The Woodward’s Experiment

September 1, 2009

From his book-crammed office on the sixth floor of the Dominion Building on Hastings, Jim Green has monitored the reinvention of Woodward’s. If Woodward’s is anyone’s baby, it’s his. Beginning in 1985 (five years before the store was shuttered), Green led the community lobby for its transformation into a complex that would draw all elements of the city into one mixed-use mecca. His opening came in 2003 as the province, which owned the land, was trying to get a reticent COPE city council to sign off on the Olympic bid. When Gordon Campbell asked how he could get council’s support for the 2010 Games, Green, a COPE kingpin, gave a list. One element: “I need Woodward’s.” The deal they struck: the City bought the whole block for $5.5 million. (It was valued at four times that.) And somewhere in there, the Olympics got a new tag: “The inclusive Olympics.” Green believes the urban experiment that followed will be mimicked in other cities. “I’ve studied this for a long time,” he says, “and there’s nothing like this anywhere in the world.”

At the fractious joint between the Downtown Eastside and the posh towers to its west, architect Gregory Henriquez has designed a new kind of urban hub. In its conjoined towers are one million square feet of market and non-market homes, government and nonprofit offices, a contemporary art school for SFU, a grocery store and other retailers, and a childcare facility. On one city block, this microcosm of the city wreathes a central courtyard that has the potential of a train station. “The whole city should be mixed-use,” Henriquez says. “Anything less is a tragic mistake. Human lives are not meant to exist in compartments.”

In one complex, lower-income residents have bicycle-friendly access off Hastings; wealthier residents, in the W tower, have their own entrance on Cordova and will lounge on their rooftop in a W-shaped jacuzzi that echoes the historic Woodward’s signage; and 10 units have been designed for those with physical disabilities. They will all rub elbows in the central pedestrian mall. One might wonder whether this arrangement rejects ghettos and gentrification or merely represents the most pragmatic form of them. Happiness theory suggests that people get miserable when class distinctions are thrown in their faces, but “Woodward’s extends happiness theory,” says Henriquez, “to challenge each of us to look into the face of the other and see yourself in it.”

Imagine Mrs. Hicks, say, who lives on the 22nd floor of the W tower and descends in need of cilantro from the Woodward’s grocery. Crossing the courtyard, she smiles at six-year-old Shaadi, who has learned more English by playing here than his father can speak; she passes beneath Stan Douglas’s epic mural depicting the Gastown Riots; she is overtaken by teenagers exiting the art school, noisily discussing sex. Buying her groceries, Mrs. Hicks chats with her bank teller, who lives with his three children in a non-market unit. Then she shuttles back up to the 22nd floor. Nothing so extraordinary has taken place. Or has it? Even the millions of nods of recognition to oft-seen nameless neighbours must have some effect. Such proximity might keep us from abdicating social responsibility as often as we do.

Our invented Mrs. Hicks is only one of 6,000 disparate people expected to crowd the courtyard every day. That much body heat can sound combustive. Realtor Bob Rennie was told he could never sell the 536 kitted-out condos that offset the 200 social-housing units. “I said, ‘Be bold or move to suburbia.’ I dared them to live there.” When the condos went on sale, would-be buyers lined up overnight.

There’s a book on Henriquez called Towards an Ethical Architecture, and it has this epigraph: “Architecture must be a poetic expression of social justice.” Architects, in fact, don’t have to do anything. Nor do developers. (The Woodward’s developer, Ian Gillespie, told Henriquez that Woodward’s was 10 percent of his business but took up 50 percent of his staff’s time.) The confluence of activism and vision that brought Woodward’s together is a unique trial, not everyday city-making. And yet, now that it’s done in steel and glass, it looks perfectly natural, like the elemental will of a city. And—who knew?—it’s beautiful. Anyone would be drawn to amble through the diagonal courtyard, a road without cars that leads us at last through a multitude of urban experiences where once there was a single behemoth of a building.

Former city planner Larry Beasley said that Woodward’s has been a spiritual awakening for Henriquez. What the architect has built, says Beasley, “is a complete manifestation of this city’s ethos. And this was the hardest possible site for that.” It happened farther east than any yuppie was expected to buy, and farther west than any SRO was expected to be built.

Cynics will ask whether members of radically different classes want to shop together, eat together, live together. Realists will reply that we have no choice but to shop, eat, live together—the divisions our cities sometimes aspire to are unsustainable, even unethical. Either way, Woodward’s begins its new life as a massive social experiment. The abutted populations that it houses will either embrace or disdain each other; we’ll find out which by the argument of use.

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