Friday, March 2, 2012

Should the VAG move into Sears?

I awoke this morning to the news on the CBC Early Edition that Sears has decided to vacate its space in Pacific Centre. My immediate thought was of the Vancouver Art Gallery! Why?

Because around 2003, as a Trustee of the VAG, I served on its expansion committee chaired by Michael Audain. One of the four planning options put forward by Michael Maltzan, the LA architect who had been retained by the gallery to explore expansion options, was to expand on-site, and into the adjacent Sears store with a bridge connection over Howe Street.

It was my favourite 'on-site' expansion option; however it was not pursued after preliminary discussions with Cadillac Fairview, owners of Pacific Centre, revealed that Sears had a 30+ year lease with a very expensive buy out provision and no plans to move.

However, upon hearing the news that Sears was now leaving, I tweeted this information out to CBC's Early Edition, and this led to an exchange of tweets with a number of people including Ian Bailey of the Globe and Mail and News 1130's Erin Loxam.

While I knew the gallery would prefer to continue to explore the feasibility of a new facility on the Larwill Park site at Cambie and Georgia, (see my earlier blog posting I thought that the pending departure of Sears did offer a new opportunity that should at least be explored, especially if Nordstrom's, who I am told is considering the possibility of a Vancouver location, is not interested in the space.

I discussed this with both Ian and Erin, as well as another Twitter follower Robert Zimmerman of CBC News. My views were aired on CBC and News1130 and included in a Globe and Mail story by Ian Bailey that will appear in tomorrow's newspaper.

All from one little little tweet!

While the gallery is now intent on pursuing the Larwill Park option, I think the Sears site opens up a number of possibilities. For one thing, it would allow the VAG to remain on what is undoubtedly the best site in the city, and still achieve the required expansion space.

The reuse of Sears would fit nicely with Vancouver's goal of becoming the most sustainable city in the world by 2020, since the re-use of a vacant department store and former Court House is certainly more 'sustainable' than building a brand new building.

Finally, moving the VAG into the Sears building would result in the repair of what many consider to be the ugliest wall in the city. While most would like to see the building demolished, I don't think this is necessary. But it would be desirable to significantly alter the big white wall, with the addition of many large windows and other architectural treatments.

I should add that permission for a major new residential tower on the Pacific Centre property might help make the whole proposition more financially feasible.

Here's Ian's story:

VAG should consider moving into Sears site, advocates say

The Vancouver Art Gallery should adjust its planning for a new home to consider moving into the downtown Sears site, which is to be vacated this year, says the city councillor who has been handling theVAG-expansion file.

Sears Canada Inc. has just announced it will close the Vancouver store, located across Howe Street from the VAG, by the end of October.

“This is a new option. We should take a look at it,” said Heather Deal, who is encouraging the VAG to open a file on the possibility of using the complex. Ms. Deal said she had not had an opportunity Friday to discuss the surprise development with the VAG.

Ms. Deal said, however, it may turn out that it’s cheaper to build a new gallery than moving into an existing building, but added that both alternatives need to be studied.

The gallery has been intent on building a new gallery on city-owned land at the Larwill Park site, located at Georgia and Cambie. City council has agreed to reserve two acres of the property for two years so the VAG can explore its options. Among other things, it has to come up with a business plan and raise the $250-million to $300-million required for the project.

Gallery director Kathleen Bartels, travelling Friday, was unavailable for comment. In a statement, the gallery said it was focused on planning for the Georgia and Cambie site. Dana Sullivant, marketing and communications director for the gallery, did not respond to voicemail and e-mail queries about whether the Sears building could affect those plans.

Michael Geller, a former member of the board of trustees at the VAG, said Sears was an opportunity the VAG should now consider, starting with a conversation with Cadillac Fairview, which owns the Sears property.

Mr. Geller, who said his preference was to keep the VAG in the heart of the city, said one option might be maintaining retail space in the lower levels of the Sears building and the VAG moving into the rest.

He noted there were discussions about VAG’s use of the Sears building in about 2003 - with some design work done that proposed a walkway between the two buildings. However, the option was taken off the table because the Sears building was not going to be available for the foreseeable future.

“Given today’s announcement, it would be appropriate to have some preliminary conversation with Cadillac Fairview,” he said.

Architect Bing Thom said the Sears building could host the VAG or expanded downtown campuses for the University of British Columbia or Simon Fraser University.

In an interview, he declined to pointedly encourage the VAG to look to Sears, noting it was a choice for the organization to make.

However, he said he welcomed the prospect of seeing the Sears building renovated.

“It’s an introverted box, but you don’t have to throw it away,” Mr. Thom said.


Edward said...

I'm tentatively in favour of the art gallery taking over the old Eaton's space, though I'd reserve judgment until I see some details about proposals and costs. As I recall, that building (in conjunction with the mall attached to it) sucked the life out of Granville Street, and it's remains unexplainable why the city council of the day ever allowed such an uncivilised urban travesty in the first place.

With that in mind, whatever happens with a future art gallery, I hope it's done with a lesson taken from that. A shiny new art gallery should not suck the life out of whatever scant arts funding comes from the state. If 100% of public arts funding for the next decade goes into a new building, that would be another travesty.

The location would be perfect for a VAG expansion. Let's do it in a way that it is funded by a mixed use redevelopment of the property, though, rather than a massive injection of public money.

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