How Mt. Pleasant Narrowly Escaped Having a Massive Cop Shop and Jail

The southeast corner of Main and Cordova showing the Happiness Cafe, McLeod’s Transfer, Lanning Apartments and the Star Theatre prior to demolition in early 1951. Photo: Walter E. Frost, COV Archives, CVA 447-321

In early the early 1950s, the City of Vancouver had big plans to build a new $1,000,000 police station-city jail to replace “the city’s obsolete, [then] 40-year-old structure, on Cordova”, and they had their sights set on Mount Pleasant for its location.

Their proposed site for the new station was the south side of the 300-block West Broadway where the No-Frills (or as I like to refer to it, the ‘Cheap Thrills’) is today.

Artists’s conception drawing of new police station on 300 block West Broadway. Source: Vancouver Sun, June 22, 1950.

Released by the city in 1950, this artist’s conception (above) was the public’s first look at the vision for the new police station for Vancouver, as it would look in situ on West Broadway at Yukon. The drawing shows that the first “wing” was to be only four-storeys, but built to allow for additional floors as the city grew. It was to be 100 x 200 feet, modelled on the police section of Seattle’s Public Safety Building. Jail cells were to be located on the fourth floor and to feature translucent glass-brick windows, eliminating outside bars. Construction was planned to start in late 1950, but neighbourhood protest over the West Broadway location would delay those plans.

Arrow points to the 300-block West Broadway, 1945. Photo: CoV Archives, City P45

Yes, the proposed site was close to civic affairs at City Hall and fronted a commercial street, but it was also two blocks from the planned site of a new city park (Jonathon Rogers Park – a much-needed addition to this then park-less part of the city) and in the middle of what was then a predominately residential neighbourhood. Understandably, the majority of Mount Pleasant residents were not pleased and took up the fight against City Hall and the plans of Mayor Charles Thompson, City Council, and Police Chief Constable Mulligan.

The Mount Pleasant Ratepayers Association was in full protest force in the summer of 1950 making their collective voice heard at the special police headquarters committee meetings on the “troublesome topic”. You see the problem for the residents wasn’t really the police per se; it was the jail facilities and, more specifically, the “type” of people who would use those facilities. A couple of Mount Pleasant women threatened to apply for permits to carry revolvers if the jail for ‘the Hill’ area was approved by City Council”. At one meeting, an elderly man pointedly asked the chief of police and council about “the drunks, the canned heat artists, and the perverts who are released from the jail?” He added, “our children won’t be safe on the street or in the park.”

Headline from Vancouver Sun, December 29, 1950

They won the battle against the Police Station being built in the 300-block of W. Broadway only to be presented with another proposed site, which turned out to be even more appalling – the Mount Pleasant School site at Kingsway and E. Broadway. This site is currently home to Kingsgate Mall, but from 1893 to 1972 it was the location of the Mount Pleasant School. So you can imagine the the outrage. In January 1951, the City – now under the helm of Mayor Fred Hume – had other sites under consideration but the Mount Pleasant school site was now their new number 1. The new police station building project would be delayed yet again.

Alderman Alex Fisher, fed up with the public protest process was, understandably, getting frustrated by the delays, declaring in January of 1951: “It’s getting so that we are turning down every possible site in the city… we may have to put this station on wheels yet. It seems we’re letting public opinion overcome our good sense”. [Yes, it’s no fun when pesky public process gets in the way of your plans!] Well, thankfully for all the little innocent school children – and future Kingsgate shoppers – the new cop shop was not built at Kingsway and Broadway.

At one point, a site on Main Street across from the Canadian National Railway station (now Pacific Central Station) was also approved by the city council. If built, the building would have faced onto Main Street and back onto False Creek. One favourable aspect of this site (which was joked about in the press) was that the police boat would be able to tie up right next to the police station!

However, city engineer John Oliver warned council that selection of the False Creek Flats site might mean that the new station would have to be built on piles – an “expensive operation” – since the False Creek flats consist of land fill. If this site proved to be unsuitable from an engineering standpoint (and it was) the city had an alternate site at Richards and Smithe also under consideration. But, once again, this site was rejected as it was deemed too expensive to acquire. It seems that with this project if it wasn’t the location, it was the budget. Additionally, every year this project was delayed, the greater the increase to the costs of construction — if it ever got started, that is.

In the end there were (at least) 12 proposed sites in all: northwest corner of Smithe and Richards; next to the original police station location on Cordova; the west side of Main between Union and Prior; opposite the CNR station on Main Street; Powell Street grounds (Oppenhiemer Park); the east side of Main between 1st and 2nd; the west side of Main between 5th and 6th; Mount Pleasant school grounds; northwest corner of Main and 16th; north end of City Hall grounds; northwest corner of Cambie and Broadway; and the original site selected in the 300 block of West Broadway.

Newspaper photo showing area for new police station. Source: Vancouver Sun, January 31, 1951.

By early 1951, the site for the new police station (officially called the Public Safety Building) was finally settled on. In the end, the city chose the location that they first investigated when this process all began in 1947: Main and Cordova.

200-block E. Cordova in early 1956 showing the new and old police station (just before demolition) also the Coroner’s Court building (Police Museum) and Firehall No.2 (now Theatre).

“Nobody wanted the new building when we were trying to select a site for a completely new police safety building, so finally we were forced to decide to build what we could on the site of the present police station.”- Mayor Fred Hume, Vancouver Sun, July 1953.

Describing the new public building to the press in 1951, Mayor Hume said that the “new structure will house most of the offices now located in the adjacent old building” and “a covered ramp at the second-floor level will connect the two” structures. He went on to add, “the old building is too valuable to discard, so we are going to clean it up and modernize it.”

The southeast corner of Main and Cordova showing the Happiness Cafe, McLeod’s Transfer, Lanning Apartments and the Star Theatre prior to demolition in early 1951. Photo: Walter E. Frost, COV Archives, CVA 447-321

Sadly, that was not the case in the end. Since the new building would contain no jail accommodation, it was hoped that the jails in the old building could simply be renovated and used going forward. The jails, which were considered “an utter disgrace” by the John Howard Society for years, were finally condemned as unhealthful, outmoded and beyond repair. Appropriate upgrades to the building would be too costly, so a brand-new “detention annex” was to be built beside the Public Safety Building at 330 Main Street on the site of the old Star Theatre. The old 1914 police station on Cordova was now on death row and slated for demolition in 1956.

Almost 10 years after the whole process began, the new Public Safety Building, designed by architect Fred Townley, officially opened March 3, 1956 at 312 Main Street. Ironically, within 5 years of being built the new building was already deemed too small — ever thus.

Official opening of 312 Main Street on March 3, 1956. Photo: VPL Special Collections, 40533 & 40532

In 2012, the VPD abandoned their home of almost 60 years at 312 Main Street. The building was redeveloped “to create a dynamic, accessible and inclusive co-working space that will create new opportunities for collaboration and innovation”. The former police station building is now being used by a variety of community organizations like: Vancity Community Foundation; Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC); La Boussole Francophone Centre; and Megaphone Magazine. The entire 312 Main project is described on their website here.


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