Woodward’s a Prime Innovation

The team at Westbank chose a daring approach for Woodward's: make homes for rich and poor alike, surrounded by convenience and culture, in a downtrodden and dangerous part of town. And it worked out.

The team at Westbank chose a daring approach for Woodward’s: make homes for rich and poor alike, surrounded by convenience and culture, in a downtrodden and dangerous part of town. And it worked out.

Recently, I was asked by the folks at BCBusiness to sit on a review panel, and help figure out which companies in B.C. are the most innovative. The results of those deliberations are visible in the latest edition of the magazine. All the companies chosen for this honour, and many of the ones not chosen, are worthy of further dissection, but there is one winner that I can talk about in this space with confidence. My company works primarily in the real estate marketing arena, and the Woodward’s development in Gastown is a prime example of innovation that we can all learn from.

If you think, as many erroneously do, that “marketing” is all about the advertising campaign, then Woodward’s is unremarkable. The way it was packaged and sold was very much in keeping with many other projects: a snappy headline and a beauty shot. To be fair, when these homes came on the market, you could have written a phone number on a cocktail napkin and taped it to a telephone pole and people would have lined up to buy. No, it’s not the advertising that made this project a winner. It’s the willingness of the developer, Ian Gillespie from Westbank Developments, to ignore prevailing wisdom and do something new. Something innovative. Something that now is spawning further innovation and risk taking. Let me explain.

Anyone who’s been in Vancouver for longer than ten minutes knows that Woodward’s, once a proud department store that was a beacon of the “good life,” spent a very long time as an abandoned white elephant. No one knew what to do with it, although many had very vociferous opinions they were more than willing to share. After many political games, the team at Westbank was chosen for their daring approach: make homes for rich and poor alike, surrounded by convenience and culture, in a downtrodden and dangerous part of town, and it will all work out.

While in politically correct Vancouver no one dared to say it out loud, many private conversationalists were extremely doubtful. But no matter, this innovative solution was moving ahead. It would simultaneously embrace the existing neighbourhood and invite newcomers. It would provide a grocery store, drug store and coffee shop on a street where the addicted and criminally-inclined made the operation of even a simple mom-and-pop shop a mostly futile exercise in shoplifting and burglary prevention. But that’s not all. It would include community gathering space, a theatre, an art gallery, and other amenities that popular opinion would have decreed impractical and doomed. But still, they soldiered on.

The buoyant economy and promise of equity gain helped the building sell out lickety split, but the real success is what’s happening now that the thing is built and occupied. People are coming back to a once blighted neighbourhood. All kinds of people. Surrounding shops and venues are sprucing up and others are moving in. It was a huge gamble, and an innovative approach to the revitalization of an entire neighbourhood, and it worked.

I live nearby, and am witness to the change Woodward’s hath wrought. I also have friends who own stores in the neighbourhood, and their observations align with mine. Long-time area retailer Nancy Bendtsen, of InForm Interiors, commented to me that within weeks of the Woodward’s building opening, the change in the neighbourhood was palpable. The most common comment I hear from people now, when I tell them where I live, is that Gastown is unrecognizably vibrant and alive since Woodward’s opened. Pudding meet proof – proof meet pudding.

So what is the innovation lesson for all of us here? We need to look at the Woodward’s achievement in context. With notably few exceptions, the real estate development industry is very formulaic. Although this is a broad generalization, the basic recipe is to buy a piece of land, and design/build something there that is similar to whatever the most recent successful thing built there was. Like attracts like.

Woodward’s was a case where nothing successful was nearby to copy, and hadn’t been for a very long time. Where the innovator was convinced and willing to ignore recent history and prevailing wisdom, and strike out in a new direction. If you examine the DNA level influences of all the companies profiled in the innovation issue of BCBusiness magazine you’ll find this one core trait to be universal: innovators have a vision, and a plan, and are willing to go it alone. Eventually everyone else scrambles to catch up.