The Sinclair Centre returns to the Top 10 list for 2018, as this historic complex remains half-empty and deteriorating.
The federal government appears to remain interested in the relocation of their Vancouver offices and staff into one hub, and has been exploring site options, including an intensification of Sinclair Centre, also known as ‘Block 15’, which is bordered by Hastings, Granville, Howe, and Cordova Streets.
All four buildings in Sinclair Centre (757 West Hastings Street) are listed on the Vancouver Heritage Register: the Former Post Office (1905-09), Winch Building (1908-09) and Customs Warehouse (1911-13) are all Category A, and the Public Building (1937-39) is Category B. The Post Office and Winch buildings are also protected through municipal heritage designations.
Additionally, the Government of Canada has designated the three oldest buildings as ‘Federal Heritage Buildings.’ Federal policy requires that Parks Canada be involved in the review of changes to federally-designated buildings, using the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada.
If the government chooses to densify Block 15, it could radically alter the appearance of Sinclair Centre and perhaps result in the loss of at least one of these heritage buildings.
UPDATE: Restoration of the crumbling facades has still not been carried out despite visible and ongoing degradation of this critically endangered, federally and municipally-listed heritage complex. The original Postal Hall at the corner of Granville and Hastings Streets remain vacant and padlocked. There have been encouraging signs of revised heritage conservation policies coming from the current federal government, however concrete action to retain and upgrade the Sinclair Centre has been slow. Many of the interior spaces remain vacant with what appears to be little effort to encourage tenants and bring a renewed vibrancy to this valuable symbol of Canadian history in the heart of downtown Vancouver.
We continue to strongly encourage the federal government and the City of Vancouver to work together to restore and upgrade the Sinclair Centre as an example of both the original Post Office and customs/warehouse area for Vancouver, as well as the award winning example of adaptive re-use that tied the older complex into the Sinclair Centre in the 1986. It is worthwhile to note that this landmark rehabilitation project meets 20-year Vancouver threshold for heritage status in the built environment. Finally we continue to strongly encourage the municipal and federal authorities to pursue a renewal strategy that does not include the demolition of large parts of the Sinclair Centre in favour of a tower complex that is incompatible with the existing heritage buildings.
In 2015 Vancouver City Council voted to allow Public Works & Government Services Canada, which manage Sinclair Centre, to submit a rezoning proposal to increase the maximum density from a floor space ratio (FAR) of 5:1 up to 17:1 or 20:1 FAR. Height would be increased to a total of 29 storeys, or 22 storeys on top of the existing complex.
This increased height of up to 29 storeys would meet the City’s policy for the retention of view corridors, but it is contrary to the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada. These provide direction for building additions to be ‘compatible, subordinate and distinguishable’ from the historic site, but the scale of this proposed tower would be enormous in relation to existing height and would radically change the heritage character of the four buildings. Seismic upgrades and the structure required to hold the weight of the tower would also result in the removal of portions of the historic structures and even the potential loss of one or two heritage buildings in entirety.
Despite the fact that Sinclair Centre has been designated with various levels of heritage status, the site is still at risk, because senior government is not required to comply with municipal policies and could add the tower without City approval. Notably, the federal government does not need to conform to the City’s policies regarding height and view cones.
The National Trust for Canada has declared Sinclair Centre as one of the Top 10 Endangered Places in Canada in 2017, stating: “Sinclair Centre is in a vulnerable position: Unlike all other G8 nations, Canada lacks statutory protection of federally-owned heritage. The hope is that the federal government will show leadership in the sensitive management and development of this landmark historic place.”
Sinclair Centre is significant as a symbol of the federal government in Vancouver, as expressed in the architectural styles and features of the four buildings, as individual landmarks and an ensemble.
The Former Post Office (1905-09) at the corner of Granville Street and Hastings Street was the work of David Ewart, who was Chief Architect of the Department of Public Works. This Beaux Arts building is built at a monumental scale, including the landmark clock tower, which was used across Canada to symbolize a federal presence. Ewart also designed the Neo-Classical Customs Examining Warehouse (1911-13) as an annex to the Post Office, which was typically the function of customs warehouses in communities. Together these two buildings were the receiving and clearinghouse for mail and imported goods until the Main Post Office at 349 West Georgia Street (McCarter, Nairne & Partners) opened in 1958.
Thomas Hooper designed The Winch Building (1908-09) as offices and commercial space for entrepreneur Richard Vance Winch. The structure became a federal property in 1925. It is one of Hooper’s most important buildings, because of its ornate Beaux-Arts finish and the way that it blends harmoniously with Ewart’s designs through close integration of materials, orientation and composition.
IMAGE Public Building (1937-1939) designed by McCarter & Nairne, at Granville & Cordova Street. Image CVA
Lastly, the Public Building (1937-39) is the work of McCarter & Nairne. This is the only one of the ensemble that is not a designated Federal Heritage Building, however, it is significant for its Modern Classicism, then typical of institutional structures, and is understood to be integral to Block 15, as recognized in its inclusion on Vancouver’s Heritage Register.
Block 15 also has value for its association with local events and people. Renovated in 1986 by local firms Henriquez & Partners and Toby, Russell, Buckwell (now RATIO), the integration of the four buildings was achieved through the introduction of a glass atrium in an award-winning example of Post-Modernism and rehabilitation.
In 1990 this project won a Governor General’s Award for Architecture, Canada’s highest architectural honour. It is also notable that the new integrated complex was named after the Hon. James Sinclair, Member of Parliament for North Vancouver, and the grandfather of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Beyond the architecture are the intangible stories of this landmark grouping as the built representation of federal power. The Former Post Office was one of the sites occupied by unemployed men during the Great Depression to protest the lack of federal support for their plight. On May 20, 1938, hundreds of men occupied the building, until June 19, when the RCMP deployed tear gas and batons to forcibly remove the protesters. The Post Office remained open throughout these events; it continues to mark an important moment in local labour history and also connects our city to the national arc of the Depression era.
Heritage Vancouver recognizes that the Federal Government would like to consolidate its operations and staff in Vancouver and that Sinclair Centre may be well suited to meet these needs with its location near to transit and its currently underused office space.
However, we believe that a creative solution to the spatial requirements of Public Works & Government Services Canada can and should be found that respects the heritage value and integrity of Sinclair Centre in keeping with federal and municipal policy.
We strongly encourage the citizens of Vancouver to:
- Write to your Member of Parliament to express that Public Works & Government Services Canada should not pursue the addition of a large tower at Sinclair Centre. Instead, work should be undertaken to retain and upgrade Sinclair Centre, including conservation of the facades and efforts to attract more tenants to this unique federal government heritage complex.
- Write to Mayor and Council to let them know your concerns about the rezoning proposal for increased density, height and the potential tower addition to Sinclair Centre.