06/25/2014 12:16 EDT | Updated 08/24/2014 05:59 EDT

Why We Need to Preserve Vancouver's Industrial Buildings

vancouver mec building

There's a growing interest in preserving heritage in Vancouver, but it's not just the city's residential homes that contain fascinating and noteworthy histories. Vancouver's industrial buildings have some interesting stories behind them.

You wouldn't know just from looking at it, but there's one building in the city's new office hub in Mount Pleasant that is now in its fourth incarnation reflecting the changing nature of work in the city.

From the '30s to the '60s, the unassuming, two-storey building at 149 West 4th housed Reliance Foundry and reflected the heavy industrial character of False Creek. From the '70s to the '90s, it was home to Auto Marine Electric, a more light industrial use. From the '90s until today, it was the headquarters for Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC). And soon, it's likely to house a high-tech firm.

From heavy industry to tech hub in 100 years -- that's the history written in the walls of this building, as it continues to evolve with the economy.

With MEC, the building -- known as Radia Block -- was transformed from industrial warehouse to cool, open concept office, with the requisite upgrades like more natural light, exposed cedar beams and other LEED equivalent features.

Leasing to MEC meant a significant investment to turn the interiors from heavy industrial workplace to a modern space that fit the company's mandate to protect the environment while outfitting the masses with outdoor recreation gear. Repositioning the building made more sense than demolishing and starting over. In this case, it was more cost-effective and more environmentally sustainable to re-use what we had.

This fall, MEC will be moving to its own new and larger space just down the street, and Radia Block's latest facelift is expected to attract the likes of companies like gener8, TedTalks, Twitter and Facebook who are rumored to be searching for office space in the area.

The new tenants for the existing, 47,000 sq.-ft. building will inevitably reflect the next chapter of industry burgeoning in the neighbourhood -- high tech and knowledge workers, the new creative class. And our new investment into the building will reflect the kinds of amenities these workers require: things like bike storage, ping pong tables, juice bars, good coffee, a lounge, a pet zone.

It's worth remembering how this area -- now known for its clean air, craft breweries and waterfront cafes -- used to be home to a rough and tumble crowd. I remember my grandmother's stories of the filthy waters of False Creek and the smoggy air that was hard to breathe. Today, the fish are back in False Creek and along with them, paddleboarders and tourists. It's a very different city today than the one my grandmother lived in -- greener, more economically diversified, globally competitive and globally revered.

It's not just the building of course, but the whole neighbourhood that's changing and becoming a vibrant, new hub for the creative class. It's a neighbourhood that is just now finding its identity. Buildings are a part of that. They deserve to be reinvented and recreated and reimagined, rather than torn down. With some creative thought and capital, they can be part of the city's future, not just its past.


Vancouver Heritage House Tour, June 2014