The City of Vancouver has issued an average of 940 demolition permits per year for single-family homes and duplexes since 2012, with the largest number given to property owners in Dunbar and Southlands, according to city statistics provided to the Courier.
The adjacent West Side neighbourhoods of Dunbar and Southlands, which are home to some of the most expensive real estate in Canada, saw an average of 117 demolition permits issued from 2012 to 2015. The highest number of permits granted in that period — 132 — occurred in 2012.
The statistics do not indicate if all property owners followed through with demolition but realtors and heritage activists say they have seen bulldozers knocking down home after home in Dunbar and Southlands, a stretch of land that runs from West 16th Avenue to the Fraser River.
Realtor Ryan Taylor, who has specialized in selling homes in Dunbar for 22 years, said he believes one of the main reasons for the scale of demolition is related to the age of the homes, many of which were built in the 1930s and 1940s.
"So they're all at that age where they're ready to come down," he said, acknowledging other neighbourhoods have older homes but not to the extent of the West Side. "They have homes built in the 50s and 60s that are not ready to come down and they're being renovated."
The value of the land in Dunbar and Southlands, which hovers around an average of $2 million for a standard-sized lot, is also what's driving demolition, he said, noting most buyers choose not to sink money into renovating an old house.
"It's just a given," he said. "I mean there's just no value in the homes in relation to the land value. So it doesn't make sense to dump a hundred or two hundred grand into an 80-year-old home that's 1,800 square feet."
The number of demolition permits issued in Dunbar and Southlands is in contrast to similarly-sized adjacent areas such as West Point Grey and Kitsilano, where 75 demolition permits were issued in 2015. On the East Side, 86 permits were issued in Sunset and 80 in Renfrew-Collingwood.
The statistics tell a story of how fast — or slow — Vancouver’s neighbourhoods are changing, with only three demolition permits issued in Fairview since 2012 and five in Strathcona. The biggest decline in permits issued occured in Kitsilano, dropping from 50 permits in 2012 to 23 in 2015.
Caroline Adderson, a Dunbar writer who created the popular Facebook page, Vancouver Vanishes, and co-wrote a book with a similar title, believes the decrease in Kitsilano is related to a zoning change the city made that prohibits homeowners from building a new house larger than the existing footprint of the old home.
"If you retain the home, then maybe you can have a laneway home and maybe even two suites if you want and suddenly things are looking more affordable for people who work in this city and live in this city and contribute to the tax base of this city," she said.
Adderson said she wants the zoning change in Kitsilano implemented across the city to prevent quality character and heritage homes from becoming "bulldozer bait" and replaced with mansions. In recent years, she said, she can only think of one house in her neighbourhood that wasn't demolished after it was sold.
"As soon as the 'for sale' sign goes up, my heart just sinks," said Adderson, who lives in a 1925 craftsman-style bungalow that was originally owned by a barber.
When told that 974 demolition permits were issued in Vancouver last year, Adderson said the statistic is "horribly alarming." That was more permits issued than in 2014 (917) and 2013 (859). Adderson noted the increase in permits last year occurred as the city began discussions about a plan to stop the demolition of old homes.
In September 2015, city council approved the city's first heritage conservation area in the First Shaughnessy District, which prohibits the demolition of the neighbourhood's 315 pre-1940 homes. The new regulation was approved after the city noticed a steady increase in the number of demolition permits for pre-1940 homes in Shaughnessy. It was a move that upset many property owners, who complained to council and some are reportedly taking legal action.
Sadhu Johnston, acting-city manager, noted the city's work on the heritage plan when asked what more the city could do to prevent an average of 940 demolition permits being issued per year.
"We've done a lot in the last few years," Johnston said. "Vancouver is a changing city and it's hard to hit pause on everything. You buy a house and you want to change it, or you want to demo it and build a new, bigger, different house — it's kind of a fine line for us as a city telling you what you can and can't do. It's a challenging situation for us."
Johnston also noted the city's push to allow more laneway homes and secondary suites is, in certain cases, allowing more opportunities for families to live on a property where once stood an old home.
"While we hate to see a heritage home taken down, you may have one unit disappear and come back with the same kind of general footprint with three or more units that can accommodate people," he said.
Earlier this week, Adderson and other residents participated in a protest outside a $7.4 million newer home on Adera Street that the owner wants to demolish and replace with another home.
Johnston said it's "particularly offensive" when newer homes are being demolished to build another new home on a property. But when asked what the city could do to prevent such moves from an owner, he replied: "Honestly, I don't know," he said, noting city regulations to protect heritage homes are "cleaner cut" than preserving newer homes. "When someone buys a property, it's their decision how they want to use the house, if it doesn't suit their needs. It certainly feels wasteful and it doesn't make sense to me. But how much do we as a city get into controlling what everyone does?"