For about 11 years now, Adele Piroshco has been a regular at the southeast False Creek area of central Vancouver, drawn to the shoreline and waters as a member of Eye of the Dragon, a team of dragon-boat racers. This is where they practise and compete.
For much of that time, it was industrial land, ragged and barren. But on a pleasant summer evening this week, Ms. Piroshco sat in the shadow of the Olympic Village, home to hundreds of athletes during the 2010 Winter Games. She was awaiting the return of team rowers who were out on the water. In response to a reporter’s question, she was trying to define the new vibe of the area generated by crowds strolling on the seawall and enjoying two levels of patios at the new restaurant bar by the nearby Creekside Community Centre.
“It’s come alive,” Ms. Piroshco says of the village, 16 residential buildings with 1,100 units around a central square. “It was empty for a while. I don’t know what changed, but there’s a sense of community here.”
As the Summer Olympics in London come to a close, the challenge there will be to manage the aftermath and continue the momentum brought to East London by infrastructure for the games. Officials there hope to create badly needed new housing and community.
Vancouver’s athletes village is showing signs of becoming the kind of community London might want as a legacy of its Games. Condo marketer Bob Rennie, who is selling units in the village, once spoke of a “ghost-town” cloud over the project, which opened in 2009 and needed hundreds of millions of dollars in loans from the city of Vancouver to complete. The project has been dogged by slow sales and resident complaints that ended up in the courts.
Despite all this, the Vancouver village is suddenly coming to life in a way that is as alluring to come-and-go outsiders as it is to those who live there, with retail, restaurants, a bar and a cutting-edge Urban Fare supermarket, among other businesses, livening up the area in recent weeks.
Gordon Price, a former NPA councillor and now director of the city program at Simon Fraser University, says he has just recently noticed the shift. “I’ve only seen it in the last week,” he said, describing the energy he saw there, reflected, he said, in crowds of dragon boaters.
Daniel Frankel bet $3.7-million that the village might come into its own.
That was the cost of building the 12,000 square-foot Tap and Barrel restaurant-bar – much of it patio space – into the west side of the Creekside Centre. The city put out a request for proposals, and Mr. Frankel recalls that he hesitated up to the night before submissions were due. “I’ve never done that before on a public tender,” recalls the head of The Daniel Group.
But he says he eventually heeded the views of developers excited about the area’s growth potential, the reality that it is one of the last intense waterfront residential communities in the Vancouver core, and the prospect of residential development adjoining it. He also says he heeded his gut. “I looked at the village as a good bet,” he says.
Now, Mr. Frankel, who operates six such bars in the Vancouver region, says he’s averaging about 1,000 customers a day at the Tap and Barrel.
When he does the rounds of the complex, he chats up customers and is finding that some are village-based and others are from Mount Pleasant, Yaletown and elsewhere. All’s well now, with crowded patios and waits of up to 30 minutes for a table, but he’s hoping that varied mix of customers will stay through Vancouver’s grey, rainy winters.
Patrick Condon, an architecture school professor at the University of British Columbia, says the situation in the village points to an inexplicable reality about urban development: Things build quietly to a tipping point. “It seems as if nothing is happening, and suddenly – ‘Boom’ – it is,” he said.
“It’s very common to urban areas that suddenly people say, ‘Hey. Let’s go there. That was fun the last time.’ Until that tipping point, people might go there, and say, ‘This isn’t very much fun. There’s not many people here. I don’t think I’ll go back.’ ”
On the night Ms. Piroshco was out on the shore, people were waiting half an hour for tables at Tap and Barrel. Nearby, cyclists and pedestrians moved along the stretch of seawall, part of a network of about 20 kilometres of pathway. The village is now a pit stop for seawall users, adding new regulars to the mix. In time, it is to be the centre of clusters of residential development in Southeast False Creek that will be home to about 16,000 people.
Mr. Rennie, who is trying to sell remaining condos in the complex and says he will have new numbers to report this fall, says Urban Fare, which opened in July, was important to building the sense of community. It had been in the works for years, but proponents were awaiting a critical mass of occupants. “We needed Urban Fare,” he says simply.
Mr. Price compares the evolution of the village to the nearby Yaletown district, born out of a former warehouse area. At one point, he says, people had to leave Yaletown for basic shopping, but the opening of an Urban Fare had a major cohesive impact. “If you can’t get basic grocery needs in walking distance, you don’t have a neighbourhood,” says Mr. Price.
Also helping, he says, is the Creekside Community Centre. It had 60 programs when it opened in September, 2010, but now has 90, according to the Vancouver Parks Board. With 65,000 visits for its fitness centre since 2010, it is one of the city’s busiest such facilities.
Stephen Ghesquicre, visiting from Ireland to spend time with his brother, who lives in the Olympic Village, is impressed with the buzz. “It’s a peaceful lively,” he said, sitting at the counter of the Tap and Barrel, sipping a brew.
“I wouldn’t say ‘hustle and bustle,’ but it has a good essence about it.”
Editor's Note: Daniel Frankel is the head of The Daniel Group. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this article.