CityCaucus Redux: Reclaim Robson Street as a people place

Post by Mike Klassen in


Robson Square
Why can't this space become the cultural heart of the city? click for larger

Last March, just days after the end of Vancouver's 2010 Olympic Games, while the city was still glowing with pride about our Games success, I weighed into the debate about the future of the Vancouver Art Gallery. While I am still open to a major cultural facility happening at Larwill Park (one that includes a Vancouver Arts Centre and Vancouver historical archive (see my post about the CBC Vancouver archives), I still think that the true "centre" of Metro Vancouver is at Robson Square.

Last week, Coun. Suzanne Anton again proposed closing Robson Street between Hornby & Howe as I had after the Games. The response has been very positive, including an endorsement from the Vancouver Public Space Network. I might suggest going even further...why not move the Law Courts to Larwill Park, and move the Vancouver Cultural Centre (museum + art gallery) into the whole Arthur Ericksen law courts building, the underground and the present VAG (old court house)?

It's a fun debate. Here's my CityCaucus Redux post below from last March...

When I attended Abraham Rogatnick's wake last summer, one of the speeches in his honour mentioned that he was a passionate advocate of keeping the Vancouver Art Gallery in its present location. Since this recent discussion erupted on the future of the VAG, I thought about how much we missed the feisty octogenarian, who never shied away from a good debate.

As it turns out, even from the grave Rogatnick manages to wade into the argument. In today's Vancouver Sun, a posthumously published editorial by him opines that we must keep the Gallery in its present location. The issue put forward by the VAG's board is the present location's lack of space. Rogatnick responds:

For a skillful architect the ample spaces available for expansion under the Georgia Street lawn as well as the space between the main building and the annex offer a great variety of possibilities for expansion to satisfy the gallery's needs for several decades to come. Please note the recent brilliant additions to world famous galleries housed in heritage buildings such as the Louvre in Paris, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Art Gallery of Ontario, to name just three. Many more could be cited.

As someone who spent a lot of time at Robson Square, both inside the former courthouse building and on the surrounding streets, I'm even further convinced that we must "re-imagine" this part of our city. What follows are my proposals on what we could do:

  1. Keep the Vancouver Art Gallery at its present location. Expand the Gallery underneath and into the space currently occupied by UBC's downtown campus. It is a contiguous and open space with a small 400-seat amphitheatre. It would be easily adapted for gallery space.
  2. Remove the ice rink and sub-street level plaza, and level the whole south side of the courthouse plaza into a contiguous public square. As much as I admire Arthur Erickson's work, the network of stairs and the subterranean retail/office space next to the rink has been an abysmal failure. I would argue that our Games experience downtown would have been even more exciting if there were not so many obstructions caused by the poor design of this plaza. Take the space reclaimed by the rink and empty storefronts, and devote it to the expanded VAG.
  3. Close Robson Street between Howe and Hornby permanently. The only way to allow this square to live up to its full potential is to remove cars. Use the open space to showcase sculptures, similar to Seattle's Olympic Sculpture Park, or the lovely revamped plaza on top of Queen Elizabeth Park with its Henry Moore sculpture.
  4. Retain the Ziptrek line, and accommodate more fun attractions. While Da Vinci drawings and thrill rides might seem incongruous, I disagree. The VAG benefits from the critical mass created by popular attractions, and visa versa. A fifteen-year old who wants to zip across the square may never want to see a Jeff Wall art piece, but at least you've got her down there. It then becomes the Gallery's job to attract non-traditional patrons inside.
  5. Re-open the Georgia Street entrance, and remove the fountain. The old Vancouver courthouse building has been hobbled by the Gallery since they moved in there, mainly because of the need to close the prominent entrances on Georgia and Robson Streets. They should be re-opened as proud and prominent doorways, as the original architect intended. The square on the Georgia Street side has one of the ugliest public fountains known to mankind – remove it. Replace the grass with a hard surface and keep the grounds as a continguous space for public gatherings – yes, celebrations AND protests. This is happening anyway, and we have to blow a budget to keep fixing the grass. This shady north side of the Gallery deserves to be as important as the sunny side.
  6. Use Larwill Park development to pay for VAG upgrades, invite a private partner. Seattle's lauded sculpture park is sponsored and managed with help from Microsoft as a corporate partner. Provide naming rights to the square as with GE Plaza to provide funding to devote to the rebuild of Vancouver's "art square".

    The Larwill Park site should have at least 35 storeys of density (I would argue MUCH higher), and it could possibly accommodate a new UBC downtown campus. It would then place it right next to Vancouver Community College on Dunsmuir, and it would only be just a few blocks from SFU's Woodwards cultural campus. Having all three educational institutions clustered would give incentive for an exciting new district of social gathering spaces along, Hastings, Beatty or Cambie streets. It's also served well by Skytrain and public transit.
  7. Retain the celebration space on the Gallery's top floor. For those who were lucky to get inside the Gallery and attend one of the many receptions held on the fourth floor, you can see how valuable the terrace – which was temporarily built for the duration of the Games – would be for future gatherings. The space could be kept, and rented out to sundry organizations who want to be in the 'centre of the action' downtown.
  8. Move the Vancouver Museum to Robson Square. Some have argued that the moribund Vancouver Museum at Vanier Park should be moved down to this location. We should explore this as an option.

By re-thinking the square surrounding the VAG/Courthouse we provide many opportunities. For example, the lovely log house erected to promote Musqueum carvers could be a regular fixture down there, perhaps even connected with more aboriginal cultural and culinary attractions. The "Jack Poole Hall" of the Four Host First Nations pavilion was a great and under-celebrated setting that we should try to keep alive.

Until the disgraceful Sears/Eaton's building site (aka The Urinal) is re-developed, perhaps we could arrange to have a permanent large screen hung on the side of that white building for more regular public gatherings. We could project either broadcasts of important events, or large video art placements. The City could on occasion close Howe street between Georgia and Robson to suit special occasions, as they did successfully during the Games.

Vancouver, and the VAG, are only limited by their imaginations when it comes to a new vision for a cultural centre of the city. I agree with Rogatnick when it comes to the VAG. Let's slow down and really think about what we can do with the existing location before we rip it up.

UPDATE: November 30, 2010 Vancouver city council to delay decision on VAG move until January 2011.

- post by Mike


Like most (all?) North American cities, Vancouver could use more pedestrian streets. Shutting down Robson between Hornby and Howe would do wonders for street life in the downtown core. Throw up a screen; facilitate outdoor events. It's much cheaper than opening a 'major cultural facility', and would likely be much more fun. In Portland, they do this on a smaller scale in Pioneer Square. They draw quite a few people out with movie nights in the park, and so forth.

Totally agree--we need way more and much better public spaces to gather. Plazas, mini-parks, streets, alleys--with unique features/characteristics (lighting, seating, art, interactivity, commercial components, buskers, etc...)

Expand the much mocked street vendor program, newspaper kiosks, have restaurant seating bleed out into the street, trees and other unique plantings, etc...--make the streets a place to be, not just a place to use.

I'm all for more public places, but some of these ideas do more harm than good.

For starters, bus transit downtown has been a nightmare for over a year because of the closure of Robson and Howe. Buses are rerouted several blocks away from where people want to go. This has been especially hard on West End seniors, and they have been willing to put up with it on the basis that it was temporary and would be restored. We shouldn't permanently cripple downtown transit at a time when we're already severely hampering cars.

Removing the rink is an absolute non-starter. The Olympics showed that it's incredibly popular and removing it years ago was petty. It's the only source of freely accessible skating in all of Metro, and every Canadian kid has a right to skate.

If we ever want the VAG to become a gallery befitting a world city, it has to move to a new building that suits its needs. Constantly trying to patch up a small courthouse that can't handle either its collection or large crowds is simply throwing good money after bad.

If we want to develop a real public space downtown, the best spot in the city is the Olympic Torch site by the convention centre. It's open...transit accessible...lots of space...perfectly suitable for large gatherings of any sort.

Architect Bruno Freschi worked with Ericksen on the Law Courts and says the original plan all along was for the gallery to expand into the rest of the building and take it over all of the space not used by the courts and now rented out to UBC etc. Apparently it was purposed designed for the gallery's storage and office needs.

But don't move the courts to Larwill Park - we have too many large instiutions here in this corner of the city already.

What Larwill Park needs is a concert hall, recital hall and bandstand all integrated into the QE plaza with restaurants etc., to enliven the area. One or two towers integrating those facilities could easily make that all possible at no cost to taxpayers and finally complete the basic arts infrastructure the city has been calling for since 1980.

Good article Mike - thanks for re-posting this one (and for giving a nod to the VPSN's efforts to make a case for this space). Just this evening Council referred the motion to one of their Committee meetings this Thursday, so there's still time for people to write in with their support/ideas/comments on this issue -- email

@RealityCheck - the issue of ensuring a good transit linkage with the West End is an important one, and the present motion doesn't necessarily preclude that. Assuming the space is secured for a square there at least two options available on that front:

(1) A better re-routing of the #5 or #6. With the "temporary" closure of Robson St for the Province's construction work, TransLink has created some odd re-routing in the system - utilizing streets that are already wired for the trolleys. With a permanent closure these jogs could be rendered more coherent, with a better rerouting and, if necessary, new wiring on different or adjacent streets. There need not be any substantive inconvenience to seniors or other transit users if this is done properly.

(2) Less desirable: you could design the space so it's like Granville north of Georgia - transit accessible but not open to cars. This, however, severely curtails the number of programming options that would then be available on site.

There's also some additional possibilities that could be contemplated utilizing other routes, the smaller community-size buses (like the C21/C23).

"I agree with Rogatnick when it comes to the VAG. Let's slow down and really think about what we can do with the existing location before we rip it up."

Wise words Mike & Abe. These options & their eventual disposition will have a profound effect on the heart of our City. They need to be carefully thought through & that will take some time.

We are not yet ready to make those kinds of decisions. Your intriguing 8 proposals above should be on the table as well as Councilor Anton's pedestrianizing of Robson Street. So, what this comes down to is, it's not a [not really so] simple question of to move or not to move VAG but, a much more exciting & dynamic question of what kind of downtown do Vancouverites want.

This also brings in the question of engaging the public in this process. That has not been done in any meaningful way @ this point. It is essential that the public does have a meaningful role in this process.

Even a January, 2011 VAG decision is far to premature.

I wholeheartedly agree with all of Mike Klassen's eight points, except for the first one! His multiple suggestions for a comprehensive rethink of the entire Robson Square/Centennial Plaza (the official name for the open space facing Georgia Street) precinct, is long overdue. However, most if not all of his suggestions could be achieved whether the VAG remains in its current location or relocates, and indeed are far more likely to happen ONLY if the VAG relocates. Why?

For starters, re-opening the main north-side entrance to the Courthouse building is not going to happen while the VAG is the tenant. This essential piece of urban repair requires a new tenant that is able to accept a new entrance on the north side. Secondly, any meaningful changes to Centennial Plaza (and we can all agree that such changes are desperately needed) will require relocation of the VAG's underground storage facilities beneath the plaza, or at least substantial strengthening of the structure over these facilities. This is not a trivial matter. Thirdly, the space theoretically available to the VAG beneath and beside the sunken skating rink is simply not large enough nor effectively configured to accommodate the VAG's proposed expansion program. Nor is expanding the gallery below grade either a cost effective or aesthetically compelling solution. Fourthly, even if the VAG were to spend substantial sums renovating and upgrading the existing heritage building, it would still be substandard space, with many of the problems inherent with occupying a building which was never designed to be an art gallery in the first place. And finally, remember that this is a nationally-listed heritage building so the degree of upgrading and renovation will be severely constrained by the need to maintain the historical integrity of the building. It is not as simple as some would argue.

I agree that Robson Square needs a comprehensive rethink, and we need to get past treating it as sacrosanct merely because the late Arthur Erickson designed it. In my professional opinion as an urban designer, and with the greatest respect to Erickson, it fails dismally as a public space. Many of Mike Klassen's ideas are ones I have advocated for as well.

In the interests of full disclosure, let me add that I recently assisted the VAG with its public consultation process, which involved several community meetings held across Vancouver. However, the views I express here are my own and are in no way constrained or influenced by my relationship with the VAG, nor has the VAG ever attempted to direct my opinions. The VAG has in fact engaged in good faith in a public consultation process that invited a range of opinions, contrary to what a previous commentator wrote below ["This also brings in the question of engaging the public in this process. That has not been done in any meaningful way @ this point. It is essential that the public does have a meaningful role in this process."]. That is simply not true, and the real question is why City Council has not engaged the public in this important issue. The silence from City Hall is deafening.

I look forward to a vigorous public debate and exploration of the many creative ways we can revitalize Robson Square/Centennial Plaza as Vancouver's preeminent public space. But let's not assume the VAG has to stay there in order for that to happen.

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