Skip to content

Vancou'd have been: Vancouver's airport could have been built at Spanish Banks

There was nearly an airport just offshore of UBC
An archival proposal from 1928 for an airport at Vancouver's Spanish Banks shows how the project would have been laid out.

Vancouver International Airport (YVR) is a well-established transit hub in this modern city, but 100 years ago planners and politicians didn't know where to put an airport.

Passenger aircraft were a new and growing technology in the 1920s, and Vancouver was a fast-growing metropolis still trying to sort itself out.

For context, in 1927, the City of Vancouver hadn't yet amalgamated with the municipalities of Point Grey or South Vancouver (that happened in 1929) and much of the infrastructure around the city we have now hadn't been built. There was no Lions Gate Bridge, Trans Canada Highway or BC Ferries.

So when the discussion of a new airport came up, a few ideas were put forward, of which a couple had legs. One, obviously, was to build an airport for Vancouver on Sea Island, a large, flat, undeveloped tract of land in Richmond.

Another location under consideration was Spanish Banks. In fact, it was the original option and favourite for more than a year.

That might sound odd in 2024, but in 1927 the situation was different.

If you've been to Spanish Banks at low tide, the idea makes a bit more sense. There's a large, flat area, though sometimes it's below sea level.

The land also neighbours the most valuable residential properties in B.C; while the area was considered well-to-do in the 1920s, it wasn't quite what it is today.

At the same time, Jericho Beach was being used by the Air Force for seaplanes and early aircraft. It mostly closed down in 1940 (though the base remained under the military's control as the army moved in).

The pitch

A plan for a $466,000 airport was pitched (to be built by 1930) with a further build-out planned that would cost another $1.25 million (to be finished by 1940).

The airport would accommodate both sea and land planes and would have been quite the project, extending out over the Spanish Banks tidal flats at the western edge of the beach.

The location of the proposed airport in Vancouver. City of Vancouver Archives

Multiple seaplane moorings were mapped out, as was a customs area, hangars for "land planes" as they were called in the design (planes that landed on, well, land), and mechanics workshops.

As planes were a new technology people liked to watch in action, the plan also featured the inclusion of a public roadway around the airport with a refreshments pavilion.  While some of the beach would be covered, there would still be beach access on two sides of the airport.

For some reason, a 20,000-seat stadium was drawn up as well, just off Marine Drive, with a swimming pool and winter gardens nearby.

More fittingly, an airship mast was planned as well, for blimps and other similar aircraft.

The stadium, airship field, and other pieces were going to drive up the bill another $1.5 million.

Accounting for simple inflation since then, the whole project was estimated to cost $54 million in 2024 dollars.

So what happened to the Spanish Banks airport plan?

The idea first appeared in newspapers in November 1927, proposed to be a "giant airport" involving the provincial government.

Supporters of building an airport around Vancouver called the site ideal and the best option in the area.

However, there was opposition. One person wrote a letter to a newspaper in 1928 calling the idea "ridiculous in the extreme" and pitched Burnaby Lake as an alternative.

By early August of 1928, nine options were on the list, though Spanish Banks was the favourite. At this point, Sea Island was more actively being considered. A week later and the airport site rankings were flipped and Sea Island was favoured.

The proposed budget for the Spanish Banks airport in 1928. City of Vancouver Archives

The reason was simple, it would be too costly to build out the airport over the sandy beach, even if it would have been a "lovely" site, according to Squadron Leader A. T. Cowley (who had worked out of the Jericho Beach airbase). It was Cowley who was tasked with the decision.

Trying again to land an airport for Spanish Banks

The idea was revived in the mid-1950s according to archived newspapers, but the plan didn't have much support.

The hope was to have a secondary airport close to the city centre (like the Billy Bishop Airport in Toronto) and the notion was pitched in part by the Vancouver Aero Club.

The man who picked Sea Island as the location for what we now refer to as YVR supported the secondary Spanish Banks airport, but it doesn't appear to have been broadly popular. In 1955 a protest was even held to show opposition to the idea.

"For the rest of the city, opposed to ruining a residential area, a beautiful university campus and a priceless recreational asset, it would be an unwarranted imposition and an inescapable nuisance forever," wrote one person to the Vancouver Province in 1956.

In August 1956, the federal government indicated that while the region needed another airport, Spanish Banks wasn't in the running.

However, over the years the area was brought up occasionally as an option by other aviation groups. Once a group called the Spanish Banks Airpark Committee was formed and presented their case to the park board.