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The never-built Burrard Entertainment Centre was a major redevelopment proposal that had the right idea but was perhaps fielded at the wrong time, when Vancouver was not ready for it.
It turned up too early in downtown Vancouver’s evolution, almost exactly 25 years ago, as today, after all these years, some of the same ideas, concepts, and components are making their way back into nearby projects proposed or already under construction.
This was the original proposal for the site of 900 Burrard Street at the southeast corner of the intersection of Burrard Street and Smithe Street.
What exists there today — the Electric Avenue mixed-use residential and commercial complex anchored by Scotiabank Theatre, along with the flagship Earls restaurant and a handful of other restaurant and shop businesses — is just a small fraction of the 100% family-oriented entertainment and commercial uses that were originally envisioned for the 1.35-acre site.
The original proposal
In 1999, Busby and Associates Architects, now known as Perkins&Will, submitted the application for Burrard Entertainment Centre — a 225 ft tall building with 13 storeys and about 391,000 sq ft of total floor area.
There would have been a significantly larger cinema with 16 auditoriums and one IMAX theatre with a combined total capacity of 3,715 seats, operated by Famous Players.
A generous amount of space was set aside for a National Film Board archive area.
A family sports entertainment space on an underground level would have provided an arcade and a bowling alley with 40 lanes.
On the rooftop of the building, the concept called for a covered seasonal outdoor ice rink attraction. Unlike the Robson Square ice rink, this was not just a regular sheet of open ice but a racetrack-like rink on the perimeter of the rooftop to better enable people to skate longer distances.
There would also be 84,000 sq ft of retail uses, 29,000 sq ft of restaurant uses, and additional underground levels with 873 vehicle parking stalls.
The combined Famous Players cinema, National Film Board archive area, bowling, arcade, ice rink, and fitness gym uses accounted for 276,000 sq ft of the building’s floor area.
All of the building’s levels were accessed by a system of escalators and elevators contained within an expansive glass-enclosed atrium fronting the length of Smithe Street. The transparent enclosure would have revealed interior activity and signage to the streetscape, effectively extending the life of the neighbourhood into the evening hours and providing activity and a sense of security.
The large IMAX theatre box volume bulged out of the Smithe Street facade to provide both a break in the facade and a visual point of interest for the destination.
Burrard Entertainment Centre, had it been built, would not only be an anchor attraction for the city centre today but also a striking architectural landmark.
“If you spend a day at a place like this, you’d want a wide range of services. We tried to make it as transparent and welcoming, using glazing and strong colours facing north,” recalled Peter Busby, the principal of Perkins&Will, in an interview with Daily Hive Urbanized.
He said the proposal was conceived at a time when the Burrard Street area was seeing immense development interest.
On the southern end of the same city block, the former BC Hydro headquarters office tower, a heritage building, was renovated in the late 1990s mainly into condominiums, now known as the Electra Building.
More notably, Busby’s firm was also responsible for the design of the 2001-built Wall Centre complex just a block to the south, with the One Wall Centre tower holding the title of British Columbia’s tallest building throughout most of the 2000s.
The project received glowing reviews from the City of Vancouver’s Urban Design Panel (UDP), which unanimously endorsed the application.
“It is a very exciting and ambitious project that would be a credit to any major city in the world,” reads the UDP meeting minutes.
“It also represents a major step for the City of Vancouver in that it is a private sector/public use initiative that could have as much impact on the downtown as a major civic building. The Panel also congratulated the architect on the excellent quality of the presentation materials.”
Becoming Paramount Place
Busby says his client for the original 900 Burrard Street redevelopment proposal was an Indonesian developer.
“The developer we were working for wanted a splashy entertainment complex where you pay an entry fee, and you can do anything you want in the building. They were an Indonesian developer, so they were kind of global and knew different projects like this in Los Angeles and New York and Singapore,” he said.
However, events halfway around the world put a halt to the project as planned. If it were not for the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, the Burrard Entertainment Centre would likely have been built. Indonesia was amongst the worst-impacted countries in the economic turmoil, with rampant bankruptcies, excess withdrawals, and hyperinflation leading to widespread rioting and the first change in the country’s leadership in 30 years. These events were a comparably more isolated version of the 2008 global financial crisis.
Although this developer had a global reach, most of their projects were in Indonesia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
Busby says the developer ran out of money and did not even pay the bills for his firm’s work on their behalf.
They ultimately sold the property and their proposal plans to Bosa Properties, with Rafii Architects changing up the design and uses considerably.
“They looked at our scheme and made it much more of a conventional movie type of place,” said Busby.
The resulting Electric Avenue building complex — originally named Paramount Place — that was ultimately built in 2005 retained the same general L-shaped building volume from the Burrard Entertainment Centre concept. But instead of entertainment and commercial uses being the primary uses, a significant amount of condominium uses were introduced to the upper volume, containing a total of 460 homes.
The theatre originally opened as Paramount Theatre under Famous Players, which had long planned to use this new modern purpose-built cinema location to specifically replace its nearby Capitol 6 Theatre in the Granville Entertainment District.
In 2007, shortly after Cineplex acquired Famous Players, it was renamed Scotiabank Theatre.
Scotiabank Theatre has 91,000 sq ft of floor area spread over the first three levels, containing nine auditoriums with a combined total of about 2,100 seats. Compared to the original concept, including the IMAX theatre, this represents eight fewer auditoriums and about 43% fewer seats.
On the ground level, there is 22,400 sq ft of combined retail and restaurant uses — about 20% of the much more generous allocation for such uses found in the original concept.
“It was certainly a missed opportunity,” said Busby, reflecting on his original concept. “We thought it was a great project and would have been a great asset for downtown Vancouver and its entertainment offerings.”
“Vancouver needed a place like that, so I never regretted it.”
For just over a decade, until 1993, Cineplex had a location at Royal Centre Mall in the base of Royal Tower, containing 10 small auditoriums.
In 2002, Famous Players closed Vancouver Centre Cinemas in the base of Scotia Tower at the southeast corner of the intersection of Granville Street and West Georgia Street. The 1970s-built venue was called Vancouver Centre Cinemas, as a part of Vancouver Centre Mall. Its two auditoriums, which were large in capacity, each with several hundred seats, were located just above London Drugs — a space that has been occupied by Tom Lee’s replacement home since 2017.
Capitol 6 Theatre, which had its main entrance located on Granville Street but was largely located on Seymour Street, closed shortly after in 2005 when its replacement about two blocks away opened, enabling its redevelopment into the 2011-built Capitol Residences tower. The 1977-built theatre had six auditoriums.
Time-lapse video of the demolition of Capitol 6 Theatre in 2006/2007:
The Granville Entertainment District’s remaining cinema location disappeared in 2012 with the permanent closure of Empire 7 Theatre, which had seven auditoriums. The continued viability of the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) was put into question at the time, as Empire 7 Theatre was one of the annual event’s main venues.
Busby suggested the cinemas on the Granville Entertainment District began to struggle when the City of Vancouver decided to consolidate all of the bars and nightclubs onto a few blocks of Granville Street — establishments that were previously spread out nearby on the adjacent streets of Richards, Smithe, and Nelson streets.
When the municipal government approved the Downtown South rezoning in the early 1990s to prioritize new residential development, the remaining bars and nightclubs caused issues for the new residents because they were too noisy and disruptive into the early morning hours.
More broadly, Vancouver’s planning regime has historically had a preference for focusing commercial uses — retail, restaurants, and/or entertainment — and retail districts along a major street, but without enabling it to spill over onto adjacent streets, unlike the urban fabrics of many other cities. This is especially the case when adjacent streets are residential neighbourhoods.
“The planning department instructed everyone to move to Granville Street if they wanted to renew their licences. All of those bars on the other streets closed and moved to Granville, which is why there is such a concentration,” he said.
The patrons of the growing concentration of pubs and nightclubs were different than the cinemas, which brought daytime foot traffic to the area, especially families and their children.
“The Granville Mall was developing into an entertainment zone, but it really was just bars,” said Busby. “Granville Mall was a pretty tough place to do anything other than party and drink.”
“It became quite specific so that the theatres on Granville Street closed, and this project on Burrard was to give an alternative.”
When they proposed the Burrard Entertainment Centre to City staff, Busby says his team had to argue with the Planning Department that all of the entertainment in the city centre does not have to be on Granville Street. Instead, he says, there could be “nodes of entertainment” distributed across a wider area.
After being left vacant throughout almost all of the 2010s, contributing to the Granville Strip’s decay, Cineplex finally began construction in 2020 on its project to gut and convert the Empire 7 Theatre complex into Metro Vancouver’s second The Rec Room entertainment centre.
After facing some pandemic delays, construction on The Rec Room in the Granville Entertainment District is now picking up pace, with an opening now expected in late 2023 or 2024. Within 45,000 sq ft over multiple levels, it will have an arcade with about 100 amusement games and virtual reality experiences, a luxury bowling alley, a sit-down restaurant, a sports bar, and an 11,500 sq ft performance and event venue with a capacity for about 640 people.
The Rec Room on the Granville Strip will effectively be a miniature version of the Burrard Entertainment Centre.
Immediately across from the future Rec Room is the site of the 800 Granville Street redevelopment, which is also designed by Busby’s firm. The proposal, currently being considered by the municipal government, calls for a 17-storey building that spans almost the entire length of a city block, with a critical mass of 100% commercial and entertainment uses.
The 800 Granville Street project is primarily for office uses, with 468,000 sq ft of office space in the upper levels, 86,000 sq ft of cultural and entertainment uses — including the full preservation of the Commodore Ballroom and Commodore Billiards — and 97,000 sq ft of retail and restaurant uses within the lower levels.
The intent of the 800 Granville Street complex is to provide a major infusion of new activity to the street, particularly during the daytime, instead of solely catering to the Granville Entertainment District’s nighttime economy.
Busby says the Granville Strip would need to change its current limited scope of types of entertainment if other commercial and entertainment uses are to survive.
Competing with the rise of the megaplex in the 1990s
With all that said, the downfall of the cinemas on the Granville Strip is also linked to new competition — the building boom of new modern purpose-built megaplexes in the late 1990s and early 2000s, particularly in Metro Vancouver’s suburbs.
Capitol 6 Theatre, Empire 7 Theatre, Vancouver Centre Cinemas, and other cinemas on the Granville Strip and elsewhere in downtown Vancouver at the time were increasingly comparatively outdated.
New cinema complexes at the turn of the century introduced a completely brand new movie-going experience, with new amenities, expanded food and beverage options, more and larger auditoriums, and the introduction of larger, wall-to-wall, curved screens, digital projection, surround sound, and stadium-style seating for unobstructed sightlines. And not to mention larger seats and more legroom.
The new cinema at 900 Burrard Street was part of Famous Players’ overarching strategy to modernize and expand its facilities, but the company’s solution serving downtown Vancouver was delayed as a result of the cancellation of the original Burrard Entertainment Centre proposal.
The opening of Paramount Theatre (now Scotiabank Theatre) in 2005 bookended the decade-long cinema building boom in the region; downtown Vancouver’s single new modernized and expanded cinema hub was the last to open.
Famous Players opened its SilverCity complex at Riverport in Richmond in two phases in 1997 and 1998, providing 19 auditoriums with a combined capacity of 4,500 seats.
In 1998, it opened SilverCity locations at Metropolis mall (Metrotown) and in Coquitlam. The Metropolis location had 10 auditoriums with 3,100 seats, while the Coquitlam location had 20 auditoriums with 4,500 seats. These properties are now under the Cineplex banner.
The Metropolis mall expansion included not only a new cinema and more retail but also Playdium arcade entertainment centre, which also opened in 1998. Most of Playdium’s floor area was replaced by Winners after it closed in 2005.
That same year, in 1998, Cineplex Odeon opened its Strawberry Hill complex with 12 screens.
In 1999, Cinemark opened Tinseltown theatre in the upper levels of the then-new International Village mall in downtown Vancouver, on the edge of Chinatown. It has 12 auditoriums with over 3,000 seats. Cineplex took over the theatre in 2010, and in more recent years, after the closure of Empire 7 Theatre, it has served as one of the venues of VIFF.
Cineplex opened Colossus in Langley in 1999 with 19 screens and Meadowtown in Pitt Meadows in 2004 with 10 screens.
While downtown Vancouver’s Scotiabank Theatre has since been upgraded to include UltraAVX auditorium options, it is the only location without an IMAX auditorium out of Cineplex’s 10 Scotiabank Theatre-branded flagship properties across the country.
Toronto-sized in Vancouver
In terms of function and use, there are some parallels between the Burrard Entertainment Centre proposal and downtown Toronto’s The Tenor entertainment complex (its previous names were Toronto Life Square and 10 Dundas East), which is visually distinguished by its large video screens and billboards that provide Yonge-Dundas Square with a New York City Times Square-like animation.
The Tenor was green-lighted by the municipal government in 1998, around the same time when Burrard Entertainment Centre was being floated. But it was mired with controversies, financial issues, and significant delays, with the complex reaching completion a full decade later.
Similar to the Burrard Entertainment Centre, The Tenor also contains 100% commercial and entertainment uses. The five-storey complex contains a total floor area of about 330,000 sq ft — slightly smaller than Burrard Entertainment Centre.
But unlike 900 Burrard Street, The Tenor is situated at one of Canada’s busiest areas for pedestrian traffic, due in part to its location directly on top of the TTC subway’s Dundas Station, with a station entrance fully integrated into the building’s ground level.
The Tenor has a food court, various restaurants such as Milestones and Jack Astor’s, and retail space both internally and externally at ground level. Its major retail tenants are Winners (previously Future Shop) and Dollarama (previously Shoppers Drug Mart). It was recently announced the longtime flagship Adidas store will be vacating the building.
Its newest major tenant is Little Canada, which is a 45,000 sq ft museum of miniature replicas of renowned structures and sites in Canada — similar to Victoria’s Miniature World.
The Tenor currently has 23 auditoriums within its Cineplex in the upper levels. In 2014, Cineplex provided the theatre with its first big overhaul by converting five screens into the chain’s then-brand-new VIP Cinemas concept.
Full circle: Another new era of competition and innovation
At a higher price point than conventional auditoriums, what does Cineplex’s VIP Cinemas offer? Expect an adults-only experience of luxurious, reclining leather seats, extra room and privacy, in-seat dining with more elevated food and beverage offerings (including alcohol), pre- and post-show lounge and dining areas, other enhanced amenities, and a higher standard of customer service, maintenance, and cleanliness.
Ever since the concept was first created, Cineplex has rolled out VIP Cinemas to 25 locations nationwide, including four locations in Metro Vancouver — Coquitlam, Marine Gateway in South Vancouver, Park Royal in West Vancouver, and The Amazing Brentwood in Burnaby.
The vast majority of the VIP Cinemas locations are conversions of existing auditoriums, such as Coquitlam, or in a newly built cinema complex as part of its mix of auditorium types, such as Marine Gateway and Park Royal; only three VIP Cinemas are standalone locations, and two of these standalone locations opened recently in 2021 at The Amazing Brentwood and in Calgary.
This past spring, Landmark Cinemas announced it would expand its VIP Cinemas-equivalent experience, called Premiere Seating, by five locations to a total of 16 locations across Canada.
Multiple media reports in the pandemic and post-pandemic context suggest the demand for premium cinema experiences is rising.
The premium experience, according to the Hollywood Reporter, could be the “new normal,” and it means “theatres that don’t offer upscale sight and sound, plush seats and other amenities might struggle to lure customers.” They also provided data suggesting nearly twice the number of audiences were seeking a premium experience in one instance and cited one studio executive who said, “People aren’t going to leave their homes for fold-down seats, sticky floors and crappy concessions.”
There appears to be a consensus from industry experts that 2023 is a crossroads year for how theatres will gauge how audience preferences have shifted following the pandemic and from the growth of streaming platforms.
In January 2023, Rosenblatt Securities analyst Steve Frankel told CNET that “after a heavy dose of streaming at home during the last two years, consumers have decided that the cinema is the place to go for an experience that can’t be replaced at home.” They further suggested that there is currently an oversupply of cinema auditoriums in the United States and that some multiplexes and megaplexes could downsize and repurpose space into family entertainment centres with arcades, bowling, laser tag, and escape rooms — an approach that takes such properties onto the same path as the Burrard Entertainment Centre and Cineplex’s The Rec Room concepts.
CNBC reported in February 2023 that “movie theatres aren’t dying — they’re evolving” and that “as the space contracts, cinema operators are improving technology and seating while also bolstering their food and beverage offerings.”
And in April 2023, Forbes suggested the shortage of premium cinemas — and the desire for audiences to wait for availability in a premium cinema — extended a movie’s box office life.
In a statement to Daily Hive Urbanized upon inquiry, Cineplex says VIP Cinemas adds to their premium offerings of not only UltraAVX and IMAX but also RealD, 3D, D-Box, 4DX, and ScreenX.
“We recognize the demand for these premium experiences… We continue to develop and introduce enhanced cinematic and entertainment experiences and have the widest array of premium offerings in North America,” states Cineplex.
In addition to VIP Cinemas and The Rec Room, Cineplex opened its very first Cineplex Junxion concepts in Winnipeg in December 2022 and in Mississauga in May 2023. This new entertainment centre concept essentially merges its cinema and The Rec Room concepts under one fully integrated roof.
For example, Cineplex Junxion Kildonan in Winnipeg is a 35,000 sq ft entertainment centre with six auditoriums — including one UltraAVX auditorium — and a 4,100 sq ft arcade area with over 50 amusement games and a live entertainment space, plus a variety of food and beverage options, including wines and premium beers. This new entertainment centre is an overhaul of Famous Players Kildonan Place.
Similarly, the larger Cineplex Junxion Erin Mills in Mississauga spans 45,000 sq ft within a former Sears store space, with six auditoriums and a 10,000 sq ft arcade with over 100 amusement games, along with in-auditorium or lounge dining and a stage area for live performances and events.
Cineplex says both Cineplex Junxion locations “have been performing above expectation.”
The overall number of auditoriums in the market has been on a downward trend for decades, but the quality of the experience has been undergoing a continuous process of innovation.
The latest shift towards improved quality that goes far beyond the movie experience is the most significant transition in the design of cinema venues since two decades ago during the building boom of multiplexes with stadium-style seating.
And two decades after the transition to digital projection began, another new transition to the latest technology is underway: laser projection.
Cineplex announced in April 2023 it would replace its equipment in over 800 auditoriums across Canada with laser projection, which not only provides an improved picture quality on the screen — improving the intended colours, contrast ratios, and lighting — but also produces energy savings of up to 70% compared to traditional Xenon lamps.
Half a century ago, a previous cycle of the cinema industry’s change almost gutted the now-beloved historic Orpheum Theatre in downtown Vancouver.
While the Orpheum is now best associated with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, concerts, and other live performances, it was used as a cinema in its earlier life between the 1930s and 1970s. In 1974, the City of Vancouver saved the Orpheum Theatre by acquiring it from Famous Players, which was on the verge of gutting the highly valued interior into the then-latest concept of the multiplex — a replacement for the single-auditorium venue concept.