Posted by: VPSN | March 2, 2012

What next for the Sears Building?


You may have read that Sears is closing its downtown Vancouver store, located in the block bounded by Howe, Granville and Robson. They’ve had the remainder of their lease bought out by property-owner Cadillac-Fairview for the princely sum of $170million… sort of a severance package of sorts, and one that will apparently allow the struggling retailer to focus its efforts on other stores.

This move certainly has gotten people talking. No sooner did we finish reading up on the story than folks started to contact us to pass along the news.

There’s clearly lots of interest in what will happen next. The Globe and Mail, for one, speculated that US-retailer Nordstrom might take over the site. Design-critic Trevor Boddy, on CBC radio this morning, said he felt that the (dare we say “iconic”) building makes an ideal site for the Vancouver Art Gallery expansion. Our pal Gord Price is on deck for an early afternoon interview as well.

The Sears building certainly is notable. It has its fans, to be sure. And it has the distinction of being designed by ‘starchitect’ César Pelli. It’s also listed on the City’s heritage register.

But it also has its detractors – and has been derided as “one of the city’s worst eyesores.” Something we’ve heard a fair bit over the years.

Given the prominence of the building to Robson Square, we’ve enjoyed often wondered what the ‘Sears’ site might be like if the building wasn’t there. It was a question that was on the mind of a number of entrants during our Where’s the Square? Ideas Competition a few years ago.

One of the submissions proposed consolidating the built form of the block to open up the southern half for an expanded public square:

Robson2 detail

Another entrant envisioned a more arcadian treatment – literally splitting the building in half and opening it up as a multi-level public space

092 Sea Square

Given the real estate economics behind the lease buy-out, we imagine that neither of these options will be front-of-mind for Cadillac-Fairview. But having said that, it’s still nice to dream…

York Hotel CVA 99-3995

The York Hotel – on the site of the current Sears Building – CVA 99-3995

The city, after all, is always changing. Before there was Sears there was Eaton’s (in the same building). And before there was Eaton’s there was the old York Hotel. Buildings get built, they last, they change uses. And then? There’s longevity for some and not for others, and the factors that determine these sorts of things aren’t always that easy to predict.



  1. Thanks for this, VPSN. Very interesting. I have to agree with Trevor Boddy: my vote is for the City to quickly secure the building, designed after all by Cesar Pelli, for the VAG. It should have been done when Eaton’s closed. I think this is our last chance and it solves the problem of what to do with the courthouse – perhaps build a walkway between the two? Vancouver despite its tiny size is one of the top 10 (possibly top 5?) visual art-producing cities in the world and more than deserves a very central chunk of downtown real estate. It’s far better than the Larwill Park site, which is out of the way. And stats show cultural/architectural tourism is extremely lucrative for cities – we’ve got to start capitalizing on that.

  2. I believe The City’s Plan for the VAG is the new Arts entertainment district next to CBC.

  3. Yes, that’s the Larwill Park site. I don’t think you can often successfully designate “arts/entertainment districts” – it doesn’t work as well as using existing busy, people-filled, pedestrian spaces like Robson Square/ Sears Building (Eaton’s building) area. Arthur Erickson and a host of others including top Vancouver architects and artists have expressed a desire to see the VAG in the Sears building site. Wouldn’t be too hard to assemble a huge list of prominent names supporting that move, I don’t think.

  4. 1) Non-market housing
    2) Public square (make it the city’s living room like Pioneer Square in Portland)
    3) Non-market and rental housing AND public square
    4) Public square and non-profit and space for artistic and cultural organizations

  5. As enticing as the idea is, using the site for the long stymied Art Gallery move is probably beyond our civic, or provincial, capacity. (Despite the wonderful words, recall that saving the Pantages proved too difficult.) Envisioning the future of the Gallery, the Robson site is a vastly better than Larwill Park. But with each passing year, it is now clear the necessary support from all stakeholders would likely not be available for such a move. Alas, we have no billionaire with taste and a love of culture, such as Paul Allen, to ride to our rescue. Those Vancouverites who visit museums in Seattle can only look on with envy at the architectural result of his cultural philanthropy. We have no equivalent. Indeed, it is comic to imagine our titan, Jim Pattison, caring to help fund a new Art Gallery. Optimists might hold out hope that Chip Wilson, with free time now, will become bored with his new wealth and be inspired by the examples of other enlightened billionaires.

  6. #DemolishSears and create a real downtown public square.

  7. Whatever else happens the urinal wall aspect of the street-level along Granville has to be broken open and enlivened.

  8. Cadillac Fairview paid $170 million to end Sears’ least. I’m not sure the City can get involved at that price tag.

  9. VMAG: VanModern Art Gallery gets my vote, if we were voting. Linked by a bridge to the current gallery, which could become the new home of the Museum of Vancouver and Bing Thom Architects’ proposal/idea for a new concert hall underneath the current plaza (and get rid of the fountain).

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