It sits on swamp land in the shadow of a city bridge, criss-crossed by railway tracks that are relics from another age.
Today, however, Granville Island is bright and bustling, an urban landmark as closely linked to Vancouver's image as Stanley Park. An odd jurisdictional duck, Granville Island is a federally owned and operated enclave within city limits. City regulations do not apply – it has no sidewalks, for example – and tenants are hand-picked and rents are lower for artists than for conventional businesses.
The result, which has evolved since 1972 when Ottawa approved a locally backed redevelopment plan, draws an estimated 10 million visitors a year.
But it is a showcase in transition. A flagship tenant, Emily Carr University of Art and Design, plans to move to a new site by 2016. Its overseer, federal Crown corporation Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC), wants to transfer management of Granville Island – technically a peninsula near the mouth of False Creek – to another entity. The front-runner for that job appears to be Port Metro Vancouver, a federal agency best known for moving cargo like wheat and lumber. Vancouver is balking at that idea, and would like any new governance approach to give the city a significant role.
The uncertainty is unsettling for tenants such as Peter Braune, a master printer and Emily Carr graduate who has worked on the island since the 1990s.
"The port might be a good landlord, maybe even a better one than we have now, but we don't know – because we haven't been given any information," Mr. Braune said this week at his shop, New Leaf Creative Solutions.
"There has been a real lack of communication."
Tenants were caught off guard earlier this month by a Vancouver Sun report that a transfer from CMHC to Port Metro Vancouver had been negotiated in secret and was all but done. That triggered speculation about how such a transfer could affect tenants if, for instance, lease rates increased.
CMHC and Port Metro Vancouver confirmed this month that "exploratory discussions" are under way.
The Granville Island Business and Community Association (GIBCA), of which Mr. Braune is a member, has moved to calm the waters, saying potential administrative changes would not necessarily affect anything else.
"From the perspective of business owners and people who actually work on Granville Island, we are doing really well," Laura Carey, GIBCA spokeswoman and a show co-ordinator with Circle Craft, an artists' co-operative, said in a recent interview.
"Granville Island is very healthy. It's still an integral part of the Vancouver cultural fabric. It's a tourist destination, but even more importantly, it's a place that is loved by local [residents], and that will remain unchanged," she said.
Granville Island came under CMHC's wing in 1972, when the federal government transferred responsibility for the site – which had been under the port's control – to CMHC because the housing agency was already heavily involved in developing False Creek South, a nearby neighbourhood known for its mix of social and market housing.
The only homes on Granville Island are a few houseboats. But CMHC has not cited that, or any other reason, for wanting to offload the site. Money might be a factor. Granville Island requires some touch-ups. In a letter to federal heritage minister James Moore last year, Mr. Robertson said the estimated cost of "overdue asset maintenance" related to island infrastructure is up to $60-million.
According to CMHC, the federal government invested $24.7-million in Granville Island between 1973 and 1982 to cover debts and capital improvements. Since 1983, Granville Island has been financially self-sustaining, with operating costs and capital improvements covered by revenues from its tenants.
But amid the crowds and gaiety, there are worries. While CMHC has maintained affordable rents that have allowed Granville Island to retain its "eclectic and authentic character," a perception is growing that the site "has lost some of its cutting edge," says a consultant's report on the future of the Emily Carr complex. Much of Granville Island is a dead zone at night.
The report, commissioned by the CMHC, recommends leasing part of the Emily Carr complex to an arts-oriented group, such as a school or museum, and turning the rest into an arts, food and entertainment zone. The school has been at its current location on Granville Island since 1980, and this year launched a $25-million capital campaign to raise money for a new campus at a different location.
While that wrenching transition may be on the minds of some, nothing seems amiss to a visitor on a summer day. Ferries ply False Creek, shoppers jostle at picture-perfect fruit stands, and buskers juggle on the streets.
The potential management transfer is behind the scenes, looming as yet another landmark step for a scrap of land that has gone from a grubby industrial past to vaunted urban jewel.
"I actually think this is an opportunity to discuss the way in which Granville Island could be governed," Ms. Carey said. "We want to remind people that this is a very healthy community, that has people who have been part of it for 30 years and people who have been part of it for a month. …We are a unified community."