Protesting real estate developments in Vancouver, then and now

A woman voices her dismay about a development proposal in Kitsilano in 1992.

A woman voices her dismay about a development proposal in Kitsilano in 1992. (CBC)


It's a familiar scene in Metro Vancouver: locals outraged over a new highrise proposal in their community. 

The difference?

This story takes place 25 years ago this week, in response to a development now touted by city planners and residents as one of the most successful projects in the city's history.  

The development was in the heart of Vancouver's Kitsilano neighbourhood, around Arbutus Street and West 12th Avenue. 

It can be hard to imagine now, but the area was once an industrial zone home of to a brewery, warehouses and several parkades.

But when the brewery was sold and the surrounding businesses were no longer needed, the neighbourhood was ripe for redevelopment to house a growing population. 

Here's how people reacted to the issue at the time:

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Vancouverites protest Arbutus highrises3:26

"I find it fascinating to think 25 years ago that was a big concern in Kitsilano. And it was a big change," said Kent Munro, assistant director of planning with the City of Vancouver.

"Often it ... seems at the time, when you're planning these things, that they could be worse then they actually end up being." 

Former City of Vancouver planner Brent Toderian agrees with Munro that the once-controversial development is now seen by many planners as a success. 

"It was said that it would destroy the neighbourhood, and it's worked out fairly well, even for the local community," Toderian said.

Pushing density too far?

Both planners say much remains the same in terms of opposition to major redevelopment projects,

"Projects are still very controversial when they involve density, and especially when they involve height," Toderian said.

But Toderian says one difference between now and then is the scale of projects being proposed. 

"I'm a pro-density person, but only when it's done well. And I believe that in many cases proposals are too big," Toderian said.

"I actually think that the 'How big is too big' question is probably the most important question in urban design in Vancouver today."

Georgia and Howe

The once tranquil corner of Georgia and Howe in Downtown Vancouver, seen in 1905. (Vancouver Archives)

Changing landscape

That's a sentiment echoed by Ray Spaxman, a controversial planner who worked for the City of Vancouver from 1973 to 1989. 

"I think they're in trouble with the amount of density they're approving," Spaxman said of the city's current planners.

"It's become more of a question of how much money we can get off developers by raising the density."

Spaxman is familiar with contentious developments; he's generally credited for pushing forward "Vancouverism" as a planning philosophy for the city.

This video, originally broadcast shortly after Spaxman resigned due to conflicts with city council in 1989, shows how his projects changed the landscape of the city over the last few decades:

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False Creek future2:10

Spaxman says planners get into trouble when density reaches a point where it infringes on residents' quality of life.

"That's where people get concerned. It's not that people are against growth, they're against growth that harms what they see as their best environment," he said.

'Things do need to change'

Munro doesn't deny that developers are constantly pushing the boundaries.

But he says those boundaries are constantly changing — a point all three planners agree on.

To put the issue in perspective, Spaxman says one of his more controversial projects was putting townhouses in False Creek — an area now dominated by much denser mid-rise buildings. 

"Things do need to change. There's always that tension between how should that change occur and where should it occur," Munro said. 

"The city's constantly changing. Whatever we're sitting and looking at today is not what we're going to be sitting and looking at in 25 years."

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