VANCOUVER – For more than half a century the vast majority of mail flowing through Western Canada has come through Canada Post’s cavernous and monolithic seven-storey processing plant at 349 West Georgia Street.
But starting in 2014, the nation’s mail carrier will transfer operations to a new 700,000-square foot modern sorting facility near Vancouver International Airport.
The plan, announced Thursday, will see the transfer of 1,200 of the 1,700 jobs at the Vancouver plant. Canada Post said it is too early to say what will happen to the rest of the jobs, but an official with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers said his members are bracing for cuts as the Crown corporation proceeds on a plan to massively modernize its operations with new technology.
The loss of the third-largest sorting facility in Canada, which when it was built in 1958 was the largest welded steel structure in the world, is a blow to Vancouver’s efforts to retain jobs in the central business district.
“The city was working with Canada Post to try to find ways to keep them there, but it appears that effort hasn’t worked out,” said Coun. Geoff Meggs. “That’s the bad news. The good news is that this is a superb building that will be repurposed. We need to find a way to create jobs down there."
Mayor Gregor Robertson sought to put a brave face on the announced departure, saying the Canada Post site “has potential to be a major economic hub of our downtown.”
But already there’s jostling on who should get the facility, which covers an entire city block. Canada Post said it “will examine all options to maximize the value” of the site in order to offset the cost of the new plant. There have been discussions about converting it to a new home for the Vancouver Art Gallery, and Meggs believes the massive floor plates could be converted to offices and other commercial uses.
But overshadowing all of this are potential land claims by First Nations. Four years ago when Canada Post first tried to sell the building it quickly took it off the market after the Musqueam Indian Band laid claim. The Crown corporation offered to consult with the Musqueam and two other local bands, the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh, that have overlapping traditional territories.
Kathi Neal, a Canada Post official said those consultations with first nations are continuing “and it would be inappropriate to comment on the status of those discussions.” Norman Point, the Musqueam’s acting manager, said he was unaware of the status of any negotiations.
Neal said Canada Post is finalizing a long-term land lease with YVR to build the new facility on land next to the airport. It has already issued a request for proposal to select a designer and builder. She said Canada Post wants to open the building by 2014 but expects to continue using the Vancouver facility for another year.
For years Canada Post has wrestled with growing traffic congestion and the declining functional operation of a multi-floor building built in the days of express mail trains. Although it told workers in 2009 that it intended to stay in the building and install modern machinery, the plan didn’t fit with a $2 billion national modernization program that has resulted in the construction of new sorting facilities elsewhere.
Kim Evans, the first vice-president for CUPW Local 846, said his members have been told little about the plans but fear for their jobs. He said when Canada Post opened a new facility in Winnipeg last year, many workers were displaced by the new technology. Neal said Canada Post deals with job reductions through attrition.
The post office’s move comes right as there is a massive amount of development interest in the area. In March, Telus announced a $750-million development of its Georgia and Seymour property two blocks away. And the VAG is in the early planning stages for a new gallery on the old Larwill Park block two streets in the other direction on Georgia.
Robertson said that activity will help in the redevelopment of the post office building.
“Given its proximity to key sites like the proposed Telus national headquarters and future Art Gallery site, there’s an opportunity to make significant gains for new jobs and investment in that part of downtown Vancouver,” he said. “There are still several years to go before anything could happen so we will be looking closely at what most benefits Vancouver.”
VAG director Kathleen Bartels said her board considered moving into out of its old Courthouse site into a revitalized Post Office building but concluded the idea wouldn’t work. “Frankly, if the gallery has learned anything from being in a repurposed building for the last 30 years, it is that it needs its own purpose-built building,” she said. But Meggs said he wants the gallery to reconsider the possibility of using the post office. “It would seem strange to rule it out at this point,” he said.
The federal government built the post office facility in 1958 at the then-enormous cost of $13 million. It included a 500-metre tunnel connected to the Canadian Pacific Railway terminal to facilitate transport from express trains. But airmail service quickly did in the tunnel’s usefulness and by 1965 it went out of service. More recently it has been used as a shooting location for movies and TV series.