Expo 86 – the bubble that never burst!


This remarkable photo was taken just outside Olympic Village, on southeast False Creek. The bubble was generated by the man standing on the wharf to the left. Through it we can see the iconic Telus Science World which was originally known as Expo Centre. It functioned for 6 months in 1985 to advertise the theme of the world fair of Expo 86: Transportation and Communication. It reopened in 1986 as one of the fair’s pavilions. On May 2, 2016 we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Expo 86.

Expo 86 truly exposed Vancouver to the world, bringing 22 million people and pavilions from 54 nations to its site on the north shore of False Creek. It had a highly successful run from May 2 to October 13, 1986. Expo 86 had a great influence on the growth and development of the city. We see its beginnings in the transformation of the north side of False Creek from a run down industrial site to the Expo lands to what it has become today – a place of parks and condo towers.

Jimmy Pattison, CEO and president of the Expo 86 Corporation, had predicted in October ’85 that the Expo site, upon closing, would become the biggest urban development project in North America, changing the face of Vancouver forever.

Pattison’s prediction proved true. After Expo 86, one of Hong Kong’s richest men, Li Ka-shing bought the former Expo lands for $328 million in 1988 and developed it under Concord Pacific. This was a scandal at the time, given the price was much lower than the value of the land, and also there was controversy over why the land could not be developed by local companies. By the 1990s, the land was worth over $1 billion, and presales for condos had begun in Hong Kong, fuelled by fears of instability over the return of Hong Kong from the UK to China, which occurred in 1997. And so began an accelerated wave of late 20th century Asian immigration to Vancouver.

But the legacy of Expo 86 lives on. All the following were built in conjunction with the world fair: Telus Science World, Skytrain, the new Cambie Bridge, BC Place Stadium, Plaza of Nations, the renovated Roundhouse, Canada Place, the Inukshuk in English Bay, China Gate on Pender St. and the Sun Yat-Sen Garden, to mention a few. We have immensely increased tourism, population growth, and have been touted many times as one of the most livable cities in the world. One of the great aspects of the city’s growth is its downtown blend of residential and business areas. It keeps the area vital and alive, especially with the downtown campuses of UBC, Simon Fraser, VCC and BCIT.

Today our city, a jewel on the Northwest Pacific Coast, continues to grow and densify. It’s not without a lot of controversy, with many wanting to stake a claim here, adding to our current housing crisis. But so far the bubble, ephemeral in its nature, has not burst!

Hopefully some of the pictures on The Source website will recall some pleasant memories for those of you who were around at the time. If you wish an informative read on Expo 86, especially all its disputes while being built in the middle of a recession, you will enjoy The Expo Story (1986) by Robert Anderson & Eleanor Wachtel.

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