09 Oct The DVA’s West End Quilt

‘Sweat the small stuff’, that is what the future is being asked to do in the West End. The broad strokes of the West End have been drawn for as long as the traffic circles have been planted. This Big Picture has endured over several decades of churn through the rotating crop of community. Below its surface of orderly plantations and wild grasses, run channels of social and economic minerals. The canaries in the West End ‘mine/field’ are the details of the sociable street realm – the curbside pocket garden and the commercial front porch.

This is what the DVA’s West End Quilt shows as it emerged from the outpouring of engagement where we were successful in engendering at West End’s Car Free Day on June 16th. The West End sees itself as an urban refuge. Its community is all about closeness (and its counterpart – separation), most specifically framed as closeness to nature. Walkability is paramount, with West Enders expressing desire to distance themselves from the escapist culture of “motordom” (or even rapid transit), that is associated with Denman and Georgia, Granville Street, or god forbid the West End’s younger cousin – Yaletown.

Yaletown, started with its seawall and parks, but it only came alive with its grocery stores. Then along came transit and a food and beverage destination connectedness, and now its community is characterized by urban intensity.

The West End, with large grocery and drug stores dotted across the community, is also next door to all the attributes of the city, and just across the downtown line. While English Bay and Stanley Park are happily shared with all the region, behind this perimeter is an aspiration of local separateness. The West End’s treasures its urban oases of calmness, a kind of having one’s cake and eating it too, richness of urban access without succumbing to Yaletown’s frenetic connectedness. What fuels the synergy between the urban and natural halves of its identity and setting is the secondary treasure of independent food and beverage and service retail.

Everything (well… except affordability) is OK, existing buildings are OK, but anxiety over ‘daylight’ and ‘community commercial’ are the points of vulnerability. Redevelopment is happening, and the West End Plan is in the process of laying out a plan that will guide future physical change. Flashpoints of contention can be expected from the ramping up of indoor and outdoor activity (whether garbage pickup in the early morning, or bars remain open late at night). Empty storefronts, or a shift to a new economics requiring well capitalized tenants, speak to mechanics and underlying assumptions of the commercial marketplace.

The stumbling block for the West End is quite possibly not the fact that new commercial will replace funky stores and quirky cafes, but the need to ensure that funky quirkiness remains the defining characteristic of place, especially along its commercial ‘village streets’. It is the sociable nature of the commercial realm that emerges from the DVA Quilt as the issue for the West End’s future. This could mean the activation of laneway corners for the pop up that enriches urban life- food, festival, and free trade. It also means attentive detail to a new architecture that speaks more of ‘commercial front porches’ than ‘retail consistency’. Without major attention to this ‘small stuff’, the community really will start to sweat – and sweating leads to evaporation.

–Graham McGarva, VIA Architecture