As Vancouver's detached housing stock is demolished, what should be saved?

Last month I received a telephone call from the CBC regarding two houses designed by renowned Vancouver architects Arthur Erickson and Ron Thom. Located in South Vancouver near one another, they both had recently been put up for sale.

Since neither was on the city’s heritage registry, the CBC was concerned “they may not live long after they sold,” which is a gentle way of saying they would be demolished to make way for larger new houses.

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I suggested they speak to Donald Luxton, the province’s premier heritage consultant. As expected, Luxton told the CBC it would be a loss in terms of our cultural and architectural history if these houses were demolished. He hoped the houses would be purchased by individuals who appreciated their architectural significance and would in turn seek heritage designation.

Regular readers of this column will know I am generally supportive of government policies to encourage heritage conservation.

Five years ago, I opposed the Vision Vancouver proposal to allow highrises in Chinatown since I worried they would threaten the neighbourhood character. I was right, and thankfully, the mayor and Vision councillors recently reversed their zoning changes to reduce permitted building heights.

Three years ago, I wrote a column about the designation of Shaughnessy as a Heritage Conservation Area (HCA).

While I shared the city’s desire to enhance Shaughnessy as an HCA, I thought the city should offer more equitable compensation to those with smaller houses on smaller lots and establish a reasonable appeal process since not all Shaughnessy houses had significant architectural character.

At the time, I mentioned I was heading off to St. Petersburg to give a presentation on how Vancouver encourages property owners and the development community to conserve heritage properties.

Those of you who have been to St. Petersburg might well wonder what a young city such as Vancouver could teach one of the world’s great cultural centres about conserving heritage.

As it happens, Vancouver has much to share.

On a panel with the deputy mayor, local architects and heritage experts, I spoke about our Heritage Revitalization

Agreement program which offers additional density and other zoning relaxations in return for heritage designation.

I also discussed our heritage density transfer program and buying and selling transferable heritage density.

I’ll never forget the deputy mayor’s response.

He told the large audience that he thought I had offered some very creative suggestions to preserve a city’s heritage buildings. “Of course,” he added, “they would never work in a corrupt country like ours.”

In my September 2015 column I also reported that a partner and I had just purchased a heritage property in West Vancouver that we were proposing to conserve in return for additional density rights. The partner was Trasolini Chetner who at the time was undertaking the Two Dorothies heritage project on West 41st Avenue.

The West Vancouver property was the Vinson House, a grand Craftsman-style house built by Valient Vivian Vinson in 1913, one year after the municipality was incorporated. Our plan was to move the house approximately 30 feet and add a single level suite below, four new garages and two detached infill homes.

We named the proposal Vinson House Cottages.

Last week, we finally completed the development and Mayor Michael Smith helped celebrate the occasion at a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Somewhat ironically, the mayor remarked that restoring older houses with additional infill homes is the future of West Vancouver.

Many question whether conservation of older homes will be Vancouver’s future.

A recent UBC study says that in the past 30 years, 26,700 detached houses, or 40 per cent of all Vancouver houses, have been demolished and replaced. The study further estimates that 32,000 detached houses will be torn down in Vancouver by 2050. This represents almost half the detached housing stock.

While many of these homes should be replaced, it will be a shame to lose others, especially fine Victorian and Edwardian heritage and character houses, and mid-century modern designs by the likes of Arthur Erickson and Ron Thom.

Last month Vancouver approved the Making Room Housing Program. It remains to be seen whether it will help conserve older houses or lead to even more demolitions.

Let’s hope it is the former, not the latter.


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