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Model of a redevelopment project for Vancouver's Canada Post building at 349 West Georgia St. by architecture firm Musson Cattell Mackey (MCM) Partnership (Vancouver).

Lucas Finlay Photography

It was the city's main Canada Post office for a half a century, a hulking industrial building at the far edge of the central business district.

Now, the building's new owners, a B.C. pension fund, want to redevelop that relic in a way that will transform the city's eastern downtown. But not with the high-end condos or luxury stores that have prevailed elsewhere.

Instead, the focus at the prominent site on Georgia Street next to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre will be on rental apartments, useful retail, office space and bringing people into this part of the city.

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"This will be an interesting play for this part of town, where everything now drops off," said Mark Whitehead, one of the two architects from Musson Cattell Mackey Partnership, which is designing the massive new development. "This will bring about 4,500 people here living, working and shopping. This is going to revitalize this neighbourhood."

Bentall Kennedy, acting for the B.C. Investment Management Corp., is proposing that the six main storeys of the heritage building be preserved and reused for offices, shopping and loft apartments.

As well, in a public design revealed before the company files an official rezoning application later this month, the company's architects are showing a model with five towers that rise from the roof of the original structure. More than three-quarters of the 850 residential units there would be rentals, not condos.

The huge new development would be filled with retail, but not the luxury and clothing shops that dominate farther west.

And a big emphasis would be on creating a place where people just like to hang out – on the south-facing steps, on the patios, in the concourses – in vivid contrast to the urban-life-killing blank walls that characterize the old post office now.

"Right now, it's a federal building that says, 'Stay away.' We're going to try to right that wrong," Mr. Whitehead said.

BCIMC bought the building in January, 2013, for about $130-million from the federal government, which had decided to move the region's main mail-handling facility to Richmond.

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It was built in 1958 and was the largest welded-steel structure in the world at the time. It came complete with a tunnel that ran from the building to the waterfront for deliveries of mail from ships. The tunnel was soon abandoned as mail shipments moved to planes.

The investment corporation is asking for extra density on the site from the city to help pay for the high cost of preserving the main six floors of the old building, which has been called Vancouver's finest example of 1950s International Style building. (Three smaller floors of office perched on top like a caboose would go, under the proposal.)

The corporation's decision to focus on rental apartments rather than condos is not because of a city demand or incentive.

"This is a pension fund that wants the steady income stream," Mr. Whitehead said.

The city's downtown plan allows for extra density on the site as long as the taller buildings don't cut into the views that city policies say have to be preserved.

As a result, the design for the new office tower rising from the Georgia Street side has only partial floors on the top three, sliced at an angle.

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As well, the other four towers, the residential component, are at different heights to comply with the view-cone restrictions.

A long-time retail consultant in the city said the project will likely focus on retail that isn't fashion or luxury, because those niches are established already around Granville and Alberni.

"It's not going to be high end [in the post-office building]," Phil Boname of Urbanics said. "But there are big-box retailers not in downtown Vancouver who might want to be here. We have a very substantial resident population that is quite affluent and they need the same mix as you have in suburbia."

The development is expected to take at least five years to get approvals and start construction. In the meantime, part of it is being leased out to film companies for storing equipment and vehicles.

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