1887 CPR Plan for Vancouver

1887 CPR: Plan of the City of Vancouver  

Maj. J.S. Matthews, Early Vancouver Vol. 1 (Vancouver, City of Vancouver, 2011) p. 7.

John Atkin describes how the Vancouver Plan was drawn as follows:

[T]he railway had surveyor L.A. Hamilton draw and register the official townsite plan for Vancouver. The survey was done solely on paper and not with stakes and measurements on the ground, so the streets were laid out with no regard for the existing topography. The streets of Granville [Gastown] and the Oppenheimers’ earlier City of Liverpool scheme were incorporated by Hamilton into his drawing. Gore Avenue, the one street that did not conform to the new grid, was the original skid road for logs to the Hastings Mill, and its odd angle was allowed to remain. The streets east of Main were named after landowners in the area (mainly the directors of the soon to be incorporated Vancouver Improvement Company) and on the west side, for the most part, after CPR officials, including Hamilton himself.

John Atkin. Strathcona: Vancouver’s First Neighbourhood.(Whitecap Books, 1994; pp. 11 – 13).

The Bartholomew Report (1929; p.26) cautions about the manner in which the Vancouver Plan and the early subdivisions were drawn:

There is one fact which students of the growth of the Vancouver town plan must remember at this stage. While reference has been made to the subdivision of all these lands, it must not be accepted that the townsite was actually surveyed. All these sub-divisions were what is known as paper subdivisions, which were prepared by taking for granted that the original survey under which the Crown Grant was issued was correct and preparing a map according to scale which would fit into this envelope. There were no stakes, nor were any of the roads laid out on the ground. The only private subdivision which is an exception to this rule is District Lot 192.

The most significant aspect of the Hamilton plan drawn for the CPR is its incorporation of the  West End, Granville (Gastown) and the East End plats, a bargain for which the CPR obtained about every third lot in the West End, and every sixth lot in the East End. In a footnote Norbert McDonald explains how he arrived at this calculation “… from an examination of L. A. Hamilton, Map of Vancouver, 1887, and the Vancouver Assessment Roll 1888.”  Maj. Matthews supports the reading of CPR plans showing blacked out lots as representing properties acquired by the CPR from the earlier, adjacent subdivisions (MacDonald, The Canadian Pacific Railway and Vancouver’s Development to 1900. BC Studies, no. 35, Autumn 1977. P.11, foot note 15). The split in street numbering between west and east occurs at Carrall Street, where the Granville Townsite plat meets the subdivision for the East End. Note that a rail spur from Burrard Inlet to False Creek crosses the East End and would later be used by the B.C. Electric streetcars.

In the most important part of the CPR plan, the downtown blocks of the Hamilton plat, some seven urbanistic elements can be identified reminiscent of Col. Moody’s 1859 Plan for New Westminster in particular, and town planning practice in general:

  1. Block 27 Victory Square, and half of Block 37 fronting across Pender Street, are both labelled as “Government Square”. These appear to be the sole public spaces ceded by the Railway company to the future citizens of its capital. To this day the severe cross slope on Victory Square renders the site virtually unusable.
  2. Half of lot 42, fronting on the north side of Georgia between Howe & Granville, is shown as a public square situated directly across from the site of the first CPR Hotel. That hotel was sited on half of Block 52 fronting on the south side of Georgia Street, across from the public square, between Howe and Granville Streets, today the Vancouver Art Gallery/Courthouse site. Arguably, this is the best parcel in the plan.
  3. The Georgia Street side of blocks 42, 43, 44 and 52, 53, 54 occupy the crest of the downtown peninsula’s topography, and are arguably the best sites downtown.
  4. Lot 64 bounded by Smithe, Seymour, Richards and Robson is left open and unlabelled.
  5. Block 48 bounded by Georgia, Dunsmuir, Cambie and Beatty is set aside for a playing field (L. A. Hamilton, Map of Vancouver, 1887; not shown). Major Matthews records an interview that tells the tale of how the Cambie Fields came to be, and Hamilton’s role in selecting a site that the Company would not find too objectionable. The Cambie Street grounds are today being considered as the future site for the VAG (Vancouver Art Gallery).
  6. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Hamilton plan is platting the full half-mile trajectory of Hastings Street in the CPR lands as a high street with closed street end vistas. Here Hastings is defined by eight pairs of perfectly square city blocks. The half-mile length of Hastings Street is just right for human sense perception. The length of the entire street feels accessible on foot. The closed street end vistas that result from the bend in the street grids, combined with the scale imparted by the square blocks give this part of the city its unique characteristics. Taken together these characteristics make this section of Hastings Street a place set aside, a unique realm. Unfortunately, the scale of buildings erected as we approach Burrard Street is out of balance with the intended urbanism, keeping this special precinct in shadow for most of the year. The towering buildings make the 80-foot width of the right of way in this section feel dingy. Fronted by buildings of the scale and rhythm of the Vancouver Club, the Post Office at Synclair Centre, or any of the bank pavilions, the CPR blocks of Hastings Street would have obtained an entirely different result.
  7. A second feature of the plan are the six long streets—Burrard, Hornby, Howe, Granville, Seymour, and Richards—platted with street end vistas terminated by the north shore mountains, and the water of the inlet. This is the most unforgettable aspect of Vancouver’s urbanism in the downtown today. It lends the downtown an immediate sense of orientation. The feature has been made even more pronounced as towers rise raising the height of the enclosing street walls.

There are several things not to like about the downtown blocks in the Hamilton Plan.

  1. The ratio of the block length to the block width is too great in the downtown. The blocks are too long for their narrow width. This imbalance colours the experience of walking downtown. The miscalculation is heightened when contemporary tower and podium build out occupies the entire block without breaking down the original block scale.
  2. For whatever reason, only every third street in the Hamilton plan aligns with streets in the West End. Intermittently, some lanes align with streets as well.
  3. Georgia Street, the chosen site of the CPR Hotel and fronting public square, is clearly an important urban design element in the Hamilton plan. Yet, Georgia terminates at the rail yards on the north shore of False Creek at one end; and on the Government Reserve at the other (the future Stanley Park).  Subsequent construction of the Georgia Viaducts made the False Creek end of Georgia Street into an auto-dominated environment. The accretion of full-block institutional buildings along both sides of the street furthered the sense of a dead-zone lacking in bustle (these include the library, post office, theatre, playhouse, the CBC and hockey stadium). At the opposite end, the plume of water rising from Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park is often touted as a terminating feature for Georgia Street in the West End. However, its scale seems frail today in a street overpowered by modern traffic and gigantic buildings. The construction of the Stanley Park causeway and Lions Gate Bridge has turned Georgia Street in the West End into an inhospitable thoroughfare traversing a shadowed tower zone.
  4. Hastings Street is the stronger urban spine in the Hamilton plan. Its origin at Coal Harbour on Cardero Street is hardly a suitable beginning for Vancouver’s Great Street. Yet, as we have already remarked, the street is transformed by the new platting as it bends into the Hamilton Plan at Burrard Street. Here the proportions are those of a great street—except for one crucial datum: platted 80-feet wide, this section of Hastings Street is too narrow in width for the towering streetwall that continues to build up. Nevertheless, the sequence of eight pairs of square city blocks leading to the original Granville Townsite is the third best piece of Vancouver urbanism after Stanley Park, and Maple Tree Square.
  5. The relationship between Hastings Street in the CPR or downtown blocks and Victory Square could not be an unhappier affair. Victory Square works better approaching it from the east, where it terminates the street end vista with a splendid urban setting for the Cenotaph. Approaching from the opposite direction, along Hastings from Burrard Street, the experience of Victory Square as an urban room has all the visual qualities of a vacant car lot.

Given a site with such a prominent urban future, the CPR platting for Vancouver is a workman-like effort. In a site with a geography where estuary, mountains and natural harbour converge, the plan lacks agility and invention. Even today, as one stands on any corner of the downtown blocks, the longing remains for some response in the urban form to the human experience of such a wonderful place. After 125 years urban design remains the singular missing element in the plan and the city it projects.

Comparing the CPR plan of 1886 with the Col. Moody Plan for New Westminster of 1859 we are confronted with more than just a difference in taste. A new ethos has taken hold. The contrast could not be starker. These are two very different approaches to urbanism. One steeped in tradition, the other hackneyed, and of a single purpose.

© Lewis N. Villegas, Vancouver, October 2011

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