Gastown renewal project fuses heritage with hip

The 100 block of West Hastings that straddles the line between Gastown and the Downtown Eastside is one of the most rapidly gentrifying streets in Vancouver. Its transition from down-and-out to up-and-coming, spearheaded by the 2009 redevelopment of the Woodward’s building, can be seen in its idiosyncratic weave of historic architecture, trendy new restaurants, dollar stores and money marts.


A gym called Revamp offers a hopeful neighbourhood narrative as a colourful-looking character washes the windows for the newly buffed and toned. Now, some of the crumbling Edwardian buildings in the area are following suit.


At 151 West Hastings, the Ormidale Block, a commercial redevelopment project by Vancouver-based Century Group that will get under way this spring, is a unique fusion of old and new, heritage and high tech that may well offer a new neighbourhood model.


The developer is betting on finding a high-tech tenant who does not want a Class A office look, but does want modern amenities.


The transformation of the terra-cotta-tiled building, poised between the Flack Block, a study in heritage preservation-conversion by Robert Fung-Salient Group, and the new Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, offers an inventive take on how to fit a contemporary building into a historical context.


“We didn’t want to fetishize heritage, or to make the building look deliberately old,” says project architect Michael Wartman of B&H, who adds he was inspired by Rafael Moneo’s city hall in Murcia, Spain. Instead, working with heritage consultant Donald Luxton, they identified what was worth keeping in the Romanesque Revival building designed by George W. Grant and built in 1900, and what was not.


“Since the interior of the building had no real redeeming features,” Mr. Wartman says of the building’s innards that had already been through two rather unfortunate renos, “we decided to just keep the heritage facade on Hastings Street.” A number of features that have been lost over time will be restored including a detailed bay window and a large glass-and-steel storefront that features curved glass panels at the entry.


The interior will feature open-plan, loft-like offices with exposed wood-decked ceilings and concrete radiant floor heating-cooling. Working within the confines of the narrow site bounded on three sides will make construction challenging, Mr. Wartman says, with materials lifted in by crane. But apart from a few small seismic gaps with neighbouring buildings that were easily remedied, the site is being used to advantage, with the sloping laneway allowing for an additional floor of commercial space in the back facing West Cordova Street.


The architect’s mandate was to create something that respected the heritage grain of the 19-acre neighbourhood, which includes about 100 commercial buildings, while maximizing the energy efficiency and comfort factor demanded of Century Group’s demographic target: the new creative arts and technology sector that is making Gastown a budding high-tech hub.


With TED moving its main talks from Long Beach, Calif., to Vancouver for at least two years, and George Lucas locating his Industrial Light and Magic studios here, the timing is right.


Maurice Ouellette, the architect-turned-developer who is vice-president of Century Group’s corporate development, saw the potential of the owner-occupied building. “I went for a walk in the area in the spring of 2012,” he notes of the environs across from Victory Square and the historic Dominion building, “and asked a Colliers agent if the building might ever become available.”


Within six weeks it was acquired by Century Group, a largely suburban developer looking for a property that would place them in a more urban context, at a $7-million sale price with $11-million budgeted for renovation.

With a reputation for being environmentally and community minded, Century Group also hopes to contribute to the area’s balanced growth, says Brett Walsh, director of real estate finance. “You really have to credit the City of Vancouver’s vision in terms of not ‘sanitizing’ this area,” a fate he notes has befallen historic-zoned quarters in many cities, such as San Diego, where the mix of “high-end restaurants and upscale condos feels disconnected and antiseptic.”


A key to keeping the area vibrant, he says, is actively encouraging commercial real estate activity that once made the neighbourhood the city’s first downtown, before suburban flight and the demise of the streetcar pushed commerce westward and drug and poverty problems ensued.


While open drug use still takes place in the area, the street-smart grit of the neighbourhood is seen as a plus for hipster high-tech clients who value “authenticity.”


“It’s an exciting new development and a great contribution to the neighbourhood,” Leanore Sally, executive director of the Gastown Business Improvement Society, says of the plans for Ormidale. The current high-tech trend is not just about “big companies,” she observes, but also, “startups and cultural creatives – young urbanites attracted by the dynamism of the area – not only the cafés and restaurants and clubs but also by the easy transit and bike access.”


With the high-tech sector driving a mini commercial real estate boom in Gastown – where square footage is cheaper than downtown – landlords have to respond to the demands of the millennial work force. Drafty heritage buildings that swelter in summer do not fit the bill. So the architectural challenge is to create a new purpose-built, energy-efficient building that still respects the scale and heritage.


The renovated Ormidale Block will offer a new modern entrance on the sloping laneway, with double-height ground-floor retail space designed with restaurant-ready kitchen and ventilation systems.


Inspired by Seattle’s Olson Kundig Architects use of weathered steel, Mr. Wartman decided to clad the back of the building with the same material to fit in with the grittiness of the laneway and the SRO building next door. A shimmering steel mesh canopy over the entry will literally and figuratively peel back historic layers to reveal a new focus.


The six floors and 39,500 square feet of commercial space will feature a high-performance envelope and cutting-edge mechanical system that will provide more fresh air circulation than any other downtown building.

Shared access to a 4,800-square-foot green rooftop deck, bike racks, showers and electric bike plug-ins are further features designed to appeal to the high-tech millennial demographic. At the same time, original terra-cotta tiles on the front facade are being painstakingly restored.


“It’s all about rejuvenating the original building carcass, while staying true to the spirit of the place. Price point was what attracted businesses to Gastown five years ago, but now it’s all about desirability. This is the area for high-tech firms,” says Mr. Ouellette, who hopes to attract multiple tenants for the commercial and retail space.

He’s convinced that HootSuite might not have relocated to a former CSIS office in Fairview Slopes last year had the right facilities been available in Gastown.


Young high-tech firms are attracted to the same things that drew Century Group to the 100 Block Hastings Street – that perfect mix of gritty urban grain and hipster friendly shops and eateries that now proliferate in Gastown.


Gastown project

Estimated construction time: 14-18 months with spring, 2015 completion


Office space type: Class A


Proximity to transit: Walking distance to Waterfront Station – with links to SeaBus, West Coast Express train, SkyTrains and city bus lines


Local businesses

32: Technology companies

7: Film and video production companies

19: Creative agencies

29: Architects, interior designers, planners, engineers

18: Web design/multimedia agencies

58: Restaurants and bars

9: Art galleries12: Marketing/PR firms

51: Consulting firms

15: Law firms

19: Cafés and coffee shops


(High-tech and new media companies include Zaui Software, Idea Rebel, BootUp Labs Entrepreneurial Society, SEOinVancouver and Marketr.)


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