October 23, 2014

A Change of Scale 2 – In the West End

An extraordinary shot from the Vancouver Archives:


Nelson 3

Buildings along Nelson Street at Thurlow Street, 1966


Extraordinary for two reasons.  First, here are two whole blocks without a modernist highrise as late as 1966.  And there’s a good reason  for that: the City was buying up the whole block for the creation of Nelson Park:

Nelson 4


Secondly, this is a fascinating mix of residential buildings at different scales: single-family-homes, no doubt divided into boarding houses, interspersed with purpose-built apartment buildings.   Rather delightful to our eyes – and perfectly illegal in most of the city.

Indeed, that was the largely purpose of zoning as it evolved from the early 1900s: to prevent the mixing of multiple-family apartments with single-family homes.  The intrusion of apartment buildings prior to World War I was one of the reasons the West End lost its ‘Ward 1″ cachet, and became the ‘bad example’ to be avoided by other neighbourhoods first developed as single family.

As the rich moved on to Shaughnessy, which very explicitly prevented such mixing, the West End began a steady decline, its ‘blight’ to be swept aside by the bylaw introduced in 1956 that allowed for the modern concrete highrise – accompanied by open space for the new residents.

Today, every one of those buildings above would have heritage value, if not designation, and the streetscape would be pointed to by urbanists as a model for the appropriate densification of the city.


UPDATE: There’s a good chance the 1966 view was on the north side of Nelson, opposite Nelson Park, in which case today’s view looks like this:



Just a hunch, but I’d bet the population density of the block in the historic picture is greater than the present one.  In the West End as a whole, the population in 1951 was about 21,000.  Twenty years later, near the end of the highrise era when the housing stock had quintupled, the population was less than 40,000 – it hadn’t even doubled.

What happened?  The West End had uncrowded.

Jane Jacobs made the point that people confuse over-crowded environments with high-density ones.  The first is too many people in inadequate spaces.  But many of the same people may choose a high-density neighbourhood if they can find the kind of accommodation they need and can afford.

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Leave a Reply to Robert WalshCancel Reply

  1. As always, you raise interesting points and a perspective well worth considering. This time you raise some issues that quite surprised me and naturally this inclines me to seek out new information so I can correct my understanding. I am curious to know what documentary evidence there is that the West End was suffering from blight prior to 1956? (The only report I am aware of to address this issue is a 1957 report by Gerald Sutton Brown that concluded blight existed in the East End, and parts of Kitsilano, while the West End was actually fine; archival photos of the West end from this time seem to confirm this, but this may still be incorrect). I am not saying that the view you presented is necessarily incorrect but it did come as a surprise. Also the ground around the bases of the early high rises as near as I can tell was often used for surface parking; it was left over space that seems not to be well used. Had it been set aside for public use that would have been terrific but I just have not seen it. Finally I am curious to know how you concluded the street you portrayed would have been illegal? My reading of the zoning code for the West End was that this was completely fine before 1956 and never became illegal; in 1956 a two tier zoning approach was established with one set of setback rules for structures six stories and less, while another more restrictive set of rules concerning taller structures. (Disentangling these rules is not easy – there were eventually 22 different regulations governing the construction of high rises in the West End and these changed six times from 1956 -1973, contributing to the haphazard appearance of the West End. Midrise however had different rules all along). Calling it illegal is somewhat misleading in another way as well; there is a profound difference between being illegal and not complying with a changed code because zoning codes typically only apply to new construction.
    The exodus of wealthy families to Shaugnessy of course began early in the 20th century. I wonder how much the increasing popularity of Stanley Park played in this? Stanley Park was strategically located upwind of the many timber mills that shrouded portions of Vancouver in soot and smog (especially the East End) and at first the rich families in the West End had managed to treat Stanley Park as their own personal carriage grounds. By 1912 however, it had become so popular as a working class picnic grounds that it was becoming crowded on the weekends. The rich families tried to block the development/improvement of the park for better public access and use but were largely unsuccessful. It’s also important to keep in mind that even though the rich families relocated, in many cases they retained ownership of their West End property, and later, as absentee landlords were perfectly happy to pursue highrise projects that might have been opposed had they still lived in the West End.

  2. Whoops! My bad! A further point of clarification: I now understand that you were talking about this form of development being illegal in most of the city, but not necessarily the West End, and this is a fair point. Most of Vancouver is a low rise semi-suburban sprawl of single family detached houses and so of course anything approaching an actual urban character is going to be illegal; unless this changes. Still it’s an interesting point.