Quebec Manor (1915) 7th & Quebec Street
42 people turned out on a sunny Sunday afternoon in early May to follow local history raconteur Robert McNutt and urban design practitioners Stephen Bohus and Lewis N. Villegas on a tour of historic Mount Pleasant. The walk was organized in memory of urbanist Jane Jacobs. Download the walk map here.
This year the walk was structured around key buildings and places that may guide new construction and planning. The models identified and discussed on the tour included: tall buildings; storefront buildings; apartments; row houses; public open spaces; ‘Great Streets’ and transit implementation options.
For the second year in a row we began the walk at Quebec Manor. This robust apartment house is run as cooperative housing, presenting a model for both the conservation of historic buildings and the delivery of affordable housing. A member of the Co-op addressed the group telling about the experience of living in a building where the residents all know each other and share a vision of place. The building presents interesting elements missing in new construction. Light wells cut deep into the building mass giving units additional openings with differing orientations providing cross ventilation and natural cooling. New construction could improve on this model by providing direct access from the sidewalk to street level suites. This would add doors with impromptu and unpredictable comings and goings to the windows that already put ‘eyes-on-the-street’. Both measures enhance the sense of safety in the neighbourhood. On the lane side walkers had an opportunity to discuss the pros and cons of not having the building set-back from the rear property line. We recommend the Quebec Manor as a model building for new construction in the Mount Pleasant Plan incorporating rear lane setbacks and sidewalk-level suite entries as appropriate.
Unit Block East 8th Avenue
Visible to the right-centre of the picture, the unit-block of East 8th Avenue has a terminated street end vista. This unusual quality in Vancouver neighbourhood streetscapes creates a strong ‘sense of place’ in the portion of the block extending from the lane to Main Street. It was proposed at the walk that the lanes paralleling the west side of Upper Main Street, as well as these 150-foot long spaces in the flanking streets develop as ‘Pedestrian Priority Zones’ — places where automobile movements are restricted taking second place to pedestrians. We recommend the unit-block East 8th Avenue be incorporated into a Heritage Area Revitalization Project (HARP) as one of the new initiatives of the Mount Pleasant Plan.
The Ashnola Building (1914) 6th Avenue and Main Street
The Ashnola is built on a lot roughly half the width of the Quebec Manor. As a result the building ‘turns the corner’ presenting its principal façade on the flanking street, yet pays little attention the rear lane. The Ashnola is a very good example of a storefront building mixing retail frontages at sidewalk level with residential uses on the top floors. Estimated to be about 33-feet high, the building holds an aspect ratio of 1 : 2 in relation to the 66-foot-wide fronting street. Participants noted that a lower building fronting across 6th Avenue makes an important contribution. The street space benefits from having greater solar penetration. If both sides of the street had been built at the Ashnola height, then the feeling of enclosure would have been too great for our region. We recommend that new streetwall buildings in the Mount Pleasant plan maintain a 1 : 3 proportion to the width of the fronting street.
Unit Block Kingsway
If there is one conclusion that we reach each time we lead a walking tour in Historic Mount Pleasant it is this: There is just not enough physical space in the public realm allocated to supporting pedestrian uses. The provision of places for people to gather socially, informally and spontaneously is a missing element in an otherwise thriving neighbourhood. Here, in the place where Kingsway merges into Main Street at an awkward angle a redundancy in automobile space (10 lanes in total) makes it plausible to propose closing to vehicular traffic the last block of Kingsway. Not only would this action celebrate the oldest highway in the province, but it would create an urban room marking the ‘heart’ of Mount Pleasant. The removal of the angled street geometry would rationalize traffic flow and repair the torn urban fabric making the place safer for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. We recommend closing the unit-block of Kingsway to build a village square in the heart of Mount Pleasant as a new initiative of the Mount Pleasant Plan.
Row Houses at 10th and Main Street
Among the most curious facts in Vancouver urbanism is the ‘legalization’ of the row house by an act of the Provincial Legislature in the spring of 2012 (too late for the Mount Pleasant Community Plan approved by Council in November 2010). For reasons unknown the building type has been removed as an option from the market place. For as long as anyone can remember the erection of the most venerable invention of the last 500 years in western urbanism has been banned in British Columbia. As a result building high density has meant building strata title properties and structures too big to resonate with human scale. Most of the examples of row houses in our city date to the early decades.
This particularly impressive set was built in reinforced concrete circa 1914 at the very moment that reinforced concrete building technology was being introduced in North America and Europe. Like other row houses still in use in Mount Pleasant — and throughout Vancouver — the houses were not provided with a back yards. The buildings were erected a few feet from the property line leaving only enough room for a door stoop and a rear door.
This important short-coming noted, the row house building should be recognized for delivering high density housing with several critical characteristics. Unlike apartments and towers, row house units are not strata title — they can be owned individually. In addition, row houses deliver high density (including rental suites) with human scale. Row houses can easily be adapted to suit either affordable or social housing models. Finally, as can be seen in the photo, the building has both doors and windows on the street contributing to the sense of safety in the neighbourhood. We recommend that the Mount Pleasant plan identify ALL redevelopment lots suitable for row houses.
Main Street at 14th Avenue
Visible on the left side of the photograph is the IGA site identified in the draft version of the Mount Pleasant Community Plan as one of three:
sub-areas… where additional density and height should be pursued to achieve more appropriate site development and important public benefits (page 23)
It is hard to reconcile the notion of ‘sub-areas’ as something belonging to creation of great urban places. Of course, in what has been more or less a forgone conclusion, the political desire to build as many tower projects in Vancouver as possible makes its way into the neighbourhood plan at this juncture. In order to collect additional Community Amenity Contributions (CACs) the local Council is willing to give away the values of community and values of place embodied in the strong tradition of place present and palpable during the walking tour of Historic Mount Pleasant. By law redevelopments fees can only be charged to projects building excessive height, or land lift. However, most residents feel that these large buildings are in contravention of local built form and character. At the close of the walk we discussed whether the more pressing issue today is not the impossibility of working people being able to afford buying a house, a row house or an apartment. Constantly engaging in a battle with the regulators over foreign investment landing ever more land-lift sites in the neighbourhood appears counter productive in the extreme given that the downtown is the avowed zone for towers.
In addition, Main Street —the neighbourhood’s ‘urban spine’ — is seen here failing to provide necessary elements to support social functioning. The allotment of a disproportionate amount of the street space to vehicles — and the absence of BRT(trolley) transit implementation — are reminders that a neighbourhood plan is being hatched at City Hall without sufficient neighbourhood engagement, in a posture of not listening to the will of the community, clearly failing to identify and reinforce local values of community and values of place.
We recommend implementing BRT(trolley) on Main Street running from 16th Avenue to 2nd Avenue in the centre of the roadway on two dedicated lanes separated by 5-foot tree medians. In addition, were recommend transforming this section of Main Street into a Great Street by incorporating urban design elements that support social functioning in the public realm and in the redevelopment of fronting properties.
Main and Broadway: Arcade on the Lee Building (building constructed in 1915; arcade built circa 1929)
The best place to understand the history of Mount Pleasant may be standing on the corner of Main and Broadway, two streets respectively known as Westminster Avenue and 9th Avenue until the names were changed in the era leading to the opening of the Panama Canal in 1915. Speculation saw investment flowing to British Columbia to exploit natural resources that would ship through the new canal to the Eastern Seaboard and Europe without rounding the tip of South America. The new names were deliberately chosen to resonate with U.S. investors by copying the most common business street names south of the border.
In 1927-29 era, at the time of the amalgamation of the City of Vancouver with Point Grey and the municipality of South Vancouver, the firm of Harland Bartholomew was commissioned to update the plan for a new amalgamated city. One of the proposals carried out was the widening of Broadway from 66-feet (one chain or 20 m) to its present width of 99-feet. This was accomplished by taking land away from all properties on the north side of the street. In the process, the curb of the street was moved right to the doorstep of the Lee Building which received the distinctive arcade we see today.
Arcades rank among the most vital elements in urbanism with a history dating back to ancient Rome and Greece. Of course, as with any urban artifact, the situation or context of the arcade matters a great deal. Built on the edge of a modern arterial highway, and housing a stop for the B-Line articulated buses, the Lee Arcade is badly impacted by the adjacencies of high volumes of traffic and the deafening noise produced by the compressed-air pumps that activate the bus doors. We presented at the walk the idea of making the arcade a feature in all new large buildings in the Mount Pleasant plan. However, we used the experience at the Lee building to shape this new proposal for large buildings. The strategy would pair the granting of additional density and height with the provision on the subject sites of an ‘urban room’ bordered by a colonnaded arcade. We recommend that new large buildings in the Mount Pleasant plan incorporate arcades fronting public open spaces.