by Don Alexander
and Brendan Hurley
Perhaps we don’t need to completely re-invent the wheel. Vancouver is fortunate in having a number of neighbourhoods that developed in tandem with the early streetcar lines, and which today retain a high degree of mixed land use, convenient public transit access and a high quality pedestrian environment. These neighbourhoods exhibit many of the characteristics that have served as inspiration for new urbanists in their advocacy of neo-traditional neighbourhood design.1 Moreover, they meet many of the urban design criteria set forth in Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), and in James Kunstler’s Home From Nowhere (1998).
One such neighbourhood is that of eastern Kitsilano. Our goal in undertaking a study of a portion of this neighbourhood (Delamont) was three-fold:
We chose as our study area the portion of eastern Kitsilano (“Kits” as it is affectionately known by residents) bounded by Balsam in the west, Burrard in the east, 4th Avenue in the north, and Broadway in the south (see Figure 6). The area is bisected by the currently unused Arbutus rail corridor owned by Canadian Pacific Railway, and designated by the City as a future transit and greenway area (see Figure 1).2 At present, there are community gardens on the south side of the tracks from Burrard to Maple Street, and in two vacant lots next to a daycare centre on 6th Avenue on the west side of Maple. Just north of the corridor, on Maple, one finds the headquarters of the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation (SPEC), Canada’s oldest environmental organization.
1 See Peter Calthorpe and William Fulton, The Regional City (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2001); Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation (New York: North Point Press, 2000).
2 SPEC (see below) recently sponsored a competition on how the corridor could best be utilized. For more information, see http://www.spec.bc.ca/ArbutusCorridor/.
3 For more on this store, see Robin Brunet, “Cornering the Market,” Vancouver Courier, 12 July 2000: 1, 4-5.
Adjacent to SPEC are the City Farmer demonstration gardens. In addition, the alley east of Maple also boasts one of the City’s first “country lanes” – a grassed and permeable surface with only two tracks for tires.
In the course of our research, we gave more detailed attention to a smaller area with the same east, north, and southern boundaries, but with the western boundary set at Arbutus Street. This area is known, at least to some residents and heritage enthusiasts, as “Delamont4.” It is also the lead author’s home (see Figure 6).
4 At its heart is Delamont Park, and it is also served by a Delamont Postal Station on Broadway. The area is named after Arthur Delamont, the former conductor of the Kitsilano Boys’ Band.
The study area is bounded on the north and south by two commercial “high streets” – 4th and Broadway – which feature an astonishing array of retail, office, medical, and restaurant establishments. The south side of Broadway at Maple features a liquor store and IGA grocery store, and the north side of 4th at Vine features a Safeway, with a Shopper’s Drug Mart across the street, and a Caper’s health food Store to the east. The area is also served by Kitsilano Neighbourhood House at the corner of Vine and 7th (see Figure 3).
The area is largely zoned as RM-4 (see Figure 6), which
means that 3-storey apartments – some rental, and some condominium
– are dominant on most of the blocks5. Some large single-family houses
remain and are often broken into rental suites. In addition to these two
housing forms, there is a large five-storey MapleCrest apartment complex
with 102 units, built by the Shalom Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion
in 1977, between 6th and 7th, that has its entrance on Maple.
5 RM-4 is described by the City as permitting “medium density residential development, including a variety of multiple dwelling types, to encourage the retention of existing buildings and good design, and to achieve a number of community and social objectives through permitted increases in floor area.” City of Vancouver, “City of Vancouver Zoning Districts” (Vancouver: Community Services Group, Planning Department, City of Vancouver, December 1997), p. 1.
Street and which serves as a residential complex for seniors6. These units – some rental and some owned – are subsidized at below market rates.
These blocks were acquired in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and were originally intended for demolition to accommodate the Burrard-Arbutus Connector to facilitate the movement of commuter traffic in and out of the downtown core. Moreover, Delamont Park, which sits on an awkwardly shaped parcel, between 6th Avenue and 7th Avenues, was to have been enlarged to accommodate the anticipated growth in population, especially as Kitsilano Beach, several blocks to the north, reached capacity.
6 Originally proposed as a tower, neighbourhood opposition resulted in a change in its form. To compensate for the loss of units, the City agreed to forfeit part of the right-of-way and deed it to the Legion, thus creating the narrow pedestrian cut-through. Shlomo Hasson and David Ley, Neighbourhood Organizations and the Welfare State (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994); Jeannette Hlavach, personal communication, 13 September 2004.
However, opposition by residents and heritage activists has prevented demolition from occurring, and the houses continue to be leased out to a stable population of long-term renters7. The City also owns most of the houses on the south side of 5th Avenue between Maple and Cypress8.
7 Allison Delosky, personal communication, 20 August 2004; Jeannette Hlavach, personal communication, 13 September 2004.
8 A row of decrepit, but historically important, railway workers’ houses further east on 5th was demolished in 1999 and the land sold off to Polygon Ltd. to construct a large ostentatious condominium complex that now covers most of the block. For background information on this parcel, see Ivan Bulic, “There Goes the Neighbourhood,” Vancouver Courier, 4 March 1998: 1-4, 5; Gudrun Will, “Development Spares Heritage, Spoils View,” Vancouver Courier, 6 January 1999: 13; City of Vancouver, “Tender Package for Multi-Family Residential Development Site, etc.” (Vancouver: Corporate Services Group, Real Estate Services, City of Vancouver, n.d. [1997-1998]).
How We Approached the Research
Our research proceeded through two phases. In the first phase, we catalogued the physical features of the neighbourhood and traced the historical and sociological factors that had originated and affected them. In the second, we interviewed 100 residents and business owners as to their views on the neighbourhood’s quality of life, and compared these to widely accepted normative standards of urban design to see where they overlapped. After conducting this analysis, we proceeded to analyze the lessons for new neighbourhoods in development, be they in a greenfield or brownfield context.
We initially gave a general analysis of the neighbourhood in terms of seven categories:
Briefly, the neighbourhood is readily walkable and the blocks (175 metres by 100 metres), while perhaps slightly long, permit easy passage. Lot sizes are varied, ranging from 25 to 66 feet. The neighbourhood has a representative array of streets, from 33 metre boulevards to 4.5 metre blockcuts, enabling it to serve a variety of traffic needs from speeding traffic to elderly people with walkers, while also providing access to various land uses and providing pedestrians with a variety of urban experiences. Two of these boulevards contain auto-oriented retail, while a third commercial street provides the bulk of the local-serving commercial activity, with some destination shops.
The most unusual feature of the neighbourhood is the disused rail corridor which snakes through its breadth, bisecting the street pattern at a curving angle. The corridor is used by pedestrians and cyclists, is largely overgrown with vegetation, and is bordered in parts by community gardens.
The neighbourhood, for the most part, has views of the north shore mountains down its north-south streets. It has few landmarks, except for a stately
9 This framework is largely derived from the work of Lewis Villegas, Vancouver-based urban designer.
Catholic Church, and some rather unremarkable buildings that are mainly noteworthy for their historical or political significance. Apart from the park, which is used mainly as a play space by supervised children and as a hangout for the homeless (albeit in a different part), there are few neighbourhood focal points, and no physical plazas. The community gardens bring one community of interest together, and a few cafés serve as local “third places10.”
The neighbourhood excels in its mix of land uses. In a compact area, it contains a diversity of residential and commercial uses, including groceries, drug stores, restaurants, health and beauty services, and cultural and recreation. It has a community centre, an environmental centre, and an “ethnic” hall that is available for special events. And all of these things can be accessed within a five minute walk. It is also adjacent to a light industrial precinct which potentially provides jobs. Many of the buildings in the neighbourhood are also adaptable for a change in future use.
While there are two tall office buildings and a couple of taller apartment blocks, most of the buildings are no taller than four storeys. Yet the intensity of use and density of residents is four and half times the city average. Thus, Delamont is
10 This term is derived from Ray Oldenberg, who uses it to refer to places, not home or work-related, where potential social activity occurs. See Ray Oldenberg, The Great Good Place (New York: Paragon House, 1989).
11Many of the commercial buildings on the main streets are only one or two storeys, and could easily support another two to three storeys of housing.
“medium-density ground-oriented” in character. It provides human scale while using land relatively efficiently.
The building types are quite diverse by usual North American standards. Housing tends to consist of three-storey medium-rise apartment buildings and large traditional houses, often broken into a number of suites, along with some townhomes and rowhouses. Housing units are rental, owner-occupied, co-op, and socially assisted. Retail and office buildings also take a considerable variety of forms. This lends the structures adaptability for future changes in use.
The neighbourhood has a very healthy retail base, and a growing condominium market, accommodated through conversions of rental structures or through demolition and redevelopment. The main economic challenges are how to preserve the relatively affordable rental housing, some of it in City-owned heritage houses, and to make it feasible for developers to tastefully and sensitively introduce incremental changes that preserve the sense of place. Also, certain amenities are needed and the City does not have the resources to address these at present.
The waterfront portion to the north of the study area was occupied by Squamish people prior to their being confined to a reserve, and then disenfranchised altogether. The neighbourhood, in its current form, had its origins in the survey conducted by L.A. Hamilton of the Canadian Pacific Railway when it was given the land as part of a larger land grant, in exchange for agreeing to locate the terminus of the national railway in the emerging settlement of Vancouver in 1886. The first residential development occurred in the late 1800s north of the study area near the water, and then streetcar service was developed along Granville (three long blocks to the east of the eastern boundary), and later to 4th Avenue in the first decade of the 20th century. This spurred the development of transit-oriented housing and a commercial node at 4th and Yew12.
12 For more on the overall history of Kitsilano, see Michael Kluckner, Vancouver: The Way It Was (North Vancouver, BC: Whitecap Books, 1984).
The key event that triggered the evolution of the past fifty years was the City’s decision to rezone the West End and Kitsilano neighbourhoods for apartment buildings and high-rises in 1956, with height allowances of up to 120 feet13. The intent was to provide housing for downtown commuters and, more importantly, more customers for downtown businesses.
High-rises began cropping up in the West End, but 3 to 4-storey mid-rise apartments were the main fruit of the by-law change on the east side of Kitsilano14. The attempt at inserting high-rises didn’t come until later.
Because of the possibility of making money on higher-density buildings, many property owners and investors began to speculate in the wider neighbourhood, assembling lots and renting the houses for low rents in anticipation of demolition15. It was the stock of low-cost housing that began to attract people on welfare and counter-culturalists to the area. Indeed, as early as the late 1950s, the Planning Department began to view parts of Kitsilano as “blighted” and as candidates for urban renewal16.
Developers began to demolish houses, replacing them with mid-rise apartments on a significant scale – especially in the study area – beginning in the 1960s. Aided by the federal Multi-Unit Residential Building (MURB) and Canadian Rental Supply (CRISP) programs, which provided tax incentives to developers,
13 John Punter, The Vancouver Achievement: Urban Planning and Design (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2003).
14 Jeannette Hlavach, personal communication, 13 September 2004.
15Ibid.; Donald Gutstein, Vancouver Ltd. (Toronto: James Lorimer and Co.).
16 City of Vancouver, Vancouver Redevelopment Study (Vancouver: Planning Department, 1957).
even more got built in the 1970s. While there was some opposition to this, many residents and even ratepayers’ groups saw the demolitions as an improvement as the old houses were viewed as somewhat decrepit, and the passion for heritage had not yet fully caught on17.
In 1974, Kitsilano launched a Local Area Planning (LAP) program under the new TEAM council, the first of its kind in the city. It was twinned with the federal government’s Neighbourhood Improvement Program (NIP) which, in turn, was a response to the unpopularity of past efforts of “ground zero” urban renewal. NIP offered cities $3.00 for every $1.00 they spent on neighbourhod improvement. The budget for Kitsilano, which received a relatively large proportion of the NIP dollars city-wide, was $1.2 million18.
By the time the LAP process was underway, emotions in Kitsilano and the study area were white-hot. High-rises had begun to go in north of 4th Avenue, but were soon halted after citizen opposition led to down-zoning of the area. Other high-rises were proposed to the south, and many character homes were being demolished to make way for boxy apartments. On Broadway, proposals to create a mall and a large parking lot were being met with hostility by the West Broadway Citizens’ Coalition.
In addition, a radical tenants’ organization, Renters United to Save Housing (RUSH) was battling against the demolition or conversion of low-cost units, while others opposed plans to carry out the Burrard-Arbutus Connector, an arterial link in a 1950s freeway plan which was still clinging to life on city engineers’ desks. The provincial government’s effort at grassroots democracy, Local Resource Boards, were part of the mix, and residents generally were battling for beautification projects and better community amenities19.
The planners who came into this politically charged atmosphere were young, creative, and idealistic20. Working closely with the community, while still taking their share of knocks, the planners were able to help facilitate the achievement of many of the neighbourhood’s objectives. While many low-cost housing units were lost, many social housing or co-op units were built with money from NIP or the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. A parallel program, the Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Program (RRAP), assisted homeowners in converting single-family houses into suites. In addition, changes in the zoning permitted developers an increase from three storeys to four in exchange for ensuring that 20% of the units were affordable for people with low-incomes.
17 Allison Delosky, personal communication, 20 August 2004; Jeannette Hlavach, personal communication, 13 September 2004.
18 Jeannette Hlavach, personal communication, 13 September 2004.
19 Ibid., Gutstein, Vancouver Ltd.; Hasson and Ley, Neighbourhood Organizations.
20 Jeannette Hlavach, personal communication, 13 September 2004.
Community facilities were provided, and design guidelines were put in place to help safeguard the neighbourhood’s character. These proved to be more successful in the area north of 4th than south, as most of the apartment buildings whose morphology the guidelines would have aided, had mostly already been built. The NIP/ LAP also assisted with launching the first community gardens21.
Delamont Park, the first city park to be named after a living person, was also created in this time period, and named after Arthur Delamont, the conductor of the Kitsilano Boys’ Band. Efforts to further expand the park were opposed by residents.
Other, more imaginative, ideas, such as the fountain adjacent to Kits Neighbourhood House, have not yet seen the light of day22.
By 1977, a neighbourhood plan was in place that was far more sensitive to citizen sentiments and the needs of the neighbourhood than would ever have been possible under the old pro-developer city council dominated by the Non-Partisan Association (NPA). However, just as this was coming to fruition, a new phenomenon was beginning to come on the scene: the condominium craze. While it took a while for consumers to get their minds around the idea of owning a unit in a collectively owned and managed building, by the late 1970s the first wave of conversions – from rental to condos – was already beginning to occur, and this would pick up steam through the subsequent decades. However, Delamont was less affected than other parts of Kitsilano, as evidenced by the fact that 75% of all units are still rental.
Another key development episode was the redevelopment of the Plimley Motors site on the north side of 4th Avenue between Vine and Yew in the early 1990s. Developed into what is now known (after its flagship store) as the Caper’s block, this area has become a focal point for the neighbourhood and has encouraged significant gentrification, especially in the retail sector. The courtyard to
the anchor health food store has become a significant neighbourhood “agora,” with tables and chairs and a large bulletin board.
The neighbourhood has gone through a series of demographic shifts – from a population of stable working class and lower middle class families living in single family homes, to immigrant families, to transients and hippies, to young professionals and gentrifiers23. Each has brought its own set of concerns, and its own flavour to the area.
Each group has come to appreciate what the neighbourhood has to offer and they, in turn, have defended it against inappropriate forms of development. Once in place, each group has fought to preserve its own vision – whether excluding industry and resorts (as in the case of the Kits Point residents outside the study area late in the 19th century), excluding high-rises, fighting for the preservation of affordable housing and heritage buildings, or safeguarding neighbourhood supermarkets in imminent danger of redevelopment.
While they have not always been successful, they have achieved the preservation of some of its key attributes. And, in this, they have been aided by increasingly enlightened planners beginning in the more participatory era of The Electors’ Action Movement (TEAM) city administration of the 1970s.
The city councillors and planners, in turn, have gone from being agents for the development and real estate industries to midwives, up to a point, of community values and process, though the democratic heyday of the 1970s has long since past. Even the federal government has, at times, played a key role by providing the incentives that have made possible affordable housing and community upgrading in the area possible. Today, Delamont stands at the crossroads. As the recent conflict over Home Depot amply showed, the neighbourhood is in need of redefinition, and needs to create a vision for its future before that future is defined for it by a combination of market and political forces.
What we can see from the foregoing narrative is that all of these groups and institutions have helped shape the neighbourhood over the last 100 years. Its initial shape was given by Canadian Pacific Railway through the Hamilton survey and the subsequent corporate desire to make money in the real estate business. The role of developers and speculators again picked up in the 1960s, reaching a frenzy in the ‘70s, which produced a citizens’ backlash. The most recent major manifestation was the proposal to convert the IGA block just across Broadway from the study area into a mixed use Home Depot, assorted retail, and condo development. This was opposed by the community which, in the end, was successful.
Delamont and environs is a neighbourhood that remains imprinted by its origins as a streetcar suburb. Laid out in a series of relatively human scale blocks
23 In some cases, the hippies of yesteryear have become the well-to-do professionals of today and have gone on to buy homes in the neighbourhood, rather than rent them.
between what would become transit lines and commercial streets, it attracted first working class and lower middle class families working in the industrial and downtown office sectors, then hippies as the housing aged, and finally yuppies and young singles in what has matured into a vibrant and exciting neighbourhood.
Our survey of the neighbourhood revealed five most favourite and five least favourite features of the neighbourhood. The most favourite were:
The summary statement that sums it up the best is that the area is like a “village in the middle of the big city.” This has not only kept long-term residents in place; it has attracted new residents drawn by its character.
The least favourite attributes, as reported by far fewer people, were:
We then compared the reported statements for the surveys with accepted normative criteria offered by urban designers. These are:
Character- This was not something people commented on directly very much, but underlying their sense of comfort with the neighbourhood – and this is corroborated by other discussions with residents – is the informal and historical feeling that the area has, and the fact that it has “jelled” over a period of many decades as a result of the work of many hands. The intrusion of nature through the rail corridor and the community gardens also helps to soften and “roughen” the edges of the neighbourhood and give it more texture.
Continuity and Enclosure- People generally reported that they feel safe in the neighbourhood. This is aided by the fact that there is a relatively unbroken streetwall on the residential streets that allows for “eyes on the street.” The proportions of the buildings to the street widths are such that people feel sheltered and the spaces feel human in their scale.
Quality of the Public Realm- Apart from the streets – which seem to work well for people of all levels of ability – the public spaces and “third places” in the neighbourhood are quite informal. There are few obvious focal points, and only one neighbourhood park though others are nearby. The absence of plazas or squares might be more sorely missed in a more collectively-oriented culture. However, when the idea of creating a plaza is introduced, people often raise the spectre of providing more lounging areas for transients. The case for the benefits of such public places clearly needs to be made, and the focality of existing spaces needs to be heightened through community festivals and performances.
Ease of Movement- Residents clearly appreciate the ease with which they can traverse the neighbourhood. However, there are still complaints about the presence of cars. Traffic circles, and one cut-through, have been introduced to calm traffic, but more could be done. Transit is available on the two commercial streets (only five blocks apart). Service is adequate, but could be improved.
Legibility- The neighbourhood has a distinct “feel” and people’s comments indicate that they sense this. Moreover, being based mainly on a grid, it is easily understood and navigated. However, the legibility is not provided by major landmarks – though the heritage houses on 6th and the bright blue SPEC building – do provide important markers. Rather, it is given by the unusual rail corridor, and the community gardens that line it for two and a half blocks. The points where the rail corridor enter the neighbourhood from the arterial roads provide informal “gateways” into the area.
Adaptability- The survey comments did not touch directly on adaptability. However, the fact that change in the neighbourhood has been relatively gentle and gradual – and that a number of old buildings have been retained and re-used – help foster a
24 The source of these criteria is the Commission on Architecture and the Built Environment, The Councillors’ Guide to Urban Design (n.p., UK: CABE, n.d.). In their original version they contain various subheadings and more nuances than can be reported here.
detectable sense of comfort, one that is threatened by recent proposals for major broad scale change, such as the Home Depot development. Generally, people liked that a lot of the old shops have survived; unfortunately, a number of these have succombed in the last couple of years.
Diversity- People’s ability to speak to the architectural diversity and quality in the neighbourhood was limited. However, they expressed appreciation for the social diversity of the residents (mainly age and income-related), the cultural diversity of restaurants and shop owners, and the general diversity of the built environment and open spaces of the area.
Our feeling is that people are sensing and appreciating many things that they have an inadequate language to express. This suggests the value of enhancing popular “place literacy,” so that people can articulate what they like and don’t like and become effective advocates for the values that flow from such heightened perceptions. One way to do this is to encourage practitioners in the design professions to develop theoretical and policy frameworks that reflect more the perceptions and concerns of residents and users of neighbourhoods. Another is to develop tools whereby residents can analyze, and act to improve, their neighbourhoods on their own.
Our recommendations for other neighbourhoods in development, based on the virtues of this particular “organic” streetcar suburb are:
In conclusion, before we convert our cities to uniform tracts of suburban housing or to forests of high rises, we should “go back to the future” and consider the virtues of an old streetcar suburb that combines urbanity with respect for the varied needs of human beings.
25 It would also be helpful if the federal government got back into the neighbourhood renovation game.
Brunet, Robin. “Cornering the Market,” Vancouver Courier, 12 July 2000: 1, 4-5.Bulic, Ivan. “There Goes the Neighbourhood,” Vancouver Courier, 4 March 1998: 1- 4, 5.
Calthorpe, Peter and William Fulton, The Regional City. Washington, DC:
Island Press, 2001.
City of Vancouver, “City of Vancouver Zoning Districts.”
City of Vancouver. Vancouver Redevelopment Study. Vancouver: Planning
Commission on Architecture and the Built Environment, The Councillors’ Guide to Urban Design. n.p., UK: CABE, n.d.
Delosky, Allison (long-time neighbourhood resident) personal communication, 20 August 2004.
Duany, Andres, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation.
Gutstein, Donald. Vancouver Ltd. Toronto: James Lorimer and Co.
Hasson Shlomo, and David Ley, Neighbourhood Organizations and the Welfare
Hlavach, Jeannette (former planner, City of Vancouver), personal communication,
Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York:
Kluckner, Michael. Vancouver: The Way It Was. North Vancouver, BC:
Kunstler, James Howard. Home From Nowhere. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.
Oldenberg, Ray. The Great Good Place. New York: Paragon House, 1989.
Punter, John. The Vancouver Achievement: Urban Planning and Design.
Will, Gudrun. “Development Spares Heritage, Spoils View,”
Vancouver Courier, 6 January 1999: 13.