Street Series: Hamilton

(This is one article in a nine-part series that was originally published in The Province on great streets in Metro Vancouver) 

On a sunny day, people pack into the narrow, distinctive sides of Hamilton Street to part with their money. Surrounded by the past (former warehouses) and present (glass condos), they’ll peruse the gourmet restaurants and boutique stores.

It’s the parking meters, however, that Neil Wyles may be most proud of.

“We now have garbage cans and trees and street art,” says Wyles, owner of the Hamilton Street Grill.

“We’ve managed to do simple things. We’ve gone from having huge street level issues to none.”

Wyles remembers when he started the restaurant in 1996. The area was being transformed by city-spurred investments and incentives, but Kitsilano was still his first choice for a restaurant.

Still, he got a phone call and was persuaded to become a part of what he calls the “wild west” atmosphere of the burgeoning street.

“We were told good things were coming. Good things like street lights,” he joked.

“There were no parking meters. You could probably get about 50 different types of specialty shampoos and conditioners, but you couldn’t get a bar of soap.”

If Hamilton was a self-aware, growing teenager in the ‘90s and a young adult living life to the fullest last decade, it’s now reaching that age of maturity where community and affordability start to matter a little more.

The people who live and work there embrace the change.

“It’s really undergone a facelift,” said Susan Vu, owner of Stripped Wax Bar, her second business in Yaletown.

“When I used to think of the area, I thought of it solely as a shopping area with expensive Yaletown prices. Now it’s a lifestyle area, a beauty area . . . it’s attracting a new group of people. This generation will stay for a while.”

Yaletown’s 21st-century explosion is now the stuff of urban renewal legend. It began as the area where Canadian Pacific Railway workers from the gold rush town of Yale lived as they built the final stretch of the trans-national railway.

One hundred years later, old warehouses dominated this sleepy industrial area off the beaten path. But when Expo 86 showed the promise of developing False Creek, the city opened up the former rail lands to business, allowing towering glass edifices to intermingle with multi-purpose heritage buildings.

Almost everyone agrees Yaletown has been a success. Less clear is what lessons can be drawn from it.

“To me, Yaletown is almost a textbook model of what the neighbourhood frame must be in the future,” says Larry Beasley, Vancouver’s co-director of planning during the area’s boom.

“It was doable because it was naturally a high enough density to be practical to do. We’ve found an extraordinary level of satisfaction, because what the neighbourhood has is all the facilities, it has all the shops, the diversity of housing, schools, daycares. It has everything.”

But Patrick Condon, an architect professor at the University of British Columbia, argues against creating a cluster of condos within a dense series of blocks.

“Why Yaletown worked is the towers came where there weren’t already bungalows and you already had a pattern in the West End to serve as a prototype,” he said. “That’s a peculiar special circumstance. But when you move to other parts of the city that’s not the case. It’s two-story buildings that dominate the landscape. People are rightfully concerned when there’s a project coming in that’s 50 times denser.”

Today people on Hamilton worry about how to keep the neighbourhood popular into its middle age.

“I think we have to keep enhancing the experience so it’ll stay an attraction,” said Nicholas Gandossi, general manager of Opus Hotel. “The type of restaurants we get will help determine it. Independent, specialized offerings is the key. People want a mix of big brand, but also unique things you can’t get anywhere.”

The murmurs of brand restaurants weakening the area’s identify is heard often these days, along with an acknowledgment that it’s no longer the focus of downtown.

“We’re losing ground to Gastown, but Gastown has been the hot new thing probably 20 different times,” said Wyles.

“Over the years the city has put a lot of effort into that area, and effort equals money. They have iconic items that draw people in. We don’t have anything like that.”

There’s no steam clock or winding streets, but there is a community learning to evolve without exploding. Building schools, improving parks—this is what starts to matter in middle age.

And on the street named for Lauchlan Hamilton, the CPR land commissioner who created the streets for downtown Vancouver in the 1880s, Wyles proudly points out new benches made of wood from old warehouses.

“We’re slowly developing our livable neighbourhood,” he said, pointing to the reminder of the past that benefits tourists and residents alike. “People sometimes have a sense of entitlement as to how this street has evolved, but this was a warehouse district. Something was here beforehand.”

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