This Week in History: 1959: A new wave of highrises transforms the West End
The block-long Ocean Towers blocked the view, which was so controversial to the city opted to build tall, thin towers instead
On Nov. 23, 1959, The Sun had a page of photos headlined “More Colourful New Buildings Add Striking Beauty to Vancouver.”
Together, they represent the two visions for the high-rise boom that would transform the West End in the 1950s and ’60s.
Ocean Towers was a massive project that occupies most of a block. Berkeley Tower was tall and thin, an example of what came to be known as a point tower.
Ocean Towers was the first skyscraper built in the West End, and stirred up a lot of controversy in the mid-1950s.
“Previously, height of buildings in the West End was limited to eight storeys, although they could go higher if built correspondingly narrower,” said a Vancouver Sun story on Feb. 26, 1957.
“Architects claimed these restrictions were too severe because the number of suites allowed would not meet today’s property and construction costs.”
The project was original pitched at 21 storeys, then reduced to 19. But several civic bodies argued against it, including the Town Planning Commission (the precursor to today’s planning department), the city’s technical planning board, the Vancouver Housing Authority and the Community Arts Council.
City council approved it, regardless, which The Sun said “took the ceiling off tall buildings in the West End.”
City planning director Gerald Sutton Brown warned council “you are making one of the biggest mistakes in Vancouver history. Once you relax the zoning bylaw, you can find no possible excuse to refuse anyone else with a similar request.”
The Sun reported Sutton Brown also argued: “In other cities where unlimited bulk and height have been permitted, residents have found themselves surrounded by a veritable wall of tall buildings, which blocked out daylight and eliminated view.”
The project was done by Otto Becker and Associates. It was originally projected to cost $1 million, then $1.5 million, and came in at “about” $2 million.
“A true tower-type building, it contains 68 suites and penthouse, and has parking for 110 cars,” The Sun reported on Nov. 23, 1959. “Becker Construction built (the) structure to design of (architect) Rix Reinecke.”
An illustration in the Feb. 26, 1957, paper shows the tower from the top down, and a helicopter pad is at the west end of the building. But it’s doubtful any helicopters ever used it.
Morton Avenue is named after John Morton, one of the “Three Greenhorns” who purchased 550 acres of swampy forest between English Bay and Burrard Inlet for $555 in 1862.
It’s only a block long, and pre-Ocean Towers comprised an older apartment building (Morton Lodge), an antique store and four houses. The Sun reported Becker had paid $200,000 to assemble the property.
There were no strata condominiums in B.C. until the province brought in the Strata Titles Act in 1966. But Becker marketed “self-owned apartments” at Ocean Towers by selling shares.
There were several other “self-owned” apartment complexes for sale at the time, including Chilco Towers (710 Chilco at Robson, across from Lost Lagoon), The Beach Park (2095 Beach, right beside Stanley Park) and the Buena Vista (2430 Point Grey Road, by Kits Beach).
The suites at Ocean Towers were originally $25,000 to $31,000, but the price rose to $31,000 to $38,000 by the time they were completed. The two- and three-bedroom units ranged in size from 1,035 to 1,535 sq. ft., and all offered a drop-dead gorgeous view of English Bay.
Two suites sold there in 2018, one on the second floor for $1.6 million and one on the 19th for $3.15 million. Five are currently for sale, from $1.175 million to $2.398 million. The penthouse was for sale for $17.3 million last year, but appears to have gone off the market without selling.
Sutton Brown may have lost the battle over Ocean Towers, but he won the war against buildings like it. Vancouverites did not like having their views blocked, and no other building as wide as Ocean Towers went up on the waterfront. Instead we have tall, thin point towers you can see around to glimpse the mountains or water.