Schematic diagram of Mount Pleasant (North is at the bottom of the drawing; Kingsway is shown entering from the top left or south-east corner).
Even the most schematic diagram of Mount Pleasant betrays a layered history and a complex past for Vancouver’s first neighbourhood. Indigenous people lived here for 10,000 years before European settlement. Their presence barely left a mark on the landscape, yet they remain a vital presence in the community today.
Kingsway (1861) the ‘Westminster Road’
Entering at the top left of the diagram from the south-east, Kingsway crosses the original southern limit of the future City of Vancouver at 16th Avenue. The location of this City boundary appears to coincide with the junction of Kingsway and Fraser Avenue. The latter was a pioneer road cut due south to the Fraser River. From there the path of Kingsway veered north to meet False Creek. This final stretch of the pioneer road was called Westminster Avenue. Circa 1910 the name was changed to Main Street, and the name of 9th Avenue was changed to Broadway. These changes were intended to appeal to U.S. investors. Most American towns had a main street, and Broadway was the famous artery of the great New York City. Turning to appease British loyalists, the road shown as “Westminster Road (Late Granville Street)” on the 1912 fire insurance map became Kingsway.
Europeans settled in the area almost a quarter century before the founding of Vancouver. Settlement dates from the construction of Kingsway (1861) connecting the British Colonial Capital at New Westminster with its back-door escape route at Burrard Inlet. The Royal Engineers stationed at Sapperton followed an indigenous trial to build the first major arterial road in the region. It was completed ten years before British Columbia entered Canadian confederation (1871) and twenty-four years before the incorporation of the City of Vancouver (1885). From a historical perspective Kingsway is the most important street in our city.
District Lot 200A (registered in 1869).
Despite the early date of acquisition, significant development did not materialize in Mount Pleasant until 1888, one year after the arrival of the railway. Bruce MacDonald writes about a visionary employee at New Westminster City Hall who saw an opportunity in the making:
In 1869 the visionary Henry Valentine Edmonds, the clerk of the municipal council in New Westminster, acquired District Lot 200A—all of the wilderness land north of today’s Broadway in the future Mount Pleasant… In 1888 a new bridge was built south across False Creek and Edmonds began to build streets in earnest. He named the new hillside subdivision “Mount Pleasant” after a village just outside of Dublin, Ireland, the birthplace of his wife Jane Edmonds.
Heritage Context Statement for Mount Pleasant, City of Vancouver (2008).
First Streetcar Service (1889 – 1899)
By 1899 the Bartholomew Report shows 16 miles of street car operating in the city and its new suburbs—Mount Pleasant and Fairview—on the south shore of False Creek. The first line to reach Mount Pleasant crossed False Creek at Main Street; continued up the hill to Broadway; turned west along Broadway; and returned downtown over the brand new Granville Street Bridge.
The ‘heart’ of Mount Pleasant (1897) North at top of map. Full Image.
The ‘heart’ of Mount Pleasant (1901)
The stop at Main and Broadway—just one block south of the junction of Main with Kingsway—emerged as the cross-road for transit. The photo below shows the west side of Main Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue. The church visible on the left occupies the site of the future Lee Building. Mr. Lee’s Grocery Store is the next building to the right. The “Lee” name is visible on a sign at head level, just left of the group standing in the street at the streetcar stop.
West side of Main & Broadway (1908)
West side of Main between 8th and 7th Avenues (1922).
Main between 8th and 7th Avenues (2013)
The ‘commercial heart’ of Mount Pleasant occupied two blocks on the west side of Main street between Broadway and 7th Avenue. The first commercial buildings massed on the west side of Main Street, or the ‘going home’ side of the streetcar line. The apex of the Triangle Block—formed by Kingsway, Main Street and Broadway—was colonized by a two story building with a turret. A band stand was built on the spot where the center lines of Main and Kingsway intersected. Residential development sprung up on lots within easy walking distance of this centre. Brewery Creek was a major feature in the early Mount Pleasant townsite its path clearly mapped in the 1897 plan. However, by 1912, the fire insurance map shows the creek had been covered to make possible a workable network of streets.
Visible in the 2013 colour photo are almost all of the original buildings in the lower block of the historic core. These are among the oldest buildings in the neighbourhood. These same structures appear in the 1922 photo, and in the 1897 and 1912 fire insurance maps. Mount Pleasant’s early urbanism remained more or less intact until the post-World War II era when the decentralizing suburban paradigm of the mid-twentieth century took over.
The Panama Canal Boom Years (1908 – 1914)
The greatest transformation of the neighbourhood came in the years leading up to the opening of the Panama Canal (1914). At this time Canada’s transcontinental railway and its western sea port were seen as key assets for exporting the natural riches, agricultural and industrial products of a young nation to the Eastern Seaboard and Europe.
Visible in the 1908 photo taken at Main & Broadway (see above), the streetcar has been extended north along Main to 16th Avenue where the tracks turn to head in both east and west directions.
The ‘heart’ of Mount Pleasant (1912) North at the top of map. Full Image.
The 1912 fire insurance map shows the frenzied pace of development that accompanied the completion of the Panama Canal (1914). The early triangular building is missing at the apex of the Triangle Block. The bandstand is not shown. The Lee Building has replaced the church at the corner of Main & Broadway. The latter two streets are identified by their new names. And the thrust of the commercial core in this urban village has migrated north along the railway tracks towards the soon to be completed Postal Station C post office building at 15th & Main. A remarkable transformation has taken place in a matter of six years.
Main from 11h to 8th (2011)
The 1912 fire insurance map shows the west side of Main from 7th to 12th Avenues at a level of build out concomitant with what we see today. The Legion Hall is perhaps the chief missing element. The streetcar barns are under construction at 13th Avenue. Watson Street (Howard St.)—home to many street car employees—is well populated. Row houses are visible at 10th and Main, and Sophia and 14th. The rooming house four lots west of the Lee Building is shown fronting on both Broadway and 8th Avenue.
For a brief shining moment—cut short by the war of 1914-1918; the 1929 Wall Street Crash; the ensuing 10-year economic depression; the war of 1939-1945; and a shift to the suburban planning paradigm—Mount Pleasant witnessed a new brand of urbanism establishing this neighbourhood as a place apart from the downtown. With the frontier era behind it Mount Pleasant evolved as an urban village with an identity distinctly separate from the railway city on the opposite shore of False Creek.
The Apartment Zones (1900s to the Present)
Apartment buildings and row houses formed part of the early building types used in Mount Pleasant. As early as the 1900’s apartments were being built opportunistically in locations dotting the map. Modern zoning was not introduced until 1914 in New York City. Zoning practice was established in Vancouver in 1927-1929 with the drafting of the Bartholomew Report. This may explain the imprecise nature of the siting of apartment buildings in Mount Pleasant. They seem to be products of isolated business ventures without any notion about shaping our experience of place, fitting in, or respecting the privacy of neighbours. In this particular aspect they are cut from the same speculative cloth as the contemporary towers now leaching out of the downtown to infect every neighbourhood with the problems of abrupt adjacencies.
It need not have been so.
Quebec Street, paralleling Main one block to the west, could have evolved as an apartment district providing single-use buildings to compliment the mixed use structures on Main and Broadway. Watson Street could have exploited its narrow right-of-way (33-feet or 50% narrower than a typical neighbourhood street) to develop as a district of affordable row houses at a much more intimate social scale. Following on British traditions already one hundred years old at the time, the blocks fronting green parks could have been built up with three and four storey apartments and row houses. The additional revenues to the city collected from high-density human-scale build out could have been used to provide more parks in the neighbourhood. And finally, a public square could have been built in the core blocks to break the linear tyranny of the straight street and provide a people place as a walkable destination.
All of these design decisions would been welcomed additions to the agile urbanism developing in this place in a manner wholly different from the other parts of the city.
However, rather than fine-tuning the existing traditions of place, the urban vision of the post-war period took off in another direction. It chose the ad hoc and unplanned business venture as the model for full blown urban sprawl. As cars took over and dominated the public realm, pedestrians became second class citizens, and walking was for losers.The perceived need for wide open spaces bowled over fledgling neighbourhoods lacking sufficient stone and mortar to slow the onslaught of the unquenchable Modern appetite for change. A fiat of über-human scale urbanism took over as the vision of livable streets and walkable neighbourhoods became old news. Drive-in movies, drive-in restaurants and shopping centres with parking lots as big as the ‘heart blocks’ in Mount Pleasant were in. It was A Brave New World!
Or so we thought.
The Highway Strip (1960s to the present)
The new suburbanism of fast cars and great distances overrun the carefully orchestrated human-scale in the urban village of Mount Pleasant. Vast areas of asphalt and concrete turned Kingsway and Main Street into the worst sort of auto strip. Cheap motels, auto dealerships, used-car lots, appliance stores and strip retail intermingled with old buildings that now felt totally out of place. At the corner of 12th and Main three gas stations jockeyed with many others to fuel the neighbourhood fleet. Delivering road capacity for rubber tires became the flavour of the day—come what may. The sense of place was destroyed by a new urban moving at speeds 10-times faster than walking. Old was out—if you blinked, you missed it.
Mount Pleasant lost longstanding values of community and values of place—including human-scale planning and incremental development. These time tested principles had no place in the Modern urbanism.
1. Mount Pleasant Historic Context Statement, City of Vancouver (2008) written by Bruce MacDonald
2. The Bartholomew Report (1928).