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Vancouver's Heart Up for Grabs

Ground zero: QE Theatre

Shaping a $300 million arts district: Who decides? A special report.

By Adele Weder

Published: January 29, 2007

Downtown Vancouver is on the brink of a jaw-dropping transformation that few citizens know much about, but it will change life in the city forever.

The city, province and a handful of alpha-players in the arts scene are hammering out a scheme for a high-budget, architecturally spectacular arts district. The plans are gestating as we speak behind closed doors. If all goes well, within six months there will be an announcement that could finally shed Vancouver's reputation as merely a resort playground, and present the city as something of a cultural destination.

The question is: whose culture will it be?

The site in question is a two-block parcel of land next to the Vancouver Public Library, bounded by Georgia, Dunsmuir, Hamilton and Beatty streets. The city owns this land, and the aging Queen Elizabeth Theatre stands proudly on one block, but a lot of arts organizations are vying to plant spanking new edifices atop it. It will be Phase 1 of the city's ambitious "cultural precinct," a long-term plan to establish a concentration of respectable arts facilities, finally, in the centre of the city.

You can see the lay of the land yourself in a late-October city council report, co-authored by cultural manager Sue Harvey and cultural precinct manager Ken Dobell. The report is on a hard-to-find niche of the city website rather than on the roster of regular council meetings, but once found, it reveals both the complexity and the huge stakes behind the current in-camera talks.

As the council report notes, there are far more proposals for the site than money and space to accommodate them. Even if nothing much is said in public, the behind-the-scenes politicking is frenzied. This is a dogfight.

Culture on the block

The cultural precinct will be developed over a 15-year period, but there is already rough consensus for Phase 1. The three-point plan consists of:

1. Renovating the QE Theatre. (That's pretty straightforward.)

2. Establishing those two blocks as an "Olympic Live Site" to "showcase sports, arts, culture, the city and the future cultural precinct." (That gets a bit trickier.)

3.After 2010, building up the site with cultural facilities that are deemed "both viable and desirable" by the cultural-precinct planning process. (That's the trickiest.)

Number three is tricky because the whole concept of a "cultural precinct" has morphed a lot in the past year. Last April, the premier's office announced an impending "cultural precinct" championed by architect Bing Thom. Since then, Thom's original vision for a more decentralized collection of smaller institutions has been replaced with a focus on that two-block lot.

What concerns Thom is that a single cultural facility might end up grabbing the lion's share of the site, the public attention, and the funding. That facility, by the way, would be the Vancouver Art Gallery, whose ambitious, high-powered director is Kathleen Bartels.

Nothing's confirmed yet, say insiders, but momentum is building for an international design competition to design a brand-new, high-budget and spectacular VAG. (The rest of the lot will be filled in with a revamped QE Theatre, a government office tower and a handful of other cultural facilities. In the running, among others, are the National Aboriginal Art Gallery, Coal Harbour Arts Complex and the Asia-Pacific Museum of Trade and Culture.

Thom: Vancouver's different

Thom is still an aspiring participant in the new vision, but if the future VAG building is likely to be the centrepiece of the lot, it might end up shoving aside smaller institutions that would provide a broader cultural diversity for the area.

Thom worries that civic culture is sliding into the control of a few select, giant institutions that grab a dominant share of publicity and public money. He argues that as Vancouver grows, it is in danger of mimicking other North American metropolises in adopting the same dominant assumptions of what constitutes important culture: opera, symphony, art gallery.

But Vancouver culture is unique, argues Thom. For example, it's more informed by First Nations and Eastern Asian values than other metropolises, so we shouldn't necessarily adopt an a eye-stopping, starchitect-designed grand projet. The federal government maxes out its grants to cultural facilities at $30-million per institution; Thom wants the pie to be carved up in as many pieces as possible.

Who owns the VAG?

But if the power structure determines the program, and the VAG is the centrepiece project, we're in for some convoluted dealings, for the power structure of the VAG itself is a labyrinth.

The VAG's legal status is that of a charitable institution, not "owned" by anyone but rather existing for the benefit of others.

The actual building itself, though, is owned and managed by the City of Vancouver. But it currently sits on land owned by the provincial government (the onetime Supreme Court of B.C. -- which, in a stroke of irony, might end up housing the National Aboriginal Art Gallery). The VAG Board of Governors -- comprised mainly of A-list entrepreneurs -- decide the big stuff: which director to hire, whether to search for a new home and where that home should be.

When the top show dogs of government, culture and the private sector mix it up, there's almost inevitably some inbreeding.

Complicating things further is that Ken Dobell, who has served as right-hand man to Campbell since his Vancouver mayoral stint, is now being chided by NDP leader Carole James for double-dipping. He remains Campbell's paid advisor while simultaneously on the payroll of the city to lobby the province to help implement the cultural precinct.

In this web of stakeholders, there's one voice missing from the picture thus far: that of the Vancouver general public. The sole mention of public process in the city council report is a vague bureaucratic one-liner: "The Cultural Facilities Priority Plan will be developed through the Creative City Task Force public consultation." But it doesn't say when, where and how.

How much public say?

Architect Joost Bakker, whose firm Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden is reconfiguring the CBC block next door, knows a lot about public process. If a competition is in the works, says Bakker, the specifics of public need have to be woven into the terms of reference before the competition is even established.

"You have to respect there is a power structure," he says, "but should the power structure then represent what the detailed program becomes?"

That is: the basic size, program and urban context should be informed, if not wholly determined, by public need and consultation. "It's ironic for an architect to be saying this, but we're putting the building first," says Thom. "We should get the ideas rolling, and then think about what kind of building we want."

Officials at both the VAG and the city reply that it's just too early to say anything to the public about the in-camera mudwrestling for the cultural precinct. They have a point: complex negotiations would melt under the klieg lights of a public free-for-all, and we do pay our community leaders to lead.

But should the public have a say on the basic shape and content of the cultural landscape -- or is that best left to the politicians, bureaucrats, cultural leaders and private donors to wrestle over? To make a megaproject both viable and desirable is no mean feat.

"What constitutes the public is a complicated question," notes Matthew Teitelbaum, director of the Art Gallery of Ontario, in a telephone interview with The Tyee. "Is it our neighbours? Our 55,000 members? The international art community?"

'You can compromise boldness'

Teitelbaum is currently stickhandling Frank Gehry's ambitious expansion of his gallery, and a long, multilayered public-consultation process was part of the package. But the decision to expand and the choice of Gehry as architect was their own, made from their vantage point as cultural leaders.

"Our obligations are surely to our neighbours, but also to people who are connected to this international art institution and who want it to grow," says Teitelbaum. "The big knock against community-based input is that you can compromise an architect's boldness."

Public input can result in offensively inoffensive design-by-committee. Dream City author Lance Berelowitz echoes that view: "If you just ask the public, you get the full spectrum of an uninformed straw poll." Best, it seems, is to have cultural and political leaders lead--but have checks and balances to make sure they acknowledge the greater public good.

In this reporter's own straw poll, a few respondents snorted at the thought of a government office in a cultural precinct. But however irksome our government might be, we need more people actually working downtown, as opposed to sleeping, vacationing, and gallery-hopping there. Bring it on. Also, we'll need that money.

$300 million revamp

The redevelopment budget will likely be in the ballpark of $300 million, according to a city hall official. (The lot value alone is an estimated $50 million, adds the official.) In fact, the Coal Harbour Arts Complex and National Aboriginal Gallery are now underdogs for getting on that site, since by October they had failed to reach the fundraising criteria laid out by the city.

So now what happens? If city hall is to be believed, work will begin this spring to refurbish the QE Theatre. (Actually, it must begin in April to get finished by 2010, according to the council report.)

Also around that time there should be a splashy announcement of an international design competition for the Vancouver Art Gallery on that prized plot next to the Vancouver Public Library, the biggest-scale competition since the library itself.

Then be on your guard for what happens next. At the minimum, the city and the VAG should follow the lead of the Art Gallery of Ontario by implementing a bona-fide public process. And they should consider what the fabulous new VAG will do to street life, and to its neighbours. Downtown Vancouver, with its view corridors and bumptious culture, is nothing like the site of Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim, and big cities attempt to replicate the Bilbao effect at their peril.

A huge, separate, standalone building -- no matter how artsy the function or how famous the architect -- would be bad news for street life in that area of downtown, says Joost Bakker. The area is already home to too many disconnected monoliths, which deaden pedestrian activity. (His firm master-planned the very public and very successful Granville Island.)

"What's really important is that we have great art," says Bakker, who himself is on the board of the Contemporary Art Gallery. "Having great art does not necessarily equate to having a huge monument."

Architect left in the dark

Vancouver's most prominent, VAG-connected artists tend to support the Bartels vision, not surprisingly; and, by all accounts, Bartels herself is brilliant, tireless, well connected, and most likely to pull in the big donor bucks. What unsettles the skeptics is whether our city's architecture and cultural manifestation should be swayed to such an extent by a single individual and institution.

For such a momentous and expensive and very public project, the process has been left to ferment -- or languish -- behind closed doors. Even the architects are occasionally left in the lurch.

Michael Maltzan, a prominent California architect hired to design alternatives for the VAG to expand on its current site, presented his findings to Director Bartels, and was then dropped like a stone. In fact, this reporter's phone call was the first news to Maltzan that the VAG had decided to expand on a new site instead.

The firm the VAG hired to handle the search for its new site, Henriquez Partners, is appropriately tight-lipped on the proceedings.

Thom, for his part, shows no reluctance to speak his mind: "This is the most important city block we have left," he warns. "It's a tremendous opportunity to be an incubator for small groups. We have to look at it very carefully."

http://thetyee.ca/News/2007/01/29/CulturalPrecinct/

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Oh, well. The usual time to debate about Olympic preparations and image makeovers, when it comes to points of time of a host city. This CBC article states in these brief terms:

1. Remains "a dot" to Vancouver citizens;

2. Venue construction is going smoothly;

3. The "forever" mumblings about money issues, especially when you have Chris Shaw involved;

4. The five "ifs":

a) On Time; On Budget;

B ) Security;

c) Weather;

d) Homelessness And Other Social Issues;

e) Traffic Flow

Link: CBC: Three Years Out, Games Construction On Schedule, Some Financial Concerns

Edited by Guardian
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From today's Province (Feb 28, 2007):

B.C. may have to pressure feds for more security cash

Expert

Damian Inwood, The Province

Published: Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The B.C. government will have to play hardball with Ottawa to get the federal government to pick up the tab if 2010 Olympic security costs go through the roof, says a Canadian Games expert.

Full article: http://www.canada.com/theprovince/news/sto...ed-c71f1428a3c0

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In addition to my pevious post, I found this article in today's Province as well:

Squamish, Lil'wat to build cultural centre

$30-million venture to celebrate nations

Tourism Minister Stan Hagen got a preview yesterday of a $30-million native cultural centre in Whistler with the two First Nations that he said are "a big part of the reason we got the [Olympic] Games."

Found at: http://www.canada.com/theprovince/news/sto...d7-112fa189e923

The article is for online subscribers so if any of you have access post the full article here.

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From CTV news March 2, 2007:

Bill introduced restricting use of Olympic words

Updated Fri. Mar. 2 2007 10:41 PM ET

Canadian Press

VANCOUVER -- VANCOUVER (CP) _ The federal government has introduced a bill barring the use of Olympic words by anyone other than official sponsors, saying sponsors need to have their investment protected.

But a group that investigates consumer and copyright issues says federal trademark rules already on the books should be enough and wonders whether such a bill "overreaches" and treads on everyone's right to freedom of expression.

The Olympic and Paralympic Marks Act was tabled in Ottawa on Friday to provide "special, time-limited intellectual property protection for Olympic and Paralympic words and symbols," says a news release from the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee.

Full Article: http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/stor...0302?hub=Canada

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Three months after new design plans for the Hotel Georgia were unveiled last December, the developer finally went before the Development Permit Board last week.

The project aims to renovate the Hotel Georgia, and also build a 48-storey mixed-use retail, office and condo tower to the north of the hotel.

801_west_georgia_3.jpg

The DPB approved the project, but with some conditions. (Link to pdf of the Committee report here).

Most notably, the City would like to see improvements to the building's architectural design, as planners said that 'further refinements to aspects of its detailed sculpting and treatment and its top are needed.'

Specifically, it would seem that the Urban Design Panel liked the lower part of the building's integration with the Hotel Georgia, however they wanted to see a better design at the top, which they said would benefit from 'further simplification.'

Among some of the other interesting information in the report:

* The new tower will in fact be Vancouver's third tallest, once it's completed

* At its highest point, the building will come in at 516.6 feet

* Among several 'green' elements of its design, the building will use geothermal heating

As for the renovations to the Hotel Georgia, 'the ballroom will be rebuilt, bringing back the historical details', while 'the original revolving door will be reinstated on Georgia Street.'

So...it would seem that we'll be getting a revised building design in the weeks to come.

Even though it will most likely consist of minor refinements, here's hoping that the architects try a little harder, and come back with something that's a significant improvement over the current version.

801_west_georgia_ii_3.jpg

SOURCE: http://www.pacificmetropolis.com/

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So, according to the CBC, how is it like to have Vancouver and area have more than half of all the province's population mentioned in the 2006 national census?

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There isn't anything special... other than Vancouver expanding upwards instead of outwards and that house prices are overly expensive. It's is the most costly for an average house in Vancouver... around 700,000 average price? Perhaps more? If you want Vancouver West or West Vancouver, a million is the minimum usually (like in nice neighborhoods). Anyways, hope to see more lane houses and the eco-density plan to actually work to make housing prices lower.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Now, this sad news is the last thing Vancouver needs to be seen, especially when it was captured by an American tourist and was put into YouTube.

Link: CBC: YouTube Fight Between Firefighter, Police Could Lead To Lawsuit

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Please, don't tell me that Stanley Park sustained more damage because of the weather. What I heard, from the CBC National News, that the sea wall area is not stable and there could be more landslides to come and overall recreational use over there could be in jeopardy in the long term. What I mean by that is the fear that the area is to be closed to civilians "permanently", if there is absolutely no way of dealing with it.

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I would love to see this happen. According to the Globe and Mail, Vancouver is going to make the city's entire taxi fleet to become hybrids and energy-efficient. However, the article itself is just what is written below:

Vancouver aims to have greenest taxis by 2010

LAURA DRAKE

May 15, 2007

Vancouver -- Vancouver wants to have the greenest taxi fleet in the world by the time the Olympics arrive, Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon said yesterday.

The Ministry of Transportation directed the Passenger Transportation Board, which grants taxi licences in British Columbia, to approve applications only for hybrid and energy-efficient vehicles in Vancouver and Victoria.

The ministry will also work with the taxi industry to replace the existing fleet by 2010.

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  • 3 months later...

Wow. Not a surprise about such "surveys and rankings" nowadays. Vancouver is rated "best city in the world to live in" again. Oh, well, since the rest of the world cannot compete against it for years, it should be Vancouver's attribute "forever."

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  • 1 month later...
Vancouverites pay final respects to iconic tree

Updated Fri. Oct. 12 2007 10:43 PM ET

CTV.ca News

160_bc_tree_pix_071012.jpg

The massive Western red cedar is seen during happier times in the park's west side.

A 1,000-year-old tree in Vancouver's Stanley Park once featured in National Geographic has toppled and died.

It fell over because of heavy winds and rain during a storm last Sunday. But the huge Western red cedar wasn't really a victim of the storm. The tree had rotted from the inside. Stanley Park officials say it died of old age.

The tree was 13 metres at the base and forty metres tall. It was a part of Stanley Park before there was a Stanley park and even before there was a nation called Canada...

...for full CTV.ca article and video go to:

http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/stor...?hub=TopStories

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  • 3 weeks later...

From CTV.ca

http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/stor...1101?hub=Canada

Pimps could profit from 2010 Olympics: group

Updated Thu. Nov. 1 2007 2:15 PM ET

The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER -- A report by an organization that combats human trafficking is warning that the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver could be exploited by those trying to profit from prostitution.

The Future Group recommends the federal and B.C. governments increase efforts to deter human traffickers and potential sex-trade customers.

"There is a real risk that traffickers will seek to profit from the 2010 Olympics," said Sabrina Sullivan, managing director of the non-partisan, non-governmental organization.

"This event could create an increased demand for prostitution, and also give an easy cover story for victims to be presented as 'visitors' by traffickers."

As he's only just taken on his job, the head of security for the 2010 Olympics said earlier this week that the issue of human trafficking during the Games hasn't hit his radar.

"For me, not, not yet," RCMP Assistant Commissioner Bud Mercer said in an interview Monday with The Canadian Press.

"I've never seen anything that's come across my desk, but keep in mind it's day two."

The 25-page report entitled "Faster, Higher, Stronger: Preventing Human Trafficking at the 2010 Olympics" outlines measures taken by host countries of recent international sporting events to prevent human trafficking.

The report found that the 2006 Germany FIFA World Cup experienced a short-term increase in demand for prostitution but that extensive prevention campaigns, immigration controls and law-enforcement action likely prevented human traffickers from filling that demand. Instead, local prostitutes from elsewhere in the country were drawn in to host cities.

At the Athens Olympics, where prevention efforts were poor, researchers found a 95-per-cent increase in the number of human trafficking victims identified by the Greek Ministry of Public Safety in 2004.

While numerous factors come into play, a certain correlation between the Olympics and an increase in human trafficking cannot be discounted, the report stated.

"Canada is playing catch-up since authorities have yet to convict a single person for the offence of human trafficking," said Benjamin Perrin, the lead author of the report and an assistant professor in the faculty of law at the University of British Columbia.

The report says human trafficking can be prevented by identifying victims in transit and helping them recover from their ordeal while deciding whether to be witnesses against their traffickers in criminal prosecutions.

"Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Premier Gordon Campbell have shown concern for human trafficking victims," said Perrin. "They need to commit together to end human trafficking and to ensure that the existing problem is not exacerbated by the 2010 Olympics."

The Future Group, founded in 2000, specializes in combating human trafficking and has worked with victims in Southeast Asia, West Africa and Latin America.

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Could a national institution come to Vancouver? It seems that the original Ottawa venue to house the Portrait Gallery of Canada was not good enough and was scrapped. Therefore, the federal government will choose the city to have it in 2011 or 2012, INCLUDING another possible Ottawa location. Besides Ottawa, the federal government has chose these other cities to put forward their best site:

- Halifax;

- Quebec City;

- Montreal;

- Toronto;

- Winnipeg;

- Edmonton;

- Calgary; and,

- Vancouver.

Link: CBC: Portrait Gallery Looks Nationwide For New Home

There was talk of putting it in Calgary, when the decision to build EnCana's new tower, called the Bow, was a go. However, that rumor was not true. Besides, now that the news came out about it, I am seriously in doubt that Calgary would be chosen again and I live in the city. In fact, I do not even recall any national institution ever been based in Calgary or Edmonton, after the fiasco called the NEP rained down upon Albertans in 1980 and ended in around 1984. I think the National Energy Board is based in the city, but I am not sure.

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It could possibly in Vancouver, the provincial government and the city are spending $10 million on a cultural precinct for the downtown core, which would involve a new home for the Vancouver Art Gallery, space for new museums, art schools, and a performing arts centre. This could well be Vancouver's own Guggenheim or Federation Place (Melbourne), and will cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Either that or it could be located at the old courthouse in downtown, where the Vancouver Art Gallery is today, when the Art Gallery moves out to its new home.

or maybe here:

tst.jpg

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  • 6 months later...

Mr.x, how is the tourism situation for the Vancouver area so far? If it is so bleak as our vaulted news programs claim to be, then it could put more pressure on Vancouver and the 2010 Winter Olympics to start bringing in the tourists, especially from overseas, back to Canada. Is Canada's image as a tourist destination getting beaten up? I don't believe that. Talk about exaggeration there, but the number of tourists coming to Canada seems to be at the lowest levels right now since Ottawa kept tabs on such statistics in 1972. We can pretty much seen the obvious factors on why it is occurring, from high gas prices to our Canadian dollar.

Oh, by the way, CTV put out an article that Canada is ranked 11th in the Global Peace Index.

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Cancelling the Visitor Tax Rebate program doesn't help where Americans could get a refund on GST paid. A stupid move by the Government.

Not as stupid as someone wanting to blow up a bridge in Vancouver, according again to one "hyper-sensitive" news program. So much so that one of the RCMP officers used "American thinking" to catch the suspect. Oh, yeah, let's run over him with the police vehicle. Don't think it was intentional, but the news program tried to make it sound like it was. Sort of like one of those episodes from a TV show (no, not COPS) called Disorderly Conduct in America.

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