Long-time downtown Vancouver resident Donald Luxton is standing on the edge of the West End’s historic Mole Hill community, and the only audible sound is from birds in the trees. He walks to the middle of the alley that runs through the community, which he calls “one of the oldest intact blocks of housing in the city”. And here the heritage advocate is in his element, marvelling at the fact that there is solitude, even momentarily, in a dense urban centre.
“They choked the parking right off,” Luxton told the Georgia Straight. “This alley, when the project started off, had 200 parking spots. If you can imagine the taxis roaring through it because of the traffic diverters, and this lane was open. It’s hard to imagine, and yet here it is now with community gardens [on one side of it].”
The houses date from as early as 1888, and the majority of the houses on the block have been renovated for assisted living—the Mole Hill Community Housing Project. In all, 170 units of all levels of housing make up the 26 homes. It is a microcosm of the whole West End, a place Luxton finds fascinating because of that mix of income levels and housing types from different eras.
“There is a beginning point, certainly, when the land was first surveyed back in the 1880s, and with the arrival of the railways in 1887, development was really picking up pace,” Luxton noted. “And that’s when the West End really started being laid out block by block. Trees were being knocked down and milled for the lumber, and houses were being built at the same time.”
According to the City of Vancouver’s “VanMap”, the West End is bound by Pacific Avenue and Denman Street, and Burrard and West Georgia streets. Tourism Vancouver’s online description of the original wooded site describes three Englishmen who proposed building a brickworks there in 1860, which flopped. They were dubbed the Three Greenhorns, according to Tourism Vancouver’s historical chronology, even though there would later be plenty of brick (and human habitation) on the site.
In 1958, the introduction of high-rise zoning changed the face of downtown and gave it an urban edge. The Condominium Act of 1974 then entrenched the notion of ownership, Luxton claimed.
More recently, Luxton flagged the upzoning of the neighbouring Downtown South—at one time a warehousing district—almost two decades ago as especially “relevant” to the West End. Even though Downtown South is built out, Luxton claimed that this phase “took a lot of development pressure off the West End”. But within that upbeat observation there is a potential downside: “It [Downtown South] took the pressure off development in the West End, and that pressure valve is about to be closed.”
Luxton said there is one thing everyone can agree on: “The history of the West End doesn’t end in 2011.”
“There will be change in the West End. The question that I think people need to ask, in terms of what’s going to happen, is: ”˜What type of change do you want to see?’ ”