A New View in Ambleside: Grosvenor Ambleside, West Vancouver, BC

A block-long waterfront site in West Vancouver’s Ambleside Village provides a rare opportunity to design a new heart for a well-established neighbourhood.

Photo by Provoke Studio

PROJECT Grosvenor Ambleside, West Vancouver, BC

ARCHITECT James K.M. Cheng Architects

TEXT Sean Ruthen

Discussions of the “missing middle” often focus on densifying single-family lots, or sites made by consolidating a handful of lots. But occasionally, the opportunity arises to develop a larger infill parcel in an existing neighbourhood. If done right, this can result in much-needed housing while enlivening the public realm.

This was the case with a project our firm, James K.M. Cheng Architects, recently completed after a decade of work. Grosvenor Ambleside occupies a 180-metre-long waterfront site in West Vancouver. For many years, the site had been home to a gas station, several single-storey retail buildings from the 1950s and 60s, and surface parking. It also housed an aging Ron Thom-designed police station that’s since been replaced with a newer facility elsewhere. The site sloped down to the south, where built-up railway tracks created a 1.2-metre-high visual barrier to beach and ocean views.

Facing the beach, the block was raised to match the level of an existing railway embankment, improving views and access to the water. Photo by Provoke Studio

For our team, the idea of a new development here was an opportunity to inject new life into the aging neighbourhood block, improve access and enjoyment of the waterfront, and create a much-needed heart for the neighbourhood. We were working on a number of other master plans at the same time as Ambleside, including the 14-acre former TransLink bus barns site in central Vancouver, now set to become a new community for over 2,000 people, and an eight-acre strip mall in Coquitlam, being transformed into a transit-oriented development. Our office thinks of these projects as acts of “urban mending”—where an outdated commercial or industrial area is reworked as part of a more sustainable community.

For Ambleside, it was no small feat to see the 98-unit mixed-use development project through to reality, starting with a complex land assembly process led by Grosvenor, and followed by a robust public engagement process—perhaps the most comprehensive of the many that our team has seen in the past 40 years. A development of this density on a prime waterfront site would simply not have been possible without the support of the community—from the residents of the District of West Vancouver to the long-time locals around Ambleside Beach.

The upper floors of Grosvenor Ambleside pivot from their podium base, aligning with the residential fabric of the district. Photo by IShot

From the beginning, it was clear that the project needed to do more than provide high-end condos for its residents: it needed to create a strong public realm that would serve the entire community. Raising the ground floor to the level of the railway tracks was a first strategic move in this direction: it allowed for the commercial units (and not just the residents above) to enjoy views of Stanley Park and the Georgia Strait, while also providing flood protection against the annual King Tide and rising sea levels.

Early on during the public consultations, the team also settled on a terraced building form and a mid-block breezeway. The terraces help preserve views for neighbours in a small cluster of apartment blocks across the street, while the breezeway opened views to the beach for passing pedestrians and cars on Marine Drive. The upper floor condos pivot slightly from the ground floor street grid to align with the area’s overall north-south orientation, further opening up views and minimizing the building’s bulk.

A centrepiece of the development is a mid-block public passage and event space, covered by a glass-and-wood canopy. Photo by Provoke Studio

The mid-block passageway quickly evolved into an all-weather living room for the community, complete with a transparent glass-and-wood canopy spanning 60 feet between the buildings. Tree Snag, a 30-foot-tall sculpture by Douglas Coupland, occupies the central space, complementing other works around the site by the same artist. Original paintings by the late Gordon Smith, who passed away in early 2020, adorn the residential lobbies. The developer, Grosvenor, has also forged partnerships with the Kay Meek Art Centre and other local arts organizations for Christmas performances and other special events to take place in the sheltered outdoor space.

The development also aims to contribute towards housing availability and sustainability. The 98 high-end, home-like units are the kind of places intended to appeal to aging boomers interested in opting for a lower-maintenance condo with waterfront views, and a chance to live in the five-minute city. Such occupants could produce the knock-on effect of freeing up nearby existing houses for use by families. Currently, West Vancouver is Canada’s wealthiest municipality, with an average household net worth of over $4.45 million dollars—but much of that is tied up in the value of under-occupied homes that were purchased at much lower prices, and that owners can’t afford to relocate from without an alternative such as Ambleside.

The development continues Marine Drive’s commercial fabric, with wood accents nodding to the West Coast modern vernacular. Photo by James KM Cheng

On each floor, deep overhangs contribute to solar shading and weather protection while protecting each unit’s views; extensive planters allow for the capture and slow release of rainwater before being discharged at ground level. Nodding to the area’s West Coast Modern legacy homes, Grosvenor Ambleside sports long horizontal lines, wood parallam beams in the breezeway, generous glazing, and stunning views of the water and mountains.

Herman Hertzberger once wrote about the warp and weft of urban design. He commented that architecture and its surrounding context—the roads and infrastructure that support each building—combine and complement each other in a successful design. We see our work at Ambleside and other large sites around Metro Vancouver as part of this greater whole. These projects participate in an ongoing revitalization of the city’s infrastructure, mending city streets while introducing new building fabric.

At Ambleside, we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished, both for residents and for the greater community. Through public engagement and a shared vision of how we wish to live together, we believe that beyond providing housing, we’ve forged a strong public realm in this key community site—a place from which we can stand back to look at the state of our world, and find our way back home.

Sean Ruthen, FRAIC, is the current RAIC Regional Director for BC and Yukon, and a senior architect at James K.M. Cheng Architects.

Site Plan
Level 4 residential floor plan

CLIENT Grosvenor | ARCHITECT TEAM James KM Cheng (FRAIC), Adeline Lai, Don Chan, Dennis Selby, Ingolf Blanken Barbosa, Luc Melanson, Stanton Hung, Sara Kasaei, Ashley Ortlieb, Fang Hsu, Bruce Yung, Candace Lange | STRUCTURAL Read Jones Christoffersen | MECHANICAL Integral Group | ELECTRICAL Smith + Andersen | LANDSCAPE DESIGN ARCHITECT SWA | LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT OF RECORD Durante Kreuk | CIVIL Binnie | SURVEYOR Butler Sundvick | INTERIORS Mitchell Freedland Design | CODE LMDG Building Code Consultants | ENVELOPE RDH Building Science | GEOTECHNICAL Thurber Engineering | ACOUSTICS BKL Consultants | SUSTAINABILITY Integral Group | WAYFINDING Bunt & Associates | CONTRACTOR Ledcor Group | AREA 24,619 m2 | BUDGET $347 M | COMPLETION Spring 2021