Architecture
August 3, 2020

Urban Growth Downtown: A Thousand Percent in Thirty Years

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,

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This has all the marks of astroturfing*.  Seen in the West End on Bute at Harwood.

There has to be a backstory here.  Who’s behind it, what is their goal?  (It’s not just about bike lanes.)

For those who think the Beach Avenue Flow Way is too popular and too necessary, that we can’t go back to “just the way it was”, prepare for a fight.

 

*Astroturfing is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants.

 

 

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On the weekend of the sixth week of the pandemic shutdown, the weather was warm, the caseloads were dropping, and Dr. Henry gave permission for us to sit around outside in small numbers.

Maybe the man with the voice and guitar is a professional musician, now gig-less, taking his talent and equipment to the grass in front of his building, where the neighbours and passers-by make up his concert.  That’s what it looks like.

At the end of the video, ornithological accompaniment.

 

 

 

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Imagine the West End in the seventies and early 80s.  After the highrise building boom, before Expo.  And before AIDS.

The West End was a welcoming neighbourhood for gay men who decanted into Vancouver from everywhere in Canada, from the world – the post-Stonewall generation of suburban-raised boomers.

For gay men, the West End was a paradise of one-bedroom apartments, even its own shopping street.  Clubs for every branch of the emerging LGBT communities. Beaches and park trails. Restaurants and bars. The streets were yours for your own parades.

 

Max Baker captured that time.

He used his colour camera like a camera phone today.  He was selective, reflected the in this retrospective taken from his personal photo albums.  His eye was for the beautiful, especially the men.

Max was photographing the beautiful boys of those days when it seemed there were hot guys on every block.  The sex mostly free of consequence, except emotional.  The city mostly affordable and the sky mostly blue.

Thanks to Jamie Lee Hamilton and volunteers, those pictures of Max’s from his albums are on display.

REMEMBER WHEN…” is a retrospective of personal photo albums created by photographer Max Baker.

The show is a the Mole Hill Gallery (who knew?) in the basement suite of a beautiful Mole Hill home – geographically near the centre of the gay population as it was in the 70s and 80s.

The images also show LGBT parades, parties and events from 1984 to 1994. Many of the images are identified, but the organizers are hoping visitors to the exhibition will be able to put names to some of the unidentified youthful faces from the 80s.

Sept 20 and Sept 27 only – at the Mole Gallery.  1-7 pm.

The Mole Gallery is located in the Jepson-Young lane between Bute and Thurlow, and between Pendrell and Comox streets. Official address is 1157 Pendrell in the rear.

 

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Retired city planner Michael Gordon, featured in this recent PriceTalks, edited the summer issue of Sitelines, the journal of the BC Society of Landscape Architects. 

The theme – Pavement to Plaza – is about converting modest sections of streets to neighbourhood places.

The lead story by the designers Norm Hotson and Don Vaughan backgrounds the pioneer Pavement to Plaza vision in the early 1970’s with their concept for the West End mini-parks.  Unless I’m unaware of similar traffic-calming projects, the West of Denman maze of miniparks and diverters was the first traffic calming of its kind in North America.  Hey, let’s say the world!

Price Tags did a post on the origins of West End traffic calming back in 2013, but these authors were the actual designers.  Here are some excerpts:

In 1973 the City of Vancouver established the West End Planning Centre, the first of its kind in the city, staffed by Planning, Social Planning and Engineering Departments. … Norman Hotson Architects was retained by the City to prepare an Open Space Policy for the West End. …

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As a consequence of the West End Community Plan of 2013, there is a massive rebuilding of the blocks on Davie Street from Jervis to Denman.  But the West End is used to that.  The district has already seen such transformations throughout its history.

It began with the ‘New Liverpool’ subdivision prior to the incorporation of the city, bringing with it an explosion of development: mansions of the elite and professional class, along with the ‘Vancouver Specials’ of the 1890s you can still see on Mole Hill. Inserted were the first apartment blocks with the arrival of the streetcar on Denman and Davie in 1900.

Then the crash of 1913, a war, a Depression, another war.  It wasn’t until the late 1940s when redevelopment again transformed a decaying and overcrowded district with dozens of those three-storey walkups.

A rezoning in 1956 brought the most significant change of all: over 200 concrete highrises.  That concrete jungle – the postcard shot – is the West End today: the scale and character of one of Canada’s densest neighbourhoods.

It turned out okay.

Now, the current and expected changes are happening on the border blocks, from Thurlow to Burrard, Alberni to Georgia – and very obviously on West Davie.  Faster than planners anticipated.  The most significant phase of West End development in the last half century.

Here’s an example on one side of one block from Cardero to Bidwell – three towers at the stage where the raw concrete makes a more powerful architectural statement than when the glass and spandrel panels get attached:

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Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of three- (arguably four-) storey frame apartment buildings were constructed in Vancouver after the Second World War.  Here’s a classic at Comox and Bute in the West End.

Though (not arguably) the blandest architectural housing ever built in this city (at least Vancouver Specials had balconies), it supplied quick accommodation to meet the post-war demand for affordable rental apartments in non-car-dependent locations. That’s how we handled housing crises in the past: lots and lots of cheap, plain housing and apartments.

So what happens to that stock when it gets old?  Here’s an example of what that same apartment block looked like last week:

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In principle, the idea of infill in already built-out neighbourhoods is seen to be a good one, especially to broaden the choice of options.  At the community planning stage, there’s general acceptance.

Reality is tougher.  Two prominent cases for apartments on parking lots have received a lot of pushback – in the case of the Delbrook proposal in North Van District, council rejection; in the case of the Larch Street proposal in Kitsilano, considerable neighbourhood opposition.

Even in the West End, one neighbourhood you’d expect would welcome infill, the dilemma of scale and relationship to the existing fabric becomes apparent in these two examples.  The first – around five storeys, about the same as those examples mentioned above – was submitted almost immediately after the approval of the West End Community Plan in 2013 – a proposal for a rear parking lot at Cardero and Comox, as reported in PriceTags in 2014.  The comments detail the complaints.

Nonetheless, it is now under construction:

 

The other, a half block away, at 1685 Nelson, is considerably different in scale – actually an extension of to a heritage-quality house – but also meeting resistance.

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March’s featured storyteller is Kevin Dale McKeown, editor and publisher of The West End Journal.

As part of his “People’s Park” story, Kevin recalls the spring of 1971 when Vancouver’s Yippie movement occupied and built a tent city on the proposed site of a new Four Seasons Hotel at the entrance to Stanley Park – where Devonian Harbour Park is today.

Kevin was in the thick of the action, helping out at the camp kitchen. The protest lasted a year, Mayor Tom Campbell called it “a breakdown of society”, and obviously the campers / protesters won the battle.

Today the main attraction at the site is not a glitzy international hotel but the bronze statue of a woman sitting on a park bench, apparently searching in her purse for the glasses we can all see sitting atop her head. But things could have gone differently.

 

JJ Bean Cafe, 1209 Bidwell Street (Bidwell & Davie)

Wednesday, March 20

4:30 to 6:00 pm

Admission: Free, Complimentary coffee and tea thanks to JJ Bean

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How many Churches and Schools along Burrard Street can you identify?

February’s storytellers, educators and historians, Isaac Vanderhorst and
Janet Leduc will intrigue us with their story, “West End Schools and
Churches, 1890s to 1930s”.

Discover the central role schools and churches
played in early community life. Bring your stories and photos to share
with your neighbours.

 

JJBean Coffee Shop, 1209 Bidwell @ Davie

Sunday, February 24

4:30 to pm, story telling from 4:45 – 5:45

Admission: Free, Complimentary coffee and tea thanks to JJBean

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