Has the West End lost its cool?

With its beautiful beaches and rich history, the West End is iconic Vancouver—but are its glory days behind it?

March 24, 2016

By Trevor Melanson / Photo: West End BIA; City of Vancouver Archives

When Tobias Toleman and his partner Heather moved in 2014, they made an effort to stay in the West End. “It’s central and we like the neighbourhood a lot,” Toleman says, “but I don’t see Heather and I living there for much longer.” Why the change of heart? The rent is too expensive, for one, says the 30-year-old website manager, who’s lived in the West End for five years. “I’m making more money now than I ever have, but I still have less savings than when I was going to school full-time.” And then there’s the West End’s subpar transit options: it takes Toleman an hour and 15 minutes to get to his office in North Vancouver (“each way, without traffic”). The same trip, he says, would take 20 minutes by car.

If and when Toleman ultimately leaves the West End, he won’t be alone. Between 2006 and 2011, the population of the West End stagnated—technically, it decreased by 13 people, according to Statistics Canada. At the same time, by way of example, Mount Pleasant added 2,784 residents. A decade earlier, it was the other way around—the West End was adding and Mount Pleasant was losing—but neighbourhood desirability has since shifted eastward. Now St. Paul’s Hospital, a major employer in the area, is six years away from also moving east to the False Creek Flats by Science World after 120 years of being in the West End. With St. Paul’s departure, the West End will lose an organ—at a time when the neighbourhood faces plenty of challenges.

Stephen Regan, executive director of the West End Business Improvement Association, won’t deny that the exit of the hospital will likely sting. “People who work at St. Paul’s live in the West End,” he says. “Davie Village and all of these businesses have grown up with St. Paul’s as part of the customer base, so when it moves it will certainly be disruptive.” Regan can only hope that another job creator moves in, though condos will likely be a part of the mix. But whatever opens up in its place won’t do so inside the old hospital, which is fated for demolition. A major reason St. Paul’s is leaving is the fact that the 120-year-old building is in desperate need of seismic upgrades—more than $80-million worth.

WestEnd-2-davie

It’s a problem that extends beyond the hospital. Indeed, the West End would likely incur more damage than any other neighbourhood in the city in the event of an earthquake—be it the Big One or even just a pretty big one. “We didn’t know what was needed back in the ’70s,” says Perry Adebar, head of civil engineering at UBC. Among the 343 older concrete towers that Adebar and two fellow researchers examined for a report on seismic vulnerability, over half were located in the West End. He says publicly-owned buildings such as schools and hospitals are often upgraded (or moved, in St. Paul’s case), but all those privately-owned apartments? “No one’s looking at them.”

Whether or not those much-needed upgrades are ever made, the West End will welcome a spate of new (presumably more earthquake-ready) developments in the years to come. Most notable among those is the massive 53-storey Burrard Place tower being built along the neighbourhood’s downtown edge. A handful of new towers have also been proposed in the heart of the West End, such as a 19-storey building at Davie and Jervis and a 22-storey one along Thurlow. This is a real shift, Stephen Regan says. “There was a moratorium on residential development in the West End for a long time.”

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The west side of 800 Bute St. as it looked in May of 1974

But the West End community plan, adopted by the city in 2013, changed that—and could help reverse the neighbourhood’s recent slide. “The word we landed on is, yeah, the West End kind of needs a revitalization,” Regan says. The plan now is for more development and an increase in walkable public spaces, such as a new permanent plaza on Bute Street south of Davie, which the city approved in December. It’s the first in a series of facelifts planned for Davie Village. “I think you’re going to see a lot of new buildings and new people moving into the West End,” Regan says.

And so, despite the departure of St. Paul’s, despite the West End’s earthquake preparedness problem, despite a decade of losing people and prestige to the east side, and despite—to Tobias Toleman’s point—the area’s lack of rapid transit and reliance on traffic-jammed buses, Regan remains optimistic. He even thinks we could see, within the next few years, a “Renaissance of the West End.” But it should be incremental, he says, so as to protect the neighbourhood’s economic, architectural, and human diversity. “That’s the tricky balance.”

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