What’s So Special About The Drive?

Last night I was privileged to be on the panel convened by Heritage Vancouver at SFU Woodwards to discuss the future of Commercial Drive.

The other panelists were Suzanne Dahlin, chair of the Britannia Planning Committee, current GWAC Chair Dorothy Barkley, Theo Lamb of Cicada Community Consulting, and architect Tim Ankerman. The panel was well moderated by Javier Campos, President of Heritage Vancouver and a guest critic at UBC’s SALA.

The meeting was well attended by an informed and interested audience, judging from their questions in the Q&A session,  It was especially good to see so many residents of the Drive and its neighbourhood in the audience.

I didn’t make notes beforehand but the following is the gist of my opening remarks on the processes that have made the Drive what it is today, and its content informed the balance of my answers last night:

From its founding in the early years of the 1900s through to the Second World War, the Drive was a rather staid and boring street, dominated by a population that was 85%+ Anglo. By the mid-1950s, the Drive was collapsing as an economic unit and Grandview was undergoing what the City called “slumification.” However, the area was saved by two circumstances: the Italians who had previously lived in Strathcona decided to move East; and Federal immigration laws were relaxed, allowing many more southern and eastern Europeans to settle in Grandview.

Perhaps surprisingly — but certainly an important marker for the future — the Anglo elite welcomed these newcomers because they added a vitality and prosperity to the Drive that had not been there for a generation.

Since that time – for some 60 years – the Drive has been the scene of continuous change. We have had a constant change of people on the Drive – starting with the Italians and the Portuguese and some East Europeans, followed by Central Americans, Jamaicans, those from the Middle East, and a variety of Africans. Not only different cultures and nationalities and languages, but also different sexualities and those of various economic circumstances were welcomed to the neighbourhood.

Each of these groups have left their mark on the patina that is the glory of the Drive today. They have changed building styles, grocery options, street art, food availability, everything; and they have done this over and over again.

And all of these continuous changes have been welcomed, indeed encouraged, by most Drive residents.  And that is because all these changes have been subtle, incremental, and evolutionary within the general envelope of what the Drive is – which is a place of low-rise buildings, 25′ store fronts, and, importantly, local business ownership.

That is how we got to today, and it this same velocity and style of change that will maintain the Drive that we all love. Introducing rapid and intrusive change can only damage what is a highly successful and well-loved neighbourhood.

I believe the view that change should be managed in an incremental and Drive-appropriate manner was accepted by most on the panel. However, while protections for the Drive itself were agreed, there was a lot of discussion about how the wider Grandview community can implement increased density.

For example, I am keen to see the three-storey walk-up apartment zone west of the Drive improved and densified, so long as the affordable rental nature of the zone can be continued. Bruce Macdonald from the audience suggested that many of these buildings could accept a fourth storey at relatively little cost (because the land was already held), thus adding a rapid 30% to the density. Tim Ankerman noted that may of these buildings were suitable for infill projects.

It was a good evening and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

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