In the early 1990s, I lived in an established neighbourhood in suburban Richmond where the homes were modest but pleasant enough, and trees or rhododendrons in the backyard were not an uncommon sight.
But then it began to change. Hong Kong Chinese started to arrive in numbers. Richmond had become their resettlement area of choice. Soon, houses in my neighbourhood were being torn down and replaced with much larger structures that gobbled up most of the lot and were, in the eyes of some, devoid of any charm.
Long-time residents were outraged. Suddenly, we had a "monster house" issue.
It fizzled out eventually. That Richmond had become the destination of choice for so many Hong Kong Chinese had one enormous benefit: It drove up land values. Neighbours who were upset and angry about the nondescript boxes that were going up around them were soon cashing in, using their new-found (and handsome) profits to buy something nicer elsewhere.
There were certainly monster-house contretemps that had preceded ours, and there have been others since. The latest is in West Vancouver, where old arguments have, in a sense, been turned on their head. In Canada's richest postal code, it's not residents upset about the garish nature and outlandish size of the houses going up – the monster-house squabble has often been fuelled by jealousy and racism – it's the fact the municipality is trying to restrict how big the structures can be.
I'm sure most people who have come across this story have not uttered a word of concern for the aggrieved. After all, it's hard to feel sympathy for people who have paid millions for houses they intend to tear down so they can build palaces that maximize their investment. It's a fascinating debate nonetheless because of what it tells us about how the region is developing and the issues that flow from increasing land values.
In West Vancouver, some residents are upset over city council's plans to cap building to no more than 35 per cent of total lot size. These folks want to build houses of a scale that fully exploits the enormous investment they made when purchasing their properties. The municipality, meantime, wants to maintain certain design standards that help maintain the value and status of a neighbourhood. Without them you have a free-for-all, which is in no one's best interests.
Thus the dilemma in West Vancouver.
"As the value of land in Metro Vancouver increases, the existing houses have to be demolished and bigger ones erected in order for the value of the land to be realized," says Gordon Price, a former Vancouver alderman who sat through many monster-house debates during his 12 years on council. "Even if you've bought a beautifully preserved 1920s bungalow, it has to come down because you've spent $2-million for the lot and you won't get your retail value for that unless there's a building appropriate to the value."
The monster-house dispute has, at times, become unintentionally humorous. There's been a great hue and cry, for instance, over the demolition of so many heritage houses on Vancouver's west side to make way for larger, more modern residences. In response, council imposed a temporary demolition order on character houses that were built prior to 1940.
That, in turn, elicited gales of protest from some (mostly older) people living in those legacy structures who suddenly discovered that the value of their property had dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars (against the post-1940 house next door) because potential buyers couldn't bulldoze it to construct a bigger, more valuable abode.
"It's really a classic case of the irresistible force and immoveable object," says Mr. Price, director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University. "We want to maintain the character of the homes and neighbourhood that we're used to, but we don't want anything that would lower property values."
The first megahouses in Vancouver were in Shaughnessy, now a mostly heritage district that is the priciest in the city. The new megahouses going up elsewhere in Vancouver and its outlying suburbs will become the heritage houses of tomorrow. Such is the constant evolution of where we live.