Posted by: VPSN | April 23, 2013

A new home for the Vancouver Art Gallery? Some public space considerations…

Robson Square - Jazz Fest - P1050692

On the floor of City Council earlier today: the Vancouver Art Gallery.  More specifically, a report [PDF] on the subject of its proposed move. And if today’s Council session was any indication, tomorrow’s follow-up will also feature an equally-impassioned discussion related to the Gallery’s all-but-approved relocation to Larwill Park (688 Cambie) from its present-day location at Robson Square.

For those that haven’t heard about the specifics of the report: City staff are recommending that the City proceed with developing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for leasing a portion of the block bounded by Georgia, Dunsmuir, Beatty and Howe (presently an Easy Park parking lot).  The Gallery portion of the site would comprise 1.8 acres in total – about 2/3 of the whole block – and would be leased to the Art Gallery Association for 99 years.  As part of this, the City is also considering the closure of the segment of Cambie Street (between Dunsmuir and Georgia), as well as the potential highest-and-best-use development of the portion of the block not leased to the VAG.

A majority of Council – Vision and NPA at any rate – seem to be on board with the idea.  But, to be sure, the proposed MOU will contain a variety of conditions that need to be met – many of them pertaining to securing the necessary capital – an estimated $300 million – from upper levels of government and other funding sources.

The issue of the move has been on people’s minds for a few years now. The last decade has seen several studies undertaken to look at ways to expand the Gallery – both on its present site and elsewhere in the city. From an advocacy perspective, the call for a larger Gallery has benefited tremendously from the efforts of the seemingly indefatigable Gallery Director Kathleen Bartels.  Most recently, in January 2011, following a public campaign around renewing the Gallery, the City agreed to put a two-year ‘hold’ on the Larwill Park site.

During this time, a variety of counter proposals have been circulated, many of which call for a decentralized Gallery with multiple locations (including this recent one by Michael Green Architecture, and another by Tony Osborne Architecture). Public commentary by architect Bing Thom, Abraham Rogatnick and Bob Rennie have also focussed attention on the possibility of either expanding the current site, or opting for multiple sites around the City. At times, things even seem to have gotten rather acrimonious.

The positions, pro and con, are nothing if not passionate. At one event we attended, there was concern that moving the Art Gallery anywhere from its present location would “rip the heart out” of the downtown.  During the same time, the pleas for moving the site have been equally intense, and concerns have been registered that if the art gallery weren’t allowed to move, that it would be doomed to be a second class cultural institution – unable to expand in a fashion that would allow it to accurately profile its tremendous collection.

This post doesn’t wade into that discussion in any great detail.  Nor does it look at considerations around Gallery funding (or other funding priorities), the notion of iconic architecture and the efficacy (or not) of talking about a ‘cultural precinct’ in Vancouver.  These are all items addressed at length elsewhere.

The VPSN’s position regarding the proposed move has been intentionally ambivalent. Our specific interest – and the topic of this post – focuses on matters related to the downtown public realm and how it, in turn, relates to the Art Gallery.

Both the current VAG location and the Larwill Park site represent important places in Vancouver’s urban landscape.  The current Art Gallery, and in particular its surrounding environs, represents arguably one the most important public gathering area on the downtown peninsula. The latter, Larwill Park, was one of the city’s most prominent gathering areas in the first half of the latter century before being turned first into a bus depot and then into a flat surface asphalt parking lot. Despite its present shape, the site has the potential to play an important role in the network of public spaces that shape and define our city as one of the most liveable places in the world.

To that end, we offer a short (and incomplete) list of three public space items related to the Art Gallery discussion.

(1) Ensuring culture at Robson Square

Regardless of whether or not the ArtGallery stays in its present location or moves, the Robson Square location – including the 800-block of Robson (south side of the VAG) and the NorthPlaza (or CourthousePlaza) of the VAG – will continue to be a hugely important space in the civic life of the city.  This continued vitality is not dependent on the VAG per se; however, the presence of one of the city’s key cultural institutions is nevertheless a factor in the area’s success.

At present, the Art Gallery site is located at the intersection of an intriguing (and, for Vancouver, almost unique) mix of surrounding uses.  There are few places in the city where so many different activities take place in such close proximity to one another – the cultural uses of the Gallery itself are supplemented by the formal and informal programming of Robson Square.  The area itself also sees educational uses (via UBC), institutional activities through the Law Courts and vibrant retail and commercial activity close by. Residential and office uses comprise a big part of the surrounding blocks.

The cultural component is important part of the mix, and we are heartened to see the staff report affirm Council’s “desire to retain the building for future cultural use.”  Should the Gallery move locations, the possibility of one or more new cultural tenants should be seen as an opportunity to supplement the “downtown draw.”  The fact that other potential tenants – such as the Museum of Vancouver, other galleries, performance spaces – would each likely only need to utilize part of the space suggests that the building has the potential to support a variety of uses. It could be a real cultural hub – and that’s not a bad idea at all.

But there’s an equally important aspect that needs to be considered: the need to ensure that the surrounding public space of 800-Robson, Robson Square and the North Plaza are supported and programmed as key gathering areas and activity centres.  These sites already function as rich sites of what we might call “everyday culture” – celebration, protest, markets, busking – and need to be further supported in this respect. Moving the Art Gallery will not diminish the importance of this space for the purposes of everyday culture; similarly, it seems reasonable that any future use of the site must not only respect this facet of public life, it must work to support and enhance it.  This is something, in fact, that the current VAG has only done in a limited fashion, so there is a lot of opportunity here.

Robson Square - Jazz Fest - P1050608 - DetailRobson Square will continue to be a cultural hub

At the same time, the City needs to continue it’s efforts to re-imagine the “Block 51” complex created by Robson, the current Gallery building and the North Plaza. Consultations last year showed substantial and continued support for improvements to both the north and south sides of the Gallery building.  At this point, beyond an RFP to refurbish the underground membrane beneath the north plaza (and some modest upgrades to plaza surface), and a temporary closure of the 800-block of Robson this summer, the next steps here are unclear. Any decision around the ArtGallery will need to motivate a serious and substantive redesign of these exterior spaces.

(2) Imagining a New Future for Larwill Park

The loss of Larwill Park – or at least its slow transformation from pre-eminent gathering area (with parades, carnivals, sports and other activities) to unnamed parking lot – is one of the sadder stories of Vancouver’s history of public space.  With this in mind, the potential re-development of 688 Cambie suggests a brighter future for the Larwill Park site, particularly if there is the possibility of including a civic or cultural function into the mix (versus, say, a purely residential or office venture).

BPO Elks Circus - Cambie Grounds

BPO Elks Circus, Larwill Park, 1926

Naturally, the future would be brighter still if a strong public space feature, or features, were also added.  Larwill Park is one of the stronger place-making opportunities that presently exist is this city.

The Council report from 2011 suggested that the Art Gallery would need to consider the development of a public plaza as part of their proposal.  The present report contemplates the closure of the 600-block of Cambie as a means to integrate the QE Theatre Plaza with the Art Gallery.  The intent is an “integrated” and “unified” public space.  If done right, this could be a very good thing.

Queen Elizabeth Plaza

Queen Elizabeth Theatre Plaza – an opportunity for animation

We’d suggest that this proposed plaza space – which we referred to as “Larwill Plaza” a few years back – needs to be enriched with strong, inclusive design features, as well as enough diversity in its surrounding uses that acquires a life of its own and is not dependent on the VAG (assuming a move) for its vitality.  It needs to be a public plaza, and not just a forecourt for a key cultural tenant.  It is similarly important to ensure that the space avoids the fate of the current QE Plaza, CBC Plaza and VPL North Plaza (Library Square) – all of which take on an overly sterile feeling for much of the year, lacking for a diversity of surrounding uses and the mix of people that such diversity supports.

Larwill Park - P4218883

Larwill today: An EasyPark lot

To that end, as much as creating a connected, integrated space is important, it will be equally important to mobilize a strong mix of uses on-site and in the vicinity.  This could mean ensuring a more active ground-floor level for the Gallery itself (think small artisan studios, a café or two, some shops, a classroom, non-profit arts space), and within any other development (likely residential or office) that takes place on the remainder of the site.  Adjacent buildings to the north and south – and the building owners that operate them – should be encouraged to follow suit.

Finally, we’d encourage any future architects, landscape architects and engineers to put the development of this public space at the front end of any design process related to the site.  The development of a strong and vibrant public space (or spaces) in this area needs to be undertaken with care, coincident with, and integrated into, the design of any buildings on the site.  The design of public space should never be an after-thought, least of all here.

(3) Activating Georgia & Dunsmuir Streets

The two East/West streets that define the Larwill Park site also present important opportunities for an enhanced public realm.  In our 2012-2014 Public Space Routemap, we noted that Georgia Street has long been defined as a key ceremonial street in Vancouver, but one whose “wholeness has been compromised by successive generations of development” and which “under performs” despite its role as an important public space.

There are a lot of things in play right that might change that, and the Larwill Park site is one of them.

Indeed, combining the potential redevelopment of the Larwill site (including the integration of the QE Plaza) could be part of a bigger picture – a revitalization of the street itself, one that could include:

  • A redesigned North Plaza at the current Art Gallery site;
  • A re-imagined Post-Office building;
  • Public realm components associated with the new Telus Garden Building;
  • The possible removal of the Georgia & Dunsmuir Viaducts and replacement with right-sized transportation infrastructure (vs. the current freeway segment);
  • The long-discussed Georgia Steps [PDF] (a pedestrian link between present day Citadel Place down to False Creek via the future North East False Creek neighbourhood.

Some of the commentary around the proposed Art Gallery move centres on the idea that the current Larwill site lacks energy.  It’s hard to dispute this, given that the parking lot is empty most of the time.  We’d go further and suggest that some of the same criticism could be levelled against much of Georgia Street as it is presently realized: a grand street that lacks grandeur and vitality.

But this doesn’t need to be the case – either for the Larwill site, or the street as a whole.  Consideration of all the various components in play could help to address this.  Planning and design work that looks at integrating a larger component of Georgia Street (not just Larwill and QE Plaza) would be appropriate and helpful.

Perhaps the same could also be said of Dunsmuir Street, albeit in a more limited fashion.  Although Dunsmuir doesn’t have the sort of ceremonial designation that Georgia Street does, it still plays an important role in the downtown public realm.  A bit of an unsung hero, it contains a number of privately owned public plazas and gathering spots – including those found at the Amec building and BC Hydro, as well as a mostly generous sidewalk, a separated bikelane and two transit stations.

Cathedral Square - IMG_1316

Cathedral Square, Dunsmuir Street

While a street-length planning might not be necessary here, it will nevertheless be important to ensure that development of the Larwill Park site plays an additive function.  A strong public realm component at the north end of Larwill Park site will help to achieving this, filling in the ‘gap’ created by the current parking lot and further linking the downtown segments of the street.  Additional retail opportunities could further reinforce the mixture of uses that infuses the surrounding gathering areas.

* * * * *

We’ll have a chance to see how the rest of the Council discussion unfolds tomorrow.  Today’s discussion will be continued in the Planning Transportation & Environment Committee Meeting, at which point deputations from the public will be heard.  Regardless of how the discussion plays out, a debate over the outcomes will surely continue long afterward.

Our hope is that the importance of the Robson and Larwill sites to the public life of the city will be as much a part of the discussion as any of the nuts and bolts of VAG business planning. This is a key moment for both sites and for the downtown public realm.  Whatever the outcome, we hope that it’s based on clear thought and big picture thinking – not to mention the sort of decisiveness and creative vision – that is what this whole thing is supposed to be about in the first place.

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