Granville Street’s new beat
Waide Luciak has seen Granville Street go through plenty of ups and downs over the past quarter-century. When he bought the historic Yale Hotel shortly after Expo 86, it was on one of Vancouver’s seediest strips. This was before luxury condos were constructed across Yaletown, before the creation of the city’s entertainment district, even before Hong Kong–based billionaire Li Ka-shing built his first shiny high-rise on the north shore of False Creek.
In those days, the 900-to-1300-block stretch of Granville Street was Vancouver’s version of the downtrodden Parisian neighbourhood of Pigalle. Most noteworthy for its street kids, prostitution, porn shops, and occasional biker hangout, it was then known as Downtown South.
In an interview with the Georgia Straight inside the Yale’s blues bar, Luciak recalls doing a brisk business in the first five years of owning the hotel, before things started to wane. “We noticed that over the years, the business really became a little bit slower and slower,” he says.
Meanwhile, down the street, the Commodore Ballroom ran into severe financial trouble in the early 1990s, eventually forcing out its popular owner, Drew Burns. It was a far cry from the Granville Street of today, which is home to trendy restaurants, funky retailers, crowded nightclubs, and a growing number of street festivals.
Last month, Vancouver city council approved the Telus Garden mixed-used development, which will include a 45-storey residential tower in the block bounded by Seymour, West Georgia, Richards, and Robson streets. This will add more people to the neighbourhood. At the southern end of the strip, next door to the Yale, Rize Alliance is building a 187-unit, 23-storey tower. Across the street and behind the Best Western Hotel, Cressey Development is proceeding with a 193-unit, 32-storey development called Maddox.
That’s just the beginning. The city also plans to remove the “Granville loops”—two on-ramps connecting Pacific Street to the bridge—which will free up land for a new streetscape and new high-rises. That’s in addition to the Mark, Onni Group’s 47-storey residential tower being built behind the Yale on Seymour Street.
“Great public streets need population supports—they need anchors on either side, to move people back and forth,” the city’s director of planning, Brent Toderian, tells the Straight over the phone. “There is a lot of learning over generations in North America on how to make a great street like Granville work. Telus [Garden] and the Granville loops are an important part of that.”
All this follows a $20.8-million facelift to Granville Street completed just before the 2010 Games. This resulted in wider and fancier sidewalks, new lighting, and a rejigging of the block north of Smithe Street to create a public plaza.
“The Olympics, of course, transformed the perception of Granville Street and its role within the downtown,” Toderian points out. “It became more than ever the living room of the downtown. So we want to do everything we can to enhance that with additional population in the area.”
The executive director of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, Charles Gauthier, tells the Straight by phone that buskers on the street, including rapper Marc Stokes, have injected an urban flavour. He adds that the VIVA Vancouver program, which transformed part of the road space into a pedestrian zone this summer, also lured more people to the area. “We get a lot of inquiries from people who want to do festivals and events on Granville Street,” Gauthier says.
He sees potential for conflict in the future between new residents and what he calls the "night-life economy." However, Gauthier adds that the clubs at the southern end of the strip where much of the development will occur, such as Ginger 62 and the Morrissey, have a different energy than those north of Nelson Street.
Meanwhile, Vancouver retail consultant Phil Boname says Granville Street was held back for many years because city planners decided to create a pedestrian mall and transit corridor without vehicular traffic, which was modelled on a similar experiment in Minneapolis. “We have found in many of our studies that converting a downtown street into a transit corridor does not necessarily work for the advantage of commercial interests,” he says by phone, quickly adding that this approach also doesn’t create a “social success”.
In 1997, Boname wrote a report for the City of Vancouver recommending several changes to breathe new economic life into Granville Street. He says he’s pleased to see more mixed-use development, but regrets that the city didn’t embark on a design competition to create a “glamorous” gateway at the bridge head into downtown. At the same time, he believes that the Canada Line, which was completed in 2009, will lure more major retailers to the strip.
“The corner of Robson and Granville will become increasingly powerful,” the consultant says. Then he tosses in a prediction that the Sears store will vacate this location within five years because its sales-per-square-foot ratio isn’t high enough to justify remaining in such a prime spot.
Sherman Scott, associate vice president of retail with Colliers International in Vancouver, tells the Straight by phone that lease rates are increasing along Granville Street. But they're still significantly lower than along Robson Street, where some are paying $200 per square foot.
"The highest deals I've seen on Granville Street are around $60 a square foot," Scott says. In an aside, he notes that he has never in his life seen so many vacancies on Robson Street.