A few years ago, the launch of a lone high-rise project at Kingsway and Knight Street provoked debate over the City of Vancouver’s management of tower development.
Critics protested that King Edward Village would ruin the character of the nearby communities of Cedar Cottage and Kensington. Optimists predicted that the development would become the heart of a “lively, attractive shopping area.” A few grumpy urbanists saw a future dead zone, and this, arguably, is the current state of affairs, although in my view the design could have been worse.
I visited this part of the Kingsway with co-tourist Nathan Gowsell because a young nephew of mine is sharing an apartment close by and says the district is cool. In fact, it’s hard to see a pattern. The influence of King Edward Village is hard to see beyond its perimeter. The detached housing on the south side is untouched, a row of Vancouver specials dating from the 1970s. There is a one-block jumble of commercial uses on Knight, with two condo-commercial combos added in recent years. Northwest on Kingsway lies “Little Vietnam”, where Asian shops and cafes take advantage of some of the last remaining low-cost real estate in the city.
Kingsway is a 19th-century highway that connected the Granville waterfront and the colonial capital at New Westminster. With the automobile it became a very patchy affair, featuring low-rent motels, car repair services and strip malls. In Burnaby, to the east of Vancouver, city government has promoted tower-dominated redevelopment, especially in the Metrotown and Edmonds precincts. Change along the Vancouver section of Kingsway has been more low-key, possibly related to the King Edward Village experience. However, the truth is that most of the older one- and two-storey structures aren’t very good. They will likely be replaced with generic four-storey apartment buildings.
We stopped for brunch at the Lion’s Den, a mile or so from Knight Street at the corner of Fraser. Sitting at a retro video game table, I ordered an English muffin with egg and tomato. Nathan chose a scrambled egg, sausage and white toast. When the food came, I mentioned to the server that we had waited close to an hour. It would have been gauche to point out that Tim Horton’s could produce the same bland fare in two minutes. As we paid at the counter, the manager said, “This isn’t a restaurant. Don’t come in here expecting a restaurant. It’s an eat-in.”
Returning from Fraser to Knight, we passed through quiet residential streets with plenty of architectural interest. As in Kitsilano, the City-sponsored densification south of Kingsway is occurring mostly by stealth, with every major home renovation leading to the creation of basement or top-floor apartments.
I was reminded of an argument presented by Sam Sullivan, a former mayor of Vancouver (2005-2008), at a housing forum I attended on April 26. He insisted that the extreme cost of housing in Vancouver is entirely due to a shortage of supply; and the short supply is due to can be blamed city residents and a city government that have blocked high-rise development. Whether the argument is true or not, I don’t expect to see many towers built along these leafy streets.