The Key to Safe Streets: Five Cities Humanizing Street Design

How Granville Island Came to Be

Lino Siracusa
Sep 10, 2012
Dec 14, 2017

This is a guest post by the authors of the People+Place blog.

Granville Island's Wrights Canadian Ropes Ltd building is now the The Public Market / Photo: Lino Siracusa

Over the years, Granville Island has received much attention from urban planners, developers, architects and Placemakers as a successful model for brownfield redevelopment. Truly successful places—those that appeal to our minds, hearts and souls—offer us a way to connect with each other. These places develop organically over time, and are more about emotion than they are about economics and design. Granville Island is one of those special places, created out of necessity and a unique sense of what the community needed at the time.

It is doubtful that Granville Island could be replicated somewhere else today, and further, whether one would want to replicate it in any regard. The island, as it is today, is so much a product of its time, the people who saw a vision for what it could become, and some several unique conditions that allowed it to develop as it did. Nevertheless, many of the elements and processes used in the re-development of Granville Island are applicable to other sites. To better understand the island in its present state, let's look at how it came to be.

Granville Island originally comprised two sand bars in Vancouver’s False Creek, which were used by local First Nations people as places to meet and to collect shellfish. In 1916, the federally-administered Vancouver Harbour Commission (VHC) built a seawall around the sand bars and created 41 acres of land to be used by industry. The VHC leased parcels of land to tenants who built their factories and mills in post and beam structures clad in corrugated tin. For 40 years, industry thrived on the island while the city of Vancouver grew around it.

Granville Island, circa 1916 (Click to enlarge) / Photo: Lino Siracusa

In the 1960s, many of the industries began to move away due to changing market conditions. Those that remained were dirty. The island became an eyesore while the waters of False Creek became heavily polluted. The public’s sense of the environment was increasing, and they felt that something should be done to clean up the area; both the City of Vancouver and the Federal Government agreed.

The Canadian government transferred the management and redevelopment of the Island to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) in 1973. This occurred at a time when CMHC was developing the south shore of False Creek for housing. A group of influential and innovative people was appointed to a new body,  the Granville Island Trust, to assist CMHC in implementing a plan for the future. A budget of $20 million was allocated for the redevelopment.

While the City of Vancouver and the Trust couldn’t initially agree on a vision for the Island, they eventually came to a compromise and a basic concept came together. This vision is articulated in a plan, the Granville Island Reference Document, which still acts as the chief formal agreement between the City and the Federal Government, providing a regulatory framework for the island.

A fundamental principal was that Granville Island would become a "people place" while still remaining reflective of its industrial maritime heritage. The Reference Document establishes some broad guidelines: the island is accessible to everyone, existing buildings are re-used when possible, and space is allocated for a variety of land uses (limiting retail to arts and crafts, maritime products and a pubic market).

However, unlike most land use plans, the Reference Document does not establish any zoning or other criteria for urban works such as street profiles. Nor does it prescribe how the vision shall be implemented. This permissive regulatory framework was acceptable to the City of Vancouver because Granville Island is federal land. If the land was privately owned, city zoning would have applied. This framework, along with the limited government funding for redevelopment, set the stage for Granville Island to develop in a very unique and organic way.

Buildings that once housed Spear and Jackson Saws & the Tyee Machinery Co. are now the False Creek Community Centre / Photo: Lino Siracusa

The redevelopment of Granville Island commenced in 1975 and was essentially completed with the opening of the Public Market in 1979 (though one could argue that its redevelopment still continues in an incremental manner to this day). Another principle that was established at this time was that Granville Island would involve both public and private investment. The cost to implement the vision exceeded the $20 million budgeted by the federal government.

It was determined that the federal funds could best be used for infrastructural projects such as replacing underground services, building new seawalls, roads, street lighting and providing other unifying design elements. Some of these funds were also needed to reacquire industrial leases that were years away from expiration. However, not all leases could be reacquired, as the money available simply wasn’t sufficient. This explains why a concrete plant is still located on the island, mixed in with the Public Market, artisan studios, and other public attractions!

The public sector was invited to bid on development opportunities relating to specific sites. The successful bidders were offered long-term leases. The old post and beam tin clad buildings were turned over to the developers in an as-is condition. Therefore the new tenants had to make significant investments to bring the buildings to code and the projects to market. CMHC imposed strict requirements for design and use of space to ensure that efforts to create a “people place” were not compromised. These design requirements ensure that the industrial maritime heritage is respected. Similarly, building use is strictly controlled by lease agreements so that all activities are harmonious.

Early tenants included those from the public sector (the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, False Creek Community Centre), those from the not-for-profit sector (Arts Club Theatre), and those from the private sector (The Creekhouse, Granville Island Brewery, Bridges Restaurant, Maritime Market, Kid’s Only Market, and the Granville Island Hotel), as well as many independent artisans who occupied CMHC buildings. The diversity of tenants has contributed to the unique experience that we see today on Granville Island.

Triangle Square today functions as a multipurpose space used by the farmers market & street performers. / Photo: Lino Siracusa
Lino Siracusa
Lino Siracusa
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