Thundering cement trucks and streams of cars snake their way around Granville Island's bustling streets on a weekday afternoon near the end of March. The public market swarms with tourists and foodies while the nearby home of Emily Carr University of Art + Design quietly purrs. Visitors pass swiftly through its doors while students are tucked away in studios and classes.
A 10-minute drive east on the Great Northern Way Campus, dump trucks and tractors have been creating a din comparable to that on Granville Island.
In a week, crews have built up and smoothed out enormous loads of sand to prepare the site for housing and a road realignment on the western portion of the 18.5acre property. At the southeast edge of the site crews insulate the new Centre for Digital Media that stands flush to Great Northern Way. A "blank spot" in the city, as one Emily Carr student put it, suddenly drones with new life.
In five years, Emily Carr and Great Northern Way Campus Trust hope this campus will transform into a hub for the creative sector in the city, with student housing, an expanded and relocated Emily Carr and offices for digital media workers. The campus trust envisions that site could be fully developed in 10 to 20 years, depending, in part, on market conditions.
C onsidered one of the top 10 art and design schools in the world, Emily Carr University of Art + Design is the second oldest post-secondary institution in the province. Its graduates include writer and artist Douglas Coupland, designer and sculptor Martha Sturdy and visual artist Brian Jungen, who's celebrated for Northwest Coast-type native masks he fashioned from Nike Air Jordans. It started as the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts in 1925, seven years after the University of B.C. was founded. In 1978, the provincial government renamed it after the internationally renowned Victoriaborn painter and writer Emily Carr. It's one of four institutions in Canada offering programs exclusively in fine and visual arts, media arts and design, and likely the only one headed by a French knight.
Emily Carr's student body has more than doubled in size from the 850 budding artists it was designed for to 1,800 creative minds, not including the more than 3,000 continuing study students who patronize the institution each year. "The ratio of [qualified] applications to places is probably six to one- Providing access to those people who do want to come has always been one of our principles so we've allowed it to expand, but now we can't add any more students, so the government has realized that," says Ron Burnett, Emily Carr's president and vice-chancellor for the last 16 years who was bestowed Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government in 2010 in recognition of his contribution to Canadian and international culture.
Fourteen hundred qualified students apply for the arts foundation first year but only 350 are accepted. Emily Carr offers four-year programs leading to bachelor degrees in fine arts, media arts and design, and a two-year applied master degree in visual arts, media arts and design. Emily Carr and North Island College offer a fine arts degree at NIC's Comox Valley campus.
The Ministry of Advanced Education gave $1.7 million to the university to develop a business case for the post-secondary institution's relocation and development at Great Northern Way Campus, March 20.
Burnett is relieved he no longer needs to send the government photos of overflow classes being taught on the second floor landing of the south building.
Emily Carr consists of the north building on Granville Island that opened in 1980, the south building that opened in 1994, two satellite campuses and a stake in the Great Northern Way Campus between Main Street and Clark. A third party is studying the school's existing space, how it can double its 170,000 of usable square feet and the shape facilities would need to take. The work has a September deadline to meet the provincial government's budgetary timelines. "We're working at warp speed to get it done," Burnett says.
The plan is to build to accommodate 1,800 students immediately, and another 700 students in a later phase.
"Aside from the fact that the space was built for half the number of students who are here, it's important to realize that we don't just do the fine arts anymore. Twenty years ago the institution started to change a lot," Burnett says. "We work as much in health as we do in painting."
Emily Carr students complete 10 to 12 projects a year with the health sector. They've worked on prosthetics, collaborated on apps for sick children and designed an entrance to improve the flow of people at Lions Gate Hospital.
"The facility is really dragging our capacity to innovate," Burnett says. "We already provide substantial contributions to the creative economy in B.C., but we could do way more with what we have. We have unbelievably talented students and many of them, they can't get into a lab or they can't get access to equipment or they can't get access to a room because everything's so crowded."
Emily Carr grads work in graphic, interactive and industrial design, film, animation and art direction, as curators, educators and fine artists. They work for companies such as Microsoft Games Studio, the Vancouver Art Gallery, RIM/Blackberry, Science World, Mattel Inc., Lululemon Athletica and Vanity Fair.
Apple recruited Emily Carr students a few months back.
"You don't get companies like Apple and Pixar involved with you-and these are economic drivers, right-unless they feel that you're doing the right things," Burnett says. "They don't recruit in art schools, they recruit in Stanfords and MITs and Harvards and so we were quite privileged by their visit."
Burnett says 3.6 per cent of B.C.'s GDP is driven by the creative sector [which includes tourism, but not sports]. "It's larger than forestry and mining together."
He notes many Emily Carr graduates are entrepreneurs, with 30 per cent of the 86 per cent of the working alumni self-employed.
Burnett estimated the cost of developing a new Emily Carr to be $200 million in 2010, considerably less now that construction costs have fallen. He says he doesn't know how Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the federal Crown corporation that manages Granville Island, feels about Emily Carr departing from its leased buildings on the peninsula that sees more than 10 million visitors each year. "This should always be a building devoted to the non-profit sector," Burnett says. "I'm hoping that we can help in making this really active culture down here. It's not like we're saying screw off Granville Island."
CMHC told the Courier the art institution's lease runs until 2043 and that Emily Carr would be responsible for managing the lease, which could include subletting the space to another institution, for example another school, which would be subject to the crown corporation's approval.
T he clang and bang of dump trucks on the western portion of the Great Northern Way Campus rang out for weeks in March. Work was done in anticipation of artist studios, a Brewery Creek live/work development and student housing planned for this edge of the site that's next to the Artech live/ work building on East First Avenue. Great Northern Way Campus Trust hopes to construct the live/work and student housing this year along with an office building. The offices are to be built next to the old Centre for Digital Media in the black building that's decked with a white and blue grid pattern with a ribbon of red running through it, and behind the new Centre for Digital Media, which includes 76 apartments for grad students, and is set to open in September.
The westerly slanted exterior wall of the new Centre for Digital Media is to serve as a screen for projections of student's work, just as it's hoped an office building for digital companies and start-ups would provide more interplay between academics and industry.
The 120 students who've graduated with a master's degree in Digital Media since it started in 2007 and the 45 about to complete the 20-month program receive a master's from all four partner institutions-Emily Carr, UBC, Simon Fraser University and the B.C. Institute of Technology.
The UBC theatre department's scene shop operates on the Great Northern Way campus, where acrobats fly through the air, and the world's largest solar-powered tricycle dominates a corner of the old Centre for Digital Media, or "The Hangar." The UBC theatre department's scene shop operates on the Great Northern Way campus, where acrobats fly through the air, and the world's largest solar-powered tricycle dominates a corner of the old Centre for Digital Media, or "The Hangar." A section of the eatART Foundation’s 50-foot long Titanoboa, or electromechanical serpent machine, rests in a cluttered workshop there, and Blackbird Interactive, a company creating games for iPads that was started by eatART's co-founder, Rob Cunningham, recently moved into The Hangar along with another digital media company.
When the Centre for Digital Media moves, a café is planned for the front of its old space to cater to tenants who miss the amenities of Gastown. Great Northern Way hopes more digital media firms, particularly start-ups, will occupy the space in the back.
more digital media firms, particularly start-ups, will occupy the space in the back. A RenderCloud, a super-computing processing hub that allows animation firms to render their films in a more efficient way than possible in their own offices, was launched on the campus in February. "Often what becomes the bottleneck in an animation firm's business to take on more work is whether or not they have rendering capacity in their office," says Matthew Carter, the president of Great Northern Way. Firms led by Rainmaker asked Great Northern Way to host a collaborative rendering farm, likely the only one of its kind in Canada.
Equinox Project Space, an offshoot of the Equinox Gallery on South Granville, opened in an old Finning building previously empty or used for storage in January with a retrospective of photographs by Fred Herzog.
Great Northern Way plans to make the brownfield campus more aesthetically pleasing and easier for visitors to find their way this summer.
The new Emily Carr would buzz between the housing and the old Finning tractor warehouses that would remain, perhaps to be redeveloped if a Millennium SkyTrain line extension is constructed on the north edge of the site. Rezoning for market housing could be pursued at that time.
Finning donated the 18.5 acres to the four partner institutions in 2001. Plans for a digital village have been swirling for years. In 2009, the old board of institutional representatives resigned and a new board with four representatives of each of the partner institutions and six independents formed and appointed Carter. Board members include the president of PCI Group, which is developing condos, rental housing, an office building and retail space at the Marine Drive Canada Line Station; the president of DigiBC, the non-profit association that represents mobile and wireless, video game, animation and visual effect, social media and interactive marketing industry sectors, and the vice president of development for BOSA Developments.
Onni is to develop 250 or so artist studios next to the Artech building, and Great Northern Way will look for a developer to realize 200 to 300 units of Brewery Creek live/work and student housing. With a developer, Emily Carr wants to construct a seven-or eight-storey live/ work residence with 200 or 220 beds. Four students could occupy their own rooms that meet in a shared space with studios on one or two floors in the building. "Close to 20 per cent of our students come from 60 countries and it's a really big problem, as you know, for people coming from outside the country to find really decent residences," says Burnett.
Alexandra Silvaggi, a 21-year-old second-year animation transfer student from Portland, concurs. She chose to study at Emily Carr because she was impressed by how the university presented itself at a national portfolio day, the Canadian school costs at least $14,000 less per year than animation school in the States, and she was "absolutely excited" about its location-which she hadn't previously visited-on Granville Island. But once she considers the possibility of not having to book an oversubscribed room far in advance to carry out an assignment, that Great Northern Way is closer to her shared basement suite on Knight Street, that the new campus would offer student housing and includes the RenderCloud, Silvaggi says: "A rendering plant, huh. That's awesome- Will I be out of here by the time this would all take place?- That sucks."
F ormer NPA councillor and mayoral hopeful Peter Ladner was an avid proponent of an earlier digital village concept for Great Northern Way.
He hopes any rezoning doesn't lose industrial land to more lucrative uses. "My other thought on this, for what it's worth, is that this city desperately needs a visible centre for the high-tech industry the way that Toronto has the MaRS complex, which is now leading incubating new companies," he says.
Matt Shillito, assistant director of community planning, says the city wants the False Creek Flats area, which includes the Great Northern Way Campus, to provide diverse, green jobs. "The other big objective that we have for the campus is to really anchor cultural facilities and cultural activity in the area, which is very popular and very prominent in Mount Pleasant and we would like to see the campus really add to that vibrancy," he says. "Obviously, Emily Carr is a big positive move in that direction."
Burnett calls such a cultural precinct a legacy for the city. "The intellectual wealth of this province is massive and we haven't invested enough to produce the outcomes that would actually benefit us," he says.