The Shipyards – a mixed-use commercial development at the centre of the City of North Vancouver’s Central Waterfront – officially opened this weekend. The commercial offerings (the restaurants, the boutiques, the Cap U extension) are still to come – but more importantly the public space that serves not just Lower Lonsdale (LoLo) but the whole North Shore is near complete.
The Shipyards replaces the bloodlessly named Lot 5 in the plan below – and the green-coloured Commons’ fulfils almost exactly the vision that informed the project from the beginning: a covered year-round public space big enough, at 12,000 square feet, to accommodate major events while still providing a flexible intimacy needed to give sparkle to what mayor Linda Buchanan calls ‘the jewel in the crown.’
What makes this space special (as designed by Dialog, among whose principals, Norm Hotson and Joost Bakker, were the architects of Granville Island) are not just what’s on the floor but also the walls and ceiling: a spectacular industrial legacy above, a retractable roof extension over the water park alongside, with galleries surrounding the space to the east and south. The constant animation, with people looking down, up and across, moving around to capture views and Instagrammable moments both front and back, makes this space dynamic in three dimensions.
As was evident at the opening, North Van City is swarming with children, many being raised in high-density Lower Lonsdale. This is their playground. And for a community as outdoorsy and athletic as any in North America, the spaces have been programmed for their tastes: water parks, basketball courts, play spaces and especially a skating rink – hopefully spacious enough to be everything the failure at Robson Square isn’t.
Good design, which this has (even large washrooms!), isn’t sufficient to ensure success. The space requires high-quality infrastructure – notably an excellent encompassing sound system and state-of-the-art lighting (it’s hopefully coming). It must be surrounded by viable commercial operations – and uses beyond the commercial, especially cultural (which this has, with the Polygon Gallery and, soon, the North Van museum nearby). They in turn need a large local population (which LoLo provides), frequent transit (hey, a B-Line in addition to SeaBus) and a modicum of parking. There needs to be strong connections into the surrounding community (which the central waterfront still lacks to the east, is fractured by the Seaspan offices to the west and, to the north, the expanse of Esplanade). Finally, and importantly, a budget to support otherwise unprofitable activities and for long-term maintenance.
Well, not finally. There is one important factor that any complicated project needs, especially one requiring long-term vision and continuity in the face of controversy. That’s a political champion, with the support of at least a majority of the enabling councils over time and, ideally, senior governments. And the Central Waterfront has had that in the person of past mayor Darrell Mussatto – who was there to rightfully celebrate the achievement of a vision that leaves a legacy for him and for the North Shore generally.
While the District Councils of North and West Vancouver remain mired in suburban pasts, their residents will at least have a place to come together for their mutual enjoyment – thanks to the leadership of a generation of leaders in the City who were able to leave behind the hope that North Vancouver would retain its industrial and ship-building glory on this site, and then moved on to build a new kind of commons.
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