Another little piece of old Vancouver will soon vanish when two Kerrisdale houses, both on the Heritage Registry, are demolished to make way for new, bigger houses.
For anyone with the mistaken belief that the Heritage Register protects Vancouver’s historical landmarks, the pending loss of the two mock-Tudor 1939 homes is proof that when an owner has their sights on redevelopment, preservation becomes almost impossible.
The houses at 2827 and 2837 West 43rd Ave. have been nicknamed “the Dorothies” because Dorothy was the name of the original home owners. The houses were originally owned by Alex E. MacMillan, a manufacturer’s agent, and Duncan C. Smith, district manager for Lever Brothers soap company. Both had wives named Dorothy. And both houses, surrounded by lush landscaping, share a driveway between them, which is a unique design. The houses, which are on the Heritage B list, are in excellent condition and considered significant.
However, the owner of the houses, a builder who’s worked a lot in the area, has applied for development permits to demolish both houses in order to build new homes. The house at 2827 West 43rd is awaiting approval, subject to some requirements being met. A notification to neighbours has been sent out regarding redevelopment of the house at 2837 West 43rd.
Buildings on the Heritage Register qualify for incentives to encourage conservation, but they aren’t protected from demolition. With limited options, city staff asked that the owner consider infill or second principle dwelling development, at the inquiry stage.
“Owner advised inquiry staff he did not want to pursue the heritage option and submitted development permit applications for each site, which propose to demolish the existing buildings,” a city media person told me in an e-mail. “Senior staff also contacted the owners directly to inform them of heritage retention options – owner advised he will demolish and build new.”
City staff didn’t want to comment on the issue, and city councillors didn’t respond to my request for an interview.
The owner, Trasolini Chetner Construction, could not be reached for comment.
“I think they tried hard, but if someone is bound and determined the city doesn’t stand up to them,” says Anthony Norfolk, a retired lawyer who’s working to save Vancouver heritage buildings. Mr. Norfolk belongs to the Arbutus Ridge, Kerrisdale, Shaughnessy (ARKS) Vision Implementation Committee, whose responsibilities include retention of Heritage Register buildings.
“I have suggested to council, in a presentation, that they could change the zoning schedule to penalize demolitions by reducing the allowable floor space ratio (FSR),” says Mr. Norfolk. “They have done this for 25 years in west Mount Pleasant.”
Like many Vancouver residents concerned about the rapidly shrinking stock of character and heritage buildings, ARKS fired off a letter appealing to the city to reject the development applications.
“The community is increasingly concerned at the continuing loss of character homes in the neighbourhood generally, even more so where this involves a pair of special homes recognized by their B status on the Register. They can and should be retained since they can be updated and adapted to contemporary living requirements, as many others have been,” said the letter.
“What’s been designed to replace it is a glorified Vancouver Special,” says Mr. Norfolk. “A rectangular box. I like contemporary design. I prefer it over replica. But it’s not being replaced by that.”
A couple of home movers even attempted to relocate the houses to Vancouver Island, where land is cheaper and they’ve already relocated several beautiful heritage homes by barge.
Ben and Jen Ford have been in the news over the last few years for making their living from relocating entire houses with the help of Nickel Bros. House Moving. They heard about the plight of the Dorothies and contacted the owner, who was amenable to helping them move the homes.
“I’ll give Rob Chetner credit, he was putting in a big effort to at least have them removed,” says Jen. “And he was willing to kick in some of the demo money toward removal as well. But we got some rough costs on moving them, and to move the one it wouldn’t have been worth it at all. So we considered moving both at the same time. We’d have to find someone to take the other house. And there wasn’t enough time to sort that out. The time just kills it in a lot of this.”
Also, the height of the Dorothies has made it an impossible venture, says Jen. To move a house, the Fords have to pay major fees to move overhead power and utility lines, trim trees that are obstructing the way, and hire police and flag people to direct traffic. There’s also the actual cost of moving the house, transporting it by barge and flatbed truck, and reassembling it on a new foundation. The house is then restored and sold. Just to get route check estimates from the various utilities companies costs several thousand dollars. The entire process can take around nine months or longer, depending on the real estate market, says Jen. They’ve relocated six character houses so far, in Vancouver and on Vancouver Island.
The other daunting part of the task is that many houses are about to be demolished, and the Fords have little time to step into action. The Fords moved another house from the 41st Avenue and Dunbar area and it cost $75,000 for the move and $77,000 in line fees. They only had a few days notice.
“That’s what happened with the Dorothies too,” says Jen. “With big houses in Vancouver, there’s not enough time to figure out if you can get them out of there, and how much it’s going to cost. It was rough to figure out how much it was going to be.”
Adds Ben: “And we call the Dunbar and 41st area the death zone. With all those trolley lines boxing it in, anything there is impossible.”
While private individuals like the Fords, Mr. Norfolk and others attempt to save what they can of Vancouver’s heritage, the houses continue to come down. There were an estimated 611 houses demolished in Vancouver as of August of this year.
“It can be very frustrating and disappointing,” says Jen. “Sometimes your heart rules your head and you make it work no matter what, because you just can’t bear seeing it knocked down. But other times, like with the Dorothies, you just can’t risk it.”