In a city as young as Vancouver, it seems imperative to preserve the iconic structures that mark our short, but memorable history. However, with an out-of-date city heritage register and laws that hinder the protection of heritage properties, keeping them safe might not be a viable option.
That’s how some Grandview-Woodland residents feel after one of their cherished century-old houses was given the OK to be demolished. Brookhouse, a Queen Anne-style house built in 1908, was sold to a developer a couple years ago and although concerned local groups fought to save the house, its future is uncertain at this point.
Grandview-Woodland Area Council member Craig Ollenberger, who lives across the street from Brookhouse and was one of the many concerned, decided to approach the new owner and discuss options for keeping the house.
“His feeling right from the start was that it wasn’t on any sort of heritage register,” Ollenberger explained. “He had looked at that ahead of time and his intention from the beginning was to buy it because it had a double lot, blow the house down and build two duplexes.”
Residents voice their concerns
After Ollenberger and other active members of the community went to speak with the new owner about preserving the uniquely-built mansion, the man agreed to work with the city on a Heritage Revitalization Agreement.
However, Ollenberger explained that the HRA fell through because of what he was told were financial reasons and the developer then went back to his original plan and had a local design company put a design forward to the city, causing residents to react.
“They received 15 pieces of correspondence, which is huge for a small development like this,” Ollenberger said. One letter was sent to the city from the Grandview Heritage Group and another from GWAC, which was signed by 68 members.
“We speak on behalf of essentially the neighbourhood. We are drawn from the neighbourhood, we speak for thousands of people,” Ollenberger said. He thought the letters should be enough to make the city step back and do something to stop the demolition.
“In this neighbourhood, people respect heritage. In this neighbourhood people want to keep houses like this around. We don’t expect that the city would just allow them to be knocked down.”
Why aren’t these houses being saved?
GWAC president Jak King believes that one problem that prevents the preservation of heritage in Vancouver is “the apparent onerous nature of the Heritage Revitalization Agreement.”
King recalled former GWAC board member James Evans telling him about the “bureaucratic and problematic” process he went through to get an HRA for what is known as the Jeffs’ Residence, a Queen Anne-style house that Evans transformed into an impressive 20-unit townhouse development.
“If the city could somehow help us by simplifying that process, it would be an enormous benefit,” King said.
Making the HRA an easier task may be beneficial to owners who are willing to preserve the house, but if they aren’t willing, the city has limited options to protect it.
What can the city do?
“The challenge for Vancouver is that we have an insurmountable barrier to preserving heritage in the form of the provincial Heritage Conservation Act,” Vancouver Coun. Andrea Reimer explained, “It requires the City to fully compensate a property owner for the full development potential of their property in the event that the City wants to designate the building as a heritage building.”
Reimer said that without designation, the city doesn’t have the legal power to stop development or even demolition within the existing zoning. According to the Heritage Conservation Act the compensation would only be necessary, “if a designation causes, or will cause at the time of designation, a reduction in the market value of the designated property.”
Another heritage conservation initiative offered by the city is the Heritage Register, but according to both King and Ollenberger, the document is quite outdated.
“Most of the houses in this neighbourhood aren’t on the heritage register because the heritage register is hopelessly out-of-date; it was a small project even when it started,” Ollenberger said. “They didn’t have that much money to do it; it was back in the 80s and a lot of different houses didn’t get recognized.”
King said even if houses were on the register, that didn’t necessarily protect them. He explained that the register puts buildings into different categories, with A buildings being of the most importance, like the parliament buildings and most houses being categorized as a B or C.
“If you are a B, I think you have to hire a consultant and get what’s called a statement of significance written, so it delays you and costs you a bit of money,” King said. “Essentially, it’s no great protection. If the zoning says you can knock it down and build then you can knock it down and build.”
Watch this video to see some of the heritage houses in Grandview-Woodland