May 25, 2018
Neighbourhoods: Main and Fraser
East Vancouver’s eclectic communities undergo a housing boom
By Lucy Hyslop
A traditional magnet for families seeking single-family homes, Vancouver’s Main and Fraser streets have also long been known for their independent vibe. Offbeat retailers, epicurean alchemists and experimental artists have all been attracted to the neighbourhoods’ somewhat cheaper rents.
A funky urban spirit infuses the area, which stretches from around Main and 2nd over to Fraser and Kingsway and up to 49th Avenue on both main streets. Now the neighbourhood is also attracting new development amid a multitude of housing starts.
“Much like other areas of the city, gone are the muffler repair and vulcanizing shops and in their place a growing range of uses are sprouting up. From the higher-density residential, education and workspaces of Lower Main to the new restaurants and shops of the Fraserhood triangle, and the new modular housing being added to Little Mountain,” says Andrew Ramlo, the vice-president of intelligence at Rennie Group, a Vancouver-based real estate marketing and brokerage company.
Already a dozen projects are in the works along the Main/Fraser corridor, several of them due for occupancy by 2020, he says, adding, “The corridor will continue to change significantly in the coming years.”
Main Street has long been a self-sustaining neighbourhood where you can almost do it all: Get measured for a corset at world-renowned Lace Embrace Atelier, choose your very own live Alaskan king crab at Sun Sui Wah Restaurant, or ditch your motor during one of the biggest car-free days in Vancouver.
While Fraser Street can still feel like Main Street’s younger overlooked sibling, it’s definitely nipping at its Golden Goose pumps. Unlike Main, Fraser Street has interrupted commercial strips although a number of current land assemblies may alter that pattern. “You are going to see denser housing strips, and potentially more ground-level shops, and I welcome that,” says civic commentator Mike Klassen, a 15-year resident of the Fraserhood.
“There are huge amenities for anyone in this area, which is so important and every community should have them within a half-kilometre of their home if they can in the city,” Klassen adds, pointing out the “walkable” grocery and drug stores, for example. “There is a genuine welcoming quality to the community and a nice place to raise families and hang out. Changes are going to happen in terms of densification of the area, but I think we can retain those good qualities.”
More than 1,000 units are either under construction or are being contemplated for the Main/Fraser corridor, says Ramlo. To his mind, this will play into the key areas of the city’s Housing Vancouver strategy, a 10-year plan that addresses affordability with the creation of 72,000 much-needed homes. “The units being added or contemplated will work to help the city achieve some of their objectives relative to adding affordable supply,” Ramlo adds.
Some projects will come to market as rentals, while others will be subsidized, such as those proposed for Little Mountain. Klassen, for one, embraces rentals being key in developments on Fraser, such as the Century between 29th and 30th Avenue.
While the rest of Vancouver evolves upwards, much of the building in the Main and Fraser area barely looks to the sky. Low-rises still reign among some seriously historic spots including the century-old Heritage Hall, a Beaux-Arts style stained-glass beauty. The high-rise exceptions include a couple of towers situated close to major arterials or transit such as at Main Street and 2nd Avenue, according to Ramlo.
As for the existing single-family-home areas around Main and Fraser, these will see change, too, with an increasingly integrated mix of uses, including the modular housing slated for Little Mountain. “The city is also moving towards modifying zoning in these areas to allow increased density, in part through the addition of laneway/coach homes, and in part through duplexes and row homes,” Ramlo says.
Long before Main and Fraser streets attracted funky retailers and fine restaurants, they were known as working-class neighbourhoods where you could get your oil changed, bid on a second-hand armoire or find a bargain-priced wedding dress. Today, while the neighbourhoods still house plenty of folk who commute to jobs downtown, the areas also offer plenty of retail and hospitality work, as well as workspaces for those in the tech and other sectors.
Past incarnations have seen Main Street billed as antiques row; now you’re more likely to find contemporary temptations from myriad home-décor stores (such as Vancouver Special, Much and Little or Nineteen Ten) and fashion stores (including Smoking Lily and Umeboshi). The vintage vibe lives on though at the Regional Assembly of Text, the Luddite-central stationery store on Main near East 23rd Avenue, where you can still hear the clack of typewriters.
Fraser does not yet boast the shopping élan of Main Street, but retail fans can still be sated. Find Nice Shoes (billed as Vancouver’s only vegan shoe store), custom-printed tees at Grubwear and artisan foodstuffs ranging from ethnic fare to gourmet gluten-free baked goods to the original store of Vancouver’s very own Earnest Ice Cream where people line up—even in the rain—for a scoop of matcha green tea or espresso flake. Around 45th to 49th avenues is a thriving spot for fresh and varied produce, saris and thrift stores.
What it lacks in retail outlets, Fraser certainly makes up for in drinking and dining options. Where once it had so many ethnic eateries it was considered Vancouver’s “Little Saigon,” today there’s a rise in buzziness in the area known to locals as the Fraserhood. Join the throng around the eclectic Kingsway and Fraser Street triangle heralded by restaurants such as Les Faux Bourgeois and Osteria Savio Volpe, and the nearby vibrancy of pile-’em-high pancakes at Jethro’s Fine Grub, The Pie Hole and the chic communal tables of Bells and Whistles.
Further into south Fraser (or SoFra), newcomers include cosy sushi bars such as Masayoshi, caffeine-fuelled Bows X Arrows and Prado Café, which has been known to run out of breakfast offerings due to high demand. They mix happily with longstanding businesses such as Filipino grocery store Aling Pining and European Breads Bakery.
Main Street, too, has its great haunts in which to lose track of time (The Shameful Tiki Room’s mystery bowl cocktail, anyone?) and devour divine food at the vegetarian mecca of The Acorn Restaurant, say-it-as-it-is The Fish Counter or hip Nomad Restaurant.
And between Main and Fraser, you’ll find the dreamiest of coffee shops (and a must-have almond croissant) at Le Marché St. George.
“Main Street’s the Soho of Vancouver,” says Melanie Talkington, who set up her store, Lace Embrace, in the hood a decade ago. “It’s a great neighbourhood for walking and taking in the many charms of historic uptown Main Street.” You can also fix your bike at the collectively run Our Community Bikes—one of the longest-running community shops for D.I.Y. bicycle repair—or dance through all decades at the fabulous Fox Cabaret.
Meanwhile, over on Fraser Street, you can get crafty with lessons at the popular Spool of Thread Sewing Lounge or, if you’re in a floral frame of mind, step inside the petal haven of the Bloom Room Botanical Gallery. The area also has a plethora of fitness offerings: Take an Iyengar yoga class (The Yoga Space boasts a spectacular view of the city), do some Tabata training at Vancouver Mind-Body Centre or swing into Zumba at Eastside Fitness.