By Sandra Thomas
It’s hard to imagine now, but in 1993 there were plans to demolish all of the heritage buildings on The Shipyards site.
The Versatile Pacific Shipyards/Burrard Dry Dock/Wallace Shipyards had been in operation on the North Vancouver waterfront since 1906. Given the importance of the shipyard to the community, the City knew that the site had heritage significance and wanted better information about it.
In 1990, a request for access to the site to conduct a Heritage Inventory was denied. Mayor Jack Loucks then visited the site personally asking for permission to conduct the inventory, which the owners agreed to.
In 1991, the Versatile Pacific Shipyard Heritage Inventory was completed. It ranked buildings, piers and structures as having either primary, secondary or no heritage significance. The shipyard owners responded by stating that, in their opinion, none of the buildings had any heritage significance.
Shortly after this, the shipyard closed and fell into receivership. On June 7, 1993, the owners submitted a schedule for the demolition of all buildings on the site. This put the future of the heritage buildings in a perilous situation and did not sit well with the City.
At the time, there was no plan for the future use of the lands. The City’s hope was to include heritage conservation as part of the future. Prepared to do whatever it took to preserve this historic site, city staff successfully warned Versatile’s ownership that a formal application for demolition would force the city to take steps to legally protect all of the buildings. The owners were encouraged to retain the buildings until future plans, including heritage conservation, could be agreed upon.
Toward A Vibrant Waterfront Community
The proposed demolition was withdrawn. The appointed receiver, Price Waterhouse Coopers, Vancouver Port Authority and the City then agreed to study the future of the lands together.
The Versatile Shipyards Land Use Study (1995-1997) was a collective effort that provided for a transformation of the site, including heritage conservation, public waterfront access, port industry, commercial and residential uses. Subsequently, the Official Community Plan and Zoning were amended in 2001. Pinnacle International then acquired the development rights to the site and proceeded with “The Pier” development.
The City of North Vancouver’s effort to achieve a vibrant, waterfront community hub that respects its past has been evolving since 1990. Many new partners have since joined forces to expand and enhance the original vision.
Gary Penway spent much of his career with the City of North Vancouver working on the Pier Development/Shipyards transformation. He initiated the City’s heritage program in 1987, was the lead planner for the shipyard project and held several positions, including City Planner, Waterfront Project Development Manager and Director Community Development Department. He adds that he was just one of many people involved in transforming The Shipyards into the vibrant gathering place it is today.
And, Penway is more than pleased with the results.
“As it evolved, it has far exceeded my expectations,” he says.
The Shipyards’ Historical Significance
Penway notes the Wallace and Burrard Dry Docks/Versatile Shipyards played an enormous role in shaping the North Shore community.
“It was by far the dominant employer. Whole neighbourhoods were built by the federal government to house shipyard workers in WWII,” says Penway. “The Shipyard defined who we were economically and socially. It was of local, regional, national and international significance.”
Due to its role in shaping North Vancouver, Penway says The Shipyards deserves to be recognized for its historical significance. Beyond this, shipbuilding on the west coast is recognized as an activity of national significance through a national heritage plaque installed on the Burrard Dry Dock Pier.
“Retaining industrial buildings and artifacts shows respect for this aspect of our community’s past. It makes us a richer community,” says Penway. “It adds authenticity and interest to our current lives. Heritage should reflect the people who worked and lived here and what they accomplished. Our heritage is so much more than estate homes of the wealthy.”
New Exhibition Dedicated To The Shipyards
A recent addition to The Shipyards drawing even more locals and visitors, is MONOVA: Museum of North Vancouver, which opened near the corner of West Esplanade and Lonsdale Avenue on December 4, 2021.
Since opening, the MONOVA team has been offering entertaining and culturally significant programming for all ages, while ensuring its displays are relevant by offering both historical and modern-day perspectives of North Vancouver.
On December 8, 2022, MONOVA debuted its first feature exhibition, which fittingly, is dedicated to The Shipyards.
It’s a decision Penway agrees with wholeheartedly.
“Given the importance of the Shipyards to this community, it warrants a feature exhibition of this nature.”
You Are Here @ The Shipyards, the Museum of North Vancouver’s first exhibition in its new Feature Exhibit Gallery, is on view until January 2024.
The exhibit will invite visitors to imagine the area around the Museum in its earliest days as North Vancouver – an area known to Coast Salish peoples as Eslhá7an – and follow its transformation into the vibrant waterfront community it is today.
A Discussion On The Evolution Of The Shipyards District
On Wednesday, April 19 from 7:00 pm to 8:30 pm, join us at MONOVA: Museum of North Vancouver (115 West Esplanade) for Connections Speaker Series: A Planning History of The Shipyards.
Sheryl Rivers will speak to the First Nations presence and moderate the event. Gary Penway and Richard White will discuss City of North Vancouver planning efforts that occurred, what went right, what went wrong and what is still to come.
The Connections Speaker Series is generously supported by the Port of Vancouver.
We rely on contributions, monthly or one-time gifts, to help MONOVA safeguard and expand our community’s archival and museum collections, build learning experiences and inspire future generations.
Donations are accepted through the Friends of the North Vancouver Museum & Archives Society, Registered Charity No. 89031 1772 RR0001.
We respectfully acknowledge that MONOVA: Museum and Archives of North Vancouver is located on the traditional lands of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) First Nations, whose ancestors have lived here for countless generations. We are grateful for the opportunity to live, work and learn with them on unceded Coast Salish Territory.