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British Columbia Heritage advocates decry potential demolition of Vancouver mansion

A Vancouver mansion built in 1922 is at the centre of a debate about the demolishing of heritage homes.

Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

The potential demolition of a Vancouver mansion built almost a century ago to showcase the modern joys of living with electricity is an appalling example of how the real estate boom is endangering the city's architectural heritage, advocates say.

The house, built in 1922 but recently renovated with a new kitchen and a new roof, is listed at $7.38-million –almost $2-million more than its latest assessment. An added feature, the real estate listing says, is that an application to develop the property has already been made, "saving months and months of time to begin building your brand new home to your taste." However, the list goes on to say that "the home is still gorgeous and very livable" if the buyer prefers not to tear it down.

Outraged heritage advocates say the demolition of such houses in Shaughnessy, one of British Columbia's priciest neighbourhoods, and across Vancouver shows that speculators hoping to cash in on the region's real estate market have broken the city's system for protecting older houses.

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They say buyers who can afford luxury prices are not interested in the current incentives for keeping designated heritage houses relatively intact, such as rezoning the property to allow the addition of a secondary suite to rent out or a separate laneway house.

"When your house is north of $5-million, you're not looking for the 'mortgage helper' [a secondary suite]. You have other expectations," said Javier Campos, president of the non-profit Heritage Vancouver Society. "The city quiver doesn't have any arrows in it that it can actually use."

In recent debate, several deals have been held up as proof the city's housing market is out of control, from heritage homes such as the Shaughnessy mansion to a 20-year-old west-side property whose pending demolition sparked a protest last month.

Last September, council designated the northernmost part of Shaughnessy as the city's first Heritage Conservation Area, which makes it extremely difficult for an owner to demolish a house there. Mr. Campos notes that the city faced massive opposition to that move – and an unresolved lawsuit – from homeowners angry over the loss of development potential.

"In Vancouver, like the rest of Canada, your property rights are sacrosanct," said Mr. Campos, who is an architect. "You can blow it up if you want."

The house in question – built by the architects who designed City Hall – is four blocks south of that zone, leaving it without any real protection, says Patrick Gunn of Heritage Vancouver. After his group noticed the house listed in February, Mr. Gunn said they flagged the property for city officials working on updating the civic register of older properties worth protecting.

By then, a permit application to develop the house was already in motion, he said. City Hall was closed Monday for the Easter long weekend, but a development application filed on Feb. 24, 2015, and posted to the city's website stated the owner "really liked the look of the existing" house, but had to demolish it for technical reasons.

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"Among those were the low ceiling heights, inadequate basement height and construction, unchangeable front entrance, difficult stair configuration," the design rationale in the application stated.

Last November, the city told The Globe more demolitions had been approved or were pending – 1,141 – in 2015 than any year in the past decade.

Data showed single-family houses on the city's increasingly unaffordable east side were being demolished as frequently as on the pricier west side.

Councillor Geoff Meggs, long-time member of the ruling Vision Vancouver party, said he was not aware of the house, but was disturbed by its potential destruction.

"It's deplorable that a realtor would promote the demolition of a building that age and that character, but it's a tough process to establish the right policy, and the protection that is available in Shaughnessy has not been without controversy," he said. "What I think is becoming more noticeable is the silence you hear from a lot of other people in those areas who are worried about a decline in property values."

Infrastructure business executive Richard Burley said he, his wife, their two children and their dog enjoyed renting the house for the past 2 1/2 years. The couple's favourite room in the Tudor-style house was the large, open lounge and dining room, where they entertained friends fireside.

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Mr. Burley, a native of Melbourne who has resided in Hong Kong, refers to the neighbourhood as "one of the most beautiful places I've ever lived" and says "there's something wrong with the system" if the house is demolished once it is sold.

He has no problem with the seller of the house, who lives in Vancouver but was on a trip to China.

"I'd like my comments to be turned against the city rather than my landlord, because she's just working within the system that exists, she has every right to demolish the house if she wants to," he said. "The city has no protection in place for these properties and that's an indictment against the city and, to be honest, the province."

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