Staff with the City of Vancouver are set to embark on an area planning process to guide future redevelopments within downtown Vancouver’s Granville Entertainment District, and the area’s revitalization.
The new 18-month planning process would span the properties along both sides of a six-city-block stretch of Granville Street between Robson Street and Drake Street, as well as a myriad of considerations to catalyze new office and retail uses, enhance cultural uses, retain heritage character, and improve people-friendly public spaces and access to public transit.
This specifically includes improving the reliability and efficiency of public transit buses on the Granville Strip. The last time the street and entertainment district’s public spaces underwent a complete redesign was just before the 2010 Olympics.
The overarching intent of the new planning effort is to “re-establish Granville as a premier destination for all,” by positioning the street and the entertainment district as a “leading destination for locals and visitors, with a diversity of attractions and public life offering.”
This “Granville Street Planning Program” splits the six-block stretch of Granville Street into three segments.
Both the northernmost two-block “K1” area between Robson and Nelson streets and the middle single block of “K2” between Nelson and Helmcken streets would be prioritized for job space, with zero consideration for any residential uses. This segment is currently home to the bulk of the Granville Strip’s nightclubs, bars, and entertainment venues, as well as the site of Bonnis Properties’ enormous 800 Granville Street mixed-use redevelopment proposal on the northernmost end of the planning area.
The southernmost two-block “K3” area between Helmcken and Drake streets would also prioritize job space, but there would also be “limited” rental housing opportunities, “which will be considered for modest increases in rental housing along with below-market requirements.” The reason: “Protecting and intensifying employment use in the Downtown remains a priority for the City.”
The excess light and noise from restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and entertainment venues that operate late into the night are generally not deemed to be compatible with residential uses.
The cluster of social housing, supportive housing, and single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels within the entertainment district is largely focused on the southernmost area of K3. Such low-income rental housing uses on the strip have grown enormously over the last few years during the pandemic, with levels of the government acquiring tourist hotels for their rapid conversion into permanent supportive housing, such as the controversial conversion of the Howard Johnson Hotel and Hostelling International’s Vancouver Central Hostel.
According to the City, there are eight SRO buildings containing about 570 rooms within the entertainment district, not including the social housing and supportive housing units.
“Today, Granville Street is challenged by a lack of daytime activity, vacant storefronts, safety and public disorder concerns, violence related to public intoxication, and rising concerns about people experiencing homelessness,” state City staff in their framework for the area’s planning effort.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated many of these issues, creating a significant strain on local businesses and nearby residents. This has contributed to an overall negative perception of Granville Street, as highlighted in local media and public feedback from recent City-led engagement.”
At a cost of about $300,000, the planning process will run through the end of the second quarter of 2024, when City staff will present a final area plan for Vancouver City Council’s review and approval.
Between now and the middle of 2024, there will be an interim rezoning policy blanketing this six-block stretch of Granville Street, which will temporarily restrict the submission of new rezoning enquires, policy enquires, or rezoning applications within the planning area — until City Council approves the area plan.
However, there will be an exception to the already-submitted 800 Granville Street rezoning application, which is the main trigger for the new planning process for the entire entertainment district. City staff will process the redevelopment proposal’s application concurrently with its area planning work, instead of asking proponents to hold off and further delay until the second half of 2024.
As usual, the rezoning application’s final consideration will culminate with a public hearing with City Council. However, City staff suggest they intend to potentially refine the proposal to a degree that is typically not seen during such review processes.
“The application is anticipated to include an ‘enhanced’ engagement process, which means there is an opportunity for policy development and deeper public engagement beyond that of a typical rezoning application. Staff and the applicant will work collaboratively to explore development options (i.e. massing, height, and density) and this work will be publically available for review throughout the application process,” state City staff.
“The proposed planning program includes a comprehensive review of land use and zoning, development and design guidelines, and heritage policies. Outdated policies will be rescinded and/or replaced. This planning program will also explore the merits of potential economic, heritage, and cultural benefits of recent rezoning inquiries and bring forward the necessary consequential amendments to bylaws or policies, in accordance with the recommendations from the Granville Street Planning Program.”
Last year, in previous planning reports, City staff suggested they were at odds with 800 Granville Street’s deviation from the Granville Strip’s “distinctive heritage character” and its impact on natural light/shadowing on the street. Both of these factors are noted by City staff to be some of their key considerations in the forthcoming area planning work.
As currently proposed, 800 Granville Street would be a redevelopment of most of the east side of the street between Robson and Smithe streets. It would be a 260-ft-tall, 16-storey building with 420,000 sq ft of office space within the upper levels, 103,000 sq ft of retail and restaurant space in the first three levels, and 90,000 sq ft of new and retained cultural and entertainment spaces, including the full retention and preservation of the Commodore Ballroom and Commodore Lanes and billiards. This would be accomplished by building a structural bridge over the entire mid-block Commodore building, preserving the building structure entirely. The heritage facades of other buildings would be retained and preserved.
In exchange for the requested commercial density, the developer is proposing to build a 15,000-sq-ft, 320-seat black box theatre directly above the Commodore building. Upon completion, the theatre will be gifted to the City of Vancouver as a public benefit that expands the Orpheum Theatre complex. As well, the Orpheum Theatre would also benefit from the back-of-house access improvements for the Commodore Ballroom.
The project’s economic analysis shows $23 million in annual economic spinoffs for the immediate area’s retail and dining businesses just from the building’s 4,000 office workers, which will generate about 11,000 additional pedestrian movements daily. This is in addition to the thousands of daily visitors to the building’s major retail, restaurants, and entertainment venues. All of this added foot traffic will also serve to enhance street vibrancy and safety.
In July 2022, the previous City Council rejected City staff’s recommendation to put a halt to any further consideration of the project. At that juncture, City Council directed City staff to process the rezoning application that was first submitted in August 2021 and produce a referral report that makes the necessary changes to City bylaws and policies for this project to be considered. The Granville Street Planning Program is part of this process.
Redevelopments such as 800 Granville Street would align with the goal of diversifying Granville Street’s activity into the daytime through the addition of office workers, retail, and restaurants, instead of its traditional sole focus for the nighttime economy.
In 2024, Cineplex will open its REC Room entertainment hub attraction within the K1 area on the strip, replacing its former Empire Granville 7 theatres just across from 800 Granville Street. The four-storey, 45,000 sq ft REC Room will feature 100 amusement games, multiple dining options, including a casual sit-down restaurant and sports bar, as well as an 11,000 sq ft performance and event space with a capacity for up to 640 people. The attraction was originally set for a 2021 opening, but construction progress incurred delays due to the pandemic.