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The main hub of the Woodward’s redevelopment has a huge digital photograph by artist Stan Douglas that depicts the Gastown Riots of 1971.

LAURA LEYSHON

For almost two decades, it was a black hole at the eastern entrance to Vancouver's downtown: a hulking empty building surrounded by vacant storefronts and drug dealers.

But now, the former Woodward's department store - once the centre of gravity on a bustling commercial street - is coming back to life, as one of the most complex urban-rehabilitation projects in Canada nears completion.

This fall, more than 1,000 people moved into market condos that are part of the $500-million project, including Joe Lousa and his wife, part of the crowd that bought the idea of living in a unique experiment aimed at creating a socially mixed microcosm of the city.

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"I had a hard time explaining to people why we decided to do this," said Mr. Lousa, a security guard who works a few blocks away from his 16th-floor condo, which sits on the border of the Downtown Eastside. "But the more time you spend down here, the more you realize it's not bad at all."

Soon, an additional 400 people, including 75 families and another 125 singles who suffer from a combination of mental illness, drug addiction and poverty, will also move in. It won't cure the area's notorious homelessness problems, but it should certainly make a dent.

A grocery and a drugstore opened in early December, bringing legal commercial activity to the block that hasn't been seen since Woodward's closed in 1993. Staff from Vancouver city hall and three federal departments, including the National Film Board and Health Canada, will move in this month, as will non-profit groups. And there's a rooftop daycare on top of the restored original department store.

In February, Simon Fraser University will open its massive Centre for the Performing Arts in the project. It includes half a dozen performance or cinema spaces, with a gala launch of theatre director Robert Lepage's The Blue Dragon .

All of that interlocking activity is what project developer Ian Gillespie, architect Gregory Henriquez and political advocate Jim Green say will make this project a success where so many urban-regeneration developments have failed.

"It's transformative," says Mr. Gillespie, who, with business partner Ben Yeung, has spent six years fine-turning details on the building, from the enormous Stan Douglas photo mural in the central atrium to the sculpted "French fry" columns on one of the condo towers to the handmade benches on the rooftop garden. "And part of the reason for that is just the amount of body heat from all these people who will be using it. You need that mass and scale to make it work."

Mr. Henriquez says the project is unlike anything he's ever done or expects to do again in his lifetime.

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"As a model of inclusivity, it's a really beautiful statement," said Mr. Henriquez, who spent years figuring out such details as entrances that would suit each client group and common spaces they could share comfortably, such as the main civic plaza, which has entrances from three sides.

Mr. Gillespie and Mr. Henriquez are getting calls from people around North America who want to know more about the project. They expect to spend the 2010 Winter Olympics month giving tours to out-of-town visitors who have expressed interest and are looking at replicating the ideas in their own cities.

But as they and others say, this project demanded an unusual level of political will, blind faith and collaboration - something others would have to be prepared for if they wanted to undertake something similar.

"It involves a lot of people taking risks," says Mr. Gillespie, who adds he won't know for several years whether he broke even, lost money, or made a profit on the project.

The block was a yawning pit of development demons six years ago.

The store was a designated heritage site, filled with asbestos and crumbling brick that hadn't been maintained for 15 years. Downtown Eastside groups had a passionate attachment to it, and it had been the site of a famous squat for a couple of months in 2002 with hundreds of people demanding that it be turned into social housing.

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And it was unclear whether anyone would be willing to buy a condo, run a store, or establish an office in the rundown area - at any price.

The recovery started when Mr. Green, a long-time Downtown Eastside advocate for saving the building, was elected to council in 2002 and he pushed a deal for the provincial government to buy it for $5.5-million - a quarter of its assessed value.

But the project was far from a done deal, because of all the negatives. "I didn't have a single developer willing to take it on," said Michael Flanigan, the city's director of real-estate services, the bureaucrat whom many credit with making the project a reality.

City planners ran lengthy consultations with the local community to get their ideas and find out what would make the project work for them. The city also appointed a community advisory committee - a crucial step, Mr. Green said. "This was a great victory for the people of that community who worked to save that building for years."

But it did mean that anyone developing the site needed to do it in a way that was going to include the existing neighbourhood, the poorest in Canada, and not just prompt a wave of gentrification. The project also had to include homes for 125 of the neighbourhood's poorest people - those who had been homeless or close to it.

When Mr. Gillespie's group won the bid, it took years of negotiating with major local retailers - Jimmy Pattison's group for the Nesters Market grocery store, and Brandt Louie's drugstore chain, London Drugs, and the Toronto Dominion Bank - to ensure they would come in, something that Mr. Gillespie felt was essential.

To help convince them, "they got deals that you wouldn't typically find," he admits.

In the end, says Mr. Gillespie, "they said, 'We've had a fortunate business model and we want to give something back to the neighbourhood.' So they closed their eyes and went in."

Which is, in a way, what happened with everyone in the project.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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