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neighourhood watch

On Commercial Drive, near the Pain Management Society's medical marijuana shop and Grandview Lanes Bowling Centre's glow-in-the-dark alleys, there is a five-storey project that is testing the boundaries of what is an acceptable height for a building in a neighbourhood dominated by low-rises.

Green construction netting drapes over the former indie movie theatre, set to be transformed into a complex that will be two storeys taller than before. For project owner Rajinder Goyal, the redevelopment of the 34-year-old building is a sight to behold. Mr. Goyal, through his Image Developments Inc., sees the structure as an ideal location for an independent grocer, beauty salon, barber shop and other commercial tenants such as restaurants on the ground floor. There will be 58 condos on the upper four storeys.

For the architects that he has hired, Timothy Ankenman and François Marchand, the project is harbinger of things to come as the area around the former Van East Cinema faces development pressure. The architects, who are the principals at Ankenman Marchand, envisage the revitalization of what has been an often-overlooked stretch of Commercial Drive.

Change is coming, albeit slowly and in phases, to the Grandview-Woodland neighbourhood, whose heart is The Drive, from East 1st Avenue to Venables Street. "While the area was once known as 'Little Italy,' an identity that still infuses much of the area, a large Cantonese-speaking population can be found in the southeast, while speakers of Tagalog, Vietnamese and Spanish are found residing throughout the neighbourhood," according to the City of Vancouver's profile this year of the district.

The Vancouver East Cultural Centre and Britannia school, pool and ice rink liven up the northern blocks. East of the business strip, Ankenman Marchand designed a project that will open soon – the 20-unit Jeffs Residences, situated on the historic property where physician Thomas Jeffs and his family lived more than a century ago. But south of East 1st Avenue and toward East Broadway, the streetscape along The Drive could use a boost. Two blocks south of Mr. Goyal's building is where the bustling Commercial-Broadway SkyTrain station is located and where the double-length 99 B-Line bus takes passengers to the University of British Columbia.

"What is interesting about Commercial Drive is the diversity of merchants and the fact that there aren't many national chains," said Mr. Ankenman, standing just a bowling pin's throw away from independent coffee houses, pubs, health-food stores and sushi joints. McDonald's closed an outlet in the Il Mercato shopping mall many years ago.

Statistics Canada reports that the Grandview-Woodland's population in the 2011 census fell to about 27,300, compared with roughly 28,200 in 2006. But Mr. Goyal and the architects are forecasting that there will be increased demand for housing in the years ahead in the neighbourhood.

City planners have placed a lower priority on clearing the way for rezoning parts of Grandview-Woodland, compared with fast-tracking changes in other areas such as the Cambie Street corridor, Mr. Ankenman said. "Around the Commercial-Broadway station, a new vision for land use hasn't caught on yet," he said.

The drab, windowless corner of the former Van East Cinema at Commercial Drive and East 7th Avenue will be redesigned through a makeover that introduces new windows. Mr. Marchand notes that care will be taken to give each ground-floor tenant a distinctive awning and storefront when the complex opens in mid-2013. The architect emphasizes the sustainable aspects of preserving 75 per cent of the original structure, instead of demolishing and rebuilding from scratch. The interior steel frames, concrete floors and most of the yellow brick exterior will live on, and two floors of underground parking have been largely retained.

Mr. Goyal originally considered constructing a high-rise, but after determining that his idea would take years to win approval, he decided to go with a revised proposal. He opted to redevelop the three-storey Far East Building, which housed the former cinema, a credit union, various offices and merchants. Amid opposition from some residents, he obtained rezoning to add two storeys that will be set back farther than the original roofline.

But once the Grandview-Woodland community plan is prepared for city council in late 2013, Mr. Goyal will discover whether he is able to revive his high-rise vision for other properties that he owns near the SkyTrain station.

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