June 7, 2021

Apartments on Side Streets – A Long-time Tradition

Last week, Sun writer Dan Fumano wrote a column that asked:

The idea that apartment buildings should be built along busy commercial arterials — and not on quiet, leafy side streets — is a widely and deeply held belief in Vancouver, but it’s by no means universal.

And it’s certainly not historic.  For most of the city’s existence, apartment buildings (there weren’t a lot, but they were there from the beginning) were built on side streets.

Apartment-district zoning emerged in the 1920s, highrises sprung up in the 1950s, and the arterials stayed commercial – the legacy of the streetcar era.  Many such districts have aged remarkably well, surprising those who thought they would be the ghettoes of the future.

But here’s the point: we never stopped building apartment buildings of all kinds – from four to sixty storeys – on side streets.  We even built side streets to put them on.

Here’s a Google Earth tour of examples from around the region.

Let’s begin with the example from a recent post: Arbutus Gardens, where even one of the side streets – 11th Avenue – was closed off and greened over as a de-facto park for the community:


Arbutus was one of the seven megaprojects from the ’90s.  All the megaprojects had multiple-family dwellings on side streets, mews and, in the most mega of them all, Concord Pacific, the seawall:


Of course they were all comprehensively planned single sites where the opportunity availed itself to build in the tradition of side-street locations.  But the predecessor of them all, the West End was entirely on side streets from the beginning, and then rebuilt in the highrise era of the 1960s:


The West End, a surprisingly low-rise neighbourhood despite its highrise image, was not unique – just the largest of the apartment districts rezoned in the mid-1950s.  Here are two others from some of the most affluent neighbourhoods in the region.  Ambleside in West Van:

And Kerrisdale on either side of 41st, which has hardly a single apartment building on an arterial:


There are other largely low-rise apartment districts, all off arterials, from Marpole to South Granville:


Elsewhere in the region, there were similar development areas from that era that tend to get overlooked, like Lougheed in Burnaby – a transit-oriented community before there was transit:


From the 50s through to today, what we used to call walk-ups, now termed low-rises up to six storeys, were common in almost every municipality.  Here’s an example from Surrey:

And one entirely without highrises in White Rock:


Some municipalities which really didn’t have their own version of a West End are creating one now – notably the City of North Vancouver on either side of Lonsdale:

And of course, Richmond – combos of high, low and townhouse:


Here’s one of the latest examples at UBC – Wesbrook Village:


The use of arterials for apartments is a very recent development, justified by the housing crisis.  The vast majority of apartment buildings are not built on arterials, and still by preference are located on those quiet, leafy avenues we all love.

But as you can see, it was done by zoning at the district level, whether as a conversion from a pre-existing streetcar bungalow neighbourhood, or as an apartment district from the 70s a la Burnaby, or as a late 20th-century megaproject.

The question for Vancouver is really whether we should go back to do what we did from the 1950s and rejected in the 1970s – bulldozing the streetcar fabric house by house to convert from single to multiple-family.  To go back to the higher-density forms which, under the Grand Bargain, allowed whole apartment and highrise districts to be developed, required an understanding that left the ‘single-family’ texture intact on most of the land in the municipality, even when it was an illusion and the homes were really all multiple-family dwellings with lane cottages.  Though unfair, it’s a compact that has worked so far, and the political capital required to overturn it, even for a single apartment building, is very high, often with little return in the way of new housing.

So is it time to think not building by building but zone by zone?  In other words, a return to what, after a lot of bulldozing, produced some of the most successful neighbourhoods in the region – like the Kerrisdale apartment district, three blocks on either side of a transit-oriented commercial high street.

That’s a lot tougher question than asking, as the City is doing here, whether apartments should be built on side streets.

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  1. Yes of course there’s ample precedent for this approach, and yes of course the City should be allowing and encouraging it again. BTW, I live on a side street in one of those transitional residential areas, Mount Pleasant, where I look out of my townhouse windows to a four storey apartment building across the street. It’s a non-issue.

  2. … plus the impact of the unbuilt higher density on property taxes to retail tenants on arterials (apart from the rules leading to that higher taxation).

    What if higher density residential were focussed off the arterials and the commercial-retail arterials were down-zoned, likely lowering property taxes and encouraging commercial retail use in both new and existing commercial buildings?

  3. Noticing all the land assemblies lining Granville Oak and Cambie, o keep wondering if all those apartment dwellers like the noise and pollution found on a busy arterial. Then I think of kids running out the door onto busy streets….It’s convenient for builders, aligning of city service infrastructure and coordinated utility installations , but it’s terrible for lifestyle. We are now getting used to this as the new norm. It’s a good thing people now live between the office, the parking garage and their little boxes amd don’t need fresh air and an calm view out the balcony anymore

  4. All doable .. but NOT cheap anymore as land assemblies .. say of 3-6 SFH lots costs 12-20M AND takes a few years to a decade often .. all to be absorbed into future home prices or rental rates !

    Affordable housing is a thing of the past therefore unless gov heavily subsidizes it and/or relaxes building codes and/or reduces fees, taxes, levies and approval delays !

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