Thank goodness some photographers in the past decided to document Vancouver as it was emerging.  (The entire history of the city existed in the age of the captured image, after all.)

Now, of course, there is Google Streetview to keep track of even the most mundane urban landscape – but it still requires commentators to provide insight, to research the people behind the change, and to speculate on its meaning.

Thank goodness we have Andy Coupland and John Atkin ravaging the collections of the  Vancouver Archives, BC Archives and Vancouver Public Library, to do the research and add their comments on their blog, Changing Vancouver.  Like this recent post:

West Georgia Street was once pretty much developed with family homes and churches. This is St Andrew’s, the Presbyterian church on the corner with Richards street on the north-east corner in a photograph dated to 1900.


The church (just about) lasted until 1934 … The congregation had moved west to the new St Andrew’s – St Andrew’s Wesley – completed in 1933.

This corner saw a service station constructed after the church was demolished – the George and Richards Service Station, owned in 1945 by Betts and Carroll. In 1974 the building that’s there today was completed. Designed by Zoltan Kiss, it was known as the BC Turf Building and developed by Jack Diamond.

Should the church have been saved, designated heritage, and even kept as part of a 1900 streetscape on Georgia?

Scot B comments on the post below with respect to change in Vancouver:

The amount of heritage destruction in Vancouver in the past and present is unbelievable. Look at the West end, what was once a perfect mix of mansions turned rooming houses, row homes and old brick apartments has been bulldozed where hardly anything is left.  …

I am worried about the old buildings in japantown, Powell & Cordova streets and around Oppenheimer park, they are falling into decay for a number of reasons and this will be an excuse by a developer to knock down entire blocks and rebuild losing the fine grain street elevation that adds so much character.

No doubt the West End would be a better neighbourhood if more of the old mansions had been kept.  But today (partly because of the blandness and scale of the replacement highrises), it remains a lower-middle-income rental neighbourhood.  Would it be so today if heritage had been a priority – and is that a worthy trade-off?


UPDATE: Coincidentally, I just came across this on westendvancouver – the anonymous repository of West End history:



Ted Thomas sent me a photograph of 1898 Robson Street from the early 1970s. The street address was 810 Gilford Street by the time Ted was living in the house from 1972 to 1975.

The rent for his one bedroom apartment was $115.00 per month. His front window looked out onto Robson Street, but the view was partially obscured by the monkey puzzle tree, which was as tall as the house. The ceilings in the house seemed incredibly high.

The garages for the property were originally stables. Someone had nailed an old horseshoe above the garage door.


I remember this house when I first moved to the West End in 1978 – and it was gone a few year’s later.  Just the sort of house we should have tried to save, but  tools like transfer of density and heritage bonusing weren’t available back then.

By the way, in inflation adjusted dollars, Ted would be paying $667 a month for his one-bedroom, assuming the house was in roughly the same condition.  But of course, it wouldn’t have been.





If you enjoy these before-and-after shots, Andy Coupland also recommends:


  1. At a broader level, I am reminded of one of Jane Jacobs’ five core principles – the need for old buildings. She wasn’t being either nostalgic or romantic; her point was THEY ARE CHEAP. For artists, writers, the innovators, recent immigrants, etc. NYC, SF and other cities like Vancouver either have or are rapidly losing this stock to development, driving out the leading edge of the so-called creative class. Society’s loss.

    Before anyone cries “gentrification”, remember that the above-noted groups and individuals actually start that process. Would we not want to have them?

  2. Here’s the dilemma: the highrises of the West End, mostly built between 1958 and 1972 by the hundreds, are what has created the affordable housing stock for middle-income renters. If they hadn’t been allowed in order to save the decaying but affordable wooden housing that preceded them, the West End would have gentrified extensively for a fraction of the people now living there, and be one of our more treasured but least affordable neighbourhoods.

    Just because we might choose to do nothing does not mean that nothing changes.

    1. Ok. So why has block upon block of Brooklyn brownstones remained in tact is what baffles me. We’re they immune to the west end evolution? Also I would like to know the yield comparison between a 3-4 story old apartment without parking built to the street edge covering the entire plot versus a 20 story tower surrounded by parking.

      1. yeah but the West End wasn’t Brooklyn brownstones, it was mansions and single family houses. There’s a block of the old houses left next to Nelson Park in the West End – they’re gorgeous, beautiful, well-maintained and actually relatively dense, as they’re split up into suites as far as I can tell, but they are ridiculously expensive – I’ve seen a few on craigslist going for a few thousand a month.

        1. Hi Tessa, Brownstones aside, why didn’t they demolish the housing stock in Brooklyn on masse in the 50’s – 70’s like they did in the West End for affordable housing towers? I know they did it in the Bronx but I am curious why Brooklyn came out unscathed. Also Vancouver demolished all of fairview slopes, was on the way to imploding Strathcona (Still did alot of damage). In my opinion, the city and its residents have not appreciated heritage in this city, its always been about the there (mountains/water) as opposed to the here (streets, neighbourhoods). Why were large tracts of heritage homes in East Van torn down in the 60-90’s. East Van was affordable back then and was not in a derelict condition. Compare to Portland, roughly same size of heritage building stock, similar economy to Vancouver pre-1990’s, yet heritage homes all throughout the city are still standing.

        2. Doesn’t Brooklyn have the same negative connotation as we have about Surrey – across the bridge, etc.? (i.e. Many Manhattanites would never move to Brooklyn).
          And doesn’t New York spread and spread? Historically, I don’t think it built “up” for residential usues except on Manhattan (i.e. fronting Central Park).
          Even back in the 1950s/60s, in the Dick Van Dyke show, they lived in New Rochelle and commuted in to NYC. Likewise, in I love Lucy, they moved to Connecticut and commuted in.

    2. And just to play devil’s advocate, though I did also reply to Scott B’s comment, I have to ask: What about Strathcona?

      I feel we can’t really discuss the West End in isolation, though it certainly is different than Strathcona, in that case there was a very different outcome than what we would expect for the West End. But my question then is: should, in your opinion Strathcona have also been redeveloped with towers in much the same way the West End was?

        1. Well that was certainly an interesting 2:23 video of a steam engine, but I cannot for the life of me see how it relates to the issue of bulldozing an entire neighbourhood and building towers (West End) or not doing it (Strathcona).

    3. The funny thing is Gord, we have just postponed the unaffordable 40 years in the future as now rents in the West End are rising steadily, popular with exchange students and working holiday makers from Mexico, Korea, etc.among others. Only now we don’t have the heritage like the first time round.

      1. The West End is an anomaly. We let developers go nuts and they did. That will never happen again. The two main civic parties, despite being firmly in the pocket of big development, won’t allow that kind of rapid, widespread rezoning ever again. For their part the development industry doesn’t want that to happen either. They like the profits from barely keeping up with demand.

        Demand to live here is very high, beyond the imagination of many locals. If we threw the doors wide open the population would double overnight and keep on growing. So much as we might like to preserve heritage, as much as we’d like to keep a lid on prices, we’ve lost the ability to even delay the inevitability of higher prices.

        The facts are stacked against us. Among metro regions in Canada we have one of the lowest median wages. After accounting for the cost of shelter we are probably the poorest urban dwellers in this country, yet we have the most desirable real estate. We can’t legally, ethically or financially afford to put up a “no room at the inn” sign. The world will come in ever increasing numbers and Vancouver will change to reflect their priorities not ours.

        Let us show our new residents that we respect the past by preserving what previous generations build and saved for us. Hopefully the next generation will do the same.

        1. It’s funny how these mass migrations I hear are always tied to the lending practices of the banks, interest rates. There is plenty of areas in surrey, Langley, coquitlam that can be denser still with new examples of walkable neighbourhoods. It’s not anyone’s god given right to be able to buy in the city of Vancouver, the market will decide a persons threshold and will adjust accordingly. It’s happening in Oakland as a spill over from San Francisco, and it will happen in the bedroom communities of Vancouver

  3. Gord – right you are. In Lower Manhattan c. 1960, the stock JJ was talking about was largely cold-water multi-storey warehouses, more like Gastown than the West End and its older mansions. Buildings that allowed post-war artists and musicians to be where the action was, for very little rent.

  4. yes, certain streets should have been retained as is, with character, while other streets or neighborhoods should have been densified. Yes, the mish-mash in the west-end is quite ugly and hapless.

    As stated here earlier, off the waterfront Vancouver is not a pretty city, below average compared to some European, Asian or US cities. Downtown is outright ugly with boring highrises, few if any public squares of interest for pedestrian nor iconic buildings. The beauty lies in its water oriented areas: English Bay, West Van, Coal Harbour, Yaletown, certain portions of Kits .. areas along the seawall basically and StanleyPark.

    That is why prices in Shawnessy, UEL, W-Van, Kerrisdale or West Point Grey are so high as there is some charm still and green space.

  5. Scot B, you state that Portland and Vancouver have roughly the same size of heritage stock. That’s not true – Vancouver is a much younger city. For example, in 1900 it had less than one third of Portland’s population, so the heritage stock will be proportionately smaller.

    1. Hi Rob, I was going off the population for 1940, idea being this would roughly be the height of the streetcar suburb population prior to post war sprawl. Vancouver in 1941: 275,353. Portland in 1940: 305,394. I was mostly comparing suburb streetcar suburb.

  6. Not a dilemma. At the time the idea of height limit was underappreciated along with the idea of land use changes for existing buildings. These concepts of development control have since become essential means of urban design and form part of the framework used by citizens to shape the city and its activities.

  7. Scot B, Vancouver always has been and continuies to be a real estate huckster’s paradise. While other cities develop an economy away from that shallow base, we continue to be victim to it. If we didn’t build the city up and then tear it down again every couple of decades, what would power our economy?

    1. Good point. Sad. There are hundreds of other financial instruments out there to make money on, shelter and sense of place are not to be taken for granted. Plus when I make a bad stock investment I don’t have to walk past it everyday for the next 30 years.

    1. Should the owner of the house not be able to decide what to do with his/her property ?

      yes, some old houses need preserving due to their historic significance, but many old houses are just that: old. Not every new house is ugly (and yes, many are, but many are not)

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