Test of Medals


The date is July 1, 2010. You’re standing on the Southeast False Creek section of Vancouver’s seawall at the Olympic Village, directly across from Plaza of Nations where, only 24 years ago, you celebrated the 1986 World’s Fair under covered roof. Soon the entire Plaza will be torn down, replaced by a new art gallery designed by an internationally renowned “starchitect.” Amidst all the gleaming highrises, swanky restaurants and sweaty rollerbladers, it’s easy to forget what used to be here before Expo. What was once a grim collection of city-owned industrial shipyards, devoid of much human activity, is now widely considered one of North America’s most celebrated experiments in urban living. We handed out our business card in 1986, as I like to say (perhaps too often), and the world kept it. But few of us understood back then what Expo would mean for our city, and indeed our province. We didn’t know how it would all tie together – how the sale of the Expo lands, the construction of SkyTrain and the ensuing densification of downtown would transform our small resource town. Asian investors were among the first to get it; they were living the high-density “Vancouver lifestyle” – in Hong Kong, in Tokyo – long before we were. When Li Ka-shing bought the Expo lands for a paltry $146 million and Concord Pacific (under Terry Hui) redeveloped those lands into a city-within-a-city – one that will culminate in 10,000-plus homes and 20,000-plus residents – it sent out a message to the Pacific Rim that Vancouver was the place to be. And it changed the face of Vancouver forever. We all profited from downtown’s revitalization and new civic infrastructure. We saw what happened the last time the world came to town – and so when Vancouver’s 2010 bid became serious, so did we. In February 2003, when the city had a referendum on whether or not to support the bid, I felt so strongly about the Games that I personally took out 16 full-page ads in the Vancouver Sun and Province urging Vancouverites to get out and vote “yes.” Not everybody was happy with the bid or my support. I had people phoning from Whistler saying, “Stay out of this – the Games are going to kill my business.” But most people saw the potential, and luckily the vote passed. Five months later, it became official when the International Olympic Committee named us host of the 2010 Games. And now here we are, one year to go, and the question is: what will be the legacy of the Games? The densification of downtown – more people living in less space and close to where they work – is the clear legacy of Expo, and it remains the model of the future. And while you can point to the Vancouver Convention & Exhibition Centre and the Canada Line as holding similar promise – much-needed civic projects that got a boost from the Olympics announcement – to my mind there’s no clearer legacy, and no more important development in the evolving fabric of Vancouver society, than the Downtown Eastside’s multi-purpose Woodward’s development. Woodward’s will combine 536 market condo units and 200 non-market housing units with neighbourhood-oriented retail space and SFU’s performing arts centre. If Woodward’s, which was approved in 2004 in the wake of Vancouver’s winning Olympic bid, were being planned today, it would not get off the ground. It would be considered too high-risk. Instead of what could have remained a festering sore at our civic core, the new Woodward’s – when it opens this September – will stand as an example to the world of the fortunate and less fortunate living together. So as Vancouver comes under the international spotlight for the second time in under a quarter century, let’s celebrate the 2010 Games. Let’s celebrate the fact that, through some dumb luck of good timing, we were able to take care of building and branding our city when the opportunity and the money were there – that we made a decision, despite tough economic times, to invest in our future.