The dead zone of north Marpole

We thought most places on Vancouver’s west side would at least have good running options, nice greenspace and decent walkability. Just eight months hanging out in north Marpole has proved us wrong.

I often refer to the apartment we currently occupy near Oak Street on west 59th avenue in Vancouver as our COVID hovel. Had 2020 been a normal year, we’d never have ended up here. Then again, in addition to Australia we’d also have traveled to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, somewhere between six and ten countries in Europe, and most likely seen a chunk of Africa or South America. However, best laid plans and all that …

When the pandemic shut everything down in March and we’d been hunkering down in the Airbnb we rented for the month of April (ostensibly to hang between trips), we found ourselves needing to rent a place to ride out ‘rona starting in May. When we viewed this place in mid-April, it was below typical market rent in the area for 900sf 2BR, the landlord was pretty relaxed about our dog and occupancy date, and at the time NO ONE was interested in traipsing through multiple enclosed spaces with strangers. We’d viewed a few places already so we leased it for a year.

It’s generally been a comfortable enough place in which to live. It’s a south-facing 4th/top floor corner unit, so we get no noise from above and the noise separation from neighbours on either side of us is good. In particular, given that we’ve perfected the art of staying home due to the virus, specific to being in the apartment things are fine. I won’t bother getting into building issues because it’s a rental from a cheap landlord in a poorly run strata, so deficiencies are to be expected.

No, this post is more about the location of the building. Somehow we managed to find a physical location on the west side of Vancouver largely devoid of anything enjoyable. Below then, a few issues that make this a suprisingly unappealing area in which to live. Not ironically, all the issues below are highly connected to density and housing, because they build upon one another to contribute to an area’s livability.

Identity Crisis

The first thing I noticed about living where we do, is a lack of identity. Officially, it’s just inside the northern border of Marpole. Even the community centre across the street can’t make up its mind, though, and that’s been unusable due to COVID anyway. The area is sort of Oakridge AND sort of Marpole here with no real personality. Aside from Oakridge Mall (currently closed for renovations and 2+ kilometers away) the area’s defining feature is endless blocks of boxy detached houses, the odd school, and no neighbourhood feel or character beyond an old community centre.

If we were in south Marpole, then we’d at least have the Marpole Village strip on Granville close by for food, shopping and services like a library. As it stands though, not even so much as a corner store is easily walkable. In all of Marpole I’d say the only real personality is the triangle south of 70th, between Oak and Angus, adjacent to the Village. With density comes livability. There are also a couple cute little parks (Marpole and Ebisu) down there, more trees lining the streets, and a few little eateries on 73rd between Montcalm and Hudson. Anywhere in Marpole east of Oak all the way to Ontario, is just blocks and blocks of large houses diagonally bisected by Marine Drive and its hellscape of industry, traffic and ugly bridges to the south. In other words, Marpole’s personality is really defined by an area ten blocks away from us.

Poor Walkability

It isn’t an hour + by car to downtown, but who cares?
According to WalkScore (something we should have checked before leasing), our area is car-dependent, with decent transit and some bike infrastructure. Dog walks and runs confirm that the area is devoid of anything much useful by foot. The transit options only exist because of Oak Street and, if not for the 59th avenue bikeway connecting to Ontario to the east and Arbutus Greenway to the west, it wouldn’t be any more bikeable than it is walkable. Besides, aside from Marpole Village, there is nothing to bike to southwest of Victoria and 49th Avenue. When it comes to south Vancouver, south Killarney and the River District are really a model for what should be done elsewhere.

Uninspiring Parks

It isn’t that there’s no greenspace, but what’s around isn’t exactly the best of the west side nor close by. Across the street behind the community centre sits Oak Park, essentially a big field with a gravel soccer pitch and baseball diamond fencing typical of community centres, along with constant loud traffic. Within reasonable walking distance (ie – 10 minutes) there are probably six or seven schoolyard type spaces or little oddities, which don’t offer much value. Most real parks are 2.5km or further away, with almost nothing within a 2km radius in any direction.

Directly south to the river past Marine is an industrial wasteland. Between 2.5-3.5km to the west-southwest sit Riverview Park (the only one of these actually in Marpole, barely), Fraser River Park and Maple Grove Park. Golf courses on First Nations land are the only thing further west until you get all the way to Pacific Spirit Park, 6km away. Golf courses in urban settings are wasteful exclusionary spaces.

Admission-based non-park VanDusen Botanical Gardens is about 2.5km directly north, while 1km further east sits Queen Elizabeth Park. I often make it there on a run, but being 3km from home it’s hardly nearby. A little further east of that is a huge greenspace that’s unfortunately full of dead people. None of these even fall within Marpole or Oakridge.

Tisdall Park, a glorified schoolyard, lies 1.5km northeast of us. And, finally, 1km directly east of us sits Winona Park, with three tiered playing fields and that’s it. If only Langara Golf Course, directly north of Winona, was public greenspace. The perimeter path is nice to walk or run around, but there’s no usable park space beyond that.

Nowhere to run to …

When we lived in Kitsilano for a year and a half, while we dealt with west 4th avenue traffic noise, the running was superb. Heading four blocks north to the water opened up a world of waterfront possibilities west toward UBC, across Burrard bridge to downtown, the west end and Stanley Park, or further east around False Creek past Science World and beyond. The options for car-free running were everywhere and the north shore mountains were almost always in view. Where we are there’s rarely a view of any kind and with the exception of the Greenway, car-free running is nonexistent. The only waterfront close by is the industrial shores of the Fraser River, which aren’t accessible until five kilometers to the east, past Knight Street and I’ve already indicated the area is lacking in decent greenspace. As such, the shorter neighbourhood running options are mostly limited to the street grid.

Arbutus Greenway is one of the real exceptions. It’s about 1.5km away, and runs a total of 8.6km mostly north-south, from the corner of Granville Street and west 72nd all the way to the corner of Fir Street and west 5th. It’s a beautiful, car-free, dedicated cycling and pedestrian paved path and a joy to run on. We usually access it at 57th and Arbutus. As I already said, Langara Golf Course has a nice perimeter, but to/from and the loop is only a little over 4km total, so it isn’t much of a run on its own. Add in QE Park to Langara and it’s not bad for a 10-12k loop or as part of a long run. QE can also be useful for hill repeats to Bloedel Conservatory at the top. Using 59th avenue and Ontario, at least you’re running on designated cycling routes.

As with walking, running in the neighbourhood is really just endless blocks of big houses and little in the way of scenery. Getting to Pacific Spirit or the water, to say nothing of UBC, is at least 6km each way, so they don’t really work for anything but longer runs. When we’re mapping out runs, we’re constantly struggling to get creative. Typical routes include the aforementioned Greenway, QE and/or Langara, north-south along Hudson, Heather or Ontario, or east-west along 59th, 45th or 37th, and sometimes west along Marine toward Pacific Spirit. Short runs tend to be monotonous streets.

Noise and Traffic

The further south you get on Oak the worse the traffic gets. By the time you’re at 59th, you’re only 12 blocks from the bridge to Richmond. It’s essentially a drag strip for commuters, passers-through and performance cars. There’s no traffic calming measures or speed control of any kind so average traffic speed runs 70km + per hour. Nothing like a freeway running right through the middle of some of the most expensive real estate in Canada. It’s awful. In the cooler months the closed windows keep it fairly quiet, but even half a block away we get the full Oak when our windows are open. Being on the 4th floor with a two story building and huge field across the street means we hear traffic noise build for blocks as it barrels up Oak, and not just from down the street.

As bad as Oak Street traffic noise is, it pales in comparison to having to cross it all the time as a pedestrian. Dog walks, runs and bike rides have us crossing it daily, and doing so is literally taking your life in your hands. It’s unnerving in the extreme to be standing at a crosswalk with the dog on a leash, hitting a beg button that seems to do nothing, while vehicles race by within three feet of your face. That it’s been allowed to become this is truly an indictment of Vancouver traffic planning.

We really didn’t pay enough attention to Fire Hall #22, just across Oak on 59th, either. I’m not sure why, but it simply didn’t register for us as a potential noise problem. Frankly, it’s nowhere near as bad as it could be, but we definitely experience sirens a few times a week, at all times of the day or night. Not only the firehall, but as you can imagine, police cars frequent Oak Street, and they’re the only vehicles that should be traveling high speed the way everyone seems to be.

In Closing

We’ve found it hard to believe that a west-side neighbourhood that could be really nice, seems to have suffered from such poor planning and development. Given the area’s proximity to Kerrisdale and Shaughnessy, it wouldn’t surprise me if the lack of density and better housing options are the result of homeowner obstruction. The reason that’s so important is because all the other issues we noticed above, are byproducts of too little density. More housing options means more people and families, who need more amenities like walkable shopping, greenspace and pedestrian/bike infrastructure. This also has me wondering just how many more west-side deadzones like this there are.

While the Marpole Community Plan talks about increasing density and improving amenities, that’s way too far in the future for us to consider living in the area long-term (and it doesn’t look like it really addresses the north area of the neighbourhood). As you can imagine, we’ll be changing locale after our lease is up.