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As a city, Vancouver began as a gleam in a real estate promoter's eye, and for good or ill, so it remains. The first of our city-shaping deals was the federal government's giveaway that transferred a good hunk of what is now Vancouver's downtown peninsula to the Canadian Pacific Railway, so their investors could benefit from locating a transcontinental terminus here.

Next up came the 1920s and 30s amalgamation deals that brought Vancouver South, Point Grey and other municipalities south of False Creek into the City of Vancouver, but on the condition that a new city hall be built in the unusual, non-downtown location of West 12th at Cambie.

Just as important was the purchase, about the same time, of much of the North Shore's upslope land at logging rights prices by Britain's Guinness brewing clan. By privately building the Lion's Gate bridge to add value to what we now call the "British Properties," the Guinnesses proved that hawking Vancouver real estate can be much more profitable than selling foamy dark ale.

More recently, there was the sale of the former EXPO 86 site to Li Ka Shing for less than the provincially-funded cost of remediating contaminated soil on this huge brownfield range of prime waterfront land. The development company Mr. Li once owned, Concord-Pacific, has since spent tens of millions on compensating public benefits such as the construction of David Lam Park, the seawall extension and the Roundhouse renovation.

The latest city-changing land deal was made by Premier Gordon Campbell last Friday afternoon - the Friday of a long weekend - just minutes before he jumped on an airplane for an extended tour of China. Usually, this form of media management means either bad news intended to be buried, or incomplete decisions needing to be tested in the public forum before too many questions can be asked.

There were four announcements in all: a new waterfront location for the Vancouver Art Gallery; a commitment to rebuild the roof of BC Place stadium; a plan to construct a new downtown casino with linked condo/hotel towers; and the seeming demise of a proposal for a waterfront soccer stadium on Burrard Inlet.

The overall state of confusion is evident in the single-page press release produced by the Vancouver Whitecaps soccer team - it contradicts itself by asserting the Whitecaps' "intention to pursue a lease agreement in a renovated BC Place Stadium," (which will not be available for corner kicks until 2012 at earliest), while also "remaining committed to building our proposed 15,000-20,000-seat waterfront stadium." Huh?

This playing it both ways will only heighten fears in the downtown neighbourhood that the proposal to build an outdoor soccer pitch is just a red herring, with the real goal being the rezoning of these rail-yard-flanking lands for luxury condo towers. City council will decide.

The news is much more positive and clear about the final home for the Vancouver Art Gallery, which had been studying the former bus station site and main post office complex, both on Georgia Street. VAG's new home will be on a further continuation of Georgia Street right down to the very shores of False Creek: the EXPO 86-surplus peninsula that most Vancouverites know as the Plaza of Nations and BC Enterprise Hall.

If arrangements are worked out with current casino operators and partial land owners at Canadian Metropolitan Properties, the casino will move to an ultra-high-density complex on the west side of a renovated BC Place stadium, which will get re-topped with a $150-million retractable roof, largely fashioned out of B.C. timber, with construction starting after the 2010 Olympics. This is the last best location along the entire Vancouver waterfront for a major cultural complex.

A proposal for a Coal Harbour Theatre got axed when the convention centre grew like Topsy, but these monies, still available from the City of Vancouver, can now be applied to a symphonic concert hall and second theatre proposal currently brewing for the bus station site.

Confused yet?

Buckle in, because even more has been revealed about the building intentions of former developer and former mayor Gordon Campbell.

Indeed, with these announcements Premier Campbell stands revealed, in my opinion, as both Vancouver's most powerful real estate developer, and even more so, Vancouver's real mayor, making all our key city-building decisions while Sam Sullivan remains distracted with drug policies and EcoDensity nomenclature.

So if VAG is going to Plaza of Nations, what will become of the Arthur Erickson-renovated former Edwardian courthouse on Robson Street, where they now show commix and Carrs to the world?

Minister of Economic Development Colin Hansen let this part of Campbell's story out of the bag in January, when he confirmed a scheme to convert the current art palace into something called an "Asia-Pacific Cultural and Trade Centre." Carved ivory snuff boxes? Japanese brush paintings? An English language upgrade centre for Shanghai entrepreneurs? A new home for Canada's best presenters of contemporary Asian art, Centre A? All will be revealed in due course by our premier-developer-mayor, with ministers like Mr. Hansen standing by to pick up the pieces.

As Premier Campbell wings it over China on his current tour, so many questions remain unanswered. VAG proposes building 320,000 square feet for their all-new building on False Creek. Based on figures for comparable buildings in Toronto and the United States, a fully-furnished and equipped contemporary art museum of this size costs $250-million, yet the government has only put $50-million on the table.

Will Ottawa really pony up $150-million, and can the last $50-million be found among Vancouver's philanthropists and art collectors?

I hope so.

Given the socially and environmentally-compromised South East False Creek/Olympic Village project, terminally underachieved because of bad decisions from Mayor Sullivan and council, the Plaza of Nations site is the last best place for a significant piece of world-shaking Vancouver waterfront architecture.

My personal wish is that VAG director Kathleen Bartels, building committee chair and developer Michael Audain, and their staff and preliminary consultants take their time in setting the terms, and exploring the options in architect-selection for this, the sweetest building site our city may ever see.

I personally think a well-run international architectural competition here, one that does not treat the many fine Vancouver- and Canada-based designers as second-class citizens, would be appropriate. Third-rate "starchitect"-designed creations now litter every ambitious little town like used appliances: Vancouver can and should do better.

If run poorly, we will end up with a pretentious turkey just like Library Square, the Moshe Safdie competition-winning design picked in a architectural competition overseen - some say micromanaged - by then-mayor Gordon Campbell. Vancouver warrants a VAG design competition better run than the one responsible for our postmodern Coliseum of books.

 

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