The guys at Changing Vancouver have one of their ‘big picture’ views of the city this week:

This is all the way back to 1987, and the ‘after’ shot was taken in 2018 from the Global TV helicopter by Trish Jewison.

Thirty three years ago Downtown South (to the east of Granville Street) was still all low-rise, mostly commercial buildings, that had replaced the residential neighbourhood that developed from the early 1900s. We’ve seen many posts that show how that area has been transformed in recent years.

In the 1986 census, just before the photo was taken, there were 37,000 people living in the West End (to the west of Burrard and south of Georgia), and only 5,910 in the whole of the rest of the Downtown peninsula (all the way to Main Street on the right hand edge of the picture).

In 2016, in the last census, the West End population had gone up to 47,200, adding 10,000 in 30 years. What was a forest of towers in 1987 had become a slightly thicker forest in 2018. The rest of Downtown had seen over a 1000% increase in 30 years – there were 62,030 people living there. Both areas will have seen more growth since 2016, and the 2021 census should show several thousand more people in both the West End and Downtown.

Gord Price – The 1987 shot really resonates for me: it was my first year on City Council.  In the following 15 years, NPA councils would approve rezonings for seven megaprojects (four on the peninsula) and, notably, Downtown South – the area on the peninsula that has seen the biggest change (and continues to do so).

The ‘Living First’ strategy that came out of the 1980s (generally termed ‘Vancouverism’) was a ‘Grand Bargain’ for its time: we would take pressure off the existing residential areas, primarily the West End, through a 1989 de-facto downzoning (following the one that occurred in the early-1970s that resulted in an end to outright approvals for highrises), and concentrate growth east of Granville and north of Robson.  In return for stability in the existing residential area, growth would be accelerated in the rezoned commercial/industrial parts of the map. Highrises would be back, now marketed as condos, in a big way. That’s the ‘bargain’ – illustrated so vividly above.

I suspect everyone on Council and at City Hall would have nonetheless been amazed at the prospect of a thousand percent increase occurring so quickly.  And yet, it did the job: the West End remained a lower-middle-income neighbourhood, where rents were above the regional average and incomes of the renters (over 80 percent of the residents) were below.  (Most made up the difference by not having cars.)

There was effectively no change in the character of the community.  Even today, one can walk most of the streets in the interior of the West End and have difficulty finding any buildings constructed after 2000.  It is still the arrival city for immigrants and students (that’s why the Robson/Denman area is a ‘Little Korea’ of restaurants) and lower-middle-income renters.  It is still able to accommodate new highrises on West Davie and a few other blocks under the recent West End plan without affecting the stability, physical or economic, of most of the district.

Of course, some people will still be under the impression that growth is ‘out of control’ and rents unaffordable, especially when noting the development proposals for the peripheral blocks between Thurlow and Burrard, and Robson and Georgia.  Likewise with the rents in new buildings.

‘New’, by definition, is more expensive than depreciated ‘old.’  However, the argument that new development should be rejected because of gentrification could have been used in the 1960s to prevent the development of the West End as we know it today, arguably now an urban miracle of affordable housing, given its location.  That anti-growth argument was in fact used in the 1970s – filtered through Jane Jacobs’s writing – to successfully end the highrise era in Kitsilano.  Seven of the last them can be seen on the slopes below 4th. In fact, no residential highrises would be built in anywhere in Vancouver from the early 70s to the late 80s, save for a handful of super-expensive ones along the waterfront.

Today, growth in most of the West End is practically sclerotic, though residents might not agree. Their perception is based more on the rate of change than the actual change.  If not much has happened on your block over a decade, then any change in scale is immediately impactful in a way that would not even be noticed a few blocks away in a higher growth area. Lesson: the slower the rate of change, the more perceived it is,

Now that most of the downtown peninsula has been built out (with only a few blocks left in places like the ‘Chandelier District’), the peninsula will now have few internal levers left to pull to take the growth pressure off.  (And maybe in a post-pandemic world, it won’t be necessary for awhile.)  But that means the pressure will eventually increase on land prices, rents and leases once scarcity is induced, unless there is a drastic change in the zoning to allow for the redevelopment of previous eras of housing stock – notably the low-rise wooden walkups that constitute such a critical mass of affordable housing.

So chances are an aerial shot of the peninsula taken 30 years from now won’t look all that much different in Changing Vancouver than the 2018 one in this week’s issue.




  1. It’s interesting what got built and where and what drives development. The initial thinking in 1956 when the West End residential high rise zoning was introduced was, the highest buildings should be adjacent to English Bay and Stanley Park i.e. close to the most significant amenities. Until the early 70’s, with a few exceptions, all towers built in the West End were rentals.

    With the invention of strata ownership in the late 60’s and early 70’s, the pattern continued with Richard Henriquez designing four condo high rises beginning with the Sylvia tower in 1984. All were either on English Bay or adjacent to Stanley Park, except for one on Nelson Street, west of Bute. Tudor Manor (Merrick) was completed in 1989 on Pacific facing the park and water. Also, a number of high rise residential towers were built along Alberni and West Georgia Streets enjoying north shore mountain views beginning about 1990. These were all luxury buildings (except perhaps the one on Nelson) built for wealthy households.

    It’s remarkable that in the past five years, we’ve had six rental towers completed in the West End (more than we’ve had since 1972). Also, we have five towers of condo’s with social housing on the lower floors under construction or completed. There is one luxury condo with no social housing under construction (Kengo Kuma) and I think the tower now under construction on Robson, west of Nicola is all rentals.

    I think the major driver of the many tower proposals on hold in the West End was the luxury market. There has been a chill in off shore investment in 2nd and 3rd homes etc not only in Vancouver but other cities that witnessed a major interest in local real estate from global money after 2010. You can now purchase an existing condo (most low rises tho’) in central Vancouver for under $1k a square foot. I believe that many in the development and real estate community were anticipating a deeper market for condo’s over $2k a square foot. Economic uncertainty and the continuing pandemic is also not helping things in contemplating residential development.

    So a lot of what we see is being driven by one or more of – the market, public objectives (ie rentals and social housing, livability, sustainability) and amenity (views, parks, water).

  2. One thousand percent in thirty years is a lot of new door bells. An unimaginable number when one ponders the future. Is there a limit to size one wonders? Or does nature set the limit? In the media there is speculation that covid – 19 rules will govern the economy for the next several years with self isolation being the main method available to arrest transmissions. We can already see what this means as the daily economy adapts to a new public space reality. Change is underway. Maybe life quality in the inner core will improve; lower rents, higher pay, less noise and congestion, more public realm activities, healthy outdoor activities, staycations in the park.

    1. Same amount of door bells as otherwise. Just concentrated into a smaller mixed-use, walkable area that requires fewer cars and less resources.

      One can work toward less noise and congestion, fewer MVs, more affordability etc. with or without Covid. The downtown peninsula has not been hard hit by the pandemic. Numbers from Fraser Health have been consistently the same or higher. Public spaces are well used. Bars, restaurants and shops are open. More venues will find a way to adapt.

      Many will continue to suffer and many businesses will not survive. But there’s nothing yet to indicate that downtown will suffer more than elsewhere. And like all pandemics, this one will end and life will edge back to a new normal. Hopefully the new normal will be more thoughtful and less energy intense as many have had a chance to sit back, think and evaluate for the first time in decades.

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