Bruce Macdonald reveals Kitsilano's history on Jane's Walk

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      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.”


      Vancouver heritage expert Bruce Macdonald explains how Kitsilano developed in the 19th and 20th centuries.


      How satisfied are you with the City of Vancouver’s efforts to preserve heritage buildings?

      Carol Lee
      Chinatown heritage advocate

      “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.”

      Michael Kluckner
      Artist and author

      “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.”

      Bruce Watson
      President of the Vancouver Historical Society

      “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.”

      Jim Green
      Former Vision Vancouver mayoral candidate and former nonprofit-housing developer

      “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.”

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      David Samis

      May 7, 2010 at 5:44pm

      The City of Vancouver’s efforts to preserve heritage buildings in the Historic Area zoning have taken a huge step backward recently. While Jim Green and Carol Lee praise recent renovations, the city’s main tool to do this, the Heritage Density Transfer Program, is now under moratorium thanks to the Director of Planning’s refusal to fix its structural problems.

      If that was not enough, Planning’s Historic Area Height Review was also recently passed, raising historic height limits in the heritage district, approving 15 storey towers in the heart of Chinatown, and leaving the door wide open to many more towers to come.

      Based on these recent policy changes -- which reverse seminal restrictions that have been in place since Project 200 was kyboshed by the people of Vancouver in the 1970’s -- I would say that the current Planning department is failing miserably when it comes to preserving our city's heritage.

      I don’t know what Carol Lee feels about a 15 storey tower 10 feet from the Sun Yat-Sen Gardens, but it sure looks like a horrible idea given that her constituency is trying to get that area in Chinatown UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Good luck with that if the towers are built.

      Jim Green’s comment about Woodwards is similarly ignorant of heritage preservation. Out of a 3/4 block cluster of heritage buildings, only 2 walls of the original Woodwards buildings were saved. The rest totally demolished: the ultimate in facadism.

      Lastly, the Pantages Theatre, the oldest Pantages left in the grand North American vaudeville chain, sits rotting with a massive hole in the roof. The theatre could provide a huge boost to the DTES economy and the City’s arts scene, but nothing is being done to preserve this gem.

      To me, the crumbling Pantages symbolizes just how poorly the City of Vancouver is doing with regards to preserving its heritage.


      May 9, 2010 at 9:16pm

      Vancouver is a young emerging city...the people who want to to strangle it to a phony "heritage" are old and idiotic. Vancouver should always be a young city that creates its destiny. It should never be chained to the unimaginative, un-artistic ideas that have come before.

      Tear it down and rebuild it again for the world!

      Del Cowsill

      Jan 12, 2012 at 11:21pm

      I lived at 2084 W. 6th from 1993-2006. Neat block for sure. I remember Mr. Wong, who ran the Arbutus grocery in the 80's. Ah memories..