Visitors and locals alike often wonder why Commercial Drive south of First Avenue — a wide arterial road — is different than the northern half which is narrower and more intimate. The reason goes back more than 110 years and it all had to do with political intrigue in the Balkans.
Like many streets in Vancouver, Commercial Drive (or Park Drive as it was then called) began as a path through tall stands of timber, or at least the stumps thereof. It was barely wide enough for the interurban tracks that were laid in the early 1890s. As Grandview began to grow in the first years of the twentieth century, and as the Drive developed into the retail and commercial hub of a burgeoning residential neighbourhood, the roadway was widened and improved to a standard width of 66 feet.
As early as 1909, the Grandview Progress Association had written to the Vancouver Board of Worls suggesting that Park Drive be widened. But it was not until 1911 that City engineers had begun planning to widen several main thoroughfares, including Main Street and Park Drive. Discussion of this possibility became a matter of concern for developers wanting to erect new buildings and wondering what street line they should plan for. In July of that year G.W. Fuller and other Park Drive property owners approached the Board of Works for clarification. He suggested that the Drive be widened from 6th Avenue south to the City limits from 66 feet to 80 feet. Fuller asserted that 75% of the property owners were in favour of the plan, each to give seven feet on either side of the road. He noted that the southern end of the Drive was not yet built up but would become busier once the tram cars started to make their planned turn at 6th Avenue. It was, he suggested, a good time to make the improvement while local owners were willing to defray the costs. Alderman Williamson moved that the City Engineer report on Fuller’s request. However, Alderman Cameron felt it was “unfair that the residents of one portion of the street should pay” for improvements desired by the other portion; and so the motion was amended to seek the Engineer’s report on widening the Drive all the way from Venables to 16th Avenue.i
Later that same month, the Ward 5 Ratepayers Association wrote to the Board urging that the Park Drive widening be completed as soon as possible. But the Engineer reported that there were issues with the sewer system which needed to be solved before any street widening could take place. The matter seems to have been settled quickly as the Board in August was urging that the widening from 6th Avenue south should be rushed forward “with all possible speed.”ii
The Engineer also recommended that the widening be divided into two parts. He noted that the Drive from Venables to First Avenue was “fairly built up with brick buildings” and was already under contract for pavement. It would be more complex to deal with a widening of that section compared to the barely developed southern section. This recommendation was approved by the Board of Works in September where a budget of $208,772 was agreed for the northern section, and $215,137 for the much longer southern part, to be paid by local assessment. The details were published as a Public Improvement By-Law on October 18th 1911.iii
Opposition to the plan emerged in November 1911 when a number of Drive ratepayers met at Grandview Hall under the chairmanship of realtor A.E. Tregent who was secretary of the Property Owners Association. They were concerned about what if any compensation would be paid for losing seven feet of their land. Moreover, many of them claimed that the Drive was already wide enough for the amount of traffic they were seeing. The majority attending believed, following an address by Professor Edward Odlum, that if the widening was to go ahead either the City or the BC Electric Railway should pay as the streetcar operators woud be the main beneficiaries. In a sumbission to the Court of Revision, they complained again about what they considered the excessive costs of the project.iv
Whether it was this opposition or simply pressure of other work for the engineers, the widening project took a long time to get started. In September 1912, almost a full year after the meeting in Grandview Hall, propery owners had taken to complaining that they still did not know the street line against which they should be building. A letter from the London and British North Amerca Company noted that some buildings had been erected seven feet back from the old street line, and other owners didn’t know whether they should move their buildings back or not. They complained that they could not get the City to make the necessary arrangements to acquire the strip required for the widening nor, indeed, get confirmation that the widening was actually going to happen. Meanwhile, they were unable to rent their stores and houses due to the uncertainty and had lost considerable revenue. Land Agent J.B. Williams said the problem had been caused by “the mixed-up condition” of papers at the Land Registry Office which was delaying the surveying of road widening across the city. He thought that another four months would be needed before the work on Commercial Drive could begin.v
By January 1913, the sidewalks south of First Avenue had been laid on the new streetline, but only one building had been moved. Property owners led by Charles E. Smith appealed to the Board of Works to allow them to move the buildings themselves if the City was unwilling to proceed even though the work had been contracted with McCain Bros. The Board ordered the Purchasing Agent, the City comptroller and the City solicitor to report on the situation by the next meeting.vi
Two weeks later, the Purchasing Agent reported to the Board that only 101 of the 175 property owners had signed their approval to accept the assessment. He suggested that support for the widening scheme was flagging with each delay. Board chair Alderman Crewe agreed that the whole matter was a “muddle,” but promised that the removals would begin just as soon as final terms had been agreed.vii
To the relief of just about everyone, the work began in earnest in early February 1913. A total of nineteen buildings were to be moved back between First and Fifeenth Avenues, and Messrs. McCains planned to set a second gang of men to work by the middle of the month. They anticipated completion by April.viii
We are fortunate to have photographic evidence of one of the building moves.
In the 1900-block of Commercial, the Frederick Block was erected in March 1911 along the former streetline. In the photograph above from 1912 it can be seen as jutting forward compared to the Allen Block next door which was built several months later along the new streetline. The right-hand image shows the same blocks today, with the Frederick Block having been moved back seven feet to align with its neighbour.
The work of moving buildings actually took longer than anticipated but, by the middle of August 1913, the final building to be moved was dealt with. This was the Halse Block at 1729-1735 Commercial which had been built in 1910 at a cost of $14,000.
The Vancouver Daily World covered the unusual move in great detail and their report is worth quoting at length: ix
“Complete success attended the moving back of the large two-storey brick building on Commercial Drive, between First and Second Avenues, which undertaking was carried out this morning in connection with the Commercial Drive widening scheme. This was the first time that such a thing had been attempted locally and the task was watched by a large crowd of interested onlookers. The structure contained three stores on the ground floor and seven suites of apartments on the upper floor. Many of the latter were occupied during the time of the setting back of the building, but so gently was the work carried out that the movement was all but imperceptible.
The building weighed, at a careful estimate, 550 tons, and the whole of it, from the very foundation, was set back seven feet. During the operation, the water supply and the sewerage system was not interfered with for a moment, the occupants of the apartments being able to continue their domestic duties without let or hindrance.”
The work may have been completed successfully but the building’s owner, George Halse, was not happy. He successfully sued the City, seeking $7,000 compensation for the seven feet of property he lost. After protracted negotiations, the City settled by paying him $4,200 plus $300 costs.x
The moving of the Halse Building turned out to be the final act of the Commercial Drive widening saga. Not unlike today, Vancouver’s growth before the First World War was driven in large part by foreign money. In the early 1900s it was British funds that drove the market. However, in late 1912 a serious crisis erupted in the Balkans and, cautious as money managers tend to be, they decided to hoard their cash in London rather than invest in Canada. By March 1913, the financial market situation in Vancouver was grave, leaving the City with a large amount of unsold municipal improvement bonds. The City was obliged to cease all local improvement work for the balance of the year. xi
Although the bond markets would quickly recover once the Balkan crisis was over, this recession was followed almost immediately by the start of the First World War, and the Commercial Drive widening scheme was never resumed, leaving the section north of First Avenue at its original width. In November 1915, the Improvement By-Law for the northern half of the Drive was repealed.xii
i GPA request: Daily News Advertizer 1909 Dec 21, p.8. The discussion at the Board of Works meeting is covered in Vancouver Daily World 1911 Jul 12, p.9; Province, p.7
ii Vancouver Daily World 1911 Jul 26, p.8; Daily News Advertizer 1911 Aug 3, p. 5. Discussion of the sewer issue can be found at Province 1911 Jun 15, p.13, Oct 13, p.7
iii Engineer’s comments reported in Daily News Advertizer 1911 Aug 9, p.10. Approvals: Vancouver Daily World 1911 Sep 20, p.3
iv Vancouver Daily World 1911 Oct 31, p.8, Nov 1, p.11; Province Nov 1, p.11; Daily News Advertizer Nov 14, p.7
v Sun 1912 Sept 12, p.11; Vancouver Daily World, p.16
vi Daily News Advertizer 1913 Jan 22, p.2, Province, p.9; Vancouver Daily World p.7
vii Vancouver Daily World 1913 Jan 29, p.13; Daily News Advertizer, p.3
viii Vancouver Daily World 1913 Feb 5, p.4; Mar 7, p.14; Province Mar 8, p.40
ix Vancouver Daily World 1913 Aug 15, p.24. This is now known as the Brandon Block. Building details from the building permit dated 8th November 1910.
x Daily News Advertizer 1914 Jan 24, p.7; Province Oct 6, p.2; Sun, p.2, 1915 Aug 13, p.8
xi Province 1913 March 19, p.22; Vancouver Daily World, p.17. The financial crisis affected the private market, too, causing bancruptcies among local developers such as James Guinet in Grandview
xii Province 1915 Nov 18, p.15