Old Vancouver housing, which has been under fire from rampant new development, got a bit of a break this week. The two neighbouring historic mock-Tudor houses nicknamed "the Dorothies" look like they might be saved due to an effort by the developer and an architect to relocate them.
And city council moved to update Vancouver's heritage registry and look at its options to preserve buildings built before 1940.
Residential developer Rob Chetner, who was reluctantly about to demolish the Dorothies at 2827 and 2837 W. 43rd St., found a way to save them with the help of architect Timothy Ankenman. He and Mr. Ankenman went searching for a nearby Kerrisdale property to relocate the houses to, and found it a couple of blocks away, on W. 41st Avenue.
"I tried my best to save them, and it's not easy to do," said Mr. Chetner. "The reality is they're not easy to save. The city needs to give us incentives that enable us to do something that we're otherwise not able to do. To the city's credit, they came through in a way that I think is going to work.
"And if they are serious about retaining heritage buildings in the city, we have to find a way to make it work."
If it passes public consultation, the houses will be preserved and restored inside and out, with their basements converted into garden suites and four coach houses built to the rear of the new location, totalling eight suites, says Mr. Ankenman.
"It's much more expensive to do this than tearing down and building new. But a piece of 100-year-old history is preserved so it is worth doing," said Mr. Ankenman, who has five such heritage revitalization agreements in the works. "The level of interior detail in those houses is unprecedented – I've never seen new construction that has that level of detail."
The Dorothies only came close to demolition, but other beautiful historic houses aren't so lucky. About 850 old Vancouver houses are getting knocked down each year, figures writer Caroline Adderson, who, with husband filmmaker Bruce Sweeney, lives on a Kerrisdale street, surrounded by ongoing demolition and new construction.
Ms. Adderson oversees a popular Facebook community page that documents the demolitions, called Vancouver Vanishes. As she told city councillors on Wednesday, those houses range from good to superb condition, and many of them are replaced with new houses that stand empty for several years. If heritage preservation, sustainability and density are the city's goals, then senseless new development is the major obstacle, she says.
Reached the day after the council meeting, she said of the new heritage action plan: "I'm disappointed in the timeline. Any measures to preserve neighbourhoods are at least a year away."
The report focuses on updating the heritage registry, which would include additions, but also removal of buildings that have been deemed irreparable and already demolished. It aims to give the director of planning more room for negotiation to save heritage stock, and it looks at increasing demolition fees. However, a bigger demo fee would become the price of doing business for anyone who's committed to building an $8-million home.
Critics argue that the plan doesn't take immediate steps to address the reality that too many homes are being torn down and sent to the landfill. According to a consultant report from 2011, 74 per cent of Vancouver's demolition, land clearing and construction (DLC) waste came from residential demolitions. And if hundreds of houses are coming down each year, it's not hard to see why.
Jake Fry, co-founder of Small Housing B.C., sees two problems for Vancouver. One is the fact that on average, 84 per cent of our monthly incomes go toward our housing – it's unaffordable. The other is that new houses are simply too big. Mr. Fry is an early advocate of small, sustainable housing, and founder-owner of Smallworks, which builds laneway housing.
"Our building practices are providing more square footage per person than you had with old construction. We're allowed to build bigger," he says.
"Houses have become commodities, and this is where the city short circuits. We never got beyond the boom-and-bust mentality. We build stuff to make as much money in as short a time as possible. There's no thought in what happens afterward."
Mr. Fry and others have suggested that if zoning laws changed to cap the amount of square footage allowable for a single-family dwelling, it might curtail the new construction boom for monster homes, particularly in prestige areas of the city.
Councillor Heather Deal says the city will explore zoning as a tool, but first staff has until 2015 to identify those neighbourhoods with a concentration of heritage and character housing stock for such zoning. She added that "down zoning" someone's property could be controversial.
"It potentially decreases the value of the land that the house sits on, and in Vancouver, the value is all in the land. That's just our market economy," she said, in a phone interview.
Later, she had staff send me an e-mail that said by 2015, Metro Vancouver also plans to put a ban on wood being sent to the landfill.
Ms. Adderson told council that houses are coming down at a rate of 70 a month. If they wait another year, they might have a tough time finding a "concentration" of character homes.
"I'm not exaggerating," she said. "The street next to mine has one original house remaining on the south side."
Elizabeth Murphy, former property development officer for the city, also takes aim at the city for a slow response on the issue.
"There are many things the city could be doing right away. They don't need to be waiting this long," she says.
"The city does not have retention as their priority. They really don't get the fact that the greenest building is the one that already exists.
"If you can do more with what you have and create more units and house more people, but still keep the existing form, it's a much more sustainable way of accommodating growth."
She's described the Dorothies development that Mr. Ankenman and Mr. Chetner are proposing. And to the city's credit, says Mr. Ankenman, the staff worked as a team with them to find a financially viable solution for the Dorothies.
"A couple of the sites we looked at meant we would have had to split up the Dorothies, and they would have lost all their integrity if we did that. We had to find a lot big enough and a receiver site that would accept both of them. That's the only way it was going to work."
Score one potential victory for Vancouver's old houses.