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Vancouver's historic Gastown is a neighbourhood that has had its share of ups and downs. Weathering the ebbs and flows of booms and busts, from the great fire of 1886 through to its mid century bustling downtown status, it suffered from a 70's kitschy touristy makeover, blossomed into an early 80's artsy nexus only to languish in general 1990's era decline.

But from the vantage point of the Acme Café, located in the 1907 era Paris Block and next door to the soon to be adjoining Paris Annex, things are looking decidedly up.

"Gastown today is one of the city's most dynamic and creative neighbourhoods," says developer Robert Fung (president of the Salient Group), whose nuanced, carefully considered heritage conversions have contributed immensely to the area's built environment. And despite a recessionary hiccup from mid 2008 to very recently, its' also enjoying a heady confluence of new residential and commercial real estate projects.

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Consider the Paris Annex, for example. While economic woes stalled construction for the past year and a half, a recent influx of presales means that building will begin in a matter of weeks. Why the sudden upsurge?

Architect Gair Williamson who designed both the Paris Annex and won a Heritage BC award for his design of the Paris Block (the former headquarters of Paris Shoes) says it's partly due to the arrival of "young hipsters/professionals/ and cultural creatives who want to live where they work." And increasingly where they work is the plethora of new restaurants, bars and retail outlets that have mushroomed in the last half-year. Peckinpah's, Meat and Bread, L'abbatoir, and Sea Monster Sushi offer brave new culinary delights, while retail outlets like Roden Gray and Orling and Wu, offer stylish homewares and fashions. In addition, cultural life and arts institutions - like Simon Fraser University's new school for the Contemporary Arts, and galleries like Artspeak - are contributing to Gastown's spring awakening.

And with hundreds of new residents living in the Woodwards complex, the demand for new businesses - grocery shops, eateries, even dry cleaners - is growing.

"There's a real symbiosis now between the commercial and the residential," comments Mr. Fung, "they feed off each other." Symbiosis is a big theme architecturally with the Paris Block and Paris Annex buildings - designed with conjoined innards. Indeed, the mixed-use developments act as a neat neighbourhood metaphor. To maximize space, the two properties which were originally part of a single lot, will be fully integrated, The elegant 1907 Paris Block building, with sleek new interiors designed by Evoke, will share circulation, electrical, mechanical and storage facilities, with its neighbour building - some 100 years its junior. In this way the Paris Annex with its mere 30-foot lot can still offer generous living space.

With its high ceilings, modern kitchens, and floor to ceiling windows the Annex will offer light filled flats and two storey lofts at a far more affordable price and in a far more vibrant urban community than say Yaletown or Coal Harbour.

By borrowing the circulation core in the Paris block, architect Gair Williamson has reduced the Annex's floor plate, allowing the three upper levels to be set back from the street, and reinforcing the historical 'sawtooth' pattern at the street wall. Several units in both buildings can access private outdoor space in this way, and both buildings share private and common roof deck space. This "stepping back" effect also creates spacious balconies - and ample living space inside and out. And retail frontage across the entire site is achieved by using a single residential entry for both buildings. In this way a new building will grow out of the old in a modern interpretation of the old heritage fabric.

They key to successful heritage conversion, as well as neighbourhood growth, contends Mr. Fung, is "getting the balance right."

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There can be a "fragility" to the area, he says, which needs to be respected in terms of the right mix of commercial and residential, low income and market housing, cultural facilities and social services.

At the same time Gastown is a neighbourhood with real gravitas - rooted in a history and not created out of ether and landfill like some of Vancouver's newer neighbourhoods. So the challenge is to keep the patina of the neighbourhood in tact, respecting the smaller footprint of the existing built environment while introducing new elements.

On this stretch of West Hastings, the balance seems alright. The Acme Café is packed with locals for weekday lunches - and even West Vancouver matrons on weekends. Owner Alan Hoffman - who was attracted to the area because of its character and was one of the "pioneering" restaurateurs who invested in the area when its fortunes were down - is excited about the current growth spurt. As evidence of the neighbourhood sea change, he notes that the next-door Model Express now displays Italian leather shoes next to its more "traditional" knee high patent leather boots and skimpy outfits. On the other side of the two Paris buildings, the heritage Phoenix building houses a capoeria school and shop and the next door Save on Meats, with its iconic neon pig will soon reopen as a "modern butcher shop" run by Boneta's Mark Brand (another of the area's pioneering restaurateurs). Further down, Lu's Women's Pharmacy - brainchild of architect Inge Roecker - marries innovative design - including chandeliers made of recycled plastic from United We Can - with social conscience.

Across the street a vacant lot is transforming into a community garden, framed by the sculpture of an inner city angel on the side of a neighbouring building. The next block westward, the south side opposite the massive Woodwards project, is taken up by vacant heritage buildings for sale or lease, (soon to become Paris Block-imitating heritage conversions perhaps). There is even a new spa here called "Be Fresh."

Meanwhile Reliance Holdings is developing 18 West Hastings into a residential rental project. But it's hard to dispute Robert Fung's status as heritage conversion king. His passion for the neighbourhood is matched only by his high design standards. Mr. Fung cites the area's "great entrepreneurial energy" - and the fact that its one of the few remaining areas of the city with "mom and pop" businesses, relatively free from big corporate chains - as the key to its dynamism.

A few hundred metres away on Water Street, where Mr. Fung has developed a string of projects from the Acton/Ostry designed Terminus Hotel to the Garage building (named after the area's first parking garage) and the adjoining Alhambra building (one of the oldest in Vancouver), restaurateur David Polinsky sings Mr. Fung's praises. Right next to L'Abbatoire - where a modern glass cube sits atop the city's former jail - Mr. Polinsky has opened a Vera's burger joint. Despite the franchise nature of the business, the design is anything but generic. Interiors designed by David Hepworth accentuate the exposed heritage brick walls with stylish overhead light fixtures.

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"The success of Gastown," he says, "is about developers like Robert with aesthetic sensitivity matched with creative entrepreneurs."

"A year and a half ago," notes the 30-something restaurateur, "this was a scary place to park your car. Now you have to fight for a parking space - and you have to fight for a seat at the bar on a Saturday night."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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