Woodward’s is big, it’s complex.  No doubt, it’s transformative.

First impression: 3 pm, Saturday December 5 – in the atrium.

It was a wow moment – two basketball players shooting hoops on a circluar court in the centre of this soaring space.  On either side, London Drugs and Nesters.  Above, artist Stan Douglas’s depiction of the Gastown Riot of 1971 – a giant photo on glass, staged but seemingly real, that is lit in the same way as the atrium.  It extends the space, and sets the mood.

The Woodward’s development will (no, is) transforming the Downtown East Side.  The change is already being felt, even if the physical transformation of the adjacent blocks is only just beginning.  To stand at the southwest corner of Abbott and Hastings – one of the most intimidating corners in the city, a major drug exchange – and look across to the newly opened London Drugs still comes as a shock.   How did this happen?

Woodward’s is a classic NIC – an example of the “Nixon in China” phenomenon, where the person or political party least expected to be an agent of change is the only one that can pull it off. 

Imagine if this program for Woodward’s had been promoted by the NPA  rather than COPE – specifically Jim Green.  Not much of an exaggeration to say there would have been blood in the streets, as those fighting gentrification in the Downtown East Side would have mounted a major campaign to stop it.  And yet, because the civic Left could not be outflanked, because of the skill with which Green pursued his agenda and because of the effectiveness of the public process, the project is largely being embraced as a benefit to the community in which it was once an anchor, and may become so again.

But this is just the beginning.  Across Hastings, the blank-eyed storefronts are starting to awake.  By the Olympics, this block will look and feel so different, it may well be the story conveyed to the rest of the world – not the indictment of neglect that some were expecting, and even counting on.

UPDATE: Just ran into Mark Townsend of the Portland Hotel Society in the atrium (and isn’t that the point: just running into people.)  PHS will be handling the security for this public space – a smart idea, given the diversity of the community being served. 

As he pointed out, the atrium has been designed to facilitate (if not require) everyone using all the different components of Woodward’s to flow through this space.  Whether you’re a student in SFU Contemporary Arts, a shopper, a banker, a theare-goer, a condo owner, a low-income tenant, a family, a basketball player, a member of an NGO, or just someone taking a shortcut, the atrium welcomes you.   (And Mark was in the process of making sure there would be a storefront for a service agency too, in addition to all the other uses.)

Construction hasn’t even finished yet, and it’s clear that the Woodward’s Atrium has the potential to be one of Vancouver’s most diverse and stimulating spaces.

UPDATE: I’ve been trying to figure out what the Woodward’s Atrium reminds me of.  I thought, first, that it resembled the central court of some 1970s community college back east, a place where they build enclosed urban rooms to deal with the winter, where the materials are strong and basic – brick, concrete, tile. 

And then it struck me: it’s more like a downtown Montreal Metro stop, where the underground city comes to the surface and the towers rise above, where retail stores have their primary entrances on the inside, not on the street, and where these atriums serve as performance and exhibition spaces. 

This is not a criticism, even though Vancouver weather doesn’t require enclosed malls – and we’ve not been particularly successful at creating them (see Pacific, Royal and Scotia Centres).  For the reasons mentioned above, I think this will still be a very successful space, particularly when it’s used for performances (which is what the bastketball court spontaneously allows for).  But there is a bit too much of the blank brick wall to my taste, particularly in the breezeway to Cordova Street.  A fine opportunity for some more public art, I’d say.


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  2. Can someone explain why a glass mural of a riot is being commemorated in the atrium? I was very disappointed with the ‘dark’ feeling of this huge image in a space that is supposed to embrace a new beginning.

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