Skip to main content

Think of it as a developer's potion to wake up a sleepy pocket of West Vancouver.

The recipe calls for a sprawling condo and retail project, with a dose of arts and culture. The idea is rooted in the belief that the Ambleside Village neighbourhood in West Vancouver needs a fresh look, one with new restaurants, coffee houses, wine bars and retailers on the project's ground floor.

The developer, Grosvenor Americas, is planning 88 condo units on the upper floors, largely targeting well-heeled area residents contemplating downsizing. A typical single-family home in West Vancouver fetches roughly $1.8-million, and the betting is there will be growing demand for condos from empty nesters.

Besides the condos and commercial space, there will be room outside to feature a public sculpture by Douglas Coupland, while the lobby of each residential building will display an original canvas by Gordon Smith. Both artists live in West Vancouver. Among the "community amenities" will be an educational gallery to be run by the Artists for Kids Trust.

Ambleside needs a jolt, but the debate will be how to go about revitalization, and whether it is appropriate to have two large buildings, one eight storeys and the other seven. As with any major development that challenges the status quo, count on resistance because some residents prefer to keep Ambleside's main shopping street to buildings no taller than two storeys, said West Vancouver Mayor Michael Smith.

He said perceptions persist that West Vancouver is charming but not a good place to gather socially in the evening. "We have to break the psychology that you need to drive across the Lions Gate Bridge to have dinner or meet friends. We need to have more activity in West Van," Mr. Smith said, as he drove by the proposed development site on the 1300 block of Marine Drive.

The Municipality of West Vancouver owns half the property, located near the waterfront. Grosvenor, which assembled parcels in recent years to own the other half, has a deal to buy West Vancouver's half for $37-million, subject to rezoning.

Renowned architect James Cheng, who designed the Shangri-La tower in downtown Vancouver, envisages two major structures on the Marine Drive property – eight storeys on the west side and seven on the east. "It will be a mid-rise, terraced form of development, instead of a square, boxy type of architecture," said James Patillo, senior vice-president at Grosvenor. "This will be a real tribute to West Coast modern architecture. It will be concrete, stone, wood and glass, with lots of shrubbery and greenery to soften it and make it an inviting place to be."

The new design evokes elements of the late architect Arthur Erickson's terraced features for the Law Courts building in downtown Vancouver. Mr. Smith, however, has already heard critics derisively liken Grosvenor's proposal to plunking a cruise ship down on a city block. "Some people want to retain the village feel of Ambleside, and there is nothing wrong with that philosophically, but Ambleside is dying. It is old and the buildings are tired. They need to be replaced and refreshed," Mr. Smith said, noting that many merchants are struggling amid retail competition from the nearby Park Royal Shopping Centre.

A glossy booklet produced by Grosvenor sits on the coffee table in his office. He flips through it until he gets to a map that shows Bellevue Avenue, on the southern side of the project. The avenue would be closed at times for public festivals and help draw people to the waterfront and the beach. Grosvenor is proposing to increase Bellevue's height by more than a metre so that residents on the sidewalk get a better view of Burrard Inlet instead of seeing a berm for railway tracks.

The rezoning process for the "special site" under the official community plan is expected to take months. If Grosvenor's application is approved, construction could start in the spring of 2014 on the west side, where Imperial Oil formerly had a station. West Vancouver's police force would have to move out of its aging building on the east side to clear the way for the second phase. "The secret to success in West Van is recognizing that in the rezoning process, boring is beautiful, so if we go slowly and get it right and let the public have input, the project will be supported," Mr. Smith said. "Change is never easy. It is a go-slow community."