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Imagining Downtown Vancouver

It’s hard to imagine a downtown Vancouver not teeming with development – new office buildings perpetually under construction and a skyline getting higher and higher. But when you’ve not only been in Vancouver for a couple of decades but helmed the association representing the downtown core since 1992, you’ve seen a lot of things.

“We were in a crisis for about ten years starting in the early 1990’s,” says Charles Gauthier, President and CEO of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA). The way he outlines it is a city in trouble with high office vacancy rates, aging public infrastructure, little new office development, and modest foot traffic downtown. Not exactly a thriving urban centre capable of being competitive globally.

He says it less as a reminder and more like presenting new information to a generation either too young to remember or who didn’t yet call this city home. That’s appropriate, as he sits across the table from a person twenty years his junior who has only been in the city for two years and discusses building a downtown core that reflects what its citizens want to see from it.

His interest in millennials is impressive and empathetic, and his organization makes decisions understanding that it is this generation who will inherit those choices.

“By the year 2040 this is going to be their downtown,” explains Charles, “that’s why it’s important we build a downtown to reflect those aspirations.”

A strong downtown doesn’t just rely on one thing.

It sounds like a no-brainer to anyone who studied ecology or economic development – there’s strength in diversity. It’s the balance of jobs, residential living, and culture that are going to make Vancouver thrive. While Charles is happy to see downtown Vancouver more brimming with people than ever, he knows that alone won’t create the city we aspire to be.

The DVBIA conducted extensive studies envisioning what the next 25 years in Vancouver should look like according to the people who live here. For any millennial living in this city, that comes as a breath of fresh air to a generation typically shamed for their lack of traditional successes yet facing an uphill battle when it comes to housing and career options.

And what exactly would those aspirations be? A mashup of commerce and culture culminating in an urban core of possibilities for both fun and employment. Essentially a place we can call home, and proudly so.

Hastings Mural with Jenn Brisson

Art doesn’t happen magically.

Balance, then, becomes key to driving economic choices but also building a downtown that is more than high rises and office buildings, left totally vacant after 5 pm. The new developments, office spaces, and housing that reflects all stages of life is important to Charles and the BIA. He obviously wants to see the economic success of the downtown core, but in his mind art plays a big part in that.

“The notion of this as a lonely or ‘not fun’ city is an unfair and undeserved moniker,’ he says. If you look at the number of initiatives the DVBIA alone is working on, he’s got a point. Painted pianos in public spaces, perches filled with patio furniture and games for lunch hour breaks, vibrant murals, and festivals ranging from jazz to Latin themes.

“Not everything has to be big to make an impact. If you asked me in 1992, none of this existed.”  And none of it happens without any leadership. The arts organizations that come to the DVBIA looking for support clearly inspire the organization, and they respond in turn by helping to turn these dreams into a reality.

“We wanted to bring some life downtown and we knew it wouldn’t happen magically.” Through multiple and consistent efforts downtown Vancouver has increasing foot traffic, beautiful places to meet, and lively artistic performances. And there’s plenty more on the horizon.


The DVBIA Presents: Ethan Coen’s “Waiting” in downtown Vancouver.

Because of the DVBIA’s vision for a lively downtown core, they are collaborating with Reality Curve on bringing a production by Ethan Coen (“The Big Lebowski,” “O Brother Where Art Thou,” etc.) to the streets of downtown this summer. This rotating production will be at key downtown locations every Tuesday and Thursday at lunch hour so you can sneak a little culture in with your sandwich. This expands on the DVBIA’s The Perch program that turns otherwise vacant spaces into lively places for people to mingle and enjoy their surroundings.

Downtown Vancouver is now richer with art than ever before, thanks to two decades of leadership. If it’s up to Charles Gauthier, the next two decades are about to get even more lively.