When Expo 86 closed its gates 30 years ago today, it finished as a far more successful world’s fair than it ever expected to be. Sure, Vancouver had high hopes for the fair and saw it as a great way to celebrate its 100th birthday, as well as the 100th anniversary of the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway that brought British Columbia into Confederation. A total of 38 countries participated, but it was getting the United States, the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba to all participate that was the real coup. And the number of visitors was far greater than predicted. Most British Columbians credit Expo with bringing the province out of one of its worst recessions.
On October 14, 1986, the question on everyone’s mind was: what happens to the fairgrounds? Prior to Expo 86, the 90-hectare site was an industrial wasteland. Sawmills and railway lands had been expropriated to make room for the fairgrounds (it boggles my mind that Vancouver had working sawmills in its downtown core in my lifetime), but with rezoning came all sorts of possibilities.
In the end, what came to be known as the Expo lands was sold to a single Chinese developer. The price was controversial, but in return for a good deal on the land, the developer agreed to build child-care centres, playgrounds, a community centre, and a school. Furthermore, the condos had to include a certain percentage of family-size units and affordable housing.
The result? A slow and careful development of a entirely new inner-city neighbourhood that, once populated, doubled the number of people living in Vancouver’s downtown core. It’s not completely finished; the last section still remains a parking lot while awaiting the demolishment of the Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaducts ― the remnants of the freeway into downtown Vancouver that never saw completion.
Vancouver is consistently rated as one of the most livable cities in the world and the development of the Expo lands has a lot to do with that rating. Today, the area is covered in condo towers. Agreed, they are not the most creative architecturally. But you only have to take a walk through the neighbourhood and marvel that, only 30 years ago, there was nothing there but a wide swath of empty land.