From ghost town to success story: Olympic Village's legacy 10 years on

Before Vancouver's Olympic Village became what it's now widely considered — a pretty but expensive place to live, work and hang out — it was the subject of heated debates.

Was it a ghost town? A shining achievement in civic planning? A financial disaster? A pinata for politicians to smack whenever they felt like poking the opposition? All of the above?

Visit the village today, especially when it's sunny and the waterfront is clogged with parents pushing strollers, and it's easy to forget that this neighbourhood was once full of controversy and empty of people.

Local planner, developer and architect Michael Geller remembers when businesses delayed opening after the 2010 Olympics because there weren't enough people living in the area to support them.

"We suddenly had literally hundreds of empty units sitting there, hence the ghost town image," he said.

"There was nowhere for someone just to have a coffee."

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Aliens, vampires and a church

Darryl Lamb, a brand manager at Legacy Liquor Store, which was one of the first businesses to open in the village in 2011, always thought the ghost town image was overblown.

He admits, however, that location scouts for science fiction films were attracted to the area's deserted look.

Some of Lamb's earliest customers were cast members who shopped for craft beer and rare whisky while in full costume.

"You would have aliens one day," Lamb said. "There'd be vampires the next day."

Lamb says Legacy has turned a profit every month since it opened, which he jokingly credits to the building's history as a non-denominational chapel where athletes prayed during the 2010 Games.

"Everything is hallowed," he said. "We've got all the bases covered."

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Timeline

Brent Toderian became Vancouver's chief planner in 2006, around the same time the city accepted a $200-million bid from Millenium Properties to purchase and develop the Athlete's Village.

He says it was a unique opportunity to create a community from scratch that would set a new standard for sustainability. He also felt intense pressure to complete the project on time.

"There's nothing quite so focusing as an Olympic deadline," he said. "To say there's a sort of a figurative gun to your head is not an understatement."

The following year, Millennium struck a financing deal worth $750 million with Fortress Credit Corp. With the Olympic deadline looming, city council approved a $190-million financial guarantee and project completion guarantee.

Fortress stopped advancing money to the company in 2008, and then the global economy tanked.

The city took on $690 million in debt to ensure the village would be built on time, which it was, but Vancouver was in a financial pit. After the Olympics, the project went into receivership.

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The recovery

Marketer Bob Rennie rebranded the neighbourhood as The Village on False Creek in 2011 and then slashed condo prices to boost sales.

Terra Breads, London Drugs and Tap and Barrel moved in and renters and homeowners followed.

In 2014, the city sold its remaining interest in the project — 67 units — to the Aquilini Group for $91 million, officially wiping out its debt.

City manager Penny Ballem said the municipality wound up turning a $70-million profit off the project — mostly in revenue from home sales — but Geller questions the city's math.

"Most people who understand the situation would say the city did not make a profit," he said.

"They didn't lose money, but they also didn't receive millions of dollars that were still owing on the land."

Olympic Village

Today Olympic Village is one of the city's most popular destinations, especially during the summer when it's not uncommon to wait hours for a seat on a restaurant patio.

Toderian says the neighbourhood provides a blueprint that cities all over the world are learning from.

"No matter how fast something springs out of the ground, people still have unreasonable expectations about how fast things will work," he said.

"I've always said be patient and watch it evolve over time, and frankly, it's evolved into a success story much quicker than even I expected."

CBC Vancouver's Impact Team investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community and strives to hold individuals, institutions and organizations to account. If you have a story for us, email impact@cbc.ca.