Credit: Flickr / Jennie Faber

What does the new Woodward's building mean for the Downtown Eastside, and what lessons are there for other down-and-out heritage sites?

Long before the redevelopment of the Woodward's building was completed—to offer a mix of market and social housing reinvigorating Vancouver’s oldest neighborhood—there were skeptics of the plan; not least from the potential buyers:

"I got a call from a guy who was from L.A. and who had expressed interest in buying a unit, and he was in town walking around the [Woodward's] building. While he was there, a woman on the sidewalk dropped her drawers in front of him. So he took a photo of her on his cellphone, sent it to me and asked: 'Should I be worried?'"

But that was in April of 2006, and the optimists seem to have the upper hand these days. Business has already picked up. One example:

Last year, Nuba moved from its original 550-square-foot location in the 300 block of West Hastings to its current 3,700-square-foot restaurant a block further east. Rather than serving 100 people a day, it now caters to an average 500, including takeout.

Of course, Woodward's didn’t get the green light purely as an economic driver for neighbourhood small businesses (although if that’s all it was, that would still be an improvement for the area). The building will also benefit from a facility called SFU Woodwards, built into the former department store section, housing “unique dance, film, music, visual arts and theatre training programs [in] stunning new cultural facilities.”

Why does the Woodward's building matter?

Contrary to what many people think about our city as a relative latecomer on the North American city scene, we actually do have a fair bit of heritage worth blubbering about to our Olympic visitors.

The Woodward's building may not have the stony wisdom of the Roman Colosseum, but it does contain the original portion of the structure built in 1903. It was said to pioneer the concept of one-stop shopping—a sort of forerunner for our consumer culture (for better or worse).

At a time when Vancouver was about as relevant to the world as Saskatoon is today, Woodward's was big news. So for reasons of promoting our heritage, the redevelopment of the space is a win.

But the flip side of heritage is continuity. Vancouverites want livable neighbourhoods, giving the thumbs down (more or less) to the suburban model that dominates the rest of the continent. So Woodward's isn't just one building so much as a possible example of how we do revitalization citywide. Think Chinatown, Strathcona or parts further out.

Of course, a big focus for both our visitors and us locals who are here for the long run is just how the Downtown Eastside evolves.

I’m glad to see positive signals coming out of the Woodward's building and am hopeful that this sort of development will be sign of things to come for one of Vancouver’s most resilient yet challenged communities.

Jonathon Narvey blogs for Granville magazine about civic politics, policy and urban issues in Vancouver. Read more.