"Restaurant row" part of new bold vision for a vibrant Granville Street in downtown
Imagine a fully revitalized Granville Street in downtown Vancouver that sees an intensification and diversification of its commercial, entertainment, arts, and culture offerings, and a revamped public realm that helps support a safe and electric atmosphere, around the clock.
That is the new vision for the Granville Entertainment District (GED), by the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA), which worked with placemaking firm Resonance Consultancy on a new framework report for the reimagining of the troubled strip.
A new massive restaurant row
Through refits of existing buildings, new mixed-use redevelopments, and municipal policies that encourage such uses, a “restaurant row” — a large cluster of restaurants, with a wide range of variety — would be established on Granville Street south of Robson Street over time. While restaurant offerings have expanded in Yaletown and Gastown in recent years, a significantly larger dining destination on Granville Street would be deemed as “Downtown Vancouver’s Restaurant Row.”
A restaurant row would further develop Vancouver’s overall culinary appeal, while also bringing new life to the area by attracting diverse populations. A food hall embedded into a redevelopment could also serve as one of the anchors.
“We’ve seen some positive directions from the opening of Colony Bar, which was previously Caprice Nightclub,” Charles Gauthier, the president and CEO of the DVBIA, told Daily Hive Urbanized.
“Let’s convert some nightclubs into a restaurant venue, as it is more widely open to more people, rather than retain a nightclub that is usually only active on weekend nights.”
This restaurant row idea is backed by data that shows entertainment and culinary experiences are by far the top two drivers for downtown visitation over the past decade. This is also an approach that is aligned with long-term trends in the nightlife economy, not just in Vancouver but in many other major cities.
“Prior to COVID-19, and this is not unique to Vancouver, there is less participation in people in traditional forms of nightlife, the nightclubs in particular. When you look at cities around the world, people are choosing to spend their entertainment and leisure times in different ways,” said Chris Fair, the president, and CEO of Resonance.
Public spaces, public art, and major events
Furthermore, restaurant operations would be further supported by a permanent patio program, taking advantage of the wide sidewalk spaces along much of the street. Temporary patios that were installed last year would mark the start of a bustling patio zone.
An expansion of the activations in the laneways off Granville Street would further support the renewed uses of the district.
Complimenting the existing neon installations that light up the street at night, additional public and digital art, such as light installations, digital screens, sculptures, and murals, would add attractive visual elements to the streetscape and intensify the street’s unique character and identity.
The other major component to this revitalization is bringing a critical mass to the street that supports businesses and the diversified uses of the entertainment district.
For one, the GED needs more and larger public events and festivals. To date, Granville Street has only been used to host small community-level events, such as TaiwanFest, but none reach the calibre of a major signature event that closes down the street for pedestrians and live performances, with retailers, vendors, and entertainment and music venues offering both indoor and outdoor activations and programming that spills out onto the street.
With ongoing funding for event planning and marketing, such an event would become an annual tradition over time, becoming the most vibrant street fair in the city. Some capital investments in event-supporting infrastructures, such as power connections, should also be made.
To further support all of these activities, the municipal government’s food truck, live music, noise regulations should be relaxed, and requirements for creating events and pop-up activations should be simplified.
“We do know that events are extremely powerful in terms of changing people’s perceptions of an area,” said Gauthier.
“They are community building, they tick boxes in terms of getting people to get to know each other. They certainly do help in bringing people downtown who don’t go downtown on a regular basis. They can be very powerful tools and can really help change perceptions and bring business.”
Cosmetic upgrades alone will fail
Besides temporary critical mass through events, there is also the overwhelming need for permanent critical mass, specifically through redevelopment that provides levels of offices and hotels above retail, restaurants, and entertainment venues.
Prior to the pandemic, most of the visitation during the GED was during the nighttime, but a high density of office employees in the area would serve to significantly boost foot traffic in the area during the daytime, effectively improving public safety, and directly support retail and restaurants in the area.
All of the above folds into the need for further public realm and beautification improvements to the street and buildings. But Fair says it is important to acknowledge that focusing on the public realm and beautification will only go so far as to revitalize the GED.
“We can’t just focus on cosmetic improvements to the street. We could change all the street furniture, plant more trees, and do all kinds of beautification to the street. The reality is we need to do both development and beautification,” said Fair.
“We need to look at revisions to zoning, density, and height, create solutions that put more people on the street, to begin with. Secondly, we need to create an attractive environment that will draw more people who will want to visit the street. It is not one or the other that will solve the problems for Granville Street, the reality is we need a combination of development and placemaking to improve the environment that is there.”
As a further example, permanently turning Granville Street into a pedestrian-only strip by closing it to vehicles, and relocating the buses to Seymour Street and Howe Street, will not necessarily improve the street. In fact, it could make things worse.
“There are some successful pedestrian-only streets around the world, but there are also some examples of pedestrian-only streets that struggle. We need to be careful, it’s about trying to figure out the right multi-modal mix of transportation,” said Fair.
“I don’t think just removing the buses and making Granville Street pedestrian-only is necessarily the option or the solution to what we need for the GED. We need to start with the bigger picture, look at the types of transportation required that are appropriate to create the experience and environment for the audiences we’re seeking to attract.”
Gauthier notes that a full closure of Granville Street to cars for pedestrian-only uses also requires major investments in programming, public safety, and street-cleaning.
“If you close it off entirely to traffic and you don’t pay attention to these other things, some of the concerns like perceptions that the place is not safe and being a place for homeless people is just going to get magnified,” said Gauthier.
However, Fair adds, there is a natural synergy or opportunity to tie in future GED public realm improvements with plans for walking and cycling pathways on the Granville Street Bridge.
“We shouldn’t be looking at this in isolation… but how do we extend that to Granville Street Bridge from South Granville all the way to Waterfront Station. How that works together to create an experience as a destination is probably one of the most significant opportunities that downtown Vancouver has in front of it to think about and create over the next 10 years,” said Fair.
But again, a narrow focus on the public realm would produce limited results. Fair notes the critical mass redevelopment proposal of 800 Granville Street is the “right intent and strategy for what is required on Granville Street, not only at this location but entertainment districts in general.” The commercial-only redevelopment has a total floor area of about 650,000 sq ft, including 377,000 sq ft of office space in the upper levels, 86,300 sq ft of retail and restaurant space within the lower levels, and 78,165 sq ft of entertainment space.
There will be enough office space at 800 Granville Street for 4,000 workers, with this workforce population estimated to spend $28 million on retail and restaurants in the area annually.
800 Granville Street also preserves heritage facades and restores the entirety of the Commodore Building, preserving the Commodore Ballroom and Commodore Billiards bowling alley. It will also enhance the event-staging capabilities of both the Commodore Ballroom and Orpheum Theatre, and provide the GED with an additional performance hall — a 14,700-sq-ft, 320-seat venue that will be funded by the developer but owned by the city upon completion.
Gauthier suggested 800 Granville Street should be pursued as an experiment on the city block south of Robson Street. Similar to the way the municipal government is considering policies that stimulate immediate social and rental housing further to the south along the street over a two city block stretch between Helmcken and Drake streets.
He is concerned that rare revitalization redevelopment opportunities like 800 Granville Street and other initiatives to improve the strip could be bogged down by city staff’s emerging approach to conduct a years-long planning process that establishes new policies and regulations for the GED.
“We’re going to fold this into our working plan for the DVBIA starting very soon. We can’t wait for everyone to agree on a vision of Granville Street because it’s going to need some help coming out of the pandemic,” said Gauthier.
“We need to do something, and we need to do it much sooner rather than later.”
Gauthier also expressed some concern over adding residential space to a commercial and entertainment district, especially if it reduces the potential for additional commercial space, and provides a limited range of housing opportunities. Granville Street is already flanked by condominiums on its sides, and there is a large and growing cluster of low-income housing at the southern end of the GED, with a concentration of single-room occupancy properties and the recent conversion of the Howard Johnson hotel into supportive housing for the homeless.
Granville Street has seen much stagnation and deterioration over the past decade, especially with its southern end — the span between Pacific and Nelson streets, with growing crime, cleanliness, and social issues, such as homelessness. The 800 block of Granville Street has also struggled somewhat, largely due to the extended inactivity of the former Empire Theatres complex, which is now being redeveloped by Cineplex into The Rec Room.
Based on visitor surveys, Granville Street is currently perceived as the most insecure area in downtown Vancouver for both locals and tourists. Other than its use as a transit corridor for buses, it is primarily seen as only a nightlife destination in the evening, which makes it problematic for all other hours of the day.
These longstanding conditions and perceptions of the strip, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, have pushed the retail space vacancy rate from 9% in 2010 to 16% in 2020 — the highest rate of commercial vacancies in downtown Vancouver.
“There is now an opportunity in the moment of time to reimagine what Granville Street can be in the future, not only for Granville Street in downtown but as it reflects in the city as a whole, being that it is a key corridor for local residents and international visitors,” says Fair.
“Downtown Vancouver is admired around the world, but the reality is the spine of downtown, which is Granville Street, our historic main street, is not the best place in the city centre.”