Vancouver residents are getting a chance to give their input this week on the design of a prominent public gathering space in the city’s core.
The north plaza of the Vancouver Art Gallery is slated for excavation to repair the waterproof membrane protecting the facility’s storage vault. As part of the redevelopment set to begin next year, the city is looking at revamping the design of the popular space, which is frequently home to demonstrations and other events.
At an open house this evening (October 1) and another on Saturday (October 5), the public is getting a glimpse at three different design concepts for the site, which is bordered by West Georgia, Hornby, and Howe streets.
Matthew Soules, whose architecture firm is one of four partners on the design team led by Nick Milkovich Architects, said all three designs propose a hard surface for the area that is now covered by bark mulch.
“Part of our work is how do we make the plaza as successful for as wide diversity of use as possible, and we think that having a nice, attractive hard surface on the ground will help facilitate that,” Soules said in a phone interview, noting that this kind of surface is seen in public spaces the design team visited in Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
Another common feature among the three conceptual designs is the removal of the fountain that currently exists in the centre of the north plaza.
“We looked very closely at the size of the plaza, the size of the fountain, its position, and came up with the conclusion that the fountain in its current location makes the space very challenging to use for many types of events,” said Soules.
The design concepts also propose the incorporation of a small pavilion on the east side of plaza to allow for a café-like element, and an increased amount of seating, from benches to the potential for moveable seats or tables.
Another component the public is being asked to weigh in on is the potential incorporation of some form of water element in the plaza. Design proposals range from a long fountain along West Georgia Street, to a flexible option that could see fountains rise out of the pavement in a circular pattern.
Lighting is also a central element of the three conceptual designs, Soules added, with options including a circular ring that would hang above the plaza and could be lit differently depending on events.
The architect noted that the concepts are all “long-term visions” for the plaza, with elements that could be phased in over time.
“The first phase of the plaza installation will occur starting next summer,” said Soules. “But then we’re developing the concepts of how at later dates things will be potentially added to it to achieve...the best possible vision for Vancouver’s most prominent, well-used public space.”
The design team, which consists of lead architect Nick Milkovich, Hapa Collaborative, Matthew Soules Architecture and Urban Forum Associates, will incorporate the feedback received during the open houses, and through an online survey that has been launched, into the final plan.
The budget for the redevelopment is $3.2 million, according to Kevin McNaney, Vancouver’s assistant director of planning.
The project is taking place as the city continues to study the possibility of a permanent pedestrian plaza on the south side of the art gallery. Soules said that as the future of the south side of the building is unknown, the architects tried to develop a concept for the north plaza that would fit any scenario.
"We’re thinking about what happens on the plaza itself, we’re thinking about all the neighbouring buildings, and then the larger three blocks of Robson Square, of which 800-block Robson is one part," he said. "So in some ways, we’re kind of imagining that the redesign of this plaza space represents a sort of completion, so to speak, of the whole Robson Square precinct.”
McNaney said the city’s objective is to ensure that events can continue to take place at the plaza.
The site has hosted events such as the Vancouver International Jazz Festival and gatherings during the 2010 Winter Olympics, and is frequently used for protests. In 2011, Occupy Vancouver demonstrators set up a tent city on the lawn.
“Things like the jazz fest and various food fests all happen within that area,” McNaney told the Straight by phone. “It’s an important public gathering space, so it’s a function we’re interested in maintaining.”
Soules sees the north plaza as a site that has the potential to become the “outdoor living room” of Vancouver.
“We believe that public space is a very important component in a democratic society, and a really great public space should be open to an incredibly wide range of different uses, by different types of people, for different reasons,” he said. “So we’re trying to make something that is open and adaptable and flexible for everything from a large protest, to having lunch with a friend, and everything in between."
Today’s open house will run until 8:30 p.m. at UBC Robson Square’s Plaza Lounge. A second event will be held at the same location on Saturday (October 5) from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m.