Why North Vancouver's Shipyards District may be the best public space in Metro Vancouver

People are pictured in the Shipyards public area in North Vancouver, British Columbia, on Tuesday, Jan.10, 2023.  (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
People are pictured in the Shipyards public area in North Vancouver, British Columbia, on Tuesday, Jan.10, 2023. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

The year was 2016. The site was a long-underused waterfront property. And North Vancouver City mayor Darrell Mussatto was sounding like any local politician with a development and a dream.

"We are going to change an old industrial shipyard-building-area wasteland into a great people-orientated dynamic place," said Mussatto in 2016, on the eve of the final stage of construction of the Shipyards District.

"It's going to be a great place for people to gather all year-round … not just for the North Shore, but [it will be] one of the better ones for the Lower Mainland."

Most of the time, such grandiose predictions don't play out, especially in mid-sized municipalities.

But the Shipyards District was different.

It's been less than four years since it was fully completed. But today, the Shipyards District is regularly packed on weekends, seen as an inspiration by politicians in other municipalities and is regularly cited as one of the best public spaces in Metro Vancouver, if not the best.

"It's got food. It's got activity. It's got attractions for people, water in the summer, ice in the winter. It's year-round. It's got culture. It's got housing, it's got all the things that bring body heat, and it's avoiding the thing you don't want, which is car dominance," said Brent Toderian, Vancouver's former chief planner and an adviser to cities internationally.

"The Shipyards and Granville Island are probably the two best single spots for public life in our region, and I think it's fair to say that the Shipyards is caught up to the point where it is probably at least challenging, if not beating Granville Island."

Now retired, Mussatto can wander around the mix of shops and open space next to an ice rink and a giant crane, with satisfaction at its success.

"I was always hoping, but I wasn't expecting it," he said.

"I thought, wow, it would be a great spot for people to gather and get together, but I didn't understand really how much people really wanted that."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Of aquariums and Ferris wheels 

Like most of the waterfront space in and around Metro Vancouver, the Shipyards District was industrial land for decades, with the Wallace Shipyards being a huge part of North Vancouver's economy before closing in 1992.

The site sat mostly dormant for more than a decade before Mussatto, and other local politicians began to put together a plan to rezone and remediate the land for a new vision.

"We wanted something different. We wanted something new. We didn't know what. So we started toying with a bunch of ideas," said Mussatto.

Among the ideas floated and eventually discarded for the site between 2006 and 2016 was a National Maritime Museum, a new site for the Vancouver Aquarium and even a giant Ferris wheel.

Over time, the vision transformed to the present mix of the Polygon Gallery, restaurants and retail spaces, covered ice rink and water park and a public plaza regularly used for festivals and rallies, surrounded by mid-sized towers that helped pay for all those amenities.

Though Mussatto hasn't given up hope on the Ferris wheel.

"At the time, I don't think people were ready for that," he said, "but it's actually a great way to see your city and to see other cities … so there may be an opportunity down the road."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Other municipalities jealous

While it was the vision of Mussatto and others a decade ago that led to the Shipyards District, it's current Mayor Linda Buchanan and the city's current staff that have led its implementation since it fully opened in 2019.

"Council's vision is to have this space programmed 365 days of the year, and so they have done an amazing amount of work to make that come to life," she said.

The city is in the midst of creating a new five-year plan for the district, hoping to build on its success while adding some changes.

"We want to make sure that it's fresh," she said.

"We want to have both people having repeat visits and new people coming to see what's new, and it's not the same old, same old."

In the meantime, Buchanan is getting ready to welcome New Westminster's council to the Shipyards — they're planning a field trip to see what they can learn about making the most of their waterfront spaces, with New West Mayor Patrick Johnstone readily admitting it's "the best urban public space in Canada that I've ever seen."

Buchanan says she hopes the Shipyards' success can inspire plenty of municipalities.

"There's absolutely obstacles, and there's hard decisions that have to be made.

"I just think that when you have a vision, and you work towards it, and you build on the successes of previous councils and think about who you're doing it for, you create great group spaces."