New homes from the ashes

Saturday, February 28th, 2004

REBUILDING I Condo captures feel of Mount Pleasant and dovetails with neighbourhood’s renaissance

Brian Morton

Brian Martin, general manager of the Main Street HUB project, holds a model of the 42-unit tan-coloured brick condominium that will fill the hole left by fire. CREDIT: Mark van Manen, Vancouver Sun

The kitchen area of the HUB at 10th and Main. CREDIT: Mark van Manen, Vancouver Sun

An artist’s impression of the 42-unit, four-storey HUB condominium being built on Main Street that reflects the early 1900s feel of the neighbourhood. CREDIT: Mark van Manen, Vancouver Sun

Three years ago, on Feb. 21, 2001, a spectacular fire ripped through a row of businesses on Main Street between Broadway and 10th, ravaging a mattress factory, a seafood restaurant and a beef and pork jerky shop.

The three-alarm blaze, which took 50 firefighters and 12 trucks to battle, burned so hot that emergency crews had to adopt a “defensive” strategy and move some trucks away from the buildings.

Luckily, no one was injured.

However, rising from the ashes is a silver lining in the form of a 42-unit condominium project — scheduled to be ready for occupancy later this year — that is garnering praise in Mount Pleasant for paying close attention to the area’s heritage.

“Everyone is enthusiastic about this,” Mount Pleasant Business Improvement Area general manager Martha Welsh says of the project called HUB, which is being built by developer and heritage aficionado Robert Wilson. “Along Main we have full-block massing of buildings and this [HUB] captures that heritage feel of our area. This is bringing back some life to that block and will probably be a really good enhancement to the neighbourhood. And they’ve gone the extra mile with the materials and the design.

“We feel it will kick-start a lot of redevelopment there.”

The building, the first new condominium project developed by Wilson, adopts several of the elements of Main and Broadway’s heritage buildings, particularly with its massing, it’s incorporation of two separate facades (one about 21 metres wide, the other about 15 metres) along Main, and especially its prevalent use of tan-coloured brick, which was used extensively in surrounding structures built at the turn of the 19th century.

“We wanted a building that was compatible with the heritage buildings in the area,” says Wilson, whose previous projects include converting old heritage buildings in Yaletown and Gastown such as the old Nutty Club candy warehouse on Hamilton Street to artist live/work spaces — while retaining as much of the heritage aspects of the structures as possible.

“We spent a lot of time getting just the right type of brick and window design. And we have two different facades. We didn’t want a mass frontage, because most buildings [a hundred years ago] were about [15 metres] wide.

“We’re trying to reflect the early 1900s and it took six months of design planning by our architect working with the city. We weren’t required to do it in brick, but we wanted to do something that reflected that heritage aspect.”

Wilson‘s general manager for the HUB project, Brian Martin, has worked on several other heritage-type projects with Wilson before.

Martin says the building isn’t designed to look exactly like a heritage building, citing larger windows that modern buyers appreciate and concrete overhangs that lack the decorative details of older buildings. “We’re not a complete heritage replication,” Martin says of HUB, which is 60-per-cent pre-sold and features such modern amenities as environmentally-friendly bamboo floors, 2.7-metre (nine-foot) ceilings, a common roof-top deck, secured underground parking and a warranty the developer says exceeds government requirements.

“We’re a modern interpretation of a heritage building. When you drive by, it will blend into the heritage vernacular. But you will know that it’s modern.”

Adds Martin: “The colour of the brick we’re taking from the neighbourhood. It won’t be red brick. It will be more of a tan colour, which was used more frequently.”

Heritage expert Don Luxton says the HUB developers were right by choosing to “blend into” the neighbourhood’s heritage, rather than try to copy a heritage building down to the last detail.

“That area has a real character and feeling,” says Luxton. “It holds together as a district.”

He says developers shouldn’t try to completely copy a heritage design, because that can lead to gimmickry which would devalue the authentic buildings from the past.

“Every building has to be of its own time,” says Luxton. “If it [HUB] is trying to fit in by being a polite neighbour, then that’s good, just so long as it’s distinguished from the original.

“It should have a respectful approach. You have a historic context, but not overkill. Developers can go overboard. Clearly, it should look modern. But it shouldn’t try to scream for attention.”

The project site now is just a massive hole, where the burned-out remains of the 2001 fire have been removed and construction crews are busy putting up the new foundation.

Take a stroll near the construction site and you’ll see not only a new shopping mecca in the making, but a collection of older brick buildings that sets the tone for the neighbourhood.

On the west side of Main at 10th, for example, is the Belvedere Court apartments, a heritage brick building that HUB will face.

One block north at the corner of Main and Broadway are the 1912-era Lee Building and an old Bank of Montreal building, also completely brick.

Other nearby housing projects have also incorporated brick into their designs, but not to the extent of HUB, which is being cited as contributing to a renaissance in Mount Pleasant, where trendy shops seem to be sprouting up everywhere.

Mark Linklater is a sales agent at the nearby Living Space, a company selling high-end European furniture that moved its operations from North Vancouver and Yaletown three years ago.

“We’re very happy that something’s going in there,” says Linklater of HUB. “It’s an important corner and what was there before was in need of redevelopment anyway.”

Linklater says Living Space relocated to Mount Pleasant because of its central location. “We have no regrets. We abandoned Yaletown because there wasn’t a lot of walk-in traffic. We feel this area is just getting started now.”

Wilson says he could have built HUB several floors higher, but chose to stick with four floors to retain the heritage aspect of the structure.

He says it’s important that the city is diligent in ensuring that developers pay attention to an area’s history when they build. “Further south on Main there are a lot of residential/commercial projects that used wood siding or stucco,” he adds. “There’s no real street appeal.”

HUB, which will have ground-level retail facing Main, will also incorporate a narrow overhang near the roof, a classic element of older brick buildings.

Martin says there was virtually no opposition to their development, especially because it replaces a “derelict site” that was there for three years after the fire. “It was an eyesore.”

He says a lot of their buyers are looking for an alternative to Yaletown.

Bob Adair, the City of Vancouver development planner who worked on the project, says there was great support for the project, particularly because of its design.

“The emphasis there is for new developments to be sympathetic to the general heritage character in the area and this seemed like a good opportunity to reinforce that,” he says. “We didn’t want a full copy of a heritage building there and they [the developer] worked quite hard on a compromise.

Main Street is a unique area in that it’s one of the few areas outside downtown with a critical mass of buildings from the early part of the last century. You want to respect that character [in a new development], but you don’t want to create a Disney version of heritage.”

Adair agrees that the developer could have built higher, but that it would have had to have been concrete construction.

Katie Burkard is a first-time homeowner who recently bought a unit at HUB. “I like the vibe of the area and I like the feeling. It’s got an authentic feeling. And I like the heritage aspect of the building.”

Francis Chan, a long-time landowner in the area, feels projects like HUB are good for the area. “This development is beautiful and it fits in well with the neighbourhood. It’s about time Mount Pleasant changed.”

© The Vancouver Sun 2004

Comments are closed.