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Plenty of room for improvement at Vancouver Art Gallery

The most important public space in Vancouver has never looked worse.

But plans are under way to redesign the north plaza of the Vancouver Art Gallery and make it once again the preeminent place for the city to meet.

It's about time.

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When the courthouse was built in 1911, the plaza outside the main entrance, facing West Georgia Street, became a popular place for people to gather for celebrations, for protests, to dance or to make speeches. But a few years ago the lush green lawns were replaced by bark mulch. Yes, a field of bark mulch spread out in the heart of the city.

The iconic fountain, designed by internationally acclaimed artist Alex von Svoboda and opened in 1966 by premier W.A.C. Bennett, was shut off recently because it was leaking into the Vancouver Art Gallery building space below.

Circled by lights and with jets of water arcing into the air, it once brought a sense of fun to the plaza. Now only a few inches of water sit in the fountain pool, which is littered with soggy newspapers, cast-off playing cards and bottle caps. Many of the sparkling ceramic tiles, each of which was chosen and placed by the artist, are chipped, broken or missing.

So the plaza where lovers met, where Olympic crowds mobbed happily together, where 2011's Occupy movement found a home and where tens of thousands have gathered to smoke pot over the years, has become a wasteland. North plaza looks more like an abandoned lot than a cultural meeting place.

Charles Gauthier, president and CEO of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association is somewhat more diplomatic in his description.

"I think it's an underperforming and kind of a lacklustre parcel of land that just needs to be better utilized," he says. "And I think there's great potential in terms of how it can be a much better place for people to enjoy."

The DVBIA, which played a key role in remaking nearby Granville Street, has put forward a set of guiding principles it wants the city to follow in redesigning north plaza.

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"Aim high," states the organization. "Re-establish this space as Vancouver's preeminent public open space at the centre of the city."

The DVBIA has also asked the city, which leases the land and building from the province, to come up with more money for the project.

"The city's identified construction budget of $3.2-million is a starting point, not an end point, and may not be sufficient to construct a comprehensively redesigned square of high quality and functionality," states the organization.

Mr. Gauthier said he likes the three design concepts the city recently unveiled, but the DVBIA hasn't decided yet which one to support.

The city has had a number of public meetings on the redesign and is running a detailed questionnaire on its website to measure public opinion on the three concepts.

The designs have been getting good reviews, with the blog Vancitybuzz calling them all "stunning."

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But some might take exception to the one thing that's missing: Centennial Fountain. The plan at the moment is to dismantle the fountain and put it in storage.

The DVBIA's guiding principles call for Centennial Fountain to be "an integral part of the redesign process" but Mr. Gauthier said he accepts that the plaza might be better off without it.

"When we were putting [the guiding principles] together we were hearing there seemed to be an attachment to the fountain and an attachment to the sculpture [at the centre of the fountain]," said Mr. Gauthier. "But I'd say at this point, based on the renderings, it looks like it's gone. And I think that's a good decision."

Not everyone will agree. The fountain has been a part of the city's landscape for nearly 50 years and fans of Mr. Svoboda's art may want to fight to keep it. If they do, they can hold a rally in the dreary field of bark mulch that now surrounds it.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More


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