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Granville Island is the second hottest tourist spot in Canada, outside Niagara Falls. It welcomes more than 12 million visitors annually.Dominic Schaefer

Andy Yan, a senior urban planner and adjunct professor at UBC, stood in front of about 50 American developers and planners at a workshop this week and watched their jaws drop. He compared Vancouver's median household income, about $57,000, alongside the average detached house price – $1.36-million.

"They were floored," Mr. Yan says. "We have profound economic challenges."

Mr. Yan was one of the presenters as the U.S.-based Urban Land Institute held its annual meeting this week in Vancouver, with 3,000 delegates from around the world descending on the convention centre.

It was the first time that the ULI held its spring conference outside of the U.S., and it was more than a symbolic gesture that Vancouver is, in real estate terms, one of the most economically thriving cities in the world.

"It's taken me five years of my life to get the conference here, and I'm pretty proud," says local architect Alan Boniface, chair of the BC chapter of the ULI. "I lobbied hard, to be frank. The poster child for the ULI is Vancouver – it has real estate up the ying yang, so that certainly helped."

From a global perspective, Vancouver is booming, a leading example of a thriving foreign real estate investment market. But as Vancouverites are well aware – and Mr. Yan pointed out – there's been a price to pay, particularly in the form of unaffordable housing.

Of the positives, says Mr. Yan, we can lay claim to smart use of surplus industrial land. Areas that were once dead zones, such as the Olympic Village/Flats and Railtown areas, are now destination neighbourhoods, made interesting because of tech, design and artisan industries that have set up shop. While several cities in the U.S. still suffer the repercussions of the recession, they look to Vancouver as an example of a city that's at the top of its game.

Mr. Boniface is an architect with the Vancouver office of national firm Dialog, and he's definitely feeling the love. Dialog is the firm responsible for Granville Island, which is, unbeknownst to nearly everybody, the second hottest tourist spot in Canada, outside Niagara Falls. It is the jewel of destination spots, with more than 12 million visitors traipsing through Granville Island each year.

Dialog architects Norm Hotson and Joost Bakker conceived of the master plan for the peninsula back in 1975, transforming it from industrial to mixed-use with an emphasis on local marketplace, education, arts and artisans, and gritty work life carried out in the open. They wanted a place that didn't hide its industry, and they elected to keep housing at its fringes to avoid any pushback from strata boards that might oppose the sights and sounds of it. Instead, Granville Island is surrounded by dense condo development that supports its economy. It's the perfect example of complementary mixed-use housing, industrial and retail development.

It was a hugely winning formula, which lead to Dialog helping other mixed use markets get off the ground, including Seattle's Pike Place, Ottawa's ByWard, and Toronto's St. Lawrence markets, and in the early days, the Distillery District. The firm is also helping with the new Great Northern Way neighbourhood that is anchored by the new Emily Carr University of Art and Design.

Now, Memphis, of all cities, has come calling, and Mr. Boniface finds himself the lead architect on a massive one- million-square-foot mixed-use project there that takes its inspiration from the Granville Island model.

"We're intellectualizing what we did right there so many years ago," Mr. Boniface says. "We did the master planning, the food markets, and we've been overseeing the place since its inception."

Memphis officials discovered Mr. Boniface when he gave a speech there two years ago to 300 people, including city planners, impressing them with his firm's "urban magnets" model of planning design. The idea is to create certain key components that will draw people to an area. On Granville Island, the magnets have been food, and all aspects of boating and art, for example. The aim is to prevent a sterile environment, which comes about from massive chain stores and too many cool high-end shops. Once those stores move in, the neighbourhood goes dead from a cultural perspective. Instead, the firm lobbied hard to keep blue-collar work, such as Granville Island's boat makers and the big concrete plant. It was a relatively low-cost project that made the most of old, cheaply constructed warehousing.

In Memphis, a group is doing the same with an old Sears distribution centre that's been sitting empty and derelict for 20 years.

"The Urban Magnets concept has now been implemented through our city government, through the planners," says Todd Richardson, project leader for Memphis's Crosstown development project.

"I love it, because I go and sit in on meetings through the mayor's office, and they don't know who I am. And they are talking about the Urban Magnets concept and how they have to implement it. They have no idea where it came from.

"They are implementing it because Memphis is a very blue-collar place, where we like to get our hands dirty. It's not a place where high-rises and high-level expensive development is going to be a success. Memphis is one of the poorest cities in the nation."

Mr. Richardson toured Granville Island last year and also checked out Toronto's Distillery District.

"It's not like Granville Island is an incredible architectural gem. But it's a mix that makes for a user experience that you can't get anywhere else."

Mr. Boniface concedes that Emily Carr's relocation from Granville Island will be a major setback. But Mr. Hotson and Mr. Bakker are working to find replacement tenants for the former campus, perhaps creative companies in the flourishing high-tech industry.

As he told the ULI conference Thursday, the idea is to plan these areas according to a specific vision.

"Most designers and developers don't think about things as cohesively, so it becomes kind of random, and it may not work because of that.

"Mostly, we want people to think about place making as a vehicle. I've spoken to all over the U.S. and Canada. And it's starting to get some life. People are starting to understand it. In Memphis they enacted a bylaw called the Urban Magnet Bylaw. In Nashville, the Urban Land Institute there is taking the idea and trying to apply it.

"So everywhere it lands, it seems to sprout a bit."