The Vancouver Post Office – A Cultural Mecca

The following are my arguments in favor of a proposal to convert the Post Office Building on Georgia and Richards Streets into a mecca of cultural institutions, thus meeting the cultural infrastructure needs of the City of Vancouver in one cost effective project from the point of view of both capital cost and operating expenses.

This idea is not unique and I claim no private authorship over it. It came in part out of the work done by the Bill Reid Foundation to establish a National Aboriginal Art Gallery on the old bus depot site. The arguments in favor of developing the Post Office for this and other uses are preceded by some background information.

The Bill Reid Foundation

When the Bill Reid Foundation began looking for a home for a Bill Reid Museum, that is a place where we could tell the Bill Reid story and exhibit the Foundation’s Collection, now over 150 pieces and valued at more than 7 million dollars, it was told that building a museum dedicated to a single artist is not Canadian and the project would have to be more inclusive. That is what led the Bill Reid Foundation to pursue and promote the idea of a National Aboriginal Art Gallery to be created in Vancouver by 2010. This idea received support from governments, donors, artists and the Aboriginal community.

The National Aboriginal Art Gallery

The role requested of the Bill Reid Foundation was to raise the money, put together and manage a team, and negotiate the site as part of preparing a Project Implementation Plan for a National Aboriginal Art Gallery. The Foundation identified and secured an option from the City for a site, the old bus depot, and prepared a plan which incorporated on that site the Gallery, the two theatres of the Coal Harbour Theatre project, and a federal office building which Public Works has been trying to build on that site for some time. It is anticipated that a National Aboriginal Art Gallery will draw cultural tourists from across North America and around the world.

Also to be incorporated on the site was the Premier’s idea for an Asia Pacific Trade and Cultural Centre. Part of the strategy was that the incorporation of a National Aboriginal Art Gallery and, like the library project, a Federal Office Building would lever the level of Federal Government participation that a project of this magnitude would require. However, upon the submission of the Project Implementation Plan early in 2006, there was a change of government in Ottawa, and the current government has not exhibited, to date, any interest in culture in general or in this project in particular.

A cultural precinct

Notwithstanding the federal government’s lack of interest, it appears that the Province and the City have embraced the project as part of developing a Cultural Precinct around the Queen Elizabeth Theatre to include, as well, the Vancouver Art Gallery. They have committed 5 million dollars each toward the first planning phase of this project. Following the submission of the Project Implementation Plan, and after the site had been optioned for that purpose, the Vancouver Art Gallery surfaced expressing an interest in the old bus depot site but didn’t want to be part of a larger project. They were seeking at the time, and continue to seek, a clear site on which to build an iconic building. Then the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee ear-marked the old bus depot site as an open air celebration venue and people place for the 2010 Olympics. It became clear that construction could not commence until after 2010 so nothing could be completed on that site until 2013-15. In any case, conventional wisdom believes that any major project would have to await a more competitive post Olympic construction period.

Clearly the project was getting larger and there was a desire on the part of many of the players to create a major multi-tenanted cultural centre with a critical mass that would render it more synergistic and cost effective.

Compared to Montreal and Toronto, Vancouver is not only a smaller community, with fewer head offices and less human and financial resources for major projects, but it is thousands of miles away from the seats of power which makes capital fundraising from government and major corporations difficult. It is therefore critical that the cultural community works together and does not compete in order to fulfill its needs for infrastructure. Developing the Post Office building in concert with the Bus Depot site provides the cultural community with that opportunity.

The old post office

The recycling of the post office, is an old idea that has been proposed and shared by many. It provides a unique opportunity to meet the needs, not only for the City and all levels of government, but specifically for the Vancouver Opera, Ballet British Columbia, the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Asia Pacific Trade and Cultural Centre, a Coast Salish Interpretive Centre, Vancouver Community College School of Music, and a National Aboriginal Art Gallery. This could be done in a new form as a cultural shopping mall. Together with retail, restaurants, and possibly hotel accommodation, this use of the post office building would create an attractive and cost effective solution with a critical mass and complementing existing cultural uses in the neighborhood which together would create a powerful cultural precinct. Such a precinct would become a destination for local citizens and tourists.

Canada Post is being hampered from disposing of the property as a result of Native Land Claims issues. One scenario for all to consider is the idea that the Federal Government secure the building from Canada Post for the dollars they need to build a new post office. It is easier for this government to give money to the Canada Post than to a cultural enterprise. The government then leases the site and building for 99 years for one dollar to a non-profit charitable cultural development entity. Since there is no sale of land ownership to the private sector and if the project includes a National Aboriginal Art Gallery and a Coast Salish Interpretive Centre this could neutralize the concerns of local bands who might claim compensation for the site as part of their traditional territories.

It is estimated that the 500,000 square feet that constitutes the post office could be renovated, because it exists, at 300 dollars a square foot for a total cost of $150 million. This is less than a quarter of what it would cost to fulfill the needs of all the users through individual projects, not to mention the cost of land, and the waste of materials. Recycling the Post Office as opposed to building new buildings contributes to making this a “Green” project.

The Federal Government

The National Aboriginal Art Gallery is viewed as an important project that, if realized, will serve the entire native community across Canada. Its realization would be a feather in the federal cap with respect to their Aboriginal Relations Program. At the same time, it augments the role the National Gallery in Ottawa in the exhibition of Aboriginal Art, which they currently do only on a limited basis.

One single project will preclude the Federal Government from having to field similar requests from many organizations. It makes it possible for the Federal Government to provide an equitable level of funding to Vancouver for infrastructure given the $100 million the federal government has awarded the Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg. Like the Human Rights Museum, a National Aboriginal Art Gallery fulfills the objective of creating federal institutions outside of Ottawa. A substantial Federal presence in the midst of this new Cultural Precinct would reinforce the government’s footprint and presence in Vancouver, with the federal office building at Library Square, the enhanced CBC studios, the new space to be created as part of the this project or on the old bus depot site.

The City of Vancouver

This project helps to complete and reinforce the cultural precinct which would include, in addition to the spaces located within the renovated Post Office, the Quenn Elizabeth Theatre, the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre, the CBC studios, The Centre for Performing Arts, Library Square, Vancouver Community College, the SFU School of Contemporary Art at Woodwards, Centre A, the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Ceremonial Gardens, GM Place, and the Vancouver Film Institute. The comprehensive development of the Cultural Precinct would provide a vehicle through for the City Planning Department idea of a pedestrian way designed to link Robson Street to Chinatown. Using the Post Office building for combined cultural uses would contribute to assuring viable operations for the users with less City funds required for operating subsidies, and would liberate the old bus depot site for commercial or residential development.

Combining the uses

Competing with each other for public and private funding will take much time, energy, and cost on the part of each organization. Certainly a comprehensive major development will be more attractive to both public and private funders and will pool the creative energy and seed money from the participating organizations.

Co-fundraising and co-locating would not only be more cost effective from a capital point of view, particularly in an existing building, but more cost effective from an operating point of view. The project would have a single administrative entity for security, maintenance and other operating issues but not for the programming of use. The users could enjoy shared facilities, museums not having to build theatres, theatres used day and night, museums using air conditioning during the day, theatres using air conditioning at night, single mechanical plants and truck servicing. Proceeds from the commercial activities could be used to subsidize cultural operations.

The old bus depot site – Larwill Park

Providing the physical infrastructure for the cultural community not only provides a critical mass of activity, which in itself would be a draw, but it frees the old bus depot site to be used for commercial purposes, providing the funds the City needs to support the Bus Depot project, while at the same time generating residential and commercial tenancies that will help to animate and reinforce the social viability of the neighborhood.

A cultural precinct authority

A private authority, at arm’s length from the City, not unlike the airport authority should be created to develop the Post Office site, and manage and operate the new post office cultural centre, all civic theatres, and should coordinate inter-active programs for marketing and promoting the Cultural Precinct. Proceeds from ticket surcharges, commercial activity on the site, retail and space rentals, hotel operations, and parking would go to the CPA in order to compensate for operations and if possible subsidize its users. Commercial elements such as retail, restaurants, parking, and hotel etc, could be realized through a Public Private Partnership arrangement.

This presents a fabulous opportunity for the City of Vancouver to meet its cultural infrastructure needs in one focused development, creating a critical mass that would assure audiences and tourists, and assure the level of federal and provincial funding required.

We, in Vancouver need a reality check. We do not have the human and financial resources or lobbying capacity here, as were available in Toronto, to build at the same time, as they did, an extension to the Royal Ontario Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Gardiner Museum, and a Ballet and Opera House, totaling over $1 billion in cultural infrastructure.

Some may feel this is much too complex, requires too many players and constitutes too many moving parts and would be hard to “control”. Well that is the nature of the beast and it is also the challenge it presents. Rather than having the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Vancouver Opera, the Coal Harbour Theatre Society, the National Aboriginal Art Gallery and the Asia Pacific Trade and Culture Centre all trying to go down their own path and seeking funds from the same pockets, the City and its institutions would be better served if they all joined together to make this happen.

Herb Auerbach
Bill Reid Foundation
October 23, 2007
Revised March 15, 2010

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