More than 200 people showed up Sunday to protest the demolition of the heritage “A” listed Legg Residence in the city’s west end.
Considering the torrential downpour, it was an impressive turnout, as well as a last-ditch attempt to save the doomed, once grand house at 1241 Harwood Ave. that was built in 1899. It is the second A-listed building to be demolished in the past two years, which goes to show that even valued historic treasures are not safe.
Writer and Kerrisdale resident Caroline Adderson organized the protest. Ms. Adderson’s Facebook page Vancouver Vanishes archives many of the character houses that are being torn down, including the names of the original residents and what they did for a living. Across the orange fencing around Legg House, she and fellow activists taped photos of dozens of the houses that have been demolished. Their words of outrage, mostly aimed at the city, nearly washed off the placards as the rain came down.
Although it’s been widely reported that the house had to go so that the tree could survive, that’s not the case, said Elizabeth Murphy, one of the protesters. Ms. Murphy, once a property development officer for the city, and a current member of the Character House Network, says that the city could have used existing guidelines to retain both tree and house.
“Heritage is not a priority for this council,” she says.
“They want to use their resources for other things. They’ve made that pretty clear.”
Although demolitions are occurring all over the city, to the tune of an estimated 1,000 per year, the west side of the city has taken a particular hit because the lots are bigger. Big is the current trend in new single-family housing.
Over a three-year period, 2,243 west side houses were torn down and replaced with new houses, and that figure doesn’t include Shaughnessy. Of those, 42 per cent pre-dated 1940. They had a collective value of $5.5-billion. The stats came from a 2014 property tax report focusing on new houses, as found by University of B.C. planning professor Andy Yan. Mr. Yan is one of the city’s go-to data people for housing information, which is why he’s also become an unofficial spokesperson for the city’s growing profile as a repository of global wealth, or a “hedge city,” as he coined it in the New Yorker magazine.
The challenge to saving houses is two-fold, says Ms. Murphy. City zoning changes that allowed for greater height and floor space five years ago has helped turn old, under-built houses into so-called “demo bait.” As well, the current building code makes it unnecessarily difficult to renovate an old house.
“The guidelines are all based on new construction,” she says. “Many of the codes for new construction really aren’t relevant to old buildings, like the rain screening. These old buildings naturally breathe. They don’t need rain screening.”
Legg House represents more than a serious loss of heritage, however. It is the poster child for a battle to protect truly affordable rental housing, as well as for sustainability in the face of senseless waste.
Most of us have heard the figure by now that an average of 55 tonnes of housing materials are going to landfill each year. Tyee writer Fiona Tinwei Lam recently wrote on the topic and cited a British study by the Institution of Civil Engineers that said a new house uses up to eight times more resources than the restoration of an equivalent old house.
Tearing down old homes is not a sustainable practice, and it wreaks havoc on the community, too. The new luxury tower will not replace the affordable rentals that the Legg House offered.
On many levels, Legg House
is a symbol for a city undergoing too much change, too quickly.
“There are all kinds of anger type issues that are rolling together on this,” says Michael Kluckner, author of Vanishing Vancouver: The Last 25 Years. Mr. Kluckner also spoke at the protest.
“The Legg House is bad for one reason and the west side stuff is bad for another reason, but there’s a general sense that people are frustrated with things just not working.
“You think of the current city council as being really policy oriented,” he continued.
“For example, they campaign on bike paths, and so they see that all the way through in the face of incredible opposition because they have this policy and that’s the way they want to govern. And along the way they endorse the heritage program, which has been in effect since 1986. But when the chips are down over the Legg House they caved. They’ve got all their other policies and wish lists and neighbourhood consultation and density and the rest of it.
“But at the end of the day, rather than supporting the primary policy, which was the A list building, they went the other way altogether and ended up with a high-rise.
“And I don’t think any of them are proud of the way that gong show happened.”
The biggest impact on the west side has been the arrival of global money that is using real estate as a “land bank,” a place to stash away money.
The phenomenon is happening in London, England, as well, with foreign investors buying up houses and letting them sit empty and fall into disrepair.
In Vancouver, the pricey homes on the west side are often demolished, rebuilt and then left empty. It is, says builder Jake Fry, the commodification of housing, which is the antithesis of building a community, laying down roots, and creating density, if that’s the goal. In other words, you don’t see much street hockey happening in neighbourhoods that are used as land banks. There aren’t many people.
“You are not adding housing,” says Mr. Fry, another protester. “Generally, you are decreasing the density when you put in these big homes.”
In order to curtail the demolitions, the city could tweak zoning and offer incentives to protect the old houses, says Mr. Fry, who builds laneway housing and advocates for smaller living spaces. The city could downzone areas to offset redevelopment and ease up on building codes for old houses to encourage restorations, he suggests. However, the standard argument against downzoning is that there’d be outcry from homeowners who are looking to cash out at the highest dollar.
“There are two fundamental problems with that,” argues Mr. Fry.
“City council is now becoming involved in market value. They are confusing their role of governance with housing investment and return. At its core, residences are about housing and community, so they have to abandon that economic commodification of the home. That should not be their role.
“Also, they could make the old properties more valuable. Offer a mechanism that, with the house restored, you can add more value to the property, by, say, stratifying the basement suite or the laneway house, or allowing a bigger laneway house if the main house stays smaller. They could offer more carrots.”
Mr. Kluckner acknowledges that it’s a conundrum for the city, with homeowners worried that downzoning might knock a half million or so off their property values.
“But that’s an issue that is a political decision that the city has to make,” says Mr. Kluckner. “My argument would be if you are looking at this over-arching policy of a green city and wanting to have density and wanting to be sustainable, then look at the current situation and say, ‘This is not acceptable.’ And look at the solutions and say, ‘Who will be disadvantaged?’ The way I see it, it’s the ones who are going to leave the neighbourhood [after they sell] who’ll be disadvantaged. They are cashing out anyway.”