THE SHORE of False Creek, Vancouver’s salt-water core, is a model of high density urban chic—all of it built on the sins of the past. Much of the scenic ocean inlet is ringed with seawall walkways, with parks, marinas and vibrant restaurant patios. There’s a resort feel to the area, as though the crowds here are on perpetual holiday. True, it abounds with tourist draws, from the funky industrial-themed market bazaar of Granville Island off the south shore to the geodesic dome of Science World on the east shore. But this is also the ever-growing home of tens of thousands of residents.
The idea that people would live around the inlet—that high-end real estate mixed with some affordable housing would feed schools, shops and community centres—was unthinkable less than a generation ago. From Vancouver’s incorporation in 1886, False Creek was the ugly, if necessary, industrial hub for much of the city’s first century.
The inlet’s north shore became the west-
ern terminus for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Industry followed: metalworks, sawmills, shipyards and coal-burning gas plants. Almost half the inlet was buried to satisfy demand for land—infilled with demolition rubble, industrial waste, even tar and cinders from the gas plants. The inlet, a city planner said in 1914, was “unsightly, offensive and a menace to the community’s health.” In summer, the Province newspaper reported in 1949, “the stench was often sickening.”
In the 1970s, a maturing city, with federal help, reclaimed Granville Island. Planners kept its industrial feel while creating a playground of markets, studios, eateries and a marina. The grim north shore became the site of Expo 86, a city centennial bash that drew 22 million people and introduced Vancouver to the world. The exposition also served unofficially as a wake, burying False Creek’s profligate past.
The 1988 sale of the Expo lands—almost one-sixth of the downtown—was a defining moment in the city’s history. The successful bidder, Concord Pacific Developments Ltd., controlled by Hong Kong property developer Li Ka-shing, illustrated a new Asian influence, and the benefits of a master-planned community. Fifteen years later, the multi-billion-dollar neighbourhood continues to grow, in tandem with a massive
clean-up of the once-contaminated site. Coal tar compounds, heavy metals and poisonous wood preservatives have all been hauled away, or buried under rubber membranes and clean soil—the foundation for a new community. Workers have had to use respirators in the worst areas, even coping with mini-explosions from seeping methane.
Planners have now turned to the southeast shore and a last scruffy, contaminated tract of city land. The future mixed-use site is billed as a model of sustainable development. “It builds on the success we’ve had with the new neighbourhoods on industrial land,” says Vancouver senior planner Ian Smith. Plans call for a park-rich, pedestrian-focused neighbourhood of environmentally friendly buildings. The athletes’ village for Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Games will be built there, to be used later for residential and affordable housing. For a green-themed Olympics, “it’s a perfect fit,” says Smith. And a fitting legacy for an environmental turnaround of Olympic proportion.
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