New condos at BC Place, Rogers Arena kill False Creek entertainment district
The recent controversy and firestorm with the Waldorf Hotel’s closure for redevelopment into condos is perhaps evident of a city reaching a breaking point over its dwindling cultural and entertainment venues. There is no doubt the core of Vancouver’s entertainment district lies in and around the Downtown peninsula, and it is no secret either that rampant condo development in the city centre has severely hampered the ability of entertainment-based businesses and zones to flourish. This now impacts Vancouver’s premier entertainment venues, BC Place and Rogers Arena, as well as the False Creek entertainment district that had originally been envisioned for the stadium precinct.
The Waldorf’s closure has certainly received the attention it deserves, but more importantly it has ignited a much-needed discussion of what kind of city we want to be and a collective awareness of what we are now becoming. Many cities have built strongly established and vibrant entertainment districts by using their sports and event venues as the anchors of such districts…
The False Creek Entertainment District vision that never came to be
Vancouver’s False Creek entertainment district, centred around BC Place Stadium and Rogers Arena, is no exception. In fact, it had immense potential – it was only natural to turn the stadium precinct (which includes the recently renovated 2,700-seat Queen Elizabeth Theatre) into an flourishing entertainment district.
Few cities have been fortunate enough to have two large world-class stadium facilities located adjacent to each other right in the heart of a metropolitan area’s Downtown core. Vancouver’s stadiums also happen to be immensely accessible to public transit with direct access to the city’s SkyTrain lines. This has helped turn BC Place and Rogers Arena into the highly used year-round facilities they have become for events and concerts. They are also together home to three major sports franchises – the CFL BC Lions, the NHL Vancouver Canucks, and the MLS Vancouver Whitecaps.
Both stadiums were built from lands that were formerly railyards and industry, lands that were awaiting re-imagination as the city has done today by turning the former Expo ’86 site at False Creek into a new neighbourhood of generic parks and condo towers. These same lands, particularly those surrounding BC Place and Rogers Arena, could have been easily re-imagined into a vibrant entertainment zone if the city and its developers had stronger willpower and maintained with their original vision.
Mixed-use developments (mainly buildings that are commercial/businesses at the bottom floors and residential at the top floors) in Vancouver have been the dominant development form of the city’s new buildings for the past quarter-century. This Vancouver fixation with mixed-use developments for every area of the city has been touted by urban planners as a great “success.”
However, mixed-use developments have been a tragic failure in the sense that residential usages and concerns in these mixed-use buildings and mixed-use neighbourhoods have been given much greater priority over other interests and have ultimately turned our city (especially its Downtown core) into a sleepy, bedroom community. Vancouver is unique given that its planners and politicians have been unable to acknowledge the need for distinctly different districts with distinctly different characters (specifically for entertainment zones) to allow for certain usages and zones the full flexibility to grow, innovate, and flourish.
Residential development and entertainment venues do not mix well in Vancouver, yet residential continues to be built without any restraint in our entertainment districts – next to stadiums, music venues, nightclubs, bars, pubs, etc. New residents are moving into an active major city with unrealistic “small town” and “suburban expectations” of living a quiet life, residents have effectively suppressed the character of the entertainment districts they live in: those moving into residential developments located in our entertainment districts have been highly successful in limiting aspects that make for a successful and vibrant entertainment district.
This has been the case even in Vancouver’s designated entertainment zones, and it will only get much more worst as the concentration of residential developments increases in the entertainment districts.
For instance, condo residents have complained about light and noise coming out of such zones, venues, and businesses. This includes recent complaints by vocal residents of the light emitted from video billboards around BC Place, despite that such signs are usually welcomed in areas like the one BC Place is in – an entertainment zone – as a sign of liveliness in the area. Pavco, the operators of BC Place, had even offered to turn off the billboards at 4 pm on most days, but residents were still unsatisfied with this significant concession. Excessive limitations on noise and light, often spurred by local area resident complaints, have severely hindered and limited Downtown Vancouver’s nightlife and the vitality of our entertainment institutions.
The Tragedy of Rogers Arena
When Rogers Arena (formerly known as GM Place) was in the planning stages during the early-1990s, a vibrant and active entertainment district had been slated for the area around the new hockey arena and BC Place. In fact, Rogers Arena was to have been the centrepiece of this planned entertainment district. The arena’s original design had even included a large underground shopping complex beneath the stadium floor. Of course, the mall at the arena, which would have also included restaurants and bars, was never built and instead an underground parkade took its place.
The entertainment district around the two stadiums never came to be when condo towers began to encroach the area – condo developments that have included Spectrum, Espana, Cooper’s Lookout, Flagship, Mariner, Cooper’s Pointe, and The Max. In addition, in lieu of entertainment district-based businesses, an elementary school for 500-students has even been approved for a site on Expo Boulevard directly across from Rogers Arena at International Village. Construction on International Village Elementary will begin this year for a 2015 opening. Although demand certainly warrants for an additional elementary school in Downtown, this was certainly the wrong place to put it in.
Location of International Village Elementary, just across the street from Rogers Arena on the bottom left. (Image source: The Thunderbird)
In 2008, the Aquilini Group (owners of the NHL Vancouver Canucks and Rogers Arena) proposed to build a 22-storey office tower as an addition to the Rogers Arena building complex. The tower had also been originally envisioned as part of the original Rogers Arena plans in the 1990s, and previous variations of the arena complex in the past have also included a major hotel tower component. Such commercial uses would have been highly compatible for an entertainment district.
A rendering of the original GM Place office tower proposed in 2008 also included two spires that would be lit up with different colours during NHL games to indicate the score of the home and visiting teams. (Image source: Vancouver Sun)
Commercial buildings, especially offices, are the most ideal buildings to flank any entertainment district given they are only occupied by workers during the working hours of weekdays and are vacated when activity and noise peaks during evenings and weekends. Residential buildings, daycares, and elementary schools in the entertainment zone are certainly anything but ideal for an entertainment district.
Instead of a commercial/office-only (entertainment-zone friendly) development, a multi-tower residential component has now been added to the Aquilini Group’s development vision for Rogers Arena. Vancouver City Council has approved 3 mixed-use towers, with office/commercial usages slated for the lower floors and residential rental units in the top floors. In total, 614 rental condo units will be built in the three towers wedged between Rogers Arena, the Dunsmuir/Georgia Viaducts, and Expo and Pacific Boulevards. Construction has already begun on the North Tower, which will utilize the first five floors of the building for an much-needed expansion of the cramped Rogers Arena concourse and in-arena food services. The remaining 17 floors will be residential.
What is troubling about this project, which now includes a very dominant residential component, is its impact on events at Rogers Arena. The Aquilini Group has openly admitted there will be less concerts and events at Rogers Arena in order to appease the arena’s future residents. According to Aquilini Development president David Negrin, an arrangement has been made “to ensure that the company doesn’t put on too many events at the arena that would disturb the nearby tenants. ‘We will lose some concerts, we know that. But we need to rent the places (condo units). It is in our best interests to control [the noise].'”
A rendering of the city-approved Rogers Arena condo rental towers, totalling 614 condo units. A fourth tower, pending city approval, is also slated for the future on the north side of the arena. (Image source: James K.M. Cheng Architects)
This has surprisingly received very little attention, despite the highly unusual and regressive nature of the entire situation of requiring Vancouver’s long-existing and premiere concert and sports venue to succumb to new restrictions that hinder its flexibility as an active entertainment venue located in what was supposed to be a vibrant entertainment district.
If you moved next to a hospital, would you complain about the noise made by ambulances at night? If you moved next to the airport, would you complain about the noise made by the low-flying planes? If you moved next to a highway, would you complain about the noise coming from the cars and trucks speeding along the road? If you moved next to SkyTrain, would you complain about the noise coming from the passing trains? If you moved next to Playland/PNE, would you complain about the noise and traffic coming from the roller coasters and crowds? Most people would say “no,” especially for the responsible and unselfish homeowners who have done their due diligence in peforming proper research into the property.
Returning to the subject matter, if you moved into a new building next to a pre-existing restaurant, bar, pub, nightclub, and/or stadium (or to put it simply, a lively entertainment district), why would you be complaining about the noise and light emitting from such venues and businesses? Why have we continued to allow a small minority of individuals (local neighbourhood residents) to trample on things that hundreds of thousands (all of Metro Vancouver) enjoy? Why have our planners and politicians continued to allow major residential developments to encroach our cultural and entertainment venues and zones?
Many cities have built proper entertainment zones around their stadiums. For instance, in North America these entertainment district developments have been achieved in cities that include Los Angeles, Columbus, San Diego, and Indianapolis. Their stadium districts have maintained commercial, office, and hospitality uses as the vastly dominant forms of these entertainment zones, whereas Vancouver has decided to be regressive and has built almost nothing but residential in its stadium districts.
Los Angeles, in particular, is well-known for the active stadium entertainment district it has built around the Staples Center. Known as L.A. Live, the entertainment zone around Staples Center was built in 2007 and is the city’s newest hub for live music and cultural events. This includes the Nokia Plaza (a large outdoor plaza that serves as a central meeting and event place for L.A. Live, and it features giant LED screens); the Nokia Theatre and Club Nokia (a music and theatre hall with 7,100-seats, and a club venue with 2,300-seats); the Grammy Museum; a giant 1,001-room hybrid hotel by JW Marriott and the Ritz Carlton; the ESPN Zone and ESPN Broadcasting Studios; a 14-screen movie cineplex with a combined 3,772-seats; and dozens of restaurants, from mid to high-scale dining. There are also significant expansion plans in the works for L.A. Live (none residential), which include additional major office and hotel towers as well as an 72,000-seat $1.2-billion NFL stadium (named Farmers Field).
An image of Nokia Plaza at L.A. Live during Christmas. Image source: AE Hospitality
An aerial photo of L.A. Live that includes a conceptual rendering of the new 72,000-seat Farmers Field stadium. Image source: Ballertainment
Another example of a proper stadium entertainment district is Edmonton’s ambitious plan for the Edmonton Arena District. The plan is modeled after the success of L.A. Live and although it will include a residential component, Edmonton district’s commercial, office, retail, and hospitality components are significantly larger than the residential aspect of the project. The new district will be focused around a new 20,000-seat multi-purpose arena for the NHL Edmonton Oilers; a community ice rink; 300,000 sq. ft. of retail and entertainment space; 370,000 sq. ft. of hotel rooms split between 2 hotels; 1.5-million sq. ft. of office space; a 90,000 sq. ft. casino; and the Winter Garden, a large covered public plaza that will be used by events. A major museum, the Royal Alberta Museum, is also slated for the Edmonton Arena District.
Rendering of the Edmonton Arena District. The new NHL arena for the Oilers is also depicted. Image source: NHL Edmonton Oilers
Rendering of the outdoor public plaza at Edmonton Arena District. Image source: NHL Edmonton Oilers
Rendering of the Winter Gardens, a large covered public plaza for events, at the Edmonton Arena District. Image source: City of Edmonton
Goodbye, Plaza of Nations. Hello, Mediocrity.
While Edmonton is gaining a large covered public plaza (the Winter Garden) for the city’s new stadium district, Vancouver has taken a few steps back by losing its very own – the Plaza of Nations. Additional large-scale condo developments, beyond the scale of the aforementioned Rogers Arena rental towers, are also planned for the Plaza of Nations site (located across the street from Rogers Arena and BC Place on the False Creek waterfront). The Plaza of Nations has lost much of its original and full utility as an cultural and entertainment venue ever since the demolition of the outdoor amphitheatre’s glass-paned roof in 2008. What remains today of the former World’s Fair centrepiece is nothing more than a barebone skeleton structure that very few event planners would desire to use for an event.
A photo of an event at the Plaza of Nations amphitheatre in 2006 when the entire building and glass-paned roof was still intact. (Image source: Expo Museum)
A photo of an evening outdoor concert at the Plaza of Nations amphitheatre depicting the glass-paned roof from another angle. (Image source: Clubzone)
At the time prior to demolition, the Plaza of Nation’s owners (Canadian Metropolitan) claimed the outdoor glass-paned roof was leaking and that roof repairs were not possible. In reality, it was a question of money: Canadian Metropolitan had no desire in making capital investments to repair and preserve the Plaza of Nations as it had already set its eyes on the site’s eventual redevelopment potential into more condos for the area.
A rather bleak photo of the Plaza of Nations in its current form today. The glass-paned canopy roof over the plaza no longer exists. Most of the plaza’s buildings have also been demolished. (Image source: Mark and Andrea Busse)
For a young city with so little roots and history, the quick demise of the Plaza of Nations was not only a huge loss for the city’s entertainment scene but also its historic past. It was a landmark from Expo ’86 and, more importantly, it was one of the largest and busiest functional event spaces the city offered. Its covered outdoor space allowed for large events for up to 10,000 people, and its glass-paned roof also made it a highly attractive and functional year-round facility to use.
Last year, Canadian Metropolitan made public its redevelopment plan for the Plaza of Nations site. Known as 750 Pacific Boulevard, the residential component is the overwhelmingly dominant aspect of the entire project: it will cement the failure of the entertainment district and the growth of conflicts between residents and entertainment/events/businesses/nightlife in the area. Similar to the impact of the new Rogers Arena towers on the stadium’s event schedule, 750 Pacific Boulevard will likely also have an adverse impact on the operations of both BC Place and Rogers Arena.
750 Pacific Boulevard holds little bearing as an real “entertainment district” as it is merely a copy and expansion of the mixed-use, residential-focused built form that already exists everywhere in False Creek. The project calls for:
- 1.4-million sq. ft. of residential space spread over 1,700 to 2,000 condo units;
- 355,000 sq. ft. of commercial space, for a large hotel and some ground-level retail and restaurants;
- a 57,000 sq. ft. community centre that will include a 69-children daycare and public ice rink (the rink will also double as the new practice facility for the NHL Vancouver Canucks during certain hours of the day);
- and a 4,000 person capacity outdoor plaza for small and large local events. This new uncovered outdoor plaza will be bordered by condo towers, which we already know are not compatible with entertainment venues.
The proposal also offers no new home to Gossip Nightclub, located at one of the Plaza of Nations last remaining buildings. Gossip is Vancouver’s largest nightclub and has one of the city’s largest patron followings. As well, the design of the redevelopment has little consideration for respecting the skyline sight lines of Vancouver’s recently renovated landmark world-class stadium: BC Place.
Renderings of Canadian Metropolitan’s vision for the Plaza of Nations site, otherwise known as 750 Pacific Boulevard. (Image credit: James K.M. Cheng Architects)
Land use diagram of 750 Pacific Boulevard at the Plaza of Nations site. The proposal is largely residential – highlighted in yellow. (Image source: Vancouver Market)
These details so far are limited to Canadian Metropolitan’s plans for the area. It does not include the plans by Concord Pacific for its large undeveloped waterfront property to the east of the Plaza of Nations site, which will be another significant residential development. It also does not include another proposal by Concord Pacific to build more condo tower developments on the north end of the Cambie Street Bridge immediately west and across the street of BC Place: another 900 condo units. Concord Pacific is Vancouver’s largest developer and has of course been responsible for virtually all of North False Creek’s condo tower developments.
The proposed residential developments by the Aquilini Group, Canadian Metropolitan, and Concord Pacific will bring a further 7,200 residents to Northeast False Creek, the site of the BC Place and Rogers Arena stadium entertainment district.
Endless green lawns; Vancouver’s seawall is an obligation to exercise
The Plaza of Nations gave the False Creek central inner waterfront area the proper cultural and entertainment venue it deserved and needed. It broke up the monotony of the endless condo towers and green lawn “parks” that line the waterfront, “parks” and spaces that are completely unused 7-months out of the year when cold and wet weather takes over the city.
More generic and functionless green lawn parks are even slated for the BC Place and Rogers Arena entertainment district. The City of Vancouver is pushing for a very significant expansion of Creekside Park into the undeveloped Concord Pacific property at Northeast False Creek. Area residents claim that the “much needed” park extension is needed (as the many existing parks that already exist in the area are supposedly not enough).
This is in addition to the City of Vancouver’s plan to demolish the Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaducts, to make way for even more generic green lawn park space. Somehow, the City believes more of the same, of what already exists at False Creek and Coal Harbour, is “a bold new concept” (the tagline on City produced renderings below). Did I also mention this proposal includes more condo towers for the area?
More of the same. These renderings show: an monotonous expansion of Creekside Park on Concord Pacific’s undeveloped waterfront property as well as more of the same park space on lands that used to be the Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaducts; a lot more condo towers for the area on land owned by Concord Pacific and on space that used to be the Viaducts; and road traffic that once used the Viaducts is now diverted into existing city streets – how does more car traffic make Vancouver’s streets more pedestrian and cycling-friendly? How does this proposal make sense for the stadium district, which sees surges of tens of thousands of people when events are held in and around the two stadiums? (Image source: City of Vancouver)
Given the lack of year-round functionality and utility, and the failure to turn waterfront spaces with so much potential into vibrant and exciting locations, Vancouver’s waterfront parks/spaces and seawall in this sense have been poorly designed. While other cities have focused on building vibrant cultural, arts, commercial, and entertainment spaces at their central zones, such as along central waterfronts, Vancouver has largely done the complete opposite.
Few Vancouverites know that a replica of Vancouver’s False Creek exists in Dubai. Dubai Marina is an uncanny replica of False Creek, right down to the handrails of the seawall, made by the exact same manufacturer. It also has the same skinny condo towers on townhouse bases. Of course, being this is Dubai, it is also larger in scale and an improved version of False Creek. Several years ago, Vancouver’s Trevor Boddy (a curator and historian of architecture/urbanism and consulting urban designer) summarized and compared Dubai Marina to False Creek in this way (from BC Business):
“The UAE version of the [Vancouver] seawall may nonetheless be a greater success than its Vancouver source. It boasts a wider diversity of people on and around it than any local shopping mall, and compared to Vancouver, their seawall is substantially wider and lined with dozens of restaurants and cafes. After my Middle Eastern trip I visited our seawall in False Creek and Coal Harbour, and it looked a little stark and Presbyterian, a narrow band for walkers and bicyclists to pass through, a kind of aerobic expressway, but almost nowhere a place to linger, with barely a half dozen restaurants along its whole length. One small strip of the Dubai Marina seawall can have that many dining options at all prices serving up a baffling variety of global cuisines, along with waterparks for children, temporary art exhibitions, live musicians and strollers in every colour and cut of national dress going – from the dishdashes and abayas of the Arabian peninsula, to South Asian dhotis and kurtas, to tank tops and Air Jordans. Dubai Marina’s seawall is an obliging urban festival; Vancouver’s seawall is an obligation to exercise.“
Shops, restaurants, and cafes line the wide Dubai Marina seawall. (Image source: Maraya Projects)
For Vancouver, getting its two standalone beachfront restaurants at Kitsilano and English Bay has been an immense struggle alone given the Vancouver Park Board’s highly limited and conservative preconception of what a beach experience should be and what should be at a beach in order to maintain the “idea” of a “public” space. Many local area residents also held the same limited, narrow-minded views (if not, NIMBY-based arguments). The two restaurants being referred to are The Boathouse at Kitsilano (formerly Watermark Restaurant) and the recently opened Cactus Club Cafe English Bay.
Avoiding the “big picture” benefits of what such beach restaurants could do by increasing activity on the beach and providing beach goers with an improved, more diverse and interesting experience, instead heated discussions and consultations on the Cactus Club location at English Bay ranged from topics such as opposition to “corporate branding” of public space to even the affordability of the menu. One park commissioner, who later cast the sole “no” vote, went as far as saying that “we’ll be looking to Sunset, Second Beach, Locarno, and even Spanish Banks next…will we be seeing a Red Lobster or an Earls or even a McDonald’s at those locations?”
The Watermark’s approval faced the exact same fervent opposition and tedious/strenuous process as the Cactus Club. The restaurant buildings at both beaches are owned by the Park Board (construction paid by the restaurant businesses), while the restaurant businesses lease the building space which provides the Park Board with a new stream of revenue. Opposition still existed even when the restaurants were also required to provide public amenities as part of the condition of their lease. This includes operating concession stands as part of their business and providing new beach amenities like public washrooms/change rooms to replace aging facilities.
If you have traveled to other public urban beaches elsewhere in the world (beaches with many more businesses than Vancouver’s standalone restaurants), you would know that beachfront restaurants are welcomed and embraced there as locals acknowledge it adds to the beach experience (whereas vocal Vancouverites and NIMBYs instead believe it takes away from the beach experience). Restaurants at beaches are not exactly a brand new concept.
The Boathouse Restaurant at Kitsilano Beach (Image source: Stephen Hui)
Cactus Club Cafe at English Bay (Image source: Clayton Perry)
In 2011, I visited Singapore and one of the aspects that I quickly noticed about the city’s Marina Bay central inner harbour was the waterway’s striking natural resemblance to False Creek. Like Vancouver’s False Creek, Marina Bay is a part of the city’s Downtown core and it flanks the central business district. However, it was also anything but like False Creek. In my mind, Marina Bay is what the eastern end of False Creek should be like.
While Vancouver’s city planners and politicians allowed virtually all of False Creek (particularly the aforementioned entertainment district around BC Place, Rogers Arena, and the Plaza of Nations) to become a private sleepy residential community, Singapore instead created a firm and unchanging masterplan and vision of turning Marina Bay into a 24/7 destination for the public. It is now the city’s largest and most significant entertainment district.
Singapore’s Marina Bay is edged with a wide pedestrian seawall, as if the entire circumference of the Bay were lined by a large continuous plaza. I walked the entire circumference of the harbour, and I have to say it was one of the most enjoyable and interesting urban walks I have ever had, even during the middle of the night. It was vibrant around the clock, filled with both locals and tourists. Its well-planned design, central location (just like False Creek), and appeal made it a natural fit to be the main site of the city’s major events and festivals, including the National Day Parade, Singapore Fireworks Celebrations, New Year’s Eve Countdown, and the Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix (You may recall that False Creek was the site for Molson Indy Vancouver from 1990 to 2004; residential noise complaints for the mere 1-day race event played a part in its cancellation. It was one of Vancouver’s largest events, attracting 300,000+ people each year.).
Unlike the condo towers that line False Creek, commercial-based development (offices and hotels) largely dominate Marina Bay (as mentioned above, commercial development in entertainment zones is most ideal). Marina Bay’s attractions and venues have also played a vital role for the area’s success in becoming the city’s main entertainment district. This includes the Esplanade (a major concert hall and theatre), The Float (a 30,000-seat stadium with the world’s largest floating stage), Singapore Flyer (the tallest ferris wheel in the world), museums and outdoor exhibits, numerous shopping centres, convention centres, covered outdoor stages, and countless restaurants.
The most significant attraction and venue at Singapore’s central inner harbour is Marina Bay Sands – the world’s most expensive standalone casino property, built by Las Vegas Sands and designed by Moshe Safdie (the same architect behind Vancouver’s Library Square). Marina Bay Sands is the hub of the entertainment district and since its completion in 2010 it has become Singapore’s most renown landmark building. While it is billed as a casino, in reality it is a entertainment destination and resort first: the casino floor makes up just 161,000 square ft. of the 10-million square ft. development. This includes:
- 2.8-million sq. ft. for 2,560 hotel rooms spanning 3 towers;
- 107,000 sq. ft. rooftop SkyPark that brings together a public observatory, jogging paths, gardens, restaurants, lounges, and an infinity swimming pool. The three hotel towers are interconnected at the top (200-metres/656-feet);
- 800,000 sq. ft. of retail and restaurant space, largely focused around The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands (a shopping centre);
- 240,000 sq. ft. for two theatres, with a combined seating capacity of 4,000, which recently showcased a live theatre production of The Lion King;
- 1.3-million sq. ft. of convention and exhibition space, including one of Asia’s largest ballrooms;
- 64,000 sq. ft. of nightclubs.
- and a 54,000 sq. ft. outdoor event plaza capable of hosting up to 10,000 people for a diverse range of international and live performances.
An aerial photo of Marina Bay, the hallmark of Singapore’s entertainment, taken from the top of the Singapore Flyer ferries wheel. To the left, Marina Bay Sands; in the middle, ArtScience Museum and the Helix pedestrian bridge; on the right, the Float stadium and Esplanade. (Image source: Kenny Teo)
The crown jewel of Singapore: Marina Bay Sands. (Image source: Alan Chia)
The Esplanade’s covered outdoor amphitheatre at Marina Bay delivers a stunning performance to a large crowd. (Image source: David Ng Soon Thong)
Nightly laser shows entertain local and tourist crowds at Marina Bay. (Image source: Kenny Teo).
“These streets will make you feel brand new; Big lights will inspire you.” Let’s [try to] hear it for Vancouver.
Instead of turning the eastern end of False Creek into a true entertainment zone, one that is lively and vibrant like Singapore’s Marina Bay, we have instead built a quiet, sleepy residential community. Residential developments dominate the area, and it now defines what was supposed to have been an entertainment district. Residents living in these immediate areas have also been given the power and voice to suppress the character of what was supposed to have been a true entertainment district. Instead of being a part of the entertainment district and Downtown area they have moved into, many vocal residents have instead decided to suppress it.
Over the last several years, the provincial government has kindly reminded the City of Vancouver of the original vision for an entertainment district around the BC Place and Rogers Arena zone. In 2008, the provincial government announced its plans to revitalize BC Place into a world-class stadium facility with major aesthetic renovations and a new retractable roof. In its announcement of renewing BC Place’s lifespan with these renovations, the provincial government made explicit its vision of retaining and enforcing the entertainment zone around BC Place. Included in the stadium renovation announcement was even a proposal to relocate the Vancouver Art Gallery to a new location right across the street from BC Place at the Plaza of Nations site on the False Creek waterfront. This would certainly have further re-enforced the area’s purpose as an entertainment district, however, the art gallery proposal was canceled due to the concerns of building the museum’s underground art storage facility so close to False Creek.
An early rendering depicting the conceptual design of the new BC Place roof and the new Vancouver Art Gallery at the Plaza of Nations site. (Image source: Government of BC)
The provincial government could very well have made the decision to sell the BC Place lands, demolish the stadium, redevelop the site into condos, and build a smaller 40,000-seat replacement barebone stadium in Surrey. The site holds a value of approximately $300-million, but this was not the path the provincial government took. While property developers and the City of Vancouver have often chosen the condo development route for easy and quick profits and tax revenue, the provincial government saw the non-monetary value of retaining and enhancing what was already there. It saw the much greater value of having a stadium located in British Columbia’s financial, business, cultural, and entertainment centre: Downtown Vancouver. Instead of building a new facility in the middle-of-nowhere, the provincial government also saw the value of having a pedestrian-friendly stadium that is widely accessible by foot and public transit. It saw the value of the stadium’s pedestrian-based crowds to the businesses of Downtown Vancouver, and as iterated before it wanted to re-enforce the area’s original vision as an entertainment district. Altogether, a stadium located in Downtown Vancouver had much more potential for the entire region and province than a facility located elsewhere, such as Surrey.
The provincial government also took the opportunity to remind the City of Vancouver again of the original vision of the stadium entertainment zone with its 2010 proposal to build a destination entertainment complex at BC Place – a miniature version of Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands. The proposal also included a casino that would become the new and expanded home of Edgewater Casino, currently located across the street in one of the last remaining buildings at the Plaza of Nations. Like the Singapore example mentioned in an earlier section of this article, this is an entertainment destination first and a casino second. The 24-hour casino gambling hall is just 110,000 square feet of the 800,000 square feet proposal. The remaining space in the $500-million development would comprise of 650 hotel rooms within two international-branded hotels in two towers, six restaurants, a show theatre and lounge, spa, convention and meeting space, and retail space. The entire entertainment complex would be fully integrated into BC Place with direct access into the stadium concourse.
However, this proposal (which included an expanded Edgewater Casino) was rejected by Vancouver City Council in April 2011 due to vocal opposition by local area residents and anti-gaming activists during public hearings. Instead, later that year, City Council approved the entertainment complex development but with the condition that the casino gaming floor be the same size as the existing Edgewater Casino.
Paragon Gaming, the complex’s developers and operators, desired for a destination casino with 1,500 slot machines and 150 gaming tables; Council’s approval gave the green light to only retain Edgewater Casino’s existing size of 600 slot machines and 75 gaming tables. Given that the development was located on crown lands, the provincial government was not required to submi to the City of Vancouver for development approval but it chose to out of good faith. The construction of the entertainment complex, which would have generated revenues to contribute towards the construction and annual maintenance costs of the new BC Place, is currently on hold in hopes of a future City Council that will be more favourable towards an expanded casino.
A rendering of the $500-million casino-entertainment-hotel complex at BC Place Stadium. (Image source: Paragon Gaming)
On the other hand, with BC Place’s new design, the province opted to not engage the city for consultation and approval with the stadium renovation development. With that said, the stadium’s new design was certainly not half-hearted nor tamed. Its design has given new life not just to the facility but also to the area as an entertainment district and Downtown skyline. The four-storey tall stadium light display (dubbed the “Northern Lights“) that circulates the upper sections of BC Place as well as the outdoor electronic billboards outside of the stadium are a sign to the liveliness of the area as an entertainment district. The Northern Lights display is lit up every night (until 10 pm on most nights), and in different colours for holidays, occasions and events inside the stadium. You may have recently seen a giant candy cane or even a giant British flag circulate the stadium’s brilliant light display system.
BC Place Stadium lit up as a giant Union Jack for Paul McCartney’s sold-out concert on November 25, 2012. (Image source: Ann Hung)
As mentioned earlier in this article, another feature of the renovated BC Place are the new electronic video screens that have been installed outside the stadium. Some of these new giant screens replaced existing older aging screens, while others were new additions to the stadium. These screens are common outside stadiums around the world, and like the giant Northern Lights display it all plays a part with indicating the liveliness of the zone as an entertainment district. However, stadium officials at Pavco have received vocal complaints from local condo residents who are irked over the bright light emitted from the stadium’s new high-definition electronic screens. This is yet another example of the clash Vancouver has between its entertainment districts and its encroaching residential developments, and why residential does not belong in such areas. However, the City of Vancouver unfortunately does not seem to see this matter in the same manner.
With regards to the residents who have been complaining about the Terry Fox Plaza screen on Robson Street, they have been hostile and unwilling to compromise with Pavco on the operations of the screens. Pavco has turned off the contested Terry Fox Plaza screen from 4 pm to 8 am everyday as a significant compromise to these residents, but despite this these vocal residents still want to see the billboards gone. No compromise, whatsoever. To them the screen is, in highly sensationalist terms, the “Eye of Mordor.”
The “problem” new electronic billboard at BC Place, located at Terry Fox Plaza on Robson Street. (Image source: Squeaky Marmot)
With the BC Place casino-entertainment complex project, public opposition also amounted to local residents complaining that “it’ll bring increased traffic…[as] right now it’s a fairly quiet neighbourhood, and it’ll take away from the neighbourhood feel.” In response to this view, one former area resident put it quite aptly: “If you live in downtown and you want peace and quiet, you’re stupid, you’re really stupid.”
Vancouver is one of the few major and rising cities in the world where such vocal complaints arise, and where the “concerns” of the few (often “Not In My Backyard” or NIMBY activists) are valued much more than the views of the majority (what might also be called “the big picture”). In contrast, in other major cities where such a situation exists (whether it be light or noise) people have accepted it as a fundamental aspect of living in a busy, vibrant big city and there is no outrage as a result (whereas many Vancouverites have bought a condo for a view and the convenience but have failed to adjust for the other factors of living that preside in a dense urban environment).
Vancouver’s regressive nature has been a big part of its history. It may be difficult to believe that Vancouver at one point during the mid-20th century had the most neon signage and displays in North America. Before the advent of the great lights of the Las Vegas Strip, Vancouver was one of the first cities in North America to explore the usage of neon lights. Over several decades, beginning in the 1920s and particularly along Hastings, Granville, and in Chinatown, streets were lined with a mass of continuous glowing neon signs. At its peak in the 1950s, there were more than 18,000 neon signs in the Downtown Vancouver peninsula. Most of these signs were located along the “Great White Way” on Granville Street. According to John Atkin, President of Heritage Vancouver:
“Opinion-makers and civic leaders were making noises about the ‘neon jungle’ and the ‘hideous spectacle’ neon created. Debate reached absurd proportions when one alderperson blamed neon for litter and prostitution problems.
Bylaws were passed and severely limiting the type and size of sign. The unexpected result: a new lack of ambient light. Few realized the color and movement from these signs played in creating the spectacle of a lively street (especially in the rain) and it’s not surprising that shortly after the sign bylaws were passed people began discussing the dying downtown.”
Photos of neon Vancouver in the 1950s. (Image source: Fred Herzog)
In a dark, grey, dreary city like Vancouver, a shot of colour is a great reprieve during the many wet and cold months. While some might call it light pollution and a waste of energy, more lighting is what Vancouver needs, particularly in the Downtown area. Lighting breathes life into the night: this is common in many city centres around the world and it is absolutely essential for entertainment zones.
However, Downtown residents have been frequently riled up over the installation of new lighting features. Like BC Place’s uncompromising neighbours, local residents made vocal complaints over the public art lighting fixture on the recently completed West Pender Place (read more about this below).
Prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics, the City of Vancouver gave Granville Street (another entertainment district) a $20-million makeover. Part of the intention of the makeover was to re-animate the strip – to give the street an urban design that would acknowledge and renew Granville’s historic past of being “the life of the city.” In particular, the large and bright tubular lights installed on Granville Street have re-enforced the strip as an active, vibrant, and lively entertainment zone.
The newly redesigned Granville Street in Downtown Vancouver becomes the life of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games street party. Also depicted, the street’s new large and bright tubular lights. (Image source: James Sherrett)
The City of Vancouver has come full circle today, and in an attempt to correct its past wrongdoings it is now encouraging the return of the city’s neon signage – both new and historic. However, given the high-cost of modern neon signage and the continued local area resident opposition to outdoor lighting features, this policy has gained little traction. Some of the last few historic neon lights the city possesses have been preserved as an permanent exhibition at the Museum of Vancouver. The fact that it now deserves to be an museum exhibit symbolizes how far we have regressed.
To iterate again, in a dark, grey, dreary city like Vancouver, a shot of colour is a great reprieve during the many wet and cold months. Lighting breathes life into the night: this is common in many city centres around the world and it is absolutely essential for entertainment zones.
Vancouver is fortunate to be the natural and scenic recreational “playground” that it is renown for, but the truth is it cannot depend on this alone. It has become far too overdependent and self-aware of its natural surroundings to the point that it has become grossly complacent and arrogant with its self-development. It is my hope that Vancouver can become a truly vibrant, interesting, dynamic, diverse and cultured place where people know how to enjoy themselves; a City Centre, Downtown stadium, or entertainment area ought to attract the type of residents that would not complain about developments that would be expected there. Simultaneously, the City of Vancouver cannot afford to nor should it continue to conduct policies and approve development proposals that continue to give Vancouver its “No Fun City” moniker. The big picture is at stake.
Featured image credit: Vancouver Canucks
WEST PENDER PLACE LIGHTING FEATURE
This was yet another example of Downtown area residents complaining about something that was meant to enhance our experience of the city: This light installation on the recently completed West Pender Place in Coal Harbour was designed by Dutch artist Tamar Frank at a cost of $400,000 to building developer Reliance Properties. It is designed to change colours while illuminating the building’s blank, grey wall. It was a refreshing touch in a city where blandness and monotony was running rampant.
The LED lights were originally meant to be turned on all night, but are now shut off at 10 pm due to complaints by neighbours. One neighbour remarked that “light is very intrusive, and it basically overpowers everything else in the view…as evening comes in, it becomes darker, the mountains turn different shades of green, the water goes silver, the lights come on in various buildings, it’s nice and peaceful, all of a sudden I’ve got this disco scene happening right smack in the middle, and that’s all you see.” In response to these complaints, Brent Toderian, the City’s Director of Planning at the time, had this to say: “The art was intended to play a role in the city’s public art landscape, as well as improve some architectural conditions of the proposed building…[so] we’re not contemplating requiring the art to be shut off. What we do believe is that its neighbourliness can be improved.” Local area residents, like BC Place’s neighbours, did not want to compromise to Toderian’s suggestion of lowering the brightness of the LEDs and shutting it off at 10 pm. Instead, they argued to have it turned off completely at all times.
As iterated in this article above, this is a model example of residents moving into the Downtown area with unrealistic expectations. They have not accepted what life in a busy centre is: lights, noise, traffic, and everything else that you get from living in a dense urban environment. To put it quite bluntly, “if these fools were forced to live in Shinjuku, Manhattan or Berlin for two weeks they would go completely batshit insane.” (Image source: Tamar Frank)
THE ORIGINAL DOWNTOWN CONVENTION CENTRE PROPOSAL
One of the first proposals for expanded convention facilities in Vancouver included architect Bing Thom’s 1995 vision to build the city’s second convention centre in and around BC Place Stadium, Rogers Arena, and the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. The project would have further cemented the stadium precinct’s purpose and utility as an entertainment district. It would have built 800,000 square feet of meeting and convention space, including the integration and renovation of BC Place into the new convention facility. The stadium floor was to be raised, reducing seating to 50,000, to build a new level of underground exhibition halls under the stadium floor. The proposal also called for the integration of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Rogers Arena, and the construction of a 1,250 room hotel in addition to public space with shops, restaurants, and cafes. A large fountain and lighting feature in the middle of False Creek was also part of the vision. However, while it was a unique idea, the provincial government at the time rightly favoured the idea of building an expanded convention centre facility (the expansion of the existing Vancouver Convention Centre at Canada Place) on the Burrard Landing Site in Coal Harbour. (Image source: Bing Thom Architects)