Downtown Vancouver has experienced astonishing changes during the past three decades. In the early 1990s, Gastown was one of the least desirable areas, filled with empty office space and dogged by a dismal retail landscape. But the redevelopment of Woodward’s helped turn things around.
Today, Gastown is Vancouver’s premier high-tech haven. The neighbourhood is also home to some of the city’s hippest restaurants, bars, and shops.
Yaletown underwent a similar transformation. Once a warehouse district known mostly for its street-level sex trade, it’s now a centre for fine dining and expensive merchandise.
Now there are plans to try to do a makeover of a similar magnitude on the section of Granville Street between Robson Street and the bridge.
Charles Gauthier, president and CEO of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, recently told the Georgia Straight that there’s an opportunity for neighbourhood renewal with the arrival of Sony Pictures Imageworks, Microsoft, and Nordstrom in the former Sears store.
He said that with 2,500 employees in the building, this could be a catalyst in converting the Granville Entertainment District into the city’s newest high-tech hub.
There are another 2,000 employees not far away in Telus Garden. And 52,000 people live within a 10-minute walk of the downtown portion of Granville.
“We realize there are some challenges on the street; I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Gauthier said by phone. “We have 20 vacancies in that stretch between Robson and Drake.”
Loss of cinema screens hurt the street
In November 2012, the closure of the Empire Granville 7 movie theatres in the 800 block reduced street vitality. Gauthier suggested that this building could be transformed into offices for tech workers wanting to be near Microsoft and Sony Pictures Imageworks.
The DVBIA has studied what is necessary to make Granville Street more appealing to this sector. According to Gauthier, the entertainment district needs more indie coffee shops, restaurants, and retailers.
The DVBIA’s research also indicated that tech companies prefer areas with more health-conscious businesses, such as juice bars and yoga studios, as well as grocery and convenience stores. Workers like drinking establishments that offer a chance to mingle, listen to live music, and sample craft beer.
"To some extent, the large-format canned-music nightclub, I think, is going to be going through an evolution," Gauthier predicted. "The people in that business seem to be confident that those buildings can be repurposed for something. I don't know what it will be yet."
He noted that progress is being made, albeit in small steps. Near the bridge, Spin Society has opened a new gym. In addition, there’s a new Hungry Guys Kitchen in the 900 block of Granville.
“I think there’s still going to be a need for Doolin’s and a Lennox [Pub],” Gauthier said. “I think those really appeal to a certain demographic. But can we start adding things that have been tried elsewhere?”
He’s noticed that independent businesses that have succeeded in other parts of Vancouver have recently opened second outlets in the downtown. As examples, Gauthier cited Tractor Foods and the clothing retailer 8th & Main.
“We look at that as an interesting trend that maybe fits in with that tech-strategy approach for Granville,” he said.
Another independent business, Railtown Cafe, opened in the Downtown Eastside in 2012. Its second outlet will be in the new Manulife office building at 980 Howe Street, one block from Granville Street. And the Cannibal Café opened its second outlet in the 400 block of Granville Street last year.
Granville transitioned from vaudeville to neon to nightclubs
Named after the colonial secretary of the British Empire, Granville Leveson-Gower, the thoroughfare grew into a major entertainment destination in the 1920s with the rise of vaudeville.
The street was then known around the world for its neon signage and became even more accessible with the completion of the Granville Street Bridge in 1954.
In the 1970s, however, the blocks south of Smithe Street fell on hard times as the new Pacific Centre Mall drew people away from the street. But the 800 block of Granville remained vibrant well into the 1990s, thanks to the Capitol 6 and Granville 7 movie theatres, the Commodore Ballroom, John Fluevog Shoes, and the now-defunct Granville Book Company.
In an effort to revive the 900 to 1200 blocks, the City of Vancouver concentrated liquor-licence seats in a revived entertainment district in the early 2000s. Although that energized the area at night, there is remarkably little foot traffic during the day.
The DVBIA has encouraged owners of buildings on Granville south of Robson to clean up graffiti and dirty windows in preparation for the street’s next evolutionary step.
“Part of the problem is that some of them are basically just waiting to sell the property,” Gauthier conceded.