Vancouver heritage advocate Bruce Macdonald isn’t a professional historian, but few can match his knowledge of the city’s past. Standing on a sidewalk overlooking Kitsilano Beach on May 1, Macdonald demonstrated his remarkable recall in front of an audience of about 20 people who had decided to join him on a walking tour of the neighbourhood.
It was part of a Think City event called Jane’s Walk, a series of walks in neighbourhoods across Metro Vancouver. The annual event is held in memory of Toronto urban-affairs activist and writer Jane Jacobs, who died in 2006.
Macdonald said that Jacobs often emphasized the importance of designing cities on a human scale, for people rather than for cars. As an example, he cited her preference for shorter city blocks, which create more pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods, as opposed to long city blocks, which work better for motor vehicles.
Jacobs also advocated mixed-use areas and the retention of old buildings, because, Macdonald said, the owners have usually paid off their mortgages, reducing the motivation to jack up rents and resulting in more affordable housing.
“They provide a place for young people who have energy, good ideas, and hardly any money,” he noted. “It’s a place for those people to do interesting things, like start a business, be creative, or just write or paint or do something that they’re motivated to do but that doesn’t take a lot of money.”
Before Macdonald began his tour, he pointed across the water to the West End and explained that it was called the “coal peninsula” about 150 years ago. Coal was discovered in the area just after the middle of the 19th century, which led elite members of B.C. society to start grabbing as much land as they could by the Kitsilano waterfront.
Coal was never mined in any great quantity, and by the turn of the 20th century, the wealthy people had established themselves at the top of the hill overlooking the ocean. Some of the most desirable real estate of the era was along Arbutus Street, near West 6th Avenue, thanks to the spectacular views.
At this point, Macdonald indicated a nearby house built by a wealthy lumberman named John Boyd.
“Some of the biggest trees in the world grew on this side of Vancouver,” Macdonald said. “The most accessible timber in the whole of British Columbia was here, because the land is flat. The skid road made it easy to slide the logs down the hill.”
This is the area that Macdonald calls “Kitsilano’s Mole Hill”. Like the West End neighbourhood of this name, it’s home to numerous old rental houses owned by the city.
Many of these were bought by the municipal government during the freeway-building era of the 1960s and early 1970s. After Vancouverites asserted their opposition to having an expressway in their city, municipal staff proposed a large park named after Arthur Delamont, founder of the Kitsilano Boys Band.
According to Macdonald, residents have always resisted attempts to demolish houses in the neighbourhood, many of which retain their heritage value.
As the tour reached West 7th Avenue, just east of Arbutus Street, Macdonald pointed to two homes that were built in 1901. Another house on the block was built in the 1920s. Further along was an old home that was once used as a set in an Angelina Jolie movie.
“The movie people always pick up on the unique things,” Macdonald said.
According to John Breckner, an associate director in Vancouver’s real-estate services division, the city owns 20 single-family houses, one duplex, and one commercial property in the blocks bounded by Arbutus and Maple streets, and West 5th and West 7th avenues.
He told the Georgia Straight by phone that his department manages the properties on behalf of the park board, adding that the area is zoned for multifamily development.
“The maintenance is certainly becoming a bit of an issue there, with the fact that the properties are aging,” Breckner said. “I would like to see Parks decide what they would like to do with the property.”
How satisfied are you with the City of Vancouver’s efforts to preserve heritage buildings?
“I am quite satisfied with the city’s efforts to preserve our heritage buildings. I work in Chinatown and am very committed to this neighbourhood. I think the city has been very supportive of us trying to preserve our historic buildings in Chinatown. I used to sit on the heritage committee back in the ’90s and then I was with the Chinatown Historic Area Planning Committee, and I have found the city to be very receptive to the views of these organizations.”
“Sometimes the rules and codes are so onerous that people end up preserving almost nothing. When they try to fix up an old building, the old building ends up being new. Double-glazed windows, rain screening—which means new siding—means that there is really not that much left of the old building anymore. To somebody who can’t tell the difference, they may look old. But in terms of a broader conservation strategy, there is not much conservation going on at all.”
“I can’t give a blanket answer. It has been a long time that they have neglected a lot of the buildings, because we have had a developer’s mentality. Since the ’50s, it has been wrecking-ball madness with a lot of developers. On the flip side of the coin, we live in a peninsula and some of them were just inadequate for what was needed. So some of them had to be torn down and rebuilt. So it is a mixed bag.”
“I think the city is doing a very good job right now. The city has incentives that help people bring their property back to its glory and to also make them safe and sound for people to live in and work in. For instance, we just preserved the Woodward’s building, the Alhambra Hotel, the Pennsylvania Hotel, the Rainier Hotel, and a lot of that was in partnership with the province. But we wouldn’t have those if the government wasn’t doing a good job.”