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The History of Yaletown in Vancouver

The History of Yaletown in Vancouver

Yaletown in VancouverUntil a few years ago Yaletown, the warehouse district in Vancouver’s Downtown South area, was relatively unknown to most Vancouverites.

Now with its mixture of art galleries, retail stores, restaurants, offices and new residential developments, Yaletown has become a vital part of the city.

In Yaletown you can still see early rooming houses, late 19th century warehouses and some surviving single-family homes.

Like many parts of Vancouver, Yaletown's early days were shaped by the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Vancouver Yaletown RoundhouseIn 1886, Vancouver became the western terminus for the CPR, and the city offered the CPR a 20-year exemption from local taxes if it built its rail yards and repair facilities on False Creek's north shore. The CPR agreed, moving its machinery and employees from its former shops at Yale in the Fraser River canyon to the new site. The CPR workers felled trees, cleared a townsite and graded streets. They built a roundhouse and other facilities for maintaining and repairing steam locomotives.

For their own shelter, some workers literally moved house, loading their houses in Yale onto flatcars and sending them by rail to the new Yaletown. Most, however, lived in rooming houses like the Yaletown Hotel, which offered companionship, cheap lodgings and board to the many bachelor railroad workers.


Over the next 20 years, other heavy industries found the north shore of False Creek accommodating. By 1907, a shingle mill, cooperage and cement works were operating by the creek. Sawmill workers floated booms in the creek and loaded lumber destined for the Canadian prairies onto nearby rail cars. Labourers in these industries usually lived nearby, thus saving streetcar fares by walking to their workplaces. On this walking tour, look for the handful of remaining wooden frame houses from this era. Imagine street after street closely packed with similar modest homes and a neighbourhood of people who walked to work and school together, socialized at church suppers and argued at union picnics. Imagine also the thick clouds of black smoke that contemporaries recall hanging over the area day after day.


At the turn of the last century, business was good throughout the province: mining in the Kootenays, farming in the Okanagan and fishing off the coast. As people in small towns found they had cash in their pockets, they searched the local stores for ways to spend it. Vancouver cashed in, becoming the wholesaling centre for western Canada. Goods were shipped from the east on the CPR and warehoused in Vancouver. Armies of travelling salesmen fanned out over the province, supplying small-town shopkeepers. By 1910, over 1000 commercial travellers called Vancouver home.

In 1900, the City laid out a new eight-block warehouse district near the original Yaletown. Next door to the old CPR Yaletown, this new Yaletown (the one most commonly recognized today) was bounded by Nelson, Homer, Drake and Pacific Streets. All but four of the buildings noted in this tour were built between 1909 and 1913. The original tenants were warehousing companies, truck and transfer firms and small manufacturers. This district, located near both the CPR’s rail lines and its shipping dock, was a convenient and cheap point for processing, repackaging and warehousing goods before they were shipped once again.

In the late 1920s, when Vancouver considered its very first city plan, city officials felt certain that to prosper, Vancouver would need more industry, and that new industry would want to locate near downtown. The area between the bridges at Cambie and Granville Streets, which included Yaletown, seemed a logical place. In 1929, the City passed a series of zoning by-laws based on this vision, and Yaletown itself was zoned for commercial and light industrial uses. City officials expected the construction of more six-storey warehouses like those built between 1909 and 1913.

But that is not how its future turned out. Vancouver attracted industry, but, with the advent of truck and trailer transportation, most of that industry located itself near freeways on low-rent suburban land. And although downtown Vancouver prospered, it was a city of white-collar office workers. Some light industries, such as printers and food processors, did build in Yaletown. But the zoning had the most dramatic impact on the working-class neighbourhood. As factories and shops threatened residential streets, home-owners sold out. By the 1950s, even the nearby Central School was closed.

During the 1960s, Vancouver began its transformation into a city of high rises. But Yaletown and the adjacent area remained untouched by this trend. Yaletown’s participation in the boom was limited to providing cheap parking for commuting office workers. Deteriorating houses were razed to create the many small surface parking lots that still dot the area.

In recent years, however, Yaletown has become the focus for a new series of changes in the downtown area. Young urban professionals are finding Yaletown's old warehouses convenient to downtown, relatively inexpensive and architecturally attractive. Other North American cities such as Portland and New York have renovated and recycled their warehouse districts, and that process is now underway in Yaletown. Notice the current occupants of former industrial buildings and working-class houses--professional offices for architects, lawyers and accountants, upscale eateries, trendy nightspots and loft-style residences.

The City has recognized Yaletown's architectural and historical importance by zoning it as a historic district which allows for new uses while maintaining the special character of the area.

Vancouver YaletownThe nearby former Expo Lands are being developed with a mix of high-density commercial, residential and cultural uses as part of the development of Pacific Place. A taste of this can be seen along the eastern edge of Yaletown, which has undergone profound changes in the last few years from vast parking lots to high rise residential buildings. The increasing residential population in the area has a wide array of restaurants, cafés and galleries to choose from as more continue to open in Yaletown, creating a unique and attractive urban neighbourhood on the edge of downtown.

Yaletown’s recent development into a residential neighbourhood has in some respects paralleled its early growth when workers moved here to be close to their workplace. Only now the majority of today’s jobs are in the office and service industries, a far cry from the early industrial smoke and grime.

The area immediately to the west of Yaletown, known as Downtown South, has been home to light industrial and entertainment uses until only recently. Downtown South is now being developed as a high-density residential neighbourhood combined with retail, office and entertainment uses.

Yaletown Vancouver
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