Woodward's Building

Woodward's Building Vancouver

VAMONDE Vancouver
Written By VAMONDE Vancouver

Woodward's Building

The Woodward's Building was a historic building in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The original portion of the building was constructed in 1903 for the Woodward's Department Store when that area of Cordova Street was the heart of Vancouver's retail shopping district. At one time this was the premiere shopping destination in Vancouver. The store was famous for its Christmas window displays and its basement Food Floor, and the "W" sign at the top of the building was a distinctive landmark on the Vancouver skyline.

Since the bankruptcy of Woodward's in 1993 the building remained vacant except for a housing occupation in 2002 that initiated the redevelopment process. Redevelopment was seen by many as a key to revitalizing the Downtown Eastside, but the demolition of the structure in 2006 and redevelopment of the site has been met with much local resistance from the existing residents of the neighborhood. The Woodward's redevelopment is now complete with many residents and businesses now in the buildings.


The building was built in 1903 by Charles Woodward as the second location for the Woodward's department store. Woodward's pioneered the concept of one-stop shopping; the store included a food floor which was at the time North America's largest supermarket, household items, men's and women's fashion, and provided cheque cashing, travel booking and other services. The store was well known for carrying a large variety of goods that were not available anywhere else.

The store soon became a feature attraction in Vancouver, and it expanded over 12 separate phases to a final size of 12 storeys. It occupied approximately 2/3 of the city block. The popularity of Woodward's attracted many other businesses to the area. In 1944 the landmark "W" was installed on the top of the building on a 25-metre replica of the Eiffel Tower, replacing a pre-war searchlight-beacon which had been the building's hallmark. The beacon, which was visible at night from as far away as Abbotsford and Mission, was shut down at the beginning of World War II because of its potential use as a landmark for aerial attacks.

Woodward's fortunes declined as customers gravitated to more suburban malls, but the Vancouver location was also greatly impacted by the transfer of the Eaton's department store from its location at West Hastings and Richards (a few blocks away), to the uptown location of Pacific Centre kitty-corner from The Bay, which signalled the demise of West Hastings Street as the central retail district in the city. The deindustrialisation of the old city centre also meant the contracting of its staples industry and the working class nearby.

The decline of this group of people and the area meant the loss of an important source of clients. Following deindustrialisation was the expansion of the quaternary sector of the post-industrial economy over at the West End, shifting major economic activities to the new city centre near Burrard and Georgia streets, further reducing Woodward's prominence. In the 1980s, Woodward's sold the food floor – long known for its quality and its line of unusual specialities – to Safeway. The flagship food floor became an IGA store until the building closed as Safeway showed no interest in that location.

During the same time, the area around the Woodward's building started to decline socially and economically. In 1993, Woodward's went bankrupt and closed its doors. Many of the store's suburban locations were sold to the Hudson's Bay Company for conversion to Zellers and Bay stores, but there was little interest in the historic downtown building. The closing of the Woodward's store precipitated an even more rapid decline in the area.

Original structure

The building grew over many years in incremental phases, so the structure varied in each phase of the building. The majority of the building was supported by concrete slabs and columns with only the original 1903–08 building using massive heavy timber construction from the old growth forests that were available near Vancouver at the turn of the 20th century. Much of the square footage of the building was not retail space; mazes of stockrooms and offices comprised much of the building's space, outside the view of customers.

In 1995 the building was acquired by Fama Holdings. The firm by using services of Brook Development Planning, Davidson Yuen Simpson and Foad Rafii Architects developed a plan to build private housing in the building. However, many of those in the neighbourhood strongly objected, as they felt it important that the project incorporate social housing. The provincial government of British Columbia decided to fund some social housing as part of the project, but Fama and the province could not come to an agreement, and the project died. The building stood largely vacant, except for the occasional film shoot. In 2001 the province bought the building from Fama for $22 million. A variety of options were pursued to develop the building, but in early 2002 the new Provincial government put the project on hold.

In the fall of 2002 a small group of community activists squatted the empty building for one week in a campaign to secure social housing from the Provincial government. After the police eviction a tent city was erected on the sidewalks around the building for another three months. The series of events is known as the Woodward's Squat, or "Woodsquat", which has been acknowledged for "setting in motion the eventual redevelopment of the landmark department store building".

On the morning of September 30, 2006, all but the oldest original portion (1903–08 building) of the Woodward's structure was demolished with a "roll-over" implosion by Pacific Blasting which signalled the beginning of the construction of the new complex of buildings.

New construction on the Woodward's site

In 2003 the City of Vancouver, led by City Council member Jim Green, purchased the building from the province for $5 million, and began a public consultation process, asking the community what they wanted from the redevelopment. After a two-stage competition between three developers in September 2004, the city selected Westbank Projects/Peterson Investment Group to develop the project together with architecture firm of Henriquez Partners lead by Gregory Henriquez and structural engineers Glotman Simpson Consulting Engineers. The 400 million dollar, nearly one million square foot project, includes 536 market housing units, 125 singles non-market housing units to be operated by PHS Community Services, 75 family non-market housing units to be operated by Affordable Housing Society, Nesters Market, London Drugs, TD Canada Trust, the National Film Board of Canada and civic offices, a daycare, public atrium and plaza, and a new 130,000 square foot addition to Simon Fraser University's downtown campus, the SFU School for Contemporary Arts.

The "W" neon sign, which topped the building on the Eiffel Tower replica, was removed before the demolition and was replicated and re-installed on January 9, 2010, now boasting energy-saving LED lights. The original W is now displayed in the open area next to The Charles Bar at the new Woodward's Building. In 2008 the Vancouver artist Stan Douglas completed a 30' by 50' image on glass depicting the Gastown Riots of 1971. The over-sized photograph, together with a basketball hoop, has become the central focus within the atrium of the new Woodward's Redevelopment.

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