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Downtown skyline

Downtown

Downtown is Vancouver's primary business district, houses many arts, entertainment, and sports venues, and is close to several vibrant residential communities. A peninsula, Downtown is bounded by Burrard Inlet on the north, False Creek and the popular district of Yaletown to the south. The West End neighbourhood and world-famous Stanley Park are to the west, and the popular historic districts of Gastown, Chinatown, and Strathcona are to the east.

Neighbourhood history and heritage

Just over a century ago, Vancouver was a two-block collection of buildings called Granville (now known as Gastown). This location on Burrard Inlet was competing to be the west coast terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway. By 1887, a year after the City of Vancouver was incorporated, the first passenger train arrived at the foot of Howe Street, and future growth was assured. In the next seven years, a building boom began to move the city centre from Water and Cordova Streets up to Georgia and Granville Streets. Streetcar service was initiated in 1890, joining the waterfront to Granville, Pender and Cordova Streets.

The following decade confirmed Granville Street as the centre of Downtown, and a real estate boom spiraled land costs upwards. By 1912, a core office and shopping area was well developed, flanked by comfortable residential neighbourhoods. The period after World War I saw another economic leap forward and more Downtown development. The 1929 stock market crash halted it all, and began a thirty five year period of very little change in the area.

The late 1960s and 70s saw rapid growth in the Downtown and adjacent areas such as the West End. Vancouver solidified its position as an international financial and business centre and white collar jobs in the city core multiplied. Pacific Centre Mall was developed and Granville Street was transformed into a transit mail. Rapid changes to the skyline, combined with urban renewal proposals for Gastown and a freeway through Chinatown lead to a surge of resident concerns about the future of the Downtown. Citizen involvement successfully defeated the freeway proposals, and in 1971 the provincial government designated Gastown and Chinatown as historic districts. The Robson Square Courthouse and Vancouver Art Gallery complex was completed in 1977 creating an important public space in the heart of the Downtown.

Industrial land surrounding False Creek was rezoned to permit comprehensive redevelopment into residential neighbourhoods. The early 80s saw a 60,000 seat indoor stadium called B.C. Place built just south of the Georgia Viaduct. In 1986 the north shore of False Creek was the venue for an international exposition, EXPO 86. The Canada Place Trade and Convention Centre was constructed on Burrard Inlet as Canada's pavilion to the fair. It is also the city's cruise ship terminal. The first phase of SkyTrain, linking Downtown to New Westminster, was also built to coincide with EXPO.

In the late 1980s, the Downtown was clearly in transition from a precinct dedicated mostly to commerce, to a cluster of neighbourhoods ringing a thriving office and shopping district. Council adoption of the Central Area Plan in late 1991 confirmed this direction by establishing overall goals and land use policy for the Downtown.

False Creek North

Located on the former EXPO 86 site, on the north shore of False Creek, development of this 83-hectare (204-acre) site will include 8,500 residential units housing for more than 14,000 people, 2.6 million square feet of commercial space, social housing, parks, schools, community facilities, and a waterfront walkway and bicycle route.

Yaletown

Once the city's warehouse district, Yaletown is today a revitalized part of the city and a "trendy" place to live, work, and do business. The area north of Pacific Boulevard, between Nelson and Drake Streets, is home to a mix of art galleries, retail stores, restaurants, office and residential developments. Like many areas of Vancouver, Yaletown's early days were shaped by the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1887. Yaletown acquired its name when the railway moved its construction equipment and repair shops from Yale in the Fraser Canyon to the railway's western terminus of Vancouver.

The next 20 years saw many sawmills and shingle mills locate on the north side of False Creek. By the turn of the century, business was booming throughout B.C. and Vancouver had become the wholesaling centre for western Canada. In 1900, the City laid out streets and planned a new eight-block warehouse district near the original Yaletown. This new Yaletown (the one most commonly recognized today) was bounded by Nelson, Homer, Drake and Pacific streets, and was a convenient and cheap point for the processing, repackaging and warehousing of goods.

In the late 1920s,Vancouver created its first city plan and Yaletown was zoned for commercial and light industrial use. Although the city expected more warehouses to be built, the advent of truck trailer transport prompted many industries to move closer to major highways. By the 1950s, so many homeowners had sold to factories and shops that the Central School at Dunsmuir and Cambie was forced to close. The area was home to little more than parking space until the late 1970s and 1980s when young urban professionals discovered that Yaletown's old warehouses were convenient, inexpensive and attractive. Today, former industrial buildings, warehouses and working-class houses have been transformed into offices, restaurants and trendy nightspots. Loft-style residences also proliferate.

The heritage significance of the old Yaletown truck loading docks and their characteristic overhanging canopies has been recognized by City Council as a unique architectural feature identifying the area. Pedestrian traffic, outside seating and other active uses are recommended for these areas.

Victory Square

Located along Hastings and Pender Streets, between Carrall and Richards, and includes the east side of Beatty Street between Pender and Dunsmuir. The centre of the area is Victory Square Park which is surrounded by a large number of heritage and character buildings. The park is home to the Cenotaph honouring the dead of two world wars.

Granville Slopes

Located on False Creek between the Granville and Burrard Bridges, south of Pacific Avenue, Granville Slopes is emerging as one of the city's highest density residential neighbourhoods. A conceptual plan is in place to guide future development of this 10 hectare (25 acre) site.

Triangle West

Triangle West is bounded by Coal Harbour, the West End, downtown Vancouver to the west and south, and downtown to the East. It has developed as an area of mixed use. The Central Area Plan identifies Triangle West as a "choice of use" area, where new development can be entirely office, entirely residential, hotel or a combination. Relatively few development sites will remain once projects currently under construction, or in the approvals process, are complete.

Downtown South

In 1991, Council amended Downtown's Official Development Plan for the area known as Downtown South. Located south of Robson Street, east of the West End, and north of Pacific Street and historic Yaletown, this 51 ha (128 ac) area will be transformed into a high-density residential and mixed-use community. By 2020, the area should be home to approximately 11,000 people in 5,600 housing units. Guidelines are in place to provide view protection and ensure a livable, high density neighbourhood for residents.

Granville and Davie Streets are the major retail strips catering to residents and office workers. Strategies are being developed to provide the community with social, recreational and health services. Examples include a community centre, job development support, a mental health drop-in centre, and outreach programs.

Development levies on new projects will help fund services and amenities such as park land, replacement housing, and day care facilities. Council has also approved a unique streetscape plan for the area that will significantly improve the pedestrian environment.

Coal Harbour

Overlooking Stanley Park and the North Shore mountains, Coal Harbour stretches from Canada Place to Cardero Street along the Burrard Inlet shore. Development is that include 1.5 million square feet of office, retail and hotel space, as well as housing for about 3,500 people, is underway. In addition, a harbour side waterfront walkway and bicycle route along Coal Harbour will connect with the Stanley Park Seawall.

Bayshore Gardens

Bayshore Gardens is next to Coal Harbour's western boundary. This nine ha (23 acre) site will eventually be home to about 1,400 people and includes almost 40,000 square feet of commercial space. As part of the project, the Bayshore Hotel will be expanded and amenities will be added, including a 250-berth marina, a park, daycare, and waterfront walkway/ bicycle path linking Stanley Park and Coal Harbour.

The Bayshore Gardens and Coal Harbour developments are the first downtown residential neighbourhoods located on Burrard Inlet. Located between the West End and Downtown Vancouver, they provide unique and attractive urban living.

East False Creek

East False Creek is an extension of the False Creek North residential development on the old Expo 86 lands. This area, to the north of the Main Street SkyTrain Station and the Canadian National/Greyhound Bus Station, is positioned between Mount Pleasant and Chinatown. Transformation of this area began with the Citygate development, a 3.7 ha (9 acre) site located on the north side of Terminal Avenue between Main and Quebec Streets. The area was rezoned to permit 175,000 square feet of commercial space and up to 1,000 new units of housing for approximately 1,800 people.

Amenities include community space, two daycares and a payment in lieu for park space. The entire East False Creek area can eventually accommodate 1,500 apartments, housing up to 2,800 people, with 370,000 square feet of commercial space.

Chinatown

With the completion of the transcontinental railway in 1887 Chinese labourers settled along the shore of False Creek on what is now Pender Street between Carrall and Columbia Streets. The community grew so that it was once the largest Chinatown in Canada, and the second largest in North America.

The 1960s saw the community band together with Strathcona and Gastown to successfully defeat a freeway planned to cut through the three neighbourhoods. In the early 1970s the province designated Chinatown as a historic district. The distinctive character of the area is evident in the architecture which features the unique recessed balconies, decorative parapets and cornices.

Zoning in the Chinatown Historical District is intended to encourage the preservation and rehabilitation of significant early Chinatown buildings, while recognizing that the activities that make this district a city asset must be accommodated.

Gastown

The birthplace of Vancouver, originated in Maple Tree Square - the zero hundred block of Water Street where it intersects with Carrall Street - where Jack (Gassy) Deighton opened his saloon and the city's first business.

In April 1886 Gastown and the surrounding forest was incorporated as the City of Vancouver, in June the same year it burned to the ground. The area is a collection of 19th century buildings and early 20th century warehouses. Threatened with destruction by freeway and urban redevelopment projects in the 1970s, Gastown was designated as a heritage district by the provincial government.

Did you know?

The Great Fire of 1886 reduced the vast majority of Vancouver's buildings to ashes. The catastrophe did little to stop development, however. As stumps smoldered, rebuilding began.

Cars in Vancouver drove on the left side of the street until January 1, 1922.

After the Wall Street Crash in 1929, Vancouver's warm climate and location at the western end of the transcontinental railway helped to make it the "Hobo Capital of Canada." The destitute set up shanty towns under the Georgia Viaduct and along the False Creek flats and on vacant land near the harbour on Burrard inlet.

The first traffic light was installed at the corner of Hastings and Main on October 18, 1928. Parking meters were first installed in 1946. One hour of parking cost 5 cents.

A 1960s plan that would have seen historic Gastown buildings replaced by highrises, office towers, malls and freeways was scrapped in 1969. Between 1970 and 1975 the area's historic buildings and the neighbourhood were revitalized.

A tunnel connects the main post office on Georgia Street to the former CPR Station on Cordova Street. Now used by film crews in search of an eerie location, the 2,400-foot concrete passageway was originally used to move mail quickly to waiting waterfront trains.

Pioneer Cemetery lies along the shore at the eastern tip of Stanley Park between the Nine O'Clock Gun and the Brockton Point Lighthouse. When Stanley Park was officially opened in 1888 the city stopped using the site. Mountain View Cemetery on Fraser Street, purchased by the City in 1887, became the city's main burial ground.

When the CPR moved its construction camp headquarters from Yale to Vancouver, entire houses were placed on flatcars and transported to what became known as Yaletown.

As we learn more about our past, our interest in preserving it grows. Each year buildings that were previously unknown or overlooked are nominated for inclusion on the Heritage Register. The register is the way city staff and the public keep track of building of heritage value. Buildings are graded depending on their architectural, historical or contextual value, and some are "protected" through heritage designation.
Within the downtown core there are many landmark buildings, including:

  • The Hotel Vancouver (1929-1939), 900 West Georgia
  • The Marine Building, (1930), 355 Burrard
  • The Sun Tower (1912), 100 West Pender
  • Christ Church Cathedral (1889-1895), 690 Burrard
  • CPR Station (1914), 601 West Cordova 
  • Court House/Vancouver Art Gallery(1906-1912), 800 West Georgia
  • Woodwards (1903, plus 9 additions), 101 West Hastings
  • B.C. Hydro Building (1957), 970 Burrard

See detailed information on the city's heritage and a complete list of heritage buildings.

Additional information is available through the City of Vancouver Archives.

Initiatives in Downtown

Northeast False Creek from the air

Northeast False Creek

Northeast False Creek is the last big piece of undeveloped waterfront land in downtown Vancouver.

Downtown Skyline

Downtown office development

Get information on office, retail, commercial, and industrial development in downtown Vancouver.

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Road closures and construction

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Grants and awards

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Growing food

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Downtown Bus Service Review

The City of Vancouver is working with Translink to develop a short term vision for the bus network in the downtown core.