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Lost in Vancouver: Kingsway& Broadway

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Story by Marcie Good

Vancouver has a Bermuda triangle, and it’s somewhere near the intersection of Kingsway and Broadway. It’s a series of triangles, actually, that force me to drive in lopsided circles, guided by one-way signs. I’m looking for a place called Seb’s, a cafe that does fabulous midday brunch, and I know it’s near Fraser Street. No need to panic, however. I’m early for a date, and Mount Pleasant is a great place to be lost.

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The confusion starts with Kingsway. A glance at a map reveals the anomaly of this road, a cross-wise slash through the otherwise neat grid. Back in the late 19th century, when New Westminster was this area’s metropolis, the King’s Way was a trail hacked through the forest to the port at False Creek. As a diagonal spine through the east-west streets, it’s like a jagged-edged path once you venture off, you’re disoriented. Kingsway is often a stop-and-go drive, despite its original builders’ intention.

But the great thing about wandering in your car is that the usual irritants, like plugged-up traffic or manic motorists, simply don’t matter. Inching forward is a fine way to note signs of a changing cityscape. This street defies easy description, with its mix of small shops, motels, auto services, ethnic restaurants and cafes, but its geometry makes it most interesting. As you stop at intersections, you get a glimpse down tree-lined side streets, visible only from that particular angle like the view between window blinds. Rounding the corner past Fraser Street, the North Shore mountains appear as the road curves more sharply south.

Mount Pleasant is ground zero in Vancouver’s street-numbering system, the place where east meets west. But those boundaries are blurring, as new developments move in with their promise of upward mobility. Upscale home furnishings stores, Cantu and Living Space, now occupy quarters along Kingsway. The solid bank building on the corner of Main and Broadway, an old-school symbol of financial security, now houses Acri-Tec Baths.

The improvements seem to honour the original shapes of this neighbourhood. Cantu’s entry staircase on the sharp corner of 10th draws attention to that odd-shaped block created by Kingsway. If you venture down 10th towards Main, there are alleys to either side made attractive with landscaping. Recent additions to Main Street, like clothing boutique Jonathan + Olivia and the fine eatery Habit, reflect the neighbourhood’s independently minded streak.

This area’s working-class roots are especially evident down past 10th Avenue where Kingsway flows into Main. Turn left on 2nd Avenue to find the Opsal Steel Building, a foundry whose name is still proudly emblazoned on its peeling red paint. Even though its sides are now tattooed with concert ads, there’s something telling about the way it still stands there, empty and weather-worn. It’s long been a landmark here, stretching along more than half a block. As you drive by you can just see the lantern vents, perched like little cottages on top of the pitched roof.

These are typical of early False Creek industrial buildings, and together with the heavy timber frame construction, they make this a building worth a second look. Now it’s considered one of the pivot points in the re-envisioning of this area. It’s slated to be taken apart, log by log, and preserved while a new foundation is built. Then each timber will be replaced and the old structure used as part of a smart new condominium complex.

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Mount Pleasant is ground zero in Vancouver’s streetnumbering system, the place where east meets west. But those boundaries are blurring as new developments move in with their promise of upward mobility. Upscale home furnishings stores Cantu and Living Space now occupy quarters along Kingsway.

If you turn the corner on Quebec Street and mosey down 1st Avenue, you’ll see False Creek’s past and future. Buildings all along the left side, between the car shops, parking lots and warehouses, are marked with big yellow re-zoning signs marking them as intended condos, shops and offices. Along the right side, mounds of dirt have grown up all over the flats, adding interest to the familiar sights of the Science World sphere and the marshmallow-like roof of B.C. Place.

Behind the still-standing salt warehouse and the streetcar station, excavation for the much-vaunted Olympic village has begun. When I make my way back to Seb’s, trying to remember the briar-patch of one-ways, I successfully negotiate the best triangle, bordered by Kingsway, Main and Broadway. I’ve already seen the Main-facing side, a strip with a comic store, pristine used bookstore, new bistro and a billiards hall whose makeover includes a cappucino bar. On Kingsway, the stores look a bit tougher.

Budgie’s Burritos is a tiny shop whose frontage looks like a body piercing salon. The old square sign of Guys & Dolls Billiards hangs as a remnant of that joint’s past. And Radio and TV Repairs, with dusty broadcasting machines stacked in the windows, is closed. Across the street, trucks and cranes are working on a big hole that will eventually become 1 Kingsway, a state-of-the-art complex including a community centre, library, childcare facility and rental housing. It seems right that this gathering place will sit at the base of this eccentric street like an anchor. Not that it will help me.

I’m blaming the construction worker who gave me directions on Broadway, but it seems I’m lost again.

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