Thursday, 3 July 2014


There are lots of lessons to be learned from Vancouver's enormously successful redevelopment of Granville Island.  One is that projects should be carried out using local talent rather than experts from outside. Another is that the most unlikely, seemingly out of touch government agency can produce a winner with the help of a capable advisory committee whose advice they follow. Most importantly, as Marlene Dietrich said,  beware of what is trendy. What works today may make you look ridiculous tomorrow.

In 2005, Denmark undertook a study of successful waterfront developments around the world. In search of a model for the renewal of their own coastal regions and villages, the Danes concluded that Vancouver was the one most worth emulating.

The following is the outline of a speech I delivered in April 2005 in Copenhagen to 250 Danish Planners. They specifically wanted to know how Canada succeeded in producing what they considered to be the best waterfront repurposing project in the world.

“In 1973 Ron Basford, the Federal Minister of Corporate Affairs, came up with the idea that a 40 acre, fading industrial area on a peninsula, under a bridge near the centre of Vancouver should be converted to a people place. A young architect named Richard Rabnett was hired to recommend a concept plan and a process for development. Rabnett provided a set of alternative solutions and suggested that a Trust be created to choose the concept and oversee the the project to completion.

Canada has a complex system of overlapping jurisdictions. The title to the land and control was with Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, a Federal Agency. C.M.H.C was the last place in the federal bureaucracy one would have chosen to be responsible for the project. As Voltaire said of the Holy Roman Empire (“It wasn’t Holy, it wasn’t Roman and it wasn’t an Empire) so Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation was not central and would provide no housing on the Island.

As it turned out CMHC was a serendipitous choice. CMHC’s Western Chairman, King Ganong, made it clear at the outset that  he would work by consensus with the appointed trust. Although he had received a legal opinion that there was no power to operate through the trust, he did it anyway. There was a lot of give and take but over a period of ten years, he always reached a consensus. 

Ganong was a great administrator. He brought out the best in people.

The trust was appointed in 1976. It was composed of five individuals with significantly different backgrounds. Geoff Massey had a distinguished career as an architect and had served on City Council. Doug Sutcliff was an experienced developer. Another, Helen Pattison was active in many philanthropic and political activities in Vancouver. My own background was in social planning and law.

This is how things stood:

  • The land was owned by the Federal Government which was immune from either Provincial or Local control in terms of zoning and building regulations. 
  • The Federal Government agreed that it would pay for all infrastructure costs – roads and the entire physical plans but not operating costs. 
  • Since the government was behind it and was anxious to see it succeed approvals were quickly obtained. 
  • The members of the trust had highly varied backgrounds but were all deeply rooted in the community and had a good sense of what would work and what would not. 
  • The existing form of development on the island felt like the ruins of a medieval city. It had a scale and nice feel to it. A policy of conservation was therefore easy to adapt. 

No MacDonalds

  • The first staff manager of the project, Russell Brink, was an astute businessman who was politically connected and had deep roots in the community. 
  • Brink retired and was replaced by Alan Hammond whose background included managing a large Canadian museum 
  • We hired locally and did not seek outside experts- even from Denmark. The Market was organized by a former local Safeway employee. The project architects, Hotson, Bakker & Assoc. were young Vancouverites. 
  • The streetscape and general configuration of the existing buildings would be maintained i.e. low-rise industrial steel buildings and curving streets both of which were atypical for Vancouver. 
  • Contrary to precedent, all land uses would be allowed. That is industrial, commercial, office, cultural and service would be permitted. 
  • National chains like MacDonald’s or Starbucks would not be permitted. 
  • Cars and pedestrians would mix on the streets. There would be no sidewalks. 
  • Two major markets would be permitted. One was the Farmers market and the other was the Maritime market. 
  • Major cultural institutions would be encouraged on the island.
  • An economist, Phil Boname,  was retained  whose experience was in Shopping Center leasing. He recommended and established differential rents depending upon the use. Certain commercial uses like food sales in the market might pay higher rents. Arts and Crafts would enjoy lower rents. 
  • Each tenant in the market and anywhere else in the island was reviewed by the trust. (Some were turned down including a skating rink, a movie theatre, and  food chain. Even Venice has its MacDonald’s but not Granville Island. )
  • The industrial architecture was preserved. 
  • Even the buskers were auditioned and licensed.

The Island has an aura that borders on the chaotic. It is anything but. This is as strictly controlled as any shopping centre but the mix is  different.

How long can it last? 

It can last as long as it works and as long as people like it. Through successive political changes, the original policies have been re-affirmed. Tenants have come and gone but management has ensured an eclectic mix of uses and tenants. Local people shop there – not just tourists.

  • The rental structure continues to permit small, funky businesses to operate. With the success of the island, some retail and commercial uses pay high rents and are able to subsidize arts and other programs. 
  • The island avoided the sometimes stifling influence of Municipal zoning regulations and controls.
  • The Policy of allowing all uses ensured that the market could take up slack in buildings as needed.
  • Buildings on the island were available for parking.
  • There was a massive presence of arts institutions and artists.
Effect of the Island on the rest of Vancouver
  • The nascent Gastown farmer’s market of the 70's collapsed. It could not compete. 
  • Private super markets copied the look of the Granville Island Market. 
  • Other similar markets were created throughout the Vancouver region with mixed success. 

The original Trust set the course for ten years. It resigned in 1985 led by its Chairman, King Ganong, when CMHC decided to run it by itself. It relegated the Trust to an advisory position. Its advice was often disregarded. The Trust seemed to function like a neighborhood association rather than a Board of Trustees.

The flavour of the island comes from small local businesses. Demand for extended hours of operation creates pressure for national chains to replace mom and pop operations.


There is no doubt that because of its central, waterfront location any number of alternative solutions would have made money. It could have been a conventional residential subdivision or an office or light industrial area. 

 It could have been highrise or lowrise. The revenues might even have been higher. 

Marlene Dietrich once warned on the danger of following trends in fashions: What looks good one year looks ridiculous the next. Granville Island avoided that mistake. It was anything but trendy. The mixing of cars  (not to mention cement trucks) and pedestrians on roads without sidewalks ran counter to conventional  engineering practice then and now.

The Island has had an enormous impact on Vancouver and other cities. It shows what can happen on a small piece of land without the  separation of land uses. It has been a successful example of private - public partnership. 

The most valuable lesson for Denmark might be in the process by which it was created. It is fine to study the world,  but the project should be carried out locally and reflect who you are - not who  foreigners think you ought to be.

Jonathan Baker

April 15, 2005


  1. One aspect of Granville Island's history that you didn't touch on Jonathan, is that Ron Basford took this project on because he could see how it could benefit Vancouver (and it certainly didn't hurt his re-election prospects). He was personally committed to ensuring its success. The way he accomplished this was to transfer the administration of Granville Island from Harbours and Ports (or whatever the name was then) to his then Ministry of Urban Affairs. CMHC was then under the jurisdiction of the Veterans' Affairs and Housing, as I recall, and he had it transferred to Urban Affairs. CMHC was working closely at the time with the City of Vancouver inn 1973 to 1980 on the False Creek and Champlain redevelopments, which Basford also was overseeing. So, although an unlikely fit for CMHC, the redevelopment of Granville Island was a key part of the City's redevelopment plans for the whole of False Creek.

    I'm not sure where the idea to redevelop the Island originated. The Creekhouse redevelopment and the first Keg and Cleaver restaurant in 1971-73 showed the potential for what the Island could become. I remember working with the City’s Planner, Don Hickley, who was assigned to Granville Island in 1972. The area was zoned industrial, which allowed restaurants manufacturing and whare-housing, but not office or retail uses. So I worked with Don to stickhandle our Development Permit approvals through the City. The restaurant use was intended to service the industrial workers, but it became the "Creekhouse" and then "Mulvaney's" fine dining establishments. Our architects' offices, which were in the Creekhouse prior to their redevelopment, became a "model-making shop", the shelving retailer became a "whare-house" use, etc. The Planning Department was being encouraged to be helpful in their interpretations by the TEAM Aldermen Walter Hardwick and Art Phillips.

    Bill McCreery

  2. Walter Hardwick, Art Phillips and Mike Harcourt were very supportive. Other Aldermen were not. Harry Rankin called it a "20 million dollar boondoggle."

    The Planning Department was cool to much of the Trust's approach. For one thing they felt that there was a need for more open greenspace pursuant to the parks board's formula. They also did not like the handling of traffic. King Ganong did not ask CMHC to exercise the "Queen's Prerogative" to ignore zoning and everything was peacefully settled.

    The Keg and Cleaver and Mulvaney's restaurants demonstrated the possibilities of the island but the idea of turning Granville Island into a mixed use, people place I think was Basford's. The general framwork was proposed by Rabnetts and Hotson & Co brilliantly executed the plan.