Charles Gauthier looks back on 29 years of building the downtown Vancouver ZAC

Charles Gauthier remembers a feeling of enthusiasm for what downtown Vancouver could and will become when he first arrived in the city in 1992.

At the time, Vancouver was still enjoying the afterglow of its highly successful role in hosting the World’s Fair six years earlier. This city is committed to using the momentum of Expo ’86 to reinvent itself.

“Maybe it was like a sleepy downtown that was going to become something much bigger and better,” said Gauthier, outgoing president and CEO of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA), in an interview with Daily Hive Urbanized.

“I had a feeling that there was going to be a drastic change because of this enthusiasm. There was a lot of excitement and positivity about where downtown could go, as people live and work in the same downtown as they do today.

The sea of ​​glass condominium towers on Expo ’86 grounds in False Creek and the Coal Harbor rail yard had not yet increased, but a concrete plan was in place to transform downtown from Vancouver. As part of the municipal government’s “Live First” policy adopted in the early 1990s, eight million square feet of licensed business density was altered to accommodate residential uses.

At the age of 30, Gauthier put his planning degree from the University of Manitoba to good use and joined DVBIA in 1992. He did not know at the time that he would spend his entire professional career to build and develop the organization to make it a powerful organization to catalyze downtown vitality and defend the interests of businesses.

Aerial photo of downtown Vancouver’s central business district in 1990 (City of Vancouver Archives)

But in 1992, DVBIA was only two years old and hadn’t accomplished much, he said.

“He was still trying to build his legs. He had difficulty finding his legs and making his impact, ”said Gauthier.

“Frankly, I wondered if this organization would still exist in 1995 if it was not renewed. I listened to the members a lot about what they wanted to see, so we focused a lot on festivals and events. We really needed to start pumping and showing value to our members. “

The organization was formed after companies approached city council for its training during a time of uncertainty for the commercial space market, when vacancy rates for downtown offices were extremely high. , at nearly 20%.

In contrast, in the second quarter of 2021, the downtown Vancouver office vacancy rate was 6.6%, retaining the tightest office market title for a major North American downtown for the year. third consecutive year.

Vancouver Business Improvement Associations (BIAs) are created and governed by city government, with their mandates and budgets formed with the support of business members who are then renewed and approved by city council. Their budgets are financed annually by levies from member companies collected through property taxes.

vancouver art gallery picnic tables plaza north

New picnic tables at the North Plaza of the Vancouver Art Gallery. (Association for the Improvement of Business of Downtown Vancouver)

800 robson plaza vancouver

The 800 Robson Plaza reopened at the end of March 2021 with its new permanent design. (Kenneth Chan / Daily Beehive)

Gauthier points out that the organization and financial support of public events and festivals has been a key strategy for DVBIA to support service businesses – retail, restaurants, entertainment venues and hotels – in the city center. For example, the organization was instrumental in bringing New Year’s festivities back to Vancouver.

This event and festival strategy is now more important than ever in bringing people back to downtown for their arts, culture, entertainment, dining and shopping. This is a strategy not only to reverse the heavy toll of the pandemic, but also to revitalize the Granville Entertainment District (GED) – starting with this summer’s DVBIA pilot project of a temporary weekend street closure. -end for activations.

In addition to supporting events and festivals, the DVBIA has also identified a great need to develop suitable physical spaces to host such activations, in particular large cobbled esplanades designed as flexible and functional spaces for events.

Prior to recent reconstructions of the North Plaza (West Georgia Street) of the Vancouver Art Gallery and the permanent closure of the 800 block of Robson Street (above Robson Square) to vehicles for a permanent plaza and pedestrian thoroughfare , with the exception of Jack Poole Plaza, downtown, lacked large central spaces suitable for event planners.

The DVBIA has been successful in advocating for the creation of the two urban squares and has supported events that activate the spaces, such as free screenings of summer films before the pandemic and the “BRIGHT Downtown” projection mapping experience. last winter.

During the spring 2020 pandemic lockdown, the DVBIA partnered with the Vancouver Mural Fest to use boarded up storefront surfaces as canvas for murals – a measure to deter crime and other illicit activity, and support artists in difficulty.

Colony Granville Bar 965 Granville Street Vancouver Coronavirus Mural

Spring 2020 mural by Will Phillips at the Colony Granville Bar at 965 Granville Street, Vancouver. (Sketchbork / Instagram)

bright city center

BRIGHT Downtown map projection in early March 2021 (Victor Quiroz / Instagram)

“What comes to mind, and this is relatively recent, over the past five years is the ability to work with others and organize big festivals and events, whether we are partners or that we provide the funding, ”said Gauthier.

“To me, it’s the heart and soul of downtown, creating that strong affiliation and love that people have for downtown are these festivals and events.”

Their initiatives to create venues for events also extended to three alleyway transformations, including the pink alley “Alley Oop” just south of West Hastings Street between Granville and Seymour streets.

About five years ago, DVBIA also completed its multi-faceted Reimagine Downtown Vancouver strategy – a blueprint for the organization and others to follow through 2040 – based on extensive consultations with the public and stakeholders. companies.

The organization’s recent vision for revitalizing GED builds on the founding of Reimagine Downtown Vancouver. In addition to identifying a need for venue creation, commercial redevelopment and investment, DVBIA’s vision for GED notes the need for a major destination event.

Alley-Oop Lane south of West Pender Street between Granville Street and Seymour Street. (Marc Bussé)

Ackery Alley

The new Ackery’s Alley next to the Orpheum Theater in downtown Vancouver. (Association for the Improvement of Business of Downtown Vancouver)

Now retired, Gauthier now concludes nearly three decades at the helm of DVBIA, in the second year of the organization’s current 10-year term.

At the end of their last term in March 2020, they had an annual budget of $ 3 million. Their annual budget is now $ 5 million, which gives them the capacity to do a lot more in the future.

In addition to continuing to support events, festivals and venue creation initiatives, DVBIA is also setting aside a large portion of its budget for additional street cleaning and graffiti removal within its jurisdiction. This year alone, he budgeted $ 575,000 for graffiti removal.

When DVBIA was first launched, its jurisdiction – covering the central business district – covered 36 blocks. It has since expanded to cover areas adjacent to the CBD, now covering a jurisdiction of 90 blocks.

Its staff has grown from three, including Gauthier, to more than 30, including office staff, the cleaning crew and security ambassadors.

Gauthier says he’s optimistic the downtown area will see a relatively quick rebound when tourism, events and hospitality are allowed to operate unhindered, and he has confidence in his successor, Nolan Marshall III.

With experience leading large BIAs in New Orleans and Dallas, Marshall was named the organization’s new president and CEO last month.

“I know it doesn’t take long to get to know someone, but I really feel like they bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm.

“I think he’s going to take the organization and downtown to the next level and continue the great work the team has been doing. I think the organization and the board made a great choice with him. It’s just going to bring a new perspective and a whole new level of energy.

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