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