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Vancouver abandons only tool that would help save character homes

Caroline Adderson is seen outside a home slated for demolition located at 3554 West 37th Avenue in the Dunbar neighbourhood of Vancouver, British Columbia.

Rafal Gerszak

The city came close to adopting the one tool at its disposal that many agree would likely have preserved Vancouver's dwindling stock of character homes.

The idea was to limit the size of newly built houses in single-family neighbourhoods, while adding more housing options. It was part of the city's character-home zoning review, and the first major effort to meaningfully stop rampant demolitions.

Because current zoning allows a much bigger house to replace an old one, it's been open season on Vancouver's old houses. Investors are buying them to knock them down, redevelop them into massive houses and either flip them or hold them until they're worth more. Since the city "up zoned" in 2009, monster houses have proliferated, with house demolitions increasing to 1,000 a year.

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The simple move to restrict the size of a new house would have thrown a bucket of cold water on the action. The character houses would have had a far better chance of surviving, because the incentive to demolish would no longer be there. Currently, under single-family house zoning rules, most homeowners can triple their density by adding a laneway and secondary suite, but there's no incentive to do it. By restricting the size of new houses, and boosting square footage for renovation or expansion of existing houses, there would be a major incentive to work with the existing house.

Proponents have argued that it would stop the wastefulness of demolitions of livable houses, many of them newly renovated and well maintained.

The city commissioned a report by Coriolis Consulting Corp. that backed this theory: "This disincentive to demolish coupled with the incentives to retain is likely to result in more retentions of pre-1940 character houses," the report said.

But on Tuesday, Gil Kelley, the city's head of planning, told council that he'd received some "very strong" negative feedback to downzoning, as it's called, and the option was no longer on the table. After four public open houses, thousands of surveys, and an overwhelming response that two-thirds of residents want the city to take action to save character houses, the city has pulled back on the one tool that would have done it.

"We haven't got very far into it, so how come we are already taking tools off the table?" said heritage consultant Don Luxton, who works with the city. "I don't know what else you could do [to save houses]. There are only certain levers you can pull."

The only other option is to offer greater incentives. And it's hard to imagine a financial incentive greater than building a massive house that will sell for three times what the owner paid.

"You can't give them any incentive that makes sense. That's the challenge," Mr. Luxton says.

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The staff presentation to council on Tuesday did not indicate what percentage of the thousands of residents surveyed actually opposed the downzoning. However, assistant director of planning Anita Molaro said a significant number of architects and builders who'd been consulted were opposed.

One reason for the about-face might have been the slight financial setback to downzoning. The Coriolis report said homeowners could expect a drop in the value of their home of about 5 per cent or 10 per cent – this in a city that has seen 30-per-cent increases in one year.

Also, the restrictive zoning would have applied to post-1940 houses and pre-1940 houses that do not have character merit. Those properties wouldn't have received any of the benefits.

Elizabeth Murphy, former city development officer, says a better option is zoning that aims to preserve character but conditionally allows redevelopment on sites that don't have character, such as what we see in Kitsilano. It allows for multiple conversion dwellings, and has conditional uses for infill dwellings as an incentive to retain character houses.

"They've thrown the baby out with the bathwater," she says. "Just give conditional zoning to encourage retention, like what we have in [Kitsilano].

"There is no basis to the city's argument."

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The non-profit Urbanarium society held a debate Wednesday night on the question of rezoning to preserve character. Authors Michael Kluckner and Caroline Adderson argued for the downzoning, while builder Bryn Davidson and architect Javier Campos argued against it. It's not surprising that authors would appreciate the historical and cultural significance of old houses, and that a builder and an architect might see housing in a more commercial light. Many members of the audience worked in the planning and development industry, which wasn't lost on Mr. Kluckner.

"Telling a room full of realtors, builders, planners and architects not to redevelop something is like telling Colonel Saunders to ignore a flock of chickens," he said.

What was unexpected is that Mr. Campos is also head of Heritage Vancouver, and he spoke about character houses as if they were the enemy:

"We talk about this ideal for quality and construction. Really, it is code for an aesthetic bias, which is certainly anti-modern. And it smells of nostalgia. Where does it leave the rest of us?"

Mr. Campos was asked: "Can you guarantee Vancouver won't just become damn ugly?"

His response: "I can't guarantee that. But we can't retreat into the past.

"There's another issue," he continued. "The monster home – this idea, a quasi-racist kind of thing, because we don't like what these people are doing. They are usually immigrants, and we don't like it. Cities change. They are meant to evolve, they are meant to change. It's not about keeping a bunch of old houses and rezoning areas, and taking them out of play."

Both sides were for more density, but Mr. Campos and Mr. Davidson argued that the rezoning would limit the opportunity to add significant density.

"If you don't like a big monster house, then we could have six or 10 units," said Mr. Davidson.

Mayor Gregor Robertson recently advocated for more density in the single-family housing zones, which make up more than 60 per cent of the city. He recently realized that many of the houses on the west side are empty, and this week he sounded the alarm.

It's an alarm that most people in the city have been sounding for many years, however. Offshore demand for west side homes has transformed Kerrisdale, Dunbar and Point Grey, turning streets into dead zones.

Adding townhouses and duplexes to the mix, which the mayor has suggested, will only create multimillion-dollar duplexes. On the east side, new duplexes have sold for more than $2-million.

The cheapest house is the house still standing, says Mr. Kluckner.

"If I thought you could build affordable duplexes or townhouses, with the current land prices, and the current construction costs, and current regulatory environment, I would support that as being something that we ought to do. But all you need to do is look at the evidence of the price of duplexes in Grandview.

"It's a great big gentrification play."

The council will vote on the character review in April. As to whether the watered down proposal will have any effect is up for more debate.

"We are certainly hopeful they will be successful," says Ms. Molaro. "I think they will be for some. For others … there is a market that is not interested in character retention at all."

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About the Author
Real estate writer

Kerry Gold is a born and bred Vancouverite, and knows her city well. More

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