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Area around Oppenheimer Park in 1887.
Area around Oppenheimer Park in 1887.

In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, new housing endangers historic buildings Add to ...

On a cloudy Saturday morning, James Johnstone is standing with a small tour group in the intersection of Alexander Street and Princess Avenue. He directs their attention to where the pavement has been chipped away, revealing a layer of wooden cobbles. It was installed 100 years ago as the best street material to handle Vancouver’s busy horse traffic.

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“This is the oldest part of Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood,” Mr. Johnstone tells the group, before touring them around the buildings of the Downtown Eastside that were operating a century ago as the city’s first mills, warehouses, brothels and hotels.

Mr. Johnstone, a local historian who has researched about 900 of Vancouver’s oldest houses, has been leading heritage walking tours of Vancouver’s East End for years. But his tour location is about to see some big changes, as the city prepares a new Local Area Plan that could see 10,000 new residents move into the Downtown Eastside.

The LAP was brought in to address the intensifying backlash around new development in the neighbourhood, and makes promises to protect rental and low-income housing. Currently in a public-consultation phase, it will be voted on by city council in the fall.

But as residents, activists, developers and politicians argue over how to ensure gentrification doesn’t push out the Downtown Eastside’s marginalized population, the additional risk of losing the area’s rich heritage can easily be overlooked.

“It’s the heritage of the mill town that Vancouver was, from the 1860s up through the early 1900s,” Mr. Johnstone said. “And it’s the heritage of the Japanese community who made this neighbourhood their home, until they were forced out in the 1940s.”

There have been recent reminders of how easy it can be to lose buildings that have been standing for a century. On July 24, a 106-year-old building on Powell Street was demolished overnight after its owner noticed a collapsing brick wall inside.

It had been vacant for years and fallen into serious disrepair, a condition shared by many of the neighbouring buildings in what was once the heart of Japantown’s commercial district.

Last week, an innovative social-housing project built from shipping containers was opened on Alexander Street, but a house dating back to 1888 was demolished to make room for it.

Although Vancouver has financial incentives for property owners to preserve the heritage of their buildings, the city has very little ability to prevent a negligent owner from allowing a historic building to literally fall apart. Mr. Johnstone acknowledges that some of the dilapidated historic buildings in the area may need to come down for new projects – but he wishes owners would at least take the time to document what they’re about to destroy.

“There’s often no inventory of the interior, there’s no photographic record taken … those are invaluable things to have,” Mr. Johnstone said. “If it comes down to the point where there’s no choice but demolition, at least let’s see what the history of the building is, what its significance was to the neighbourhood.”

In a handout prepared for an open house on the LAP last month, the city promised to “preserve and celebrate” the heritage of the area, including a long-promised update to the Vancouver Heritage Register that would review what buildings deserve designation.

Yet it is ultimately up to the property owners whether a building is restored, renovated or demolished, and Mr. Johnstone is hopeful that enough public awareness can be raised to ensure the needs for new housing and for protecting the area’s heritage aren’t mutually exclusive.

“The value of the historic buildings is that it gives a sense of being rooted, and also being part of a larger history,” Mr. Johnstone said. “The social housing is a good thing, but if you wipe everything out and create something new, you’ve totally wiped out the historical touchstones. And it’s a proud history.”

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