The history of Kitsilano Lutheran Church, which is going to be knocked down to make way for a townhouse development, won’t be evaluated or documented before it’s demolished despite a plea from Heritage Vancouver Society.
At an April 2 public hearing, city council approved redevelopment plans for the property located at 2715 West 12th Ave.
The development site includes two lots on the northwest corner of West 12th Avenue and Stephens Street. The 1948 Kitsilano Lutheran Church is currently on the property although it’s now occupied by another religious group (City Life Church), which signed a short-term lease knowing redevelopment was being pursued.
The plan is to build two, three-and-a-half story residential stacked townhouse buildings with 14 secured market rentals, including three one-bedroom, five two-bedroom and six three-bedroom units. The project was considered under the Affordable Housing Choices Interim Rezoning Policy. The applicant requested and qualifies for a development cost levy waiver, which requires that rents meet certain limits. In this case, proposed rents for the project are $2,056 for one-bedrooms, $2,703 for two-bedrooms and $3,559 for three-bedrooms.
Those rents are deemed affordable for households earning between $80,000 to $89,999 for the one-bedrooms, $100,000 to $124,999 for the two-bedrooms and $125,000 to $149,999 for the three-bedrooms.
The city’s 10-year Housing Vancouver strategy calls for more townhouses to be built but progress has been slow — the number approved or built since 2017 is 275. The city’s goal is to have 5,000 built by 2027.
Most feedback submitted to the city about the West 12th Avenue townhouse development was positive, with 25 pieces of correspondence in favour (several highlighting the need for housing options in Kitsilano), six pieces in opposition (much of which centred on traffic and design of the townhouses) and one item — a letter dated April 2 — from Heritage Vancouver Society categorized as “other.”
Heritage Vancouver’s letter to the City of Vancouver asked for an independent heritage assessment and evaluation on the existing building and site, and that it be one of the conditions for approval of the project.
The city staff report only noted that “the site is occupied by a church building constructed in 1948, which is currently vacant and not a candidate for addition to the Vancouver Heritage Register.” Heritage Vancouver called that “troubling and concerning.”
“Unfortunately, the site was not included within the existing Heritage Register resources since many properties’ provenance and importance only come to light when threatened with redevelopment, such as this example,” its letter states. “The Heritage Register also exists as a living document, meant to be added to and updated when properties are identified, then allowing potentially for various bonusing to aid in potential unique redevelopment opportunities.”
During the public hearing, NPA Coun. Lisa Dominato asked staff about Heritage Vancouver’s concerns. Council was told staff hadn’t had any discussions with Heritage Vancouver, that they look to the heritage register and upgrade list to identify resources that may have heritage potential, and that “…we do value heritage but also need to prioritize limited resources.”
The City of Vancouver later told the Courier that the potential heritage value of the church was not identified as a concern from the public in the feedback it received during the process.
Heritage Vancouver, meanwhile, says the building is a prime example of immediate post-war church architecture in the city.
Joseph Francis Watson and Harold Nelson Semmens designed it in 1947 for Kitsilano Lutheran Church. Watson served as president of the Architectural Institute of B.C. in 1945-46 and was a founder of UBC’s School of Architecture, while Semmens is credited with modernist works such as the Vancouver Public Library on Burrard Street and Hycroft Apartments at Granville and West 15th Avenue.
“Since Vancouver continues to eradicate its architectural legacies and built form examples of cultural properties without evaluating what is being demolished — at a minimum, a Heritage Assessment and Evaluation then potentially a Statement of Significance (SOS) will serve as a baseline for proper determination, and also document this site for the future,” Heritage Vancouver wrote.
Patrick Gunn, a Heritage Vancouver spokesman, said it was unfortunate the process was so far along before the organization heard about the redevelopment of the property and raised concerns, but the organization doesn’t think documenting the site’s history is too much to ask.
Gunn acknowledged it's a complicated issue that involves, on one hand, the loss of undocumented architectural heritage and the loss of a much-needed Kitsilano community meeting space and, on the other hand, the addition of gentle density into an area that needs that type of development.
“[But] the ask of doing a proper assessment to document the loss wouldn't thwart any development — if you're going to move forward, you also need to see where you've been,” he told the Courier.
Heritage Vancouver is particularly concerned about the lack of assessment and process for a site that appears to have architectural merit, considering city staff indicated they only looked at whether it was on the register or upgrade list. The upgrade hasn’t been finalized or been subject to public consultation yet, Gunn said.
“Demolishing a site without first figuring out any significance is problematic, therefore, at a minimum, documenting what is being lost is key,” he explained.
It’s not the first time heritage issues were highlighted late in a process.
Several years ago, heritage activists raised concerns about the so-called “Electric Home” in Shaughnessy after the owner sought a demolition permit to knock it down to redevelop the site. Built in 1922 and designed by noted architects, it was used as a showhome to demonstrate how a house could be wired for electricity.
Gunn said the city’s initial response was it wasn’t on the Heritage Register but after pressure from the public, the city placed a temporary Heritage Protection Order on it while an assessment was done. He said it was found to be a “Heritage A” building, the highest category for heritage properties.
While the "Electric Home" was eventually demolished, Gunn said at least the house was documented for posterity through a Statement of Significance, which captures its unique built and social history in Vancouver.
That won’t be the case for Kitsilano Lutheran Church.