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The heart of the city's funky Mount Pleasant neighbourhood was dealt a huge blow yesterday as a fire destroyed five businesses - three restaurants, a coffee shop and an accounting office - that were a major part of the streetscape metres from one of the busiest transit intersections in British Columbia.

The three-alarm fire that sent a massive cloud of grayish-brown smoke across central Vancouver hit a key area of the city's so-called SoMa or South Main area, seen as pivotal to one of the most rapidly gentrified areas of Canada's Olympic City.

The Vancouver Fire Department ruled out arson as a cause for the fire, which they said appeared to be accidental. There were no injuries, though police rushed to evacuate about 20 tenants from an apartment building at the end of the burned block.

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"[Mount Pleasant]is one of the most vibrant places in our city and this can be nothing but a loss," said former city councillor Jim Green.

"It just doesn't feel well. It's like having an open sore in a city," he said, referring to the blackened ruins left along the streetscape.

The 4 a.m. blaze broke out, apparently at a sushi shop, within metres of the intersection of Main and Broadway, streets that are each among the busiest bus-transit routes in the province.

With tens of thousands of visitors expected in Vancouver for the 2010 Games in coming weeks and the area's vibrant popularity for its restaurants, stores and bars, Mr. Green suggested the devastated section be covered over in boarding painted by local artists with images to capture the area's hip spirit.

"Let's make it something as positive as we can out of a very negative situation," he said.

In a view echoed by a current member of council, Mr. Green suggested that in the midst of a catastrophe, there is an opportunity to reshape one of the city's busiest intersections.

Geoff Meggs, a current councillor, agreed.

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"My strong belief is that there will be redevelopment on that site quite quickly, and perhaps even with housing above," he said. "It's a great location. I am sure something will happen."

But for yesterday there was astonishment and grief as dozens of onlookers gathered through the day, staring at the charred wreckage of a familiar landscape.

Hung Nguyen said everything was okay in his Kishu Island Japanese Restaurant when he closed up Wednesday night around 11, but he arrived yesterday morning - summoned by a desperate call from his landlord - to find his 12-year-old operation destroyed.

"It's a shock. It feels terrible. I don't know what to do," he said, chatting with reporters across the street from his restaurant.

A fire department spokesman said crewsstruggled for a half hour battling the blaze before retreating outside, then launched a pitched effort to dump as much water as possible on the property to contain the fire.

Things did not go well in their fight.

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"It basically went from one building to another is exactly what happened, kind of like a domino effect, except with fire," said Captain Gabe Roder of the Vancouver Fire Department.

Mike Zalman, owner of Slickety Jim, spent hours at a window seat in a coffee shop across the street from the ruins of his beloved restaurant, staring tearily at the wreckage.

"There are a lot of memories that are gone," he said wistfully. "What can you say? You build something. It becomes your life and it's gone. It was the soul of the neighbourhood."

He said he was insured and expected he would open another restaurant.

Luis Gutierrez, a Venezuelan-born guitarist who performs with three other members of a Latin band, said he was in his apartment a block from the destroyed streetscape when his wife woke him up and told him Zocalo, a contemporary Mexican restaurant was gone.

Mr. Gutierrez said the establishment was a rarity in Vancouver for its free access to Latin performers.

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Fire ravages heritage sites

A fire that broke out before dawn yesterday destroyed five businesses at Main and Broadway.

DESTROYED Zocalo Mexican restaurant, Kishu Island sushi restaurant, Slickity Jim's Chat'n'Chew restaurant, Lugz Coffee and an accounting business.

TONIA COWAN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL SOURCE: GOOGLE MAPS

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