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Developers Aquilini plan to keep the the façade Santa Fe on Oak Street, seen in 1931, left, intact with a 50 unit rental tower rising around it. Santa Fe building rendering
Developers Aquilini plan to keep the the façade Santa Fe on Oak Street, seen in 1931, left, intact with a 50 unit rental tower rising around it. Santa Fe building rendering

Why a Vancouver builder chose to save an old façade Add to ...

It may be small, but it’s big on character. The little white apartment block at Oak and 14th Avenue has always stood apart from the standard three-storey walk-ups that are common to that part of Fairview.

The building at 2975 Oak St. looks more European than Canadian, with its thoughtfully composed façade, including deeply recessed windows, the shield and garland decorative plasters, Juliet balconies and scrolled corner doorway and upper windows.

It’s been called the Santa Fe for decades, but it was originally named the Van Arsdel, after the builder’s wife. It’s a stately building, which is ironic considering the context it was built in back in 1928. Back then, it was surrounded by dirt roads and middle-class houses, and a chain store called the Piggly Wiggly, according to archival photos.

The Van Arsdel answered the demand for multifamily housing between the world wars, when arterial roads used by streetcars underwent a development boom. Architects Fred Townley and Robert Matheson, who designed the Van Arsdel, would later build City Hall at 12th and Cambie.

Santa Fe Apartments, c1931.

A sea captain named Arthur Wellesley Davison, who lived from 1870 to 1949, built the Van Arsdel. When it was finished construction in March, 1928, it was valued at $40,000. Mr. Davison and his wife, Eva Van Arsdel Margeson, kept an apartment in the building for trips home from Hong Kong, where Mr. Davison was marine superintendent for the Canadian Pacific Railway. The rents from the other tenants supplemented the family income.

It is an example of Period Revival architecture, when North Americans had a nostalgic post-First World War hankering for traditionalism. It’s also an iconic tribute to Vancouver’s history and the neighbourhood where it stands.

That’s why developers Aquilini opted to maintain the front and south facing walls when they made plans to redevelop the site to make way for 50 units of rental housing. Although designated a Heritage B building, they could still have demolished the whole thing. There’s no real protection of a heritage structure if someone wants to take it down.

And it wasn’t well maintained; there was dry rot throughout the interior. But the developer appreciated the uniqueness of the building, and they earned some extra density in exchange for restoring the façade. As well, they might have realized there would be community backlash if they tore it down.

“If we had said we are going to tear this thing down, we would have seen a huge outcry,” architect Nick Bevanda says. “But if you slow the train down, understand what the public values, and communicate that you agree with that, and are working towards that goal of rehabilitating, they kind of buy into it. You don’t get that negative outcry.”

Façadism is often a dirty word in heritage activism circles. It can leave the old façade looking out of context, dwarfed by an incongruous new building. In San Francisco, façadism is hot controversy because it means the loss of pristine Victorian interiors. However, in this case, the interior was too dilapidated to merit saving.

“It’s never our first choice – we wouldn’t start a project and say, ‘Hey let’s façade the building,’” Heritage Vancouver’s Don Luxton says.

“When we can, we save the structure of buildings and when we can’t, we make sure whatever is retained is important and meaningfully presented. We make sure it has the integrity and character intact as much as possible.

“You get to the point with some of these buildings where everything is shot. Then if your structure is starting to sag, as this one was, it costs a fortune to fix it up. And you are not going to do that for rental, so you have to get density on the site to pay for that kind of work.

“Land value in Vancouver makes that a challenge, so there’s always some kind of balance to these projects.”

Aquilini purchased the property three years ago, and saw an opportunity to build around the old building because half the lot was vacant.

“I’ve lived in Vancouver for about 25 years, and I’ve noticed this building and was always intrigued by it,” senior vice-president Kevin Hoffman says.

Aquilini paid to relocate the tenants who had been living in the building, and those tenants will have first dibs on the new suites once completed. However, the rents will be higher than what they were paying, based on whatever the market supports when construction is completed in approximately 18 months. The former tenants will be offered first right of refusal three months before occupancy.

Because city policy is pushing for family sized apartments, all suites in the historic three-storey portion of the project will be two-bedroom. In the mid-rise portion, it will be 11 storeys of one-bedroom suites. Aquilini has a long history of building rental apartments in Vancouver, and has another 602 rental suites under way in three towers downtown, near Rogers Arena. The West Tower completes this spring, the South Tower will complete in 2017 and the East Tower has been approved by council and doesn’t have a completion date yet.

“We know there’s huge demand for rental out there,” Mr. Hoffman says.

The building will still be called the Santa Fe, and the lobby will reference some of the original floor tiles. Otherwise, any other trace of the old interior will be replaced with a contemporary decor. The front entrance will remain intact, but no longer be used as the entrance.

“Some of the older buildings in Vancouver had great ornate woodwork, hand-carved railings, crown mouldings and things of that nature. But this building didn’t have anything of any intrinsic value inside of it,” Mr. Hoffman says.

In order to save the façade, Mr. Bevanda says it will need to be carefully lifted and braced in order to build an underground parking lot.

The tower that will rise behind the old façade is contemporary in design, in contrast to the historic building. Nobody wanted a new tower that tried to mimic the older style.

“Our preference is to build buildings that represent our time,” Mr. Bevanda says. “There’s no point in recreating something from 100 years ago. There’s no value to that.

“It’s a relatively simple [design],” he adds. “I don’t think it’s very challenging, necessarily, which is a good thing. In some ways, it acts as a backdrop to the façade.”

Mr. Luxton agrees with the design, which he calls “sympathetic.”

“Our favoured response is contemporary,” he says. “We need enough contrast to know that what is new is new.”

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