Is it Time to Tame Granville Street?

Four a.m. A young guy strides down Granville, a girl slung unconscious over his shoulder, her long hair cascading down his back. A second young woman, trotting along beside on high heels, watches as he loads her limp body into a taxi, then jumps in beside them. None of the 50 people crammed into nearby Megabite Pizza pays much attention. Nor do the paramedics stationed by the three ambulances parked on the corner.

In total, only 14 arrests, mainly for public intoxication or breach of the peace. A young Caucasian woman is so drunk she seems unaware of the winter-temperature pavement on her bare feet or that her leggings have slid down to expose everything not covered by her thong. She appears barely conscious, held upright by an officer waiting to manoeuvre her into the police wagon-until she is locked inside, that is; then she starts screaming, but the sound barely penetrates the general din. A guy in handcuffs sits quietly on a bench while police interview his friends. Three young South Asians got involved in some kind of altercation inside the Caprice after one approached another’s cousin-or something. That’s as much as anyone can grasp from the rambling, drunken chatter among friends and family as officers pick up one bleeding fellow from the road and once more go through the nitpicky and time-consuming arrest process. Another Saturday night on the Granville Strip.

By 4:15, it’s empty. A dense parade of taxis and SUV limos has hauled off clubgoers in carloads down Nelson. The dozen or so police officers have cleared off the stragglers, and now they wheel away in the cars they used to contain the 900 block, allowing clusters of people to stagger freely down the roadway once the clubs closed at 3. Now the city crews move in, collecting thousands of cigarette butts, hosing off vomit, restoring order in time for another dawn.

For most Vancouverites, it’s as though none of this ever happened. But even though the party scene is invisible during the day, when Granville attracts the highest volume of pedestrians on a single city street, its effects permeate the region. And that’s something that has everyone a little uneasy. No one says the club district should be blown up, but nor can it continue quite this way. It’s not just the policing, which costs almost a million dollars a year. It’s the way life on the street has narrowed to serve such a small demographic: teens and newly 20-somethings, primarily from the suburbs, who want to drink heavily and do little else. During the day, the clubs are shuttered, creating an unwelcoming wall of dead space. At night, the only businesses apart from the clubs are those offering food that can be thrown up without too much regret.

The bar owners themselves say things need to change. “What we’re faced with right now is better defining the street and creating a name that can garner attention,” says Ron Orr, a partner with Blaine Culling in the Granville Entertainment Group (The Roxy, Doolin’s, The Cellar). But the economy is making it tough, and some places are discounting drinks to compete-a move that will do nothing to change the strip’s appeal. “The real challenge is how do you turn that tide.

“We think Granville Street is at a crossroads,” says Charles Gauthier, who has represented downtown businesses for a couple of decades. “We’ve realized a lot of goals, but what’s next?”

Of the four streets that frame Vancouver’s downtown peninsula, Granville has had the wildest swings. In its early days, it was the glamorous Great White Way, a bustling stretch of clubs, theatres, restaurants, and shops. Then, as the new bridge in 1954 altered the south end and the city’s centre of gravity shifted away, it declined. By the 1970s, it was known around the world as a hangout for heroin users, as much an eyesore as Main and Hastings-more so, to some eyes, because it was so visible. The construction of the Pacific Centre underground mall only sucked more life out, and even council’s decision in 1972 to make it pedestrian-only failed to create any transformation. That set off decades of hand-wringing about the state of the street, along with sporadic attempts by the city to devise revitalization plans and by business groups to bring back the cars. But Granville, more than any other commercial thoroughfare, seemed resistant to a My Fair Lady transformation.

In May 1997, city councillors changed the official plan for downtown to create a Theatre Row Entertainment District. The policy, considered revolutionary then but prim by modern lights, said that up to 1,000 lounge, cabaret, and pub seats would be allowed in the blocks from Georgia to Nelson. The staff report of the day spelled out that the Vogue Theatre’s 900 block, for example, should be allowed no more than two cabarets and two neighbourhood pubs. The policy was intended to get the bars and clubs off the neighbouring roads, which were about to be transformed into the densest slice of Condoville in the city. Too, it would bring life back to a shabby run of cheap-food joints, movie theatres, porn shops, purveyors of heavy-metal-themed clothing, a legendary European-style bakery, a much-loved bookstore, and the odd grunge club. (Since then, the city has invested $21 million to update the 1970s décor, adding metallic street furniture and ultra-modern light poles for a 21st-century take on the Great White Way. That, along with the news of Nordstrom’s imminent arrival, has attracted new retail to the north end and a recent rise in lease prices.)

Somewhere along the way, the city’s original plan for the entertainment district ran amok. Forget 1,000 seats. There are now 11,200 on the five blocks where the liquor licences are concentrated: 8,650 in 24 bars and clubs known in the biz as liquor primary, and another 2,550 that belong to what are allegedly restaurants (“food primary”) but in some cases sell far more booze than food. It’s the highest concentration of liquor-serving capacity in the Lower Mainland. When the new Larry Campbell-led COPE party came to power in 2002, one of the team’s first acts to dispel Vancouver’s No-Fun City image was to allow the downtown liquor-primary operations to stay open until 4 a.m. (rolled back in 2004 to 3), the only ones in the Lower Mainland to do so. That transformed the area into a gathering point for anyone-both those who were nearby (and with 150,000 other liquor seats concentrated downtown, including the beer-friendly BC Place and Rogers Arena, that’s a lot of people nearby) and those travelling in from the suburbs-to continue drinking past midnight or 1. As the years went on, many older businesses on Granville (the bakery, the bookstore, the theatres) moved out or shut down, concentrating the blocks south of Robson into a far denser playground than anyone had imagined.

For a while, police, struggling for control, held a zero tolerance “take back the street” approach-wagons lined the pavement and officers made lots of arrests, which typically attracted large, hostile crowds. Bar Watch, a group of club owners who had been working together since 1995 to keep troublemakers out of their establishments, found themselves asked to do more to help police out, from scanning IDs to installing metal detectors to chipping in for the policing bill. In 2007, Chief Constable Jim Chu decided to try a different approach. The wagons were moved from the middle of the street and cops started simply walking up and down, saying hello, establishing a less Rambo-like presence. The strip was closed to traffic from late May to Halloween, so people could move around without bumping into each other. There was science behind the strategy. Dispersed crowds allowed police to see and be seen, especially in their new neon-green reflective vests. The VPD also adopted a tactic of staffing the Friday and Saturday night shifts through call-outs. That allows police to choose from officers across the city who volunteer for overtime rather than relying on the normal four-on, four-off rotation system that meant not having consistency in the crew or experience among the officers.

“We’re selective about who we put down there. We’re looking for people who have really good experience with that style of policing,” says Scott Thompson, the superintendent for the downtown peninsula. Thompson, whose window looks out over the dramatic skyline of his district, says that such a specialized project team is key to assessing dynamics and responding quickly to bad situations. It also costs more. But like city planners and business groups, he thinks there’s only so much police can do. The area needs a re-assessment to help create more of a mix of users. “The business model right now is pretty much predicated on 19- to 25-year-olds.” (There are gawkers, of course, and little waves of after-dinner and VSO crowds, but they’re all in bed by 11.) But changing the model is hard, say some, when it’s the police themselves who send the signal that Granville has been cordoned off specially to house a 10,000-strong weekly frat party.

Vancouver is hardly the only city grappling with an overabundance of 20-something binge drinkers. The “nighttime economy,” as planners are fond of calling it, is an important component of the business plan for any city with even the mildest pretension to urbanity. In some places, that economy has grown organically, as with New Orleans’ Bourbon Street; in others, it’s being manufactured out of nothing, like Los Angeles’ Nokia Center, where a big complex of clubs that serve a wide and diverse set of demographics has been built at the edge of downtown next to the sports stadium and convention centre. Vancouver is unusual in its mix of the two approaches, the clubs that used to exist throughout what was a low-rent business district having been herded methodically onto one strip.

Those entertainment districts do help define for visitors where the action is. They also create a critical mass of trouble. A study published in 2010 on “patterns of urban violence” showed that Toronto’s King Street-area entertainment district became a hot spot for violent-injury assaults at night, shifting dramatically from the city’s daytime pattern of assaults typically occurring in lower-income areas. That echoed findings in Britain and the United States, where researchers have also found that entertainment districts turn into small crime areas, especially when the bars close.

No one is talking about decommissioning their entertainment district, but cities are trying all kinds of strategies to limit the damage. One option: shutting bars down earlier or simply scaling back the number of clubs, as Sydney has been trying. A second: adopting something called lockouts, by which people are allowed to stay in bars as late as they like but newcomers can’t enter after a set closing time, nudging the young and drunk to disperse more gradually. Another approach is to introduce more of a mix so that the areas aren’t dominated by clubs. That’s what Vancouver is aiming for, so that Granville could become something closer to what Gastown is: still haunted by puking 20-year-olds but also home to a dense concentration of great restaurants and interesting shops.

We face a unique challenge, though: our entertainment district is so small and so concentrated, and has no options for spreading out. “We really are limited to where we can have a nighttime economy,” says the city’s assistant planning director, Kevin McNaney. “Only 10 percent of our land in the city is available.”

McNaney, who frequently walks it, likes many parts of Granville. “It’s beautiful at twilight. It’s got soul. It’s not all multinational chains.” He and licence inspector Tom Hammel talk about the possibility of adding more live-music venues like the Vogue, the Commodore, and Vancouver FanClub, which tend to draw customers for the music, not just the drink. Both men are looking at places like Fort Worth, which has brought new people to its Sundance Square entertainment district by adding events and entertainment on outdoor stages. McNaney, like Charles Gauthier, is also hopeful that development around the Granville Bridge-kicked off this year by the dramatic Bjarke Ingels-
designed tower and low-rise cluster on the north side-will introduce a radically different feel to the street and pull the energy already present on the northern section southward. But he isn’t going to throw up his hands at the horror of young kids out partying. It is something that 20-somethings do. “People want to have fun. They want to go places.”

Certainly, that’s how that generation-the girls out in their handkerchief-sized club dresses, bare legs, and high heels; the boys roaming in packs;-feels about the strip. For them, it’s familiar. Mike Gingras, on his cellphone to one set of friends and being dragged along by another, says he likes it. “Normally there’s no fights. It’s fun.” He’s been coming in from Surrey steadily since he turned 19 two years ago. Rachel, out for some fresh air in front of the Caprice with friend Ashley, says that women need to be careful because she’s heard there’s a problem with drinks being dosed. But the Burnaby youth worker, looking like a young Raquel Welch in her black sequinned shorts, white muscle shirt, and glittery hoop earrings, seems blithely fearless as she steps around a pile a vomit to weave away through the crowd, complaining mostly about the price of drinks.

Such patrons get a clear message from police and the city that this territory is theirs as long as they don’t behave too badly, says one vocal critic of the current situation. “When the city decided to close the street every night at 7 p.m., they took our legs from underneath us,” says Emad Yacoub, the no-punches-pulled owner of the Glowbal chain of restaurants who ran Sanafir on Granville for six years before giving up-directly after the closures began. “I lost 30 percent of my high-end client base.” The closures, while they helped police, sent a signal to every other group that they didn’t belong. And the city’s new efforts (after years of doing nothing and just letting the “bar mafia” decide what to do with the street) won’t have much impact if that doesn’t change, he says.

Yacoub knows there are other groups who could be encouraged to patronize these businesses. He tracks the occupancy and demographics of visitors at the nearby hotels. He knows who lives in the condos. Those tourists, the residents-they could be lured back if they thought there was a place for them. “They don’t stay on the street for dinner because there is nothing for them: it’s nightclubs, bars, and chicken wings.” Yacoub re-opened Sanafir as The Fish Shack to try to attract those customers. But there needs to be more businesses like his-restaurants, smaller pubs, shops other than convenience stores-to revive the street at all hours, he says. He sees small signs of change: a recently opened Le Château, a new Tim Horton’s. He feels the city could help more by, for example, allowing patios that are set next to the road rather than next to the restaurant, creating an almost picnic-like atmosphere. But those kinds of obstructions are unlikely gos for police, who need a clear path at night to maintain order.

In truth, the police are looking to further shut down Granville. District 1’s Scott Thompson says he is requesting extra money to extend the closure of those blocks year round. His rationale: “It’s better to have a consistent approach. Right now, with those patrons, you train them with one thing, then we remove that by having traffic allowed again.” Oh my god, moans Yacoub when he hears that. “They’re destroying the street.” But that may be giving the police too much credit. Like a 20-year-old feeling its oats, Granville has always been a place that’s bucked fashion makeovers and advice from grownups. Many stakeholders blame the city or shop owners or police or the whole region for the problems, but Granville Street, big and long and messy, with a dozen competing interests shaping it along the way from Holt Renfrew to the Fantasy Factory, panhandlers to suits to club kids, will change only when it’s good and ready.