A luxury neighbourhood of grand old homes and lush greenery is being designated as Vancouver's first-ever heritage conservation area in an effort to halt a tide of demolitions and assuage fears that the city is being wrecked by a brash new group of home buyers who do not care about its history.
Vancouver city council voted unanimously to put the new designation on First Shaughnessy, created in 1907 by Canadian Pacific Railway as a high-class new subdivision.
"I'm thrilled to be preserving this neighbourhood in perpetuity for the people of Vancouver," Vision Vancouver councillor Heather Deal said as she initiated the vote.
Green Party councillor Adriane Carr agreed.
"Governments all the time deal with balancing the rights of individuals with the necessity of protecting the public good. Protecting heritage is exactly like that," she said, calling First Shaughnessy a unique area that contributes to the character of the city.
Shaughnessy is one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in the city, with gracious mansions that have significant heritage value. But the large lots occupied by these houses attract buyers interested only in the land, particularly those wanting to build new mega-mansions that would not be permitted on the city's standard lots.
The dispute over the designation has been simmering since last year when the city put a moratorium on demolition when permits to tear down houses in the neighbourhood continued to climb.
The change will mean all houses in the area built before 1940 will have the heritage designation, and owners will have to prove that they cannot be salvaged or are not really historic to get permission to demolish them.
Ms. Carr and councillors from the opposition Non-Partisan Association unsuccessfully proposed amendments to give homeowners a guarantee about how long it would take for an application to have their house taken off the heritage list or to have staff look at property-tax relief for owners doing extensive renovations.
Councillor Geoff Meggs said he could not support that last idea.
"We have there a housing affordability plan that's based on giving city tax dollars to some of the richest people in the city," he said. "That one is really beyond the pale."
The issue of heritage in First Shaughnessy is just one front, although a significant one, in a war that has erupted during the past five years over the rate of demolition of pre-1940s houses, particularly on the west side. Many blame buyers from mainland China for the trend.
Acting planning director Jane Pickering, who oversaw the Shaughnessy initiative, said staff working on the city's overall heritage action plan will examine whether this designation could be applied to any other neighbourhoods.
Richard Keate, chair of the Vancouver Heritage Commission and a fourth-generation Shaughnessy resident, said he is thrilled with council's decision.
"It's terrific," Mr. Keate said, reiterating that property values will go up, not down, in a heritage conservation area, a point made in a city consultant's report.
"It's a blue-chip stock. There's a market for people who want to live in those houses," he said.
The city has held several open houses and three lengthy public hearings since May on the designation plan, which brought out passionate speakers on both sides.
Some were frantic to see the city put in any kind of mechanism to stop the demolition applications.
Others argued the move would reduce their property values and result in houses deteriorating. A few speakers said they had bought property recently on the understanding that they would be able to tear down the existing house and that council's new policy would be unfair.
Heritage conservation areas or districts are common in Canada. Ontario has 120, protecting areas like Rockcliffe Park in Ottawa and Cabbagetown in Toronto. Victoria has nine.
First Shaughnessy, which is bordered by 16th Avenue in the north and King Edward Avenue in the south, Oak Street in the east and Arbutus Street in the west, has 595 houses. Of those, 317 will be on the pre-1940s, no-demolition list.
The city created a plan to protect Shaughnessy in 1982, but 43 houses have been torn down in spite of that since then. Another 19 demolition applications were on the books when the city put in a moratorium last year.
In the new heritage conservation area, owners will be able to turn their homes into multiunit buildings or add coach houses to their property, depending on the size of the lot. That measure is intended to help them maximize the value of their land and raise money for the maintenance of their historic homes.