Stories to fuel your mind


Share the story

Story by Marcie Good

Sponsored Ads

Yaletown is so often described in youthful terms: its bars are trendy, its fashion boutiques are hip, and the eye candy strolling the seawall is, well, as eye candy should be. And yet the raised platforms of Hamilton and Mainland Streets where railway workers used to unload wares from boxcars are obvious reminders of the area’s age. You could say that Yaletown has two histories: one, its long service as a Canadian Pacific Railway yard and warehousing district; and two, its current reinvention as desirable retail and residential neighbourhood. Between these eras is the pivotal moment of Expo 86. During the 1970s the CPR moved its railway yards to Port Coquitlam, leaving its False Creek site empty and contaminated. “At that time it was a down-on-the-heels, kind of tatty place that had seen far better days,” recalls Jim Lowden, who managed the planning office of Marathon, the company’s real estate arm. His job was to develop the area, but the market wasn’t ready for any such major scheme. In 1979 the province bought the 71 hectares of land along the north side of False Creek, with plans to host a world’s fair.

Sponsored Ads

Expo 86 is credited with putting Vancouver on the global stage, and the subsequent sale of the fair grounds to Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-Shing is a dramatic example of the city’s new stature. Under the name Concord Pacific, the developers first envisioned excavated lagoons along Pacific Boulevard, creating two large islands extending into False Creek. Lowden, then working as a Vancouver urban planner, recalls the idea “as exclusionary and upper-class snotty as you could get.” The Roundhouse, which had been used by the railway company for engine repair and by Expo 86 as a transportation pavilion, was conceived of as a galleria of boutiques.

Twenty years later Yaletown has again attracted worldwide attention, this time as a successful high-density, mixed community that is deliberately not “upper-class snotty.” The elementary school, daycare and co-op housing make it attractive to young families, and seniors’ buildings have attracted the other end of the spectrum. The city successfully lobbied Concord to keep the Roundhouse as a community centre, whose interesting structure and vibrant arts and recreation programs make it an anchor for the area. You could say that the hundred-dollar bottles of balsamic vinegar at Urban Fare are exclusionary, but where else in the city is there such good people-watching? Through two decades of major change, Yaletown has kept its blue-collar soul in the brick exteriors and railway remnants.

New developments, such as Chandler Development’s H + H condominium mid-rise, are designed to integrate into the streetscape. Even its name is a strange blend of old and new. The town of Yale was a major railway junction, where westbound trains with mountain engines were equipped with a lighter flatland variety. Some sources credit Yale folk travelling into the city for naming the district. But according to Lowden, that’s only half the story. Marathon’s marketers dug up the name from early documents when they were trying to give the area its own identity. The blocks from Mainland up to Seymour once known as Southeast Granville, and the Concord Pacific lands along False Creek, got lumped in along the way.

“We have expanded the term ‘Yaletown,’” says Lowden. “It really applied originally only to the historical preserve — those four blocks of low-rise buildings.” The neighbourhood itself, in fact, has expanded, transformed, developed. Just not grown up.

Related Articles