Jocelyn Brennan Peirce: Is the CMHC capable of managing a cultural asset like Granville Island?

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      By Jocelyn Brennan Peirce

      Since the 1970s, Granville Island has been managed by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). The CMHC is its steward, not its owner. The Island itself is federal public land—an urban park belonging to the people of Canada.

      For many years, Granville Island was a success. It became an international model for exciting, mixed-use urban development. Many places around the world have tried to re-create Granville Island’s magic, but few have succeeded in replicating such a unique and vibrant public space.

      A big part of the island’s early success was its creative mandate and supportive leadership. In my opinion, however, the secret to its magic lies largely with the community of stakeholders who animate the Island. The sense of camaraderie and mutual investment on Granville Island is palpable even today. Those who live, work, and play there are passionate about the Island’s promise.

      A creative mandate and passionate community, however, are not enough to sustain a place like Granville Island, and for many years it has diminished under neglect from its stewards—the CMHC. The early vision and supportive management culture are long gone. What was once a destination for local and international creative visitors has become a ghost of its former self: an underperforming retail district filled with tourist chachkas and conspicuously empty spaces.

      The community did its best to combat this decline. Master printmakers became radical rabble rousers; sculpture artists became governance experts; concrete supervisors became mediators; and paint makers became community advocates. Together, they worked to identify the issues with Granville Island and advocated for renewed investment in the land.

      The former Emily Carr University North Building on Granville Island, touted by CMHC as an “Arts & Innovation Hub” that will house “a mix of arts-focused and innovative organizations”.
      Wikimedia Commons

      The end result of the community’s cries for help was the commissioning of the Granville Island 2040 plan. Initially, it was an inspiring process, and the community supported CMHC in its renewed interest in the island. They participated meaningfully in a long series of consultations, and they allowed themselves to believe that the process would lead to a positive outcome for the island. The plan itself is quite forward-thinking and inspiring to those who care about Granville Island. The CMHC under CEO Evan Siddall, as well as federal Families, Children and Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, should be applauded for commissioning a process that generated such an ingenious document.

      Since the 2040 plan was published, however, life has become quite difficult for those same Granville Islanders who advocated for their community in the first place. Some of them, labelled as “troublemakers” by new management, have been subjected to lengthy lease negotiations, forced renovations, and temporary business closures. At the same time, CMHC’s efforts to enact the 2040 plan have brought the island unaffordable and poorly reviewed cuisine, a new chain restaurant, and more empty space.

      In the past year, the island has lost several organizations that seemed to fulfill the 2040 Plan’s mandate. These organizations include: the Gallery of B.C. Ceramics, which was a leader in hosting “pop-up” events featuring young artists and diverse audiences; the Granville Island Cultural Society, which had diverse and innovative programming and was one of the few on-Island organizations to have strong relationships with First Nations groups; and, most prominently, Emily Carr University of Art + Design, which was a vital and vibrant part of Granville Island’s creative community.

      The loss of these islanders is deeply felt by the community. More are currently in peril, and we expect that the list of organizations to leave the island or dissolve will grow if nothing is done to change the way management deals with the community.

      One of the things to come out of the Granville Island 2040 Plan process was a new mission statement for the Island: “To steward this public land for meaningful urban and social experimentation among diverse, creative, cultural, and business models, engaging local First Nations and communities while welcoming the world.”

      This is a lofty and inspiring goal for the island, and one which the community supports. It is apparent to many of us, however, that CMHC’s consistent disregard for innovative thinking in favour of conformity and safe financial bets makes them wholly unable to connect with “diverse, creative” groups or individuals, and we’ve seen no meaningful effort whatsoever to connect with First Nations.

      At a time when the city of Vancouver is crying out for a cultural land reserve, how long will we allow a lack of vision to prevent Granville Island, which belongs to each of us, from filling this need? How can we, as Vancouverites and Canadians, allow an urban park zoned for mixed-use experimentation to be held hostage by a group of individuals who would see it become a shopping mall? Who can we call on to provide meaningful oversight and accountability into how Granville Island is run? Is anyone even listening?

      Granville Island belongs to all of us. It has the capacity to fill real needs for Vancouver and for Canada itself. Under the current management model, however, it will never be able to achieve its mission. It’s time for all of us to stand up and demand that CMHC hand over leadership to a new, empowered, and transparent governance body that is willing and able to make something meaningful and inclusive happen on this weird little piece of public land.

      It’s time for CMHC to either step up or step aside.

      Jocelyn Brennan Peirce is a former vice president of the Granville Island Business and Community Association and a lifelong Granville Islander.