GW tours explore how neighbourhood character evolves

Maintaining the fine-grained cultural and economic diversity of Grandview-Woodland is one of the central concerns of the Citizens’ Assembly on the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan. That diversity has been on display the last few weeks, street by street, on intriguing Assembly walking tours with Vancouver historian John Atkin. Assembly members also had a look behind the veil of the Port Metro Vancouver’s active life on the neighbourhood’s north shore, with an information session and a boat tour.

Atkin’s ambling explorations of how the area’s character was shaped — in Grandview and along Nanaimo, Broadway, and Commercial Drive — have provided a trove of information on the role of transportation in shaping the community’s growth. It’s the streetcar that made Grandview one of the city’s first residential neighbourhoods, rich with Edwardian architecture.

Likewise, around Broadway, the creation of the Grandview Cut in 1909 and ’10 as a rail corridor, as well as long-abandoned 1920s plans to turn Grandview Highway into a key road into the heart of the city, drew development this way and that. Once, lots near Clark Drive had a view of the False Creek waterfront, before the landfill from the Grandview Cut was used to turn it into a rail yard intended to increase competition with the dominant Canadian Pacific Railway.

The Broadway tour, on a cold late October evening, began at 6th and Commercial, began next to a modernist post office depot. The site was once the streetcar terminus for a line to Burnaby that cut diagonally north across Grandview toward Nanaimo, and then ran east along the East First Avenue boulevard. Now the route can be traced by spotting the 1950s and ’60s Vancouver Specials that replaced it.

The tour first looped east through houses old and new. Good and bad usually hinges on the skill of the architect. Atkin pointed to one particularly ugly 1980s residence that, he figured, was approved because it tried to look the part of an old home. The tour then went past the often-forlorn houses along the north side of Broadway, where Atkin suspects property owners are awaiting rezoning and redevelopment, and up into the southern edge of Cedar Cottage around the Safeway site.

Atkin said Broadway remained relatively quiet through the first half of the 20th century, with limited retail and just a few gas stations. From the 1920s to the ’40s, he added, part of the Safeway lot was a cement works.

It’s here that, in June 2013, the City of Vancouver proposed allowing a 36-storey tower, as part of the Grandview Woodland planning process’s Goals, Objectives & Emerging Policies document. Once again, it’s transportation — this time the intersection major rapid transit routes — that draws development. Even in the late 1980s, when the Expo SkyTrain line was new, planners were talking about 10-storey buildings on Broadway.

Safeway’s parking lot aside, though, many potential building sites aren’t really available. Around the site and northwest toward Clark Drive, a pastiche of three-storey rental apartments and single-family homes are peppered with strata apartments, co-ops and social housing — and that is unlikely to change. The complexity makes it difficult to develop the area with multiple towers.

West of Commercial, Atkin said, rezoning in the 1950s contributed to the development of a string of three-storey apartments, which is what the building code then allowed. Atkin has also noted, however, that for many years prior to the 1950s apartments were permitted, but developers didn’t act on the opportunity.

Six storeys is now possible with new wood-frame construction methods, and many argue that height should be allowed in rental apartment zones as old buildings are renewed. For Vancouver city planner Andrew Pask, who joined Atkin’s tours, a key priority is “to preserve the existing affordable housing” through pace of change regulations that limit redevelopment.

 

Incremental change, small operators are key to character

All of the walking tours revealed a neighbourhood shaped not through grand master plans but through a kind of incremental change and small-scale development that give the community its texture. Even when new homes and businesses were built at a quick pace, the scale and variety kept it human: a few houses here by one builder, a few houses there by another, and in commercial areas a similar mix of small lots developed by different individuals.

On the Drive, the small size of the commercial lots and retail spaces helps to protect the independent character of the businesses. Should property assembly be restricted here to protect the street’s charm? Or are larger projects with three storeys of residential above street-level retail, with parking garages underneath, the right way to capitalize on the potential for increased density on the Drive?

Old gas station sites are in play. They’re underutilized, so should they be redeveloped? Or do they add a layer of character that should be protected? Likewise, should the character of the Drive’s ambient lighting be maintained? The impact of design guidelines, which are often intended to protect character but can instead have the effect of stifling creativity, were also discussed.

Tours of the Grandview and Nanaimo neighbourhoods, on a last sunny Sunday in October, showcased the fine grain of residential areas.

Much of Grandview-Woodland developed before city governments gave much thought to zoning. Atkin said the first municipal residential zoning bylaw in North America was enacted in what was then the municipality of Point Grey in 1922; the first such zoning came to Grandview Woodland in 1927.

Thus, at the corner of Salsbury Drive and Parker Street, where the Grandview tour began, a 1911 four-storey stone and brick apartment building (designed by architect Arthur Julius Bird) sits elegantly amid the single-family homes. South along Salsbury is J.J. Miller’s 1908 Kurrajong mansion and, a block away, the substantial Jeffs residence (recently restored as part of a townhouse development). They offer a different sort of punctuation in a historically mixed-income community.

On and around Rose Street, houses are packed together, with shallow frontages that sometimes face onto others’ backyards and the odd cottage-like infill or laneway residence. West of Nanaimo, there is a mix of major treasures and minor idiosyncrasies. A man working on a roof sends the tour down an alley to a 1911 stonemason’s house built right on the alley, with a huge and unique front yard. Nearby on a big lot is a large Georgian house, quite unlike any of its neighbours. Atkin, who recently prepared a “statement of significance” for the home, said the interior is fantastic and largely untouched.

Atkin, who has a soft spot for Vancouver Specials, the unique Vancouver housing style that first emerged in the late 1950s, argues that familiarity breeds contempt, and that’s what resulted in updates to so many Grandview Edwardian homes in the 1960s and ’70s; now it’s the Specials’ turn for the remakes.

Atkin has some real affection for the resulting diversity, even when it’s a little home-handyman slapdash. He argues it’s an ignored aspect of neighbourhood character, as are street trees and the varying relationship of houses to their neighbours. Still, as a historian and Strathcona resident, he’s keen to see old homes and their context protected.

 

Zoning tools give city protection power

In Goals, Directions & Emerging Policies, the city made no changes to the single-family and duplex zoning that predominates in Grandview. Community activists have argued that the duplex zoning in particular puts these homes, many of which provide affordable rental accommodation, at risk. Some rental buildings are becoming single-family homes with a suite. Others are being torn down to create front-and-back duplexes with no rental at all.

Atkin said duplex zoning reflected the existing practice of breaking homes up into multi-family dwellings, and notes that zoning often follows from use instead of preceding and defining it.

Atkin said more restrictive zoning in other Vancouver neighbourhoods provides examples of how new protection for old homes can be introduced. In Strathcona, those who demolish pre-1925 houses lose buildable square footage. There are also restrictions on assembling land for redevelopment in the neighbourhood’s RT3 zones. As a result, Atkin said just three such homes have been demolished since 1993. However, he added that somewhat arbitrary dates can turn important but less cherished examples of heritage into “demolition bait.”

In Kitsilano, protecting a heritage asset brings increased benefits. In Norquay, there is more flexibility in duplex zoning to encourage infill and main residences with rental suites. The city’s 2013 Heritage Action Plan also creates new tools to encourage retention of pre-1940 character homes.

Atkin said B.C. courts have found that “zoning confers no value whatsoever — it’s purely a planning tool.” This is the result of a court case related to downzoning of property around Victory square from nine FSR (nine buildable square feet per foot of land) to three FSR. “The opportunity with a neighbourhood like this,” Atkin said of Grandview, “is to tighten up some things.”

 

Nanaimo’s odd interface

Along Nanaimo, the hodgepodge of eastern Grandview becomes even more pronounced. Atkin figures the streetcar’s late arrival on Nanaimo — in 1912, prior to the First World War — and its short route up to Broadway may have contributed to the slow development here, and into the area to the east, once marketed as Grandview Heights. Nanaimo itself also suffers because it is unnaturally broad, as it was until 1912 the city boundary with the provincially controlled Hastings Townsite.

All this has resulted in particularly varied of architectural styles that range through many decades.

At Charles Street, there is a somewhat forlorn retail district — a few old buildings, including a century-old bank, and a new three-storey condominium complex. Across the street, largely identical pink stucco houses from the 1990s fill an entire block — a repurposed Safeway site.

Nanaimo, which Goals, Directions & Emerging Policies slated for a major makeover, acts as a thoroughfare, and is still a secondary truck route. The city has proposed additional density, mainly stacked townhouses, and changes to the street itself to make it more attractive and pedestrian friendly. But there has been community resistance to the proposed rezoning. Many blocks that front on the west side of Nanaimo, and some on the east, are quite charming, particularly north of First Avenue. The blocks on the west side are shallow, and only some have alleys that separate Nanaimo frontage from portions to the west along Garden Drive.

How will these blocks change, and at what pace?

 

Port jurisdiction complicates planning

On the first day of November, there was a strong Assembly member turnout for an opportunity to see Grandview-Woodland from the water. The morning began with an overview of port operations and the relationship between the port and the city at Port Metro Vancouver’s Canada Place offices, with acting planning manager Lilian Chau and municipal liaison manager Naomi Horsford, both of whom live in the Grandview/Hastings communities.

They explained that the port is a federally operated corporation with jurisdiction over 64 kilometres of shoreline in 16 municipalities. The port manages the land but does not operate the terminals. “Grandview-Woodland has a significant portion of the marine terminals,” Horsford told the Assembly guests, and not just in service of big industrial customers. “We actually touch local businesses,” she said, citing food imports for a deli on the Drive as one example.

Horsford said the port creates $1.12 billion in GDP, 13,900 in direct Metro Vancouver jobs and $780 million in wages. She added that port tenants pay $11.6 million in municipal taxes, and the port itself contributed $190,000 last year to City of Vancouver community organizations, including GW’s Kiwassa Neighbourhood House and Britannia secondary school. She said the port is currently planning strategically through 2050, and works on environmental issues regionally in partnership with Metro Vancouver.

However, it’s transportation over land that really defines the port’s relationship with Grandview-Woodland. Congestion has resulted in a shift to allow night-time trucking. “We’re going to have to work very closely with neighbourhoods on the impacts,” Horsford said, adding that she hopes good planning can reduce conflicts with residents over noise.

Goals, Directions & Emerging Policies calls for a greenway along Powell Street and a residential tower at Clark and Hastings. While the city wants to move trucks along Hastings, the truckers often prefer less congested routes on Powell and McGill, where there are residential uses. Clark Drive, of course, will remain a major truck route. Complicating issues is the general truck traffic serving northern Grandview-Woodland’s industrial zones. The port, which tracks in real time all the port-related vehicle movement in Metro Vancouver, hopes that new restrictions on truck licences and the potential addition of electronic signage in the community can improve the management of truck traffic.

Chau said the port is currently renewing its own land-use plan, and aims to engage and accommodate adjoining communities. “Crab Park, New Brighton Park — these are actually areas that we’ve leased to the City of Vancouver.”

However, security concerns since 2001 have caused the port to restrict public access. Grandview-Woodland’s legendary Cannery Restaurant was shut down, and cyclists can no longer meander through the port’s remarkable infrastructure. Plans currently call for an end to the cruise-ship use of Ballantyne Pier, near the foot of Clark Drive, and that terminal is slated for redevelopment.

For Grandview-Woodland, some sort of port-land park for the community looks highly unlikely. This was clear when the Assembly members boarded a tour boat for a trip around the harbour. The intensity of both shipping and industrial use — including the Vanterm container terminal, LaFarge aggregate operations, Viterra grain handling, and industrial use such as West Coast Reduction’s tanks and Saltworks Technologies desalination facilities — is even more evident from the water than it is from land.

Still, in Vancouver, which does not derive a lot of its identity from its role as a major port city, it’s worth asking what could be done in Grandview-Woodland to strengthen the port’s cultural connection with the public.

The tour, out to Second Narrows, along the North Shore and back past Stanley Park to Canada Place, made the scale and curious industrial beauty of the port quite evident. For the Assembly, however, it’s likely the key issue is going to be whether to build new residences near truck routes and where trucks will travel in the neighbourhood — especially after midnight.

 

John Atkin’s tours wrap up on Saturday, November 15 (Britannia), and Sunday, November 16 (Cedar Cove and Hastings Street). Sunshine is again in the forecast.

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