The Big W returns to the Downtown Eastside

Sunday, January 17th, 2010

Iconic sign reminds area residents of better times — and makes them hope for the future

John Colebourn

TheW sign is lighting upVancouver again. Photograph by: Jenelle Schneider, PNG, The Province

The lighting of the big “W” atop the redeveloped Woodwards site in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside was the talk of the block Saturday.

For some, the lighting of the iconic W perched high above the corner of Hastings and Abbott and the massive block-long development means progress. For others, looking up and seeing the W shining much the way it was years ago was a chance to be nostalgic and remember the days when the Woodwards store was the anchor of a vibrant neighbourhood.

“This area was definitely a hub of community and it went downhill,” said Louise Sturm, 23, who is now enrolled at the Simon Fraser University campus inside the development that has taken years to create.

“Hopefully this will revitalize the area and help people living in the Downtown Eastside.”

Brenda Wallace and husband Jim, both retired, say they can remember the Woodwards store and the big W like it was yesterday.

Brenda said she was impressed with the new version of the W.

“It is nice to see that sign up there again,” she said. “It was always the symbol of prosperous times.”

Husband Jim said the W always reminded him that the Woodwards store was a place you could go and find friendly faces.

“Those were the days when the staff was always friendly,” he said.

Joe Cardinal said the lit sign is like a beacon for the area. He also feels the development is better than having a block of boarded-up buildings.

“They’ve done a great job here,” Cardinal said of the $400-million project.

The Woodwards building was built in 1903 for the Woodwards department store. The store was famous for its Christmas window displays and the giant W sign at the top of the building.

After the bankruptcy of Woodwards in 1993, the building remained vacant, except for occasional squatters.

The original W was removed, as it had fallen apart with age. The replica, built to look exactly like the old one, weighs more than 2.5 tonnes and has 6,000 LED lights set in place to look like the old-fashioned bulbs of the past.

The new energy-efficient sign sits on a tower between 42-and 32-storey condominium towers.

Part of the giant development includes the SFU campus housing its School of Contemporary Arts. The development includes one million square feet of market and non-market homes, a daycare facility, a London Drugs, a Nesters grocery store and non-profit office space.

Vancouver Coun. Raymond Louie said the project, with its mix of nonprofit and market-priced units, took a long time to push forward — and that the lighting of the big W is a second chance for the beleaguered community.

“It will renew confidence in the area,” he said.

Louie said the mixed-housing project was viewed by many as a lost cause, but the city worked hard to see it developed and the sign now also symbolizes the hard work done by many of the city’s politicians, he said.

“People can look at the sign as a symbol that things can be turned around,” Louie said.

“The sign is very symbolic of a rebirth. This is the start of the rebirth of that neighbourhood.”

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