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Gregory Henriquez: The architecture solution

Globe and Mail Update

Nearly $1.5-billion in public spending since 2000 and little to show for it — that's the story of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

The Globe is pleased to introduce four experts who will lay out fresh solutions for the neighbourhood. Each will join us online to take your questions and participate in a live panel discussion March 24 at the University of British Columbia.

The forum will be hosted at 7 p.m. (10 p.m. ET) at UBC's Robson Square campus by The Globe, in partnership with CTV and the university. For tickets, call toll-free 1-866-545-0016.

Vancouver architect Gregory Henriquez is the author of Towards an Ethical Architecture. Mr. Henriquez is the architect on the Woodward's building, a mixed-income development in the Downtown Eastside. Woodward's is a bold experiment: When it opens later this year, the development will see wealthy condo dwellers living cheek-by-jowl with the poor living in 200 subsidized units. Mr. Henriquez spoke earlier to The Globe's Wendy Stueck.

Mr. Henriquez answered your questions live Feb. 18. Questions and answers are below.

Editor's Note: editors will read and allow or reject each question/comment. Comments/questions may be edited for length or clarity. We will not publish questions/comments that include personal attacks on participants in these discussions, that make false or unsubstantiated allegations, that purport to quote people or reports where the purported quote or fact cannot be easily verified, or questions/comments that include vulgar language or libellous statements. Preference will be given to readers who submit questions/comments using their full name and home town, rather than a pseudonym.

Brodie Fenlon, Thank you very much for joining us today Mr. Henriquez. Readers can survey some of the challenges facing the Downtown Eastside and its residents by visiting our special series hub Canada's Slum: The Fix. I'd also like to remind everyone that Mr. Henriquez, three other experts and Globe columnist Gary Mason will take part in a public forum March 24 at 7 p.m. PT (10 p.m. ET) at the University of British Columbia's Robson Square campus. The event will be hosted by The Globe, in partnership with CTV and UBC. CTV's Mi-Jung Lee will moderate. Click here for more information and tickets.

Let's get to our readers' questions:

Ed Long from Canada writes: We walked past the Woodward's project on Saturday going to lunch in the area. I have been in the DTES twice in the last three weeks. I commented the project is distinctive, not austere like traditional poverty 'projects', it has wonderful historical design references that add to the surrounding area and it respects the streetscape. Therefore the residents and the project are not stigmatized. I could live there if I worked in the city. DTES can form a new transitional neighbourhood. Nice work.

Gregory Henriquez: Thank you, we have worked really hard to create a series of buildings which are not only meaningful from a programming perspective, but also have an expression that is grounded in an appropriate architectural vocabulary, which is a poetic expression of the historical context.

Skip Towne from Vancouver writes: How is architecture 'ethical' if a neighbourhood's stakeholders, apparently solely for financial gain, cavalierly disregard and circumvent heritage protections that have been carefully preserved for generations? In the case of Woodward's, for many years the site and its surroundings were designated part of a unified historical district. Ceremonial plaques were placed on important buildings (including Woodward's) and height and density restrictions were rigidly enforced. Immediately prior to approving the project, which allowed 40+ stories to rise incongruously (and hideously) in the midst of this heritage, the City of Vancouver had posted official assurances on its website that the height and density restrictions, in place for years, would be retained and respected. But as condo values soared the plan for the current development by Millenium was deployed, and all of the protections were swept away in an instant. Oddly, not a single dissenting opinion to this heritage destruction was published at the time in the predominant media voice, The Vancouver Sun. Did the Sun foresee the massive injection of advertising revenues that the weekly full-page colour sales ads for Woodward's would bring to its coffers? This entire project is tainted by a shameful process, and the players should be held accountable.

Gregory Henriquez: Two comments: First, the developer's name is Westbank/Peterson Investments. Second, there are many European cities like Berlin, Frankfurt or Barcelona who all have much more meaningful heritage contexts and have no problem in contrasting the present with the past. The future health of a neighbourhood can not be mothballed by nostalgia. What Hasting Street requires is real density and body heat.

Rob Brown from Saskatoon writes: Mr. Henriquez, to what extent do you engage in creative adaptation of existing buildings, instead of the 'tear 'em down; build 'em up' mode (that plugs up landfill sites)?

Gregory Henriquez: A meaningful part of our practice is restoring important heritage buildings. We recently finished a restoration of the original Chemistry Buildings at UBC and are currently working on the Historic York Theatre. On the Woodwards site we did save the original 1903/08 Building and it is being restored to include a daycare, community non-profit spaces, offices and the first bank to move back down into the DTES in 30 years.

Michael S from Canada writes: Slums are a fact of life; utopia is the fantasy of life. The core cause to slums cannot be eliminated. The most any society can do is manage its presence, minimize its effects and marginalize its impact on society. But it's part of society and anybody who believes otherwise is seriously fooling themselves.

Gregory Henriquez: I agree, but I don't believe we are doing enough to "manage its presence, minimize its effects and marginalize its impact on society" (to use your words). We must also retain hope that our children can create a better world and strive to be as compassionate and engaged in positive endeavours as possible. It is far too easy to be cynical.

Ed from Edmonton writes: There is clearly a dichotomy here: the wealthy who would live close to downtown, and the poor who can't live far from downtown. And never the twain shall meet. Personally, I don't think an architect is the person to solve this. All an architect can do is design living spaces using someone else's money. Obviously that someone else is either wealthy people who don't want the poor nearby, or the government's money, but the poor by and large don't appreciate it, and so it is doomed ultimately to failure. The basic problem as I see it, is the state of the human heart. The wealthy to reach out to the poor, and the poor to reach out and help themselves. So revitalization starts not with bricks and mortar, but with love, kindness, and rebuilding the human soul. That requires a minister, not an architect. [Your thoughts Mr. Henriquez?]

Gregory Henriquez: You are right, architects generally just do the bricks and mortar. But all of us can be advocates for change. It is fundamentally about seeing "yourself in the other.",You are so right, this project is about love and compassion, not just architecture.

Evelyn Robinson from Canada writes in the comments: Why would wealthy buyers want to live in close proximity to subsidized housing and their social problems?

Gregory Henriquez: I think there are many reasons to buy at Woodward's.

1. The site is a meaningful part of the history of the city of Vancouver, people have many memories.

2. There is a segment of society who still has residue of the idealism of the 1960's when we believed we could make a real difference and make a better world.

3. The unit prices are a great value due to location and mixed housing concept.

4. The mix of water views with historical context is unique in Vancouver.

5. One of the marketing concepts was "Be Bold or Move to Suburbia." This is a real city, with real grit ... many people are bored of the typical generic environments.

6. It is a very beautiful series of buildings

I could go on...

P L from Surrey writes in the comments: Affordable housing, great. About time. But what about the conditions surrounding the area? The problems that still linger and is pervasive around the eastside? What will be done to integrate new city dwellers with existing people in the area? I believe finding and developing solutions and alternatives first to mitigate or uproot the problems and then build the surrounding area accordingly to suit the needs of newcomers who are looking to live in the area.

Gregory Henriquez: You are right, much more needs to be done. Woodward's will be not only a model of inclusivity, but also a generator of real body heat which will help improve the street life and encourage other retail to open in Hastings street. We estimate there will be over 4,000 people a day on site, living, working, shopping, playing, making art and using community services at Woodward's.

An individual from Canada writes in the comments: This situation is far more complex than mixed-use buildings, but in that complexity lie some of the answers. This building and any others like it will fill up. Affordable housing is in too much demand for it not to go to use. As for the market condos, they too, will sell. Woodwards is right on the edge of the already desirable and gentrifying Gastown. Does this mean that mixing incomes will create a new community? Probably not as much as the idealists would like. However, the message that a good building should be brought back to life, the improvement to the built environment and the fact that the disenfranchised in the community get to participate, is a very powerful tool towards improving morale and hopefully pride in the community. ... How many communities in Canada have vacant or underutilized buildings that could be converted to housing? How many communities have colleges turning out health care and social workers willing to help people in their own communities but do not have means of support for doing this? What resources are going to waste because we lack the vision to use them? [Your thoughts?]

Gregory Henriquez: You are right, the situation is far more complex than mixed-use building. This is a community building endeavour, which was started by an enlightened City Council, reacting to a social concern about the future of a neighbourhood. This is not a unique situation, Toronto Housing Authority is in the process of rebuilding Regent Park, using much the same principles.

What is unique here is how diverse the 1,000,000 square-foot program is and how it was successfully integrated into one of the poorest neighborhoods in the civilized world. Every city could learn from this. It requires bold leaders and community support. The architecture is only the translation of the vision into bricks and mortar.

Brodie Fenlon, That's all our time today. Thanks again to Mr. Henriquez for joining us online. Next week we welcome Aprodicio Laquian for an online discussion. He is an emeritus professor of human settlement at the University of British Columbia and author of Beyond Metropolis, a book exploring ways to improve the lives of slum-dwellers in mega-cities such as Mumbai and Manila. You can submit questions now by following the link.

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With the 2010 Olympics coming to Vancouver, the eyes of the world will be on the city's Downtown Eastside. The millions poured into the neighbourhood seem to have had little impact on its squalor, its people or their problems with addiction. What should be done? Where would you start? How would you fix Canada's slum?


Public Forum:

On March 24 at 7 p.m. PT, The Globe, in partnership with CTV and the University of British Columbia, will bring together experts with fresh solutions for the Downtown Eastside at a public forum at UBC’s Robson Square campus.


For tickets, call toll-free 1-866-545-0016.
Update (March 6, 2009): Tickets are now SOLD OUT


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