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Games reignite dream of a car-free Granville

Granville Street has been jam-packed with visitors, buskers and entertainers during the Winter Games.

rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

Granville Street - a blight for more than three decades - has been transformed during the Olympics into the bustling family-friendly pedestrian mall that city planners envisioned 35 years ago when they closed it to cars.

Now downtown businesses, which fought for years to bring cars back to the mall - where only buses have been allowed since 1974 - are pushing to have it closed to all vehicles for other festivals.

The five blocks of the mall, which had a $24-million redesign just before the Games, have seen crowds of 75,000 people at points. They have also become a hub for impromptu street-hockey games, buskers, pin-sellers, magicians and more.

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"It's been a huge attraction," said Charles Gauthier, director of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association. His group brought in 170 buskers for the Games, as well as supporting a Lunar Festival public-art display at the Georgia intersection. "People are asking us how often can we close Granville down. I think the street has taken off."

Mr. Gauthier, who once spent a considerable amount of time lobbying city hall to allow cars back onto the street, is now trying to ensure that the option of shutting it down to buses remains open. That will mean making sure that TransLink maintains trolley wires on the side streets parallel to Granville.

Mayor Gregor Robertson said planners and downtown businesses are considering all kinds of options for the street that has shown new promise as a civic gathering place. They're also excited about the possibility of not having it be the exclusive domain of club-hopping under-40s, as it has been in recent years.

"I think it's worth looking at Granville closures during weekends," the mayor said. He's also in favour of allowing more temporary drinking facilities for events that draw large crowds - something that might help prevent the kind of out-of-control drinking that occurred last weekend, when every bar on the busy street filled up early.

"We've got to look at beer-garden options, where that beer-drinking can be managed and accommodated," he said.

Those are two ideas that the Vancouver police are prepared to support.

It was actually police who brought the pedestrian-mall idea back to life two years ago. They were looking for a way to cope with the crowds of young and frequently drunk club-goers who had taken over the street, both in the mall section and the blocks south of that, after Vancouver City Hall designated the south half of Granville as its entertainment zone.

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That city designation had transformed Granville from a grungy street of sex shops, rundown hotels and heroin dealers to one lined with bars and boisterous drinkers who caused so many problems that weekends became a near-war zone.

The street was lined with police cars and paddy wagons on weekend nights. Dozens of people were arrested or charged with infractions, from urinating on the street to starting fights.

Police asked the city about the possibility of simply closing the street to buses on weekend nights to give people more room to move, which they hoped would prevent altercations.

"It worked," said Vancouver police Constable Lindsey Houghton.

The Olympic experience has shown police that having an activity that draws more than just young drinkers is also a help. "In order for an event to be successful when you're seeing crowds like this, it has to be a wide, broad audience," Constable Houghton said.

Police did still have trouble with drinkers on the weekend. On Friday and Saturday, they forced 1,300 people drinking on the street to pour out their alcohol each night.

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But the scene didn't spiral out of control because there were so many non-drinkers around. Like the mayor, Constable Houghton says that having more temporary drinking spots during high-volume festivals is probably a good idea.

"The best-case scenario is giving people places to go so they don't have to drink in the street," he said.

The mall has been able to show off its best face during the Games, thanks to the redesign it just went through. The redesign, done by PWL Partnership Landscape Architects, has transformed the street into a broad avenue lined with vertical LED light-poles that echo the history of Granville, which used to be known as the Great White Way because of all the neon signs on its shops, clubs and theatres.

It also has extra-wide sidewalks, intricate paving and street furniture that curves up from the sidewalk.

"All of those subtle clues make people feel like it's not an ordinary street," said PWL's Chris Sterry, who has been thrilled with the way people are flocking to the street he redesigned.

Even parts of the street that have typically been considered an eyesore have been transformed during the Olympics. The blank white wall of the Sears department store, a building frequently described as looking like a large public urinal, has become a screen for images projected onto it during the past week of festivities.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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