The area between Burrard and Homer Streets, south of Smithe was a low-scale semi-industrial neighbourhood of automobile repair shops, luggage stores, printing firms and the like when the City announced in the 1970s a major zoning change to encourage the construction of a high density residential neighbourhood. At first the development was slow to materialize but the announcement of the 1986 World’s Fair, Expo 86, held on the north shore of False Creek renewed interest in downtown development and was further piqued by the sale of the fairgrounds as one piece of property to just one developer.
For Downtown South the City developed detailed design guidelines with the aim of recreating pedestrian friendly residential streets downtown, and with that in mind they specified that developments would follow a tower, townhouse and courtyard model of a consistent 30 foot street wall of townhouses combined with a tower and private courtyards/gardens away from the street. To further control the livability of the neighbourhood each development would have a minimum frontage of 150′ ensuring only two towers per block which would have to fit into existing view protection corridors and shadowing constraints. On the street this has resulted in a pedestrian scaled neighbourhood not dissimilar to parts of Georgian London.
One important part of the planning for the downtown peninsula’s increased residential population has been the provision of new park space. Paid for by funds collected through a system of development cost levies, which also help pay for such things as community centres, sidewalks and trees, new parks were initially determined by the simple formula of 2.75 acres per 1000 people.
Emery Barnes Park at the corner of Richards and Davie is named for the late community activist, professional athlete (he played for both the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and the BC Lions) and member of the British Columbia Legislature for 25 years, offers a welcome respite in this fast growing neighbourhood. Opened in 2003 it is one of three new parks planned for the area. A second phase of the park opened along Seymour Street a few years later.
Start at Emery Barnes Park, at Richards and Davie. Walk south on Richards Street to Drake. Turn west and walk to Granville Street.
On the southeast corner of Richards and Davie the former Canadian Linen Laundry Company’s plant (built in 1929 to Townley and Matheson’s design) has been converted into a supermarket. This heritage building was easily converted with little change to much of the original fabric; even the plant’s smoke stack survives on the lane. A condominium tower was part of the 1999 project, and the design (by Stuart Howard) picks up on the laundry’s subtle Art Deco. The Deco style has also influenced the Foad Raffi’s Eden project for Bosa Developments across the street, which picks up the laundry’s scale and design themes for the corner retail block.
At the far end of the block at Drake the Grace Tower and its much smaller (earlier) cousin make use of a fantasy Gothic style that’s been mixed with a few Art Nouveau and Islamic influences along the way for a complete departure for this neighbourhood. James Schouw the developer was also responsible for the Iliad on Homer Street.
To the south you can see the intriguing spiral top of Hewitt & Kwasnicky’s ‘501’ residential tower. Their signature black-painted pointed balconies can also be seen on their Brava tower, across Emery Barnes Park. The large hole in the ground on the corner of Richards and Drake is where two developers, Onni and Wall, are each building 43 storey towers, both designed by local architects Dialog (formerly Hotson Bakker). One tower will be rental; the other has rental in the podium and condos in the tower as well as a childcare centre on top of the podium.
There are two recent non-market buildings here, both run by the Mennonite ‘More Than a Roof’ group. Kindred Place, the 12 storey building on Richards and Karis Place on Seymour have nearly 200 units of housing built by BC Housing on land owned by the City of Vancouver in 2009 and 2011. Both were designed by Neale Staniszkis Doll Adams. Beyond Karis Place is The Mark, a 41 storey tower also designed by Dialog, with a childcare on the roof of the podium. Construction was complicated because the horizontal tie rods for the basement parking excavation had to miss the geothermal heating system on the non-market building.
At Drake, walk one block west to Seymour
In the early 1990s there was some concern about the lack of new rental construction in the city and as a result the City allowed a developer to experiment with a building containing apartments averaging just 345 square feet in size. Shoe-horned into an available site next to the Granville Street Bridge the building at 600 Drake was considered a success but it didn’t spark enough interest for the experiment to be repeated until much more recently.
In the Downtown South area there was few surviving heritage buildings to begin with and development has certainly hastened the demise of many possible candidates for the heritage list. One small structure, formerly a tire company’s show room and offices, at the northwest corner of Drake and Seymour has been preserved as part of the Elan project on Seymour. For buildings like this a transfer of density is often the only way to save them. The amount of density needed to restore the heritage building is calculated and either added to another part of the site or transferred to a bank where it can be purchased and used elsewhere on a suitable site. A good example of how this process works was the deal to save the Stanley Theatre on Granville Street by having the theatre’s unused density transferred to the Sheraton Wall Centre on Burrard.
Further up Drake at Granville the Yale Hotel has seen something similar. The hotel has been restored and seismically upgraded, and the SRO rooms have been handed to the city. They lease them at welfare rates through a non-profit operator. Next door a condo tower, The Rolston with striking red details, designed by IBI has contributed the cost of the upgrades to The Yale. The Yale was one of the first permanent structures at this end of Granville Street. Completed in 1890 it was built to serve travelers coming into the city from the south over the newly constructed Granville Street bridge. A few years after that a number of hotels were constructed along the street most of them designed to very similar designs by Parr and Fee.
There’s a new building across the street from the Yale, Neon, one of the new rental buildings encouraged by the City Council, with no requirement to pay the usual development levies and with significantly reduced parking requirements in exchange for a guaranteed rental use for the life of the building. The ‘loops’ which join onto Granville are intended to be removed and replaced with more normal street connections which will free up space for two more towers here, one likely to have a significant non-market component (as it’s City-owned land).
Walk up Granville to Davie and turn west (left) and walk to Hornby
After a period of decline Granville Street is beginning to find new life with the increased residential population in the surrounding streets. In planning for the area the density of Granville was kept lower than the surrounding blocks, partially to provide a respite from the towers but also in part to preserve the built form of the street and to prevent the quick redevelopment of the older, and now, residential hotels. On Granville between Drake and Davie two new contextual buildings have been added to the west side of the street. Candela Place (1267 Granville) is social housing, The Lex to the north provides market rental, while the Granville Residence (1261 Granville), sandwiched between, is an existing non-market hotel owned by the City of Vancouver which has received a new facade and other improvements.
On the northwest corner of Davie and Granville a former Royal Bank branch has been turned into a Chinese restaurant. These spare, streamlined buildings appeared across Canada in the 1940s and 50s. Each of the major banks had a distinctive style for their branches and throughout the 1920s and 30s the Bank of Nova Scotia used a stripped down classical motif for their branches. Across the street from the Royal Bank’s former branch the former Bank of Nova Scotia has been chopped up and reconstituted into an awkward composition by Arthur Erickson for the Dance Centre: sometimes demolition might be a kinder option. The Royal Bank and the tired buildings beyond it will soon be replaced with a 7-storey residential building with new retail units on both streets.
Before heading west on Davie, with the loosening of the sign bylaw you can see that Granville Street is beginning to recapture some of the ambience it used to have – though it will never reach the spectacular excess of the 1950s again.
To the east of (at Drake and Howe), there’s a new condo tower called Tate being built replacing a 1960s office building (last used as a nightclub) that hid one of the few surviving turn-of-the-20th-century homes left in this part of Downtown. Next door the green-detailed building is another new non-market building, built by BC Housing on city land, in this case designed by GBL and run by the McLaren Housing Society. The new condo building on the corner, Alto, by Howard Bingham Hill replaced a gas station.
Where Davie crosses Hornby, the red brick 1190 Hornby office building sits on the site of the Elsho Apartments and the Central Dairy. It is an early example of a building able to access additional density in return for providing community amenity space, in this case for the Canadian Music Centre and the Vancouver New Music Society. This policy has enabled a number of arts organizations to acquire space for their programs they might never have been able to afford. The building’s brick exterior is the result of a former director of planning for the City of Vancouver desire to see more brick used in the city. You can walk through the downtown and discover a number of these buildings all dating from the mid 1980s. London Place across Hornby is another example. Designed in the 1980s as a mixed use building with offices on the lower floors and residential units above, the building has now been converted completely to living space. It’s been the fate for a number of similar buildings in the downtown.
Continue up to Davie and turn right (north) at Burrard, and walk to Helmcken
Looking east down Hornby you will soon see three new towers; the tallest at Drake Street at 53 storeys, then reducing in height to around 25 floors on the corner of Davie (where the 7-11 stands today).
Near the corner of Davie and Burrard you can see the Milano condominiums on the southwest side of Burrard where it presents a straight forward facade to the street while the rear is cut away and all glass. Across the street the modest scaled Altadena is actually built on the partially completed frame of a failed office project.North on Burrard, St Paul’s Hospital takes up the block between the lane and Comox Street. The hospital was established by the Sisters of Providence on the outside of town in 1894. The Mission Revival buildings fronting Burrard Street were designed by Gardner and Mercer in the 1930s, further expansion went along Comox Street in the 1940s and south on Burrard with a forgettable 1980s structure.In 2005 the hospital completed an extensive restoration of the brick and terra cotta and if you look closely you can see a variety of stainless steel anchors that’s hoped might hold the terra cotta in place during an earthquake.
The recent decision to relocate the hospital means it will see dramatic transformation. It’s likely some of the heritage facade might be incorporated into a new use – perhaps a hotel – but there will undoubtedly be several new residential towers around the back and sides of the block. There’s a viewcone over the site which means they won’t be especially tall.
Across the street from the hospital the Burrard Inn (until recently the Burrard Motor Inn) is one of a number of downtown motels that could once be found on the southern edge of the peninsula. In this design the neon sign is part of the building’s architecture as the neon tubes run into the embossed patterns in the concrete. The original paint scheme for the motel was quite exuberant and was in complete contrast to the “tasteful” gray seen to day. Recent renovations have successfully created new retail spaces in the ground floor place of the original coffee shop.
The Wall Centre development built on the site of the Dawson and King George High Schools occupies the block between Helmcken and Nelson and if you haven’t done so already it’s worth taking the time to walk through the development.
Walk east on Helmcken to Seymour
Just in from Helmcken on the west side of Hornby, the Murray Hotel with its Romanesque facade would have certainly stood out on the block then still filled with wood frame houses. Next door there’s another new condo tower being built – Addition – designed by Henriquez Architects. As part of the project the Murray is getting a facade restoration, but will remain an SRO hotel
On the northwest corner of Howe is another of the mid-80s brick office buildings, this one showing an early example of bonused space for a cultural facility – in this case the Pacific Cinematheque art cinema. On the opposite corner the neo-gothic Victoria is a residential/office strata building from the office of Paul Merrick. The Victoria shares a number of design elements his larger Cathedral Place on Georgia Street and the City Square mall at 12th and Cambie.
At Granville the former 5-storey brick offices of the British American Insurance Company built in 1913 on the northeast corner have been carefully renovated to become an AIDS hospice. And across the lane on Seymour the City of Vancouver constructed the New Continental residence which is also home to the Gathering Place which offers downtown residents a place to do laundry, buy cheap meals, and participate in a number of activities.
There’s another construction site here – in fact there are two. Next to the Brava towers is a 50 foot lot which will see 40 condos in an 8-storey building. On the corner 50 foot lot there will be a 15 storey office and non-market housing building for the Positive Living Society of BC, being built and paid for by Wall in exchange for the additional height allowed on one of the two 43 storey towers on Richards Street. Both buildings are designed by Endall Elliot.
Farther south on Seymour is the Brava, a condominium development and home to the Vancouver International Film Festival. Here again the developer built the Festival’s facilities which include offices and a state of the art theatre, in exchange for additional density on the site.
On the southeast corner of Helmcken and Seymour is the Brookland, an apartment house built before the First World War by the Lightheart brothers who built a number of elegant apartment buildings throughout the West End. The Brookland is now managed by a non-profit association.
Next door is a failing 30 year old 3-storey 80 unit non-market housing building called Jubilee House.
The new 13 storey building across the street, designed by GBL, will allow all the tenants to move to new units, and there are 82 more units in the building. The developer, Brenhill, is paying for the new building, and in exchange will develop a 35 storey tower on the Jubilee House site. A Supreme Court decision brought by a group of local residents halted construction at ground level in February 2015, but the Court of Appeal upheld the city’s position in May 2015 and construction on the non-market building restarted. The tower can’t be built until the tenants are re-housed. The tower will have a school in the base and both market rental and condo units.