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How Vancouver's Woodward's could pave the future of dying department stores

Twenty-five years ago, Woodward's began its transformation from an iconic department store to the mixed-use complex it is known for today.

Twenty-five years ago, Woodward's began its transformation from department store to mixed-use complex

History professor Katharine Rollwagen says many downtown department stores like the Woodward's building in Vancouver were built as architectural showpieces. (CBC)

Department store, symbol of the plight for social housing, epitome of mixed-use urban planning: there are few buildings in Vancouver as iconic and contentious as the Woodward's complex. 

Since 1903, the signature "W" that swirls atop it has been an integral part of the city's downtown skyline.

Twenty-five years ago, the building began its transformation to its current form when the store's owners announced they were permanently shutting the downtown location's doors.

The closure was also emblematic of the broader struggle that department stores, like Sears, continue to face today.

But for some urban planners, the building's change is mostly a paragon of what cities can do with the vast, empty spaces retailers leave behind in their wake. 

Workers prepare to hoist the new "W" atop the new Woodward's complex in downtown Vancouver. (CBC)

Gathering places

Department stores had their heyday in Ontario and Quebec in the late 19th century, according to Donica Belisle, an associate professor of history at the University of Regina. 

"They became important distributors of the new goods that were being produced in the factories," said Belisle. "They really kind of revolutionized the way people shopped and ... what they bought and used in their homes."

By time the stores made their way to the less-populated West Coast, they became key gathering places for middle-class, white women. 

And the downtown Woodward's was a treasured store for many, Belisle says. 

A Woodward's shopper in Vancouver shares her thoughts on the store's closure in 1992. The store was beloved by many, according to historians. (CBC)

Women gathering there could drop their children off at the nursery, have a cup of tea or lunch, write letters in the stationery room and do their shopping — all in the same place. 

Katharine Rollwagen, history professor at Vancouver Island University, says the central role the stores played in many cities means they have strong sentimental value for many.

"There's always an outpouring of memory when we talk about department stores," Rollwagen said.

"We often remember them very fondly as central parts of our city."

Beginning of end

Today, some department stores like Sears have failed to keep afloat in a competitive retail marketplace.

But Belisle says the decline of department stores began earlier than most people think — she pegs the downward trend as early as the 1920s.

It was then that family budgets were being squeezed by the new costs of vehicles, she says. And chain stores like Woolworth's became major competitors. 

Belisle says added pressure came in the 1950s with the advent of the shopping mall.

Rollwagen also points to suburbanization as one of the factors that pulled people away from downtown department stores. 

Retailer Sears Canada recently announced it would be closing its remaining stores. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

'One of the least surprising surprises'

It was 1992 when Woodward's said it would close its downtown location. 

Gordon Price, former director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University, was an NPA council member at the time. 

The Downtown Eastside was once a working-class neighbourhood, Price points out. But Woodward's began to struggle even more as the area shifted into the poverty and drug-riddled neighbourhood it is known for now,  

"It was one of the least surprising surprises," Price said.

"It was amazing Woodward's held on that long given the fate of department stores — and in particular in that location."

In 1992, Woodward's announced the closure of its iconic downtown Vancouver store. 3:04

Price says neither the provincial nor the municipal government knew what to do with the space when it was finally vacated. 

"Neither of them wanted to take responsibility of it, and mainly because it was just way too big a building," he said. "The economics and practicality of converting something of that size was really a conundrum."

The building sat empty for years and was subject to a long-standing occupation by anti-poverty advocates calling for more social housing. 

Unlikely partnership

According to Price, it took an unlikely partnership between two people on opposite poles of the political spectrum to turn the building into what it is today — an eclectic mix of social housing, luxury condos, a university and retail space. 

On the one side of that partnership was the now-deceased Jim Green, a municipal councillor and the former head of the Downtown Eastside Residents Association. On the other was luxury condo developer Ian Gillespie of the Westbank Corporation. 

The late Jim Green was the head of the Downtown Eastside Residents Association when Woodward's announced it was closing its Vancouver store. He was one of the first to suggest the building be turned into social housing. (CBC)

"The risk that was taken and the willingness to try and make it work is really a testament to a lot of commitment across the spectrum ... that rarely if ever happens," Price said. 

Today, department stores like Sears are similarly leaving larges swathe of space behind as they vacate their premises. 

Price points to the transformation of Woodward's as a beacon of what urban planners can do in their wake.

"It's a good model to show what can be done with these spaces that have lost their economic purpose."

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler


Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at