Architect Sean McEwen grew up in the 2100 block of West 6th Avenue, next to the two nearby blocks of heritage houses and a coffee shop on city-owned land, collectively known as Delamont Park.
The heart of the Kitsilano microcommunity is the landmark Arbutus Coffee at the corner of Arbutus and 6th Avenue, a city-owned A-list heritage building. It is a historical reminder of the old Vancouver corner store, with its historical boomtown façade. Originally known as Arbutus Grocery and built in 1907, it has long served as a community hub in one form or another; a place to post events, or gather for coffee and a meal. The rest of the city-owned land, including 15 heritage houses along West 5th and West 6th Avenues, is Kitsilano’s oldest remaining housing stock, made up mostly of rental suites and rooms for a mix of young artists, families and seniors, some who have lived there for decades. The unique grouping of intact houses near the old CP Rail line has survived the decades by serendipity. The city had started expropriating houses in the 1960s for public use. In 1974, there was a plan for a major six-lane connector, a link between Arbutus Street and Burrard Street, at a time when freeway connections were considered vital city building. But there was public pushback against the connector roadway and a change in city politics, so it never happened.
Instead, the city became landlord to a group of renters. In 1984, officials had a plan to demolish the houses for a large park, but the community fought that plan, too. In 2010, the city recognized the heritage value of the more than 100-year-old neighbourhood with the creation of 15 statements of significance for the buildings. The area is now known as Delamont Park after the small park built in 1981 at the corner of West 7th Avenue and Arbutus Street and named after legendary Kitsilano Boys Band leader Arthur Delamont.
“I’ve had a life-long interest in Delamont Park, as I lived next door for the first 15 years of my life. I’ve always loved the character of the old Kits houses and low-rise apartments, and the great variety of buildings and mix of households that made up the Kitsilano I remember,” said Mr. McEwen, who still lives nearby.
He pronounces Kitsilano as “Kitsil-eye-no,” the way that long-time Vancouverites do. And like many city heritage advocates, he’d like to see the old character houses sensitively incorporated into any growth that is intended for Delamont Park and the rest of Kitsilano, particularly with the Broadway Plan pending. That 30-year draft plan, which goes before city council in May, envisions significant new density in Mount Pleasant, Fairview and Kitsilano, along the Broadway subway. There are also controversial plans for towers in many of the neighbourhoods.
That stretch of the city, from Clark Drive to Vine Street in Kitsilano, is also rich in existing rental housing. In Kitsilano, it’s particularly rich in the city’s cultural past. Delamont has always been artists’ enclave. Painter Frank Molnar lived there, as did sculptor Elek Imredy and poets John Newlove, Bill Bissett and Judith Copithorne, according to history author Eve Lazarus. Ms. Copithorne was one of three women who posed for Mr. Imredy’s Girl in a Wetsuit sculpture which now sits on a rock off the Stanley Park sea wall, according to Ms. Lazarus.
Author Alice Munro also lived nearby, according to the Vancouver Heritage Foundation.
Mr. McEwen was the project architect for another city-owned heritage housing project, Mole Hill, in the West End. More than a century old, Mole Hill provides housing for a diverse community, with houses carved up into suites, surrounded by pathways and community gardens. It is run by a housing society in partnership with the city and BC Housing. He’d like to see a similar built form for Delamont Park, and when the city invited submissions several years ago for a competition to rethink publicly owned land, his submission for the neighbourhood received honorable mention. He revisited his idea again last year for a not-for-profit group, an infill proposal for a house at 2068 West 6th Ave., which has sat empty for several years. Neighbours say that house needs significant updates.
“I think there is such potential there, and so many folks have agreed over the years, but we have made absolutely no headway in talking to the powers that be, about trying to replicate Mole Hill as a notion. I’m not looking for work but I am always interested in trying to help folks with ideas for neighbourhood improvement, retaining what’s valuable,” Mr. McEwen said.
There is no lane between West 5th and West 6th Avenues, so the backyards are spacious and infill housing would be easily accommodated.
Several heritage experts have been pushing to protect the area as Kitsilano residents brace themselves for growth. Like others, Mr. McEwen doesn’t want to lose the fabric of community to a sea of bland towers. He says there are better ways to densify.
“It’s sterile city building. … They just want to throw out the whole tradition in city planning that Jane Jacobs worked so hard to establish, about intensifying uses in various areas and to help the economy of cities, but not do this wholesale change because you think that stacking people up in the air is the way to go. It’s very much, ‘wipe the slate clean.’ It’s a colonialist attitude. I really think that so much of our problems stem from these power structures around business boosterism and city development that are really kind of out of date. But it’s all big money driven. They tend to win the day.”
In an e-mail, the city said the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation has long had plans to expand the greenspace in Delamont Park in anticipation of population growth. But they say they will acknowledge the significance of the microneighbourhood within the plan.
“The draft Broadway Plan does not envisage significant redevelopment in Delamont Park,” said the city spokesperson. “Instead, the Draft Plan proposes that the Park Board and the city undertake a future master planning process including robust community engagement to explore ideas for the expansion of Delamont Park, in consideration of the complexity of the area, including heritage aspects.”
Former city planner Michael Gordon, who’s lived in Kitsilano for 40 years, says that the area could integrate with the Broadway Plan objectives by providing affordable homes and enhancing public space. He’d like to see engagement with the community, as well as an assessment on the heritage merit of the buildings. There is potential for it to improve, he said.
“With the proposed vision in the Broadway Plan suggesting a significant increase in Kitsilano’s population and many residential towers, places like the Delamont Park area will provide a lower scale area for everyone to enjoy. It can also provide affordable rental homes for people living on low and moderate incomes,” Mr. Gordon said.
Roni Jones, 76, has lived in a tiny one-floor-with-basement 1907 bungalow on West 5th Avenue since the mid 1970s. Because she’s been there so long, she has far more reasonable rent than the average Kitsilano rent. But as a divorced single mom, the home allowed her to stay in the community, raise her son and run a Montessori school. Today, her son has left and she’s able to age in place among friends. Ms. Jones took part in the year-long early 1980s battle to save the houses from demolition, which was won by a narrow council vote.
“At that time the political climate was so very different. We got help from Libby Davies on council, from [councillor] Harry Rankin, Mayor Harcourt, a lot of people on how to do this process. It was wonderful. We worked till two in the morning at my kitchen table and then I would get up and go to work four hours later.”
For the past few years, since talk of the subway began, they’ve been a little worried that their community could be vulnerable again, she says. This time, however, she hopes that the young members of Delamont Park get organized to represent the community. Ms. Jones said she doesn’t have the energy to take a stand, and also, she doesn’t believe that the city listens like it used to.
“They used to listen to the people and what’s good for the neighbourhood. I don’t see that anymore. I don’t trust in that system. I think the plan is already there, and they hold meetings to get your input, but they’ve already decided.”
Long-time resident Deborah Jones lives with her husband in a Delamont Park house, across from another city-owned house where young artists live. During the onset of the pandemic, the artists held dance parties on the street. She says that convivial atmosphere, unusual for Vancouver, has kept her there all these years. They’d originally planned to stay in their two-bedroom, century-old home for only a year. Instead, they moved in with their university age children, fixed it up and stayed there.
“I think it’s worth preserving a living heritage community like this, because in Vancouver everyone talks about how unfriendly and lonely they are. The answer is, you need these communities where you can have a conversation with five people before you get to where you are going. That’s worth preserving.
“We don’t need more canyons with high-rise towers. I think we need green space and it can be done in a livable way. And this area has a diverse set of people already.”
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