Return of the Great White Way?Posted by: Rosemary Poole on January 07, 2010 / 2:16 PM
In 1959, Fred Herzog captured this image of the intersection of Granville and Robson Streets (a link to a larger image is found at the bottom of this post). Back then, the stretch of downtown Granville Street, between the blocks of Drake and Cordova, had earned the moniker “the Great White Way,” and it was a destination for live theatre and entertainment, lit up with neon signs. If you approached it up the hill to the south, the street radiated like an airport runway.
Only a few years later, that same stretch of Granville would change dramatically, beginning a slow and steady decline. In the 1960s, City Hall passed a bylaw banning new neon signs. In the 1970s, Granville Street was reconfigured into a transit mall, accessible only to public transit buses and pedestrians. Then Eaton’s opened their large, windowless white box of a store on the northwest corner of Granville and Robson (now Sears). The design wasn’t popular at the time, shutting out the street as it did, but people shopped there anyway, and in the new Pacific Centre Mall connected to it. Most retailers moved inside, too, their old stores replaced by tattoo parlours and sex shops. (Vancouver may have rallied against inner-city freeways, but it didn’t oppose the shopping mall; its impact on street life is just as profound.)
Herzog’s Granville Street may be long gone, but the energy of that time was a major influence on the latest redesign of the street, now very-nearly completed—and years in the making. If you’ve been to Granville recently, you’ll have noticed the changes; the street has undergone a major exfoliation. There a rawness to it: new double-wide concrete-and-basalt curbs supply parallel parking by day and become crowd-friendly sidewalks by night—newly planted street trees are overwhelmed by their width. Design elements and street furniture by PWL Partnership Landscape Architects and Pechet and Robb stand in gleaming contrast to some of the scrubbier buildings and businesses. Instead of typical streetlamps, vertical light tubes line the street, riffing off the shape and intensity of the old marquee signs (see image at left, also taken by Herzog).
The overall redesign concept was conceived by Elizabeth Macdonald and Allan Jacobs, leading thinkers on “Great Streets” (Jacobs’ 1993 book of the same name). The question is, will Granville become just that? The great street it once was, connecting the east and west sides of downtown? Our next post will explore that question, looking at Macdonald’s and Jacobs’ great streets philosophy.