History & Heritage
April 29, 2013

A small, sad change: Good-bye South Van Produce

I never took a photograph of it because I thought it would always be there.
Last week, if you stood at the southwest corner of Denman and Comox, you would have seen this, unchanged from when I took this shot almost a decade ago:

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Perhaps you might have picked up some fresh fruit, or flowers, or a litre of milk.

Not today:

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Gone, and I don’t know why.  A classic Chinese market-garden corner store, with roots that go back, what?, practically a century.   So perhaps the owners, finally retired, have no one to pass it on to.  Or couldn’t compete?  Or evicted?

To be replaced by, what?, another coffee shop to take advantage of the Comox greenway.  Or another fast-food brand, thinking the beach traffic will be insatiable.  West Enders will find another place to shop, of course, but now there is less diversity, less character.  And a whole lot of memories.

If anyone has some – or, better yet, a picture of South Van Produce with the fruit and flowers spilling onto the sidewalks – pass them along.

And to those families who worked those endless hours, struggled and thrived, raised their children behind the counters, and served generations of West Enders, a thank you, a very special thank you.

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Something new in a neighbourhood that hasn’t seen much significant change in decades: a highrise – the Alexandra on English Bay, just off Davie Street on Bidwell, near the park that it references.
The Alexandra is another design to be added to the ‘Henriquez Collection’ (from the firm of Henriquez Partners, notably the father and son, Richard and  Gregory).  I’ve documented five of them in the West End in the traditional Price Tags  – among them the Sylvia Extension and Eugenia, just a couple of blocks away.

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The Alexandra was certainly contentious, being one of the first STIR projects that was given massive bonus density in return for guaranteed rental apartments.  But then controversy accompanied the other Henriquez highrises when they were proposed.
Some nice touches are appearing, – perforated screens similar in spirit to those used on the Woodward’s condo tower, also by the Henriquez firm, which add a sense of custom design along with the other’green’ features.
The tower is nicely slotted into that part of the West End, still in scale with its neighbours and sufficently separated to give some breathing room.  (Click to enlarge rendering on left.) 
The greater impact comes from the podium, which at four-to-five storeys creates a strong streetwall on Davie.  It seems to work, given other buildings of similar scale in that block, but it’s the similarity to the point-and-podium Yaletown model that turns off a lot of the natives (who, I suspect, would have been critics of the Corbusian highrises that typified the ’60s West End: sheer slabs surrounded by open space, too often parking lots).
The inclusion of the facade of the old mission-style ‘Maxine’s’ on the east side … well, we see when it’s finished.  But generally such token facadism does not turn out well.

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STIR incentives aside, this tower is important because it gives a sense of what the City may be willing to entertain on the Davie and Robson blocks west of Jervis.  We’ll see what settles out of the current West End planning process.

Richard Henriquez, the father, has had a certain genius in getting his designs approved by finding the few remaining developable sites under the highly constrained West End zoning bylaw from 1989, and then making a case for tower solutions.  In doing so he has raised the standards of West End highrises – and here again, the firm may have set the precedent for what comes next.

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Karenn Krangle did a nice summary of the Feb 21st City Conversation on Planning for Queer Communities in Novae Res Urbis:

What can a city do to help people with diverse sexual orientation feel at home? …

The (City Conversation) became a spirited debate on the various needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people and the differences between them.  Like many topics in Vancouver, it also came down to an east-west debate, in this case, the gender-friendliness of Grandview-Woodland versus the West End. …

Participants also had different thoughts on a suggestion that all services for LGBTQ people could be provided under one roof, although one participant wondered if all groups should be lumped together.

Metha Brown, a social planner and a member of the city’s LGBTQ advisory committee, said there needs to be improvement in planning and programming for public spaces, especially for recreational facilities and public areas to make them more comfortable for transgendered people. …

Gordon Price said the West End developed in the late 1960s as a community attractive to gay people because it had all the right ingredients: a large stock of cheap one-bedroom rental apartments, proximity to downtown and the beaches and parks, a service economy with lots of jobs, good transit service and it is a walkable neighbourhood.

“But the pivotal thing was that huge stock of rental one-bedroom apartments,” he said. “It’s easy to forget how critical that component was.”

Price called the decade from 1969 to 1979 the “golden age of the gaybourhood” although such communities began much earlier in places like San Francisco and they continue to evolve. …

While Price focused on the Davie village area, one speaker said not all LGBTQ people identify with the “mainstream older white gay male” and think in more inclusive terms.

“This needs to be included in this dialogue about community spaces because the Davie village is very gay-male identified, where you get east Vancouver with more queer and female identified folks who experience a very different world view than gay men do,” she said.

Kevin McNaney, assistant director of central-area planning for the city, said planners working on the new community plan for the West End are looking at the roles of places like Davie village and how can physical decisions made on planning have an impact on communities.

“Bricks and mortar can just as easily destroy a community, and we’ve all seen that happen time and time again,” he said.

“We are writing a plan about where the bricks and mortar land in the next 30 years and we have a lot of thinking to do because the last thing we want is to plan for a community that is just a cartoon of itself.

“That’s not what we want to do and that’s not what’s important. …

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Full article available in Novae Res Urbis, a newsletter providing the most detailed coverage on planning and municipal news in Metro – by subscription.

 

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Adpated from SFU City, July 2006:

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For years, commuter traffic had been shortcutting through the narrow streets of the West End to get to the Stanley Park Causeway. The City would even post a traffic cop at Chilco and Georgia to handle the merging traffic. But in 1973, the new TEAM Council headed by Mayor Art Phillips adopted an idea put forward by the West End Planning Team that had started work under the NPA: barricade the streets and convert asphalt to green space.
The next year, West of Denman saw the first traffic calming of its kind in North America:

Notice how the greenery of Stanley Park seems to flow down the streets of the West End. A street system originally designed for the horse and carriage, with lanes at the rear, today functions well for one of the highest density communities in Canada.

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There had been a temporary traffic-calming experiment in Berkeley, California, in 1969. But when construction started on a complete system of diverters and miniparks to replace barricades on the lanes of the West End, Vancouver was leading the way.

There may have been some people surprised when the City started to put in those ‘stupid barricades,’ but West Enders on the whole were happy – including the Mayor’s mother who, coincidentally, lived on Chilco Street.

When this diverter went in on Chilco (left), traffic volumes dropped from 10,000 cars per day to 1,000. Traffic flows also improved on Georgia since commuters weren’t delayed at Chilco.

Thanks to planner Lyn Ubell and traffic engineer Jack Lisman, the residential streets were restored to the people who lived on them. Lisman was influenced by “Traffic in Towns” – a 1963 British report by Colin Buchanan, who argued for a hierarchy of streets to serve many users, not just cars.  N.D. Lea President Brian Wallace also credits Gerald Sutton Brown, the pro-freeway City Manager, who in support said: “It’s time for new thinking.”

A change in Council delayed the next stage of traffic calming for a decade. But after a controversial referendum, miniparks and diverters were approved for East of Denman in 1981. (Many think it was done to deter street prostitution, but in fact Council had simply authorized some temporary installations to discourage cruising before the final project was to start.)

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Today, despite the fears and the close vote, the system has maintained the West End as a highly livable neighbourhood.  In one of the densest communities in Canada, there are roughly ten times as many pedestrians as moving vehicles on the residential streets. The car has become the alternative form of transportation.

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Our favourite hired belly, Tim Pawsey – a food-and-wine journalist – picked up on another conversion of house to retail.  (Previous example here.)

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The house behind Davie Flowers has gone through a lot of changes (it’s tough to pull in people if the store or restaurant is even a few feet off the footpath much less up a flight of stairs).  And in the streetview above, it’s going through another transformation.

Tim likes the results: “It’s home to Gurkha Kitchen—and it’s well worth checking out!”

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Clearly, David Banks finds historic photos as fascinating as I do.

He sent an image that reveals dramatically how certain residential streets in the West End – the ones the streetcars went down – transitioned to commercial when property owners built retail space in their front yards (no zoning back then!), incrementally creating the commercial villages we love today and that so well serve the residents from three blocks on either side:

North side of Davie between Thurlow and Bute (map here

As David notes: “One of the two houses west of the Davie Renovatory is still there, also with a business, likely the reason the house survives”

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Further to the lessons I learned after living in Downtown South for a month in the early 1990s:

I eventually realized  that Downtown South was taking the pressure off my neighbourhood, the West End.  As more units became available, they provided an outlet for newcomers who would otherwise compete with existing tenants.

And that’s what happened for two decades: the hundreds of new condos that were picked up by investors and rented out in Downtown South (and Triangle West, north of Robson) were giving an outlet for newcomers who could afford the higher rents.  Upper-income renters left alone the 50s walk-ups and the 60s highrises for lower-middle-income renters.

Downtown South and Triangle West also provided an alternative to West Enders who were willing to pay a bit more for something new (lots of electrical outlets and less dubious plumbing) – and that in turn kept a ceiling on rents, since landlords couldn’t raise rents on the ‘old’ beyond something that was ‘new.’  It even resulted in the West End  uncrowding a bit in the 1990s, as those sharing units migrated east and north on the peninsula.  The population of the West End grew hardly at all.

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West Enders got very used to the idea that the neighbourhood could stay very much the same, regardless of the pressures of growth elsewhere in the city.   Indeed, City Council had a big political stake in keeping it that way.  As the NPA learned when three-storey walk-ups were being demolished in Kerrisdale, the price of change could be high.  Jim Green, running for Mayor as the COPE candidate, came surprisingly close to beating Gordon Campbell in the 1990 election, taking advantage of public discontent with demolitions and rising housing costs.

And it didn’t make much sense for any party to allow the developers into those neighbourhoods that still had a large stock of 1940s and ’50s boxes.  Demolition and condo construction actually resulted in a loss of population density, a complete elimination of affordability and lots of upset neighbours unhappy with the loss of view and the eviction of grandma who had been happily living in her stucco box for years.

And so the Council I sat on brought in rate-of-change constraints and, in 1989, even more complicated requirements for the West End that essentially limited to a handful the number of lots that would allow for new development.   The rate of change slowed to practically zero in the West End; the number of new buildings since then could be counted on your fingers.  And with outlets for growth on the other sides of Burrard and Robson, everyone was happy enough.

Until, of course, the pressure returned.  Rents may have remained more or less stable, constrained by provincial legislation and market forces, but they continued to notch up.  And one thing about the ‘affordability’ issue: no one thinks we have it, not compared to what they remember in decades past.  So candidates in the last civic election, appealing to what they heard from their supporters, ran on the platform that they would address the lack of affordable rental housing.

And then they made mistake of actually trying to do something about it.

More on that to come.

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What happened to car alarms?
I may be totally wrong on this – especially since we moved to a quieter part of the West End – but I don’t think I’m hearing as many car alarms going off.  Particularly at night.  I asked a few others about this, and they concurred.
Maybe it was because car owners realized the alarms were being ignored, or reset their sensitivity, or replaced them with bars on the steering wheel, or I’m going deaf.   Whatever.  But thank you, thank you.

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