it’s a continual source of fascinating, important discussion among residents throughout Vancouver and beyond.

      And Bill Cooper is our mutual connection? That is very cool! His skills combining writing for the Web and presenting complex data in extremely approachable ways are unmatched. Even world-renowned website critic Gerry McGovern is no Bill Cooper. 🙂

  2. Tim,
    I love reading about these places I’ve never been, and the tourist guides often omit. Not too surprised that you hit all 47 of the POP Crawl destinations. Keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks so much, Jane! Yeah, I didn’t really intend to hit all 47 POP Crawl places, but it was so fun that I just kept going! For some reason, I’ve always had endless energy and enthusiasm when exploring cities. And I’m now realizing that all these years of researching, exploring, photographing and documenting in detail some of my favorite unsung people-friendly places–and now finally starting the process of summarizing these discoveries on this site–might hopefully inspire us to create similarly amazing places where we live.

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