Opinion: Heritage protection overdue and underdone

The City of Vancouver’s move this week to save heritage and character homes from destruction may be feeble and it is certainly too long in coming. But, to be charitable, it is at least a step in the right direction.  

This is mostly a West Side issue.

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It is mostly the East Side which concerns itself with issues of gentrification and the loss of subsidized housing for the poor and the homeless through “renovictions.”

It is the West Side and the West End where there has been growing concern about the destruction of heritage and pre-1940 character homes. That’s where you will find the biggest concentration of these homes (50 per cent of the housing stock) — in Arbutus, Dunbar and Kerrisdale. And no area has more at stake in the rush to demolish than the one known as First Shaughnessy.

The city’s planning director Brian Jackson noted in his report to council on Tuesday the extreme pressure on that area. For first 30 years following the 1982 Official Development Plan, there were 47 development permits approved to demolish pre-1940 houses.

In the past 18 month, he says, the number of inquiries “has risen dramatically” with 16 proposals for demolition. Clearly, whatever protection the city thought it had in place for this housing stock was not working. Hence the one year moratorium imposed by the city.

And you simply have to walk the streets of the West Side to see no block has been spared. In fact, Jackson admits that applications for destruction and reconstruction have overwhelmed city staff. They simply cannot keep up.

Heritage advocate Michael Kluckner has been lamenting the changes to Vancouver for decades.

But it is that growing concern being led by social media campaigner, writer and Kerrisdale resident Caroline Adderson, which has caught the attention of council and the public most recently.

The latest flash point that has people pushing back is Legg House, a heritage mansion in the West End slated for destruction. For more, check out her Facebook page “Vancouver Vanishes.” Through posted photos and text we learn of the demolition of houses with unique architectural features built with irreplaceable old growth lumber.

They are being busted up in a matter of hours producing on average 100 tons of waste which is then hauled off to the landfill. A regional report on landfill waste in 2011 pointed out that 74 per cent of Vancouver’s demolition and construction waste came from residential sources. That compared with 12 per cent from Richmond. Those demolished houses are being replaced by much larger buildings that take up more of the “footprint.”

They have practically no back yards because of double and triple garages. In the course of their construction, large trees falling within that footprint are taken down.

While the park board kvetches about a loss of tree canopy in the city, they need look no further than the city’s zoning policy to realize all of this is all legal, the result of zoning regulations that allow for the increased mass and height of homes, all of which existed before Gregor Robertson and Vision took office almost six years ago.

And, until now, they chose to do nothing about it.

The new regulations will make destruction of pre-1940 character homes more expensive because 90 per cent of the materials will have to be salvaged. But that additional cost is peanuts compared with the overall cost of the new building.

There will also be density incentives for people who want to keep these homes and renovate or expand them. But up until now the demands to bring the buildings up to modern days building codes have been prohibitive in terms of cost.

Those demands, we are told, will be relaxed under the new building code which comes in 2015.

Finally, there is nothing new in what the city is doing. They are complying with regional demands to reduce waste going to the landfill and they are following the lead of a half a dozen jurisdictions in North America when it comes to promoting deconstruction and salvage of building materials.

Of course, deconstruction is not preservation. And it will take a least a year to see if this effort around heritage and character homes actually does much.



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