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Buildings that weren’t: Kootenay Towers, 1957

Updated: Mar 3

There is a space between Vernon and Lake streets in Nelson that, near as I can tell, has always been vacant. Several buildings have been proposed, but none ever built. The area is seen below in a ca. 1899-1900 photo that belongs to Doug Jones, and extends between the Lakeview Hotel seen at left and the Kootenay Supply Co. at right.

By 1945, the City of Nelson owned the property. Nelson Auto Wrecking had previously expressed interest in the seven lots (Block 67, Lots 18-24). Now Queen City Motors wanted to buy them to put up a new building.

But the city was thinking about building a new city hall there. Other alternatives were renovating the existing city hall at the foot of Ward Street or building a one at the corner of Victoria and Ward streets, where the opera house stood until burning down in 1935.

The city circulated a questionnaire to property owners, of whom 457 responded. Of the 271 in favor of a new or renovated city hall, 109 preferred the Vernon Street site.

The Daily News of Oct. 3, 1945 noted council “is anxious to see that a retaining wall to bolster the already sagging street is put up or building carried out in such a way as to act as a retaining wall.” The retaining wall was built, but the new city hall was not.

In 1957, along came a proposed eight-storey hotel and office complex for the site to be called Kootenay Towers. The sketches below appeared in an advertising pitch book for the Daily News. Architect Gerald Hamilton later designed the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre in Vancouver. Co-developer E.L. Boultbee was the BC Security Commission’s supervisor of interior towns during the Japanese-Canadian internment.

In 1979, the city suggested a $3 million to $4 million convention centre and parkade, which was immediately “dismissed as a pipe dream by some.”

The city considered paying about one-third of the cost, with the provincial government and Lord Nelson Hotel expected to pick up the rest. An underground walkway was proposed to connect the hotel with the parkade. Below is the sketch that that appeared in the Nelson Daily News of Oct. 24, 1979.

By 1981, this proposal had morphed into a $5 million Sandman Inn hotel-convention centre to be built by Northland Properties Ltd. The company reached a deal to buy the property from the city for $200,000 and put $20,000 down. It was supposed to have construction substantially started by Dec. 31, 1982 but asked for an extension to July 1, 1984. I don’t know what happened to kill the plan — the recession, probably, although a Sandman Hotel was built in Castlegar around this time.

In December 2001, the Nelson Museum board proposed building a museum, archives, art gallery, and library on the site plus office and retail space, plus residential units to subsidize the cultural facilities. The idea did not get very far.

Until recently, the property was still vacant — or at least much of it was (pictured below as seen from Vernon Street) — and used as a private parking lot. To the west, the Regional District of Central Kootenay and Nelson Police Department teamed up on a building in 1974 that is now the Salvation Army.

But in September 2018, Vendure Retirement Communities proposed to build a 127-unit seniors housing complex on the site. (The concept drawing is seen below.) It took years for the project to finally proceed to construction, but it is now underway.

In the meantime, they allowed the Civic Theatre Society to use the property for a popular pop-up drive-in theatre, with films screened on the side of the building at the corner of Lake and Vernon (which has seen many tenants since it was built in the 1950s, including Liberty Foods, SAAN, and Video Update).

Updated on June 10, 2020 to add the 1899-1900 photo, the 1979 sketch, and details of the proposed parkade-hotel-convention centre and the recent developments. Updated on June 17, 2020 to add details about the idea of building a new city hall in 1945. Updated on March 3, 2024 to add details about the museum proposal and the fact that the seniors housing complex is now underway.

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