In the past few months, three apartments have sold at the Queen Charlotte heritage building in Vancouver’s West End. Elizabeth Seaton and her husband downsized from their nearly 3,000-square-foot Kerrisdale house to a 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment at the Queen Charlotte. They’d visited the building on a heritage tour and had looked at units that came up for sale. They finally settled on the corner unit with its original heavy wood door, hardwood floors, high ceilings, large windows with mountain views and a neighbourhood that has children.
“I love this area and I love light. And I love being able to look outside – the views are spectacular,” she said. “Kerrisdale was a ghost land. It’s filled with people in luxury SUVs driving way too fast.”
They purchased the unit for $1.143-million. A three-bedroom was listed for $1.698-million and a 1,090-square-foot, one-bedroom for $1.145-million. Both of those sold, too.
Units in the building sell easily. Strata heritage condos are rare and the Queen Charlotte is considered one of the city’s finest. Several suites in the building will open their doors for the new West End Heritage Tour this Saturday, which includes 15 stops, some of which are predictable for their architectural splendour, such as the pricey Kensington Place apartment building and the little Leslie Lane House. Others on the self-guided tour illustrate the ideal merger of character retention and affordable housing, such as the Mole Hill Community Housing Society and Pacific Heights Co-Op. Mole Hill is a collection of character houses on city-owned land that house low- and mid-income tenants with the help of subsidies and market rate units. Pacific Heights is a row of eight heritage houses that were moved forward to allow for a mid-rise to the rear, creating 91 affordable units. A minimum gross annual income of $31,458 is required for a one-bedroom apartment, with a monthly fee of $852, according to its site. A three-bedroom house requires at least $52,874 in income and costs $1,432 a month. Understandably, few people move out.
The last time the Queen Charlotte opened its doors to the tour, there was a lineup down the street, with upward of 900 people waiting to see its art-deco foyer, the rare cage-door elevator and roomy hallways and suites. The Queen Charlotte, built in 1927 at 1101 Nicola St., was touted as exemplary back in the day because it was built by Dominion Construction out of concrete and was, therefore, touted as fireproof. An early policy notice states: “Tenants are restricted to families, the first-class character of the building being maintained at all times.”
Wim Vanderpoll bought his one-bedroom apartment in the Queen Charlotte heritage property across the hall from Ms. Seaton, in 1984, for about $67,000.
Since 1927, it had been rental apartments until 1984, when Mr. Vanderpoll bought in. A developer and lawyer named Terry Devlin bought the building from an estate sale and did some cosmetic renovations and converted the building to strata condos. Residents were given the option to stay renting for five years, to buy a unit or to move out. Most opted to leave, and after a couple of years, everyone in the building was an owner, most of them fiercely devoted to maintaining the building and its heritage. In 1997, they applied for a heritage designation that would legally protect it from demolition. In the 1980s, Mr. Vanderpoll says, buildings around them were being bulldozed, so heritage preservation became a concern. Next door, there used to be a rose garden, but that was replaced in the 1980s with condos. An old house on the street also came down. Mr. Vanderpoll has a large stained-glass window from the house, hanging in his window. He recovered it from the garbage pile after the house was bulldozed. He gave a couple of others to the Museum of Vancouver.
“There was a guy who lived in a house at Cardero and Harwood [Streets], and he had a basement chock full of stained glass that he had salvaged from buildings that were torn down.”
Today, the West End is undergoing transformation again, as old buildings on arterial streets come down for towers, many of them for market rentals. The West End is home to the city’s largest rental stock, with about 80 per cent of residents in the neighbourhood renting. Rental stock is needed, Mr. Vanderpoll says, but a lot of the new rentals won’t be affordable to people such as him, who are retired and living on a budget. He couldn’t afford $2,000 a month in rent for a new one-bedroom.
The city is pushing harder for more density. City council last week approved a plan to blanket rezone detached housing to allow duplexes, based on the idea that more supply of any kind will reduce scarcity and lower prices. Next year, they will look at a city report on allowing row houses and small apartment buildings in the areas. There is huge pushback to the plan, which could be reversed, depending on the new council that forms after the Oct. 20 election.
Opponents of the proposal say that Vancouver doesn’t need more supply of market housing – it needs supply of housing that is built expressly for low incomes and local incomes. And then there is the argument that the proposal will all but ensure that character housing is demolished, as much of it already has been.
A group called Save Vancouver’s Character Houses opposed the rezoning. It has a petition of 7,130 signatures and counting, calling for the protection of character houses that, when demolished, send more than 50 tonnes of waste to the landfill. One of the actions they are calling for is the removal of zoning and building code bylaws that encourage demolition and new construction instead of retention of the old houses, many of them built before 1940. They say the city’s hastily approved proposal for strata duplex housing will run counter to any character house retention policies.
Members of the pro-supply group Abundant Housing, as well as mayoral candidates Kennedy Stewart, Hector Bremner and Shauna Sylvester all back the blanket rezoning. (Ms. Sylvester wants incentives added so that some units are used for rental.)
In the face of an affordability crisis, the battle to save historic buildings can seem frivolous, the purview of people who’ve lost touch with the desperation of those who just want to live near their jobs. But Vancouver aims to be the “greenest city in the world” and the greenest choice would be to refurbish existing buildings as opposed to accelerated demolition and redevelopment. The city’s building code and current policies, however, have made it far easier to demolish and rebuild than to refurbish an existing building. Anyone who’s tried to renovate and upgrade an old house in Vancouver can attest to that.
The tension between those who want to protect the city’s character and those who want to densify is not unique to Vancouver. In San Francisco, a battle has raged for years between those who want to protect its famous old Victorian stock and those who want new apartment supply as wealth has flowed into the city. In San Francisco’s case, the wealth is the flourishing homegrown tech industry, but the effects on the city parallel Vancouver’s situation. Both are cities that are geographically small and can’t really grow anywhere but up.
“There is a real history of [heritage] activism that has maybe spared San Francisco from the worst of it, but this is the top challenge right now, to provide more density while retaining the essence of the city,” says Mike Buhler, executive director of San Francisco Architectural Heritage.
Perhaps the problem isn’t that old buildings are in the way of affordability, but rather, that city dwellers are being forced into choosing between economical housing options and protecting old communities.
“If cities are only about affordability, and if that is the never-ending single issue about Vancouver, there is no argument for keeping heritage,” historian Michael Kluckner said. “But if cities are diverse places that go through economic roller coasters, that have a range of housing and landscapes and ages of trees and buildings, and a historical sense of itself, there is that case to make. But housing affordability at the moment has trumped absolutely everything. There is no getting around that.”
However, Mr. Kluckner says that when an area is designated a heritage conservation area, it escapes the speculation cycle that drives prices to ridiculous levels.
“If you have some certainty, you just get steady appreciation in value without the boom-and-bust thing … because there is no development potential there, just people who want to live there, who look after their houses. The boom-and-bust can take place elsewhere.”
Heritage advocates argue old buildings are inherently affordable and sustainable.
“In Vancouver, many older buildings and homes already provide some of the more affordable options for home and business rental space … and lend themselves to being creatively adapted and added to as needs change,” said Judith Mosley, Vancouver Heritage Foundation executive director.
Heritage consultant and architect Don Luxton says old buildings are an essential piece of the affordable-housing puzzle. He says the new duplexes the city proposes will cost about $1.2-million each – not affordable to the average income household in Vancouver. That’s because newly built housing is always far more expensive than what is standing.
“This increase in density does not promote affordability. Heritage is not just part of hitting sustainability targets. Existing buildings are also more affordable. We should leave our affordable building stock alone rather than turn it into an endangered species. There is nothing wrong with building new and building dense, but in itself, this will not achieve affordability.”
With the blanket rezoning of one-family (RS) districts, it means there’s an extra title on the property, which means it’s instantly worth more, Mr. Kluckner says. He can see this new opportunity driving realtors to do more land assemblies.
“With this duplex zoning, they are effectively setting it up for a kind of stock duplex plan, that will be standard plans that will go on a standard lot. The advantage that the character houses had will go out the window.”
A major issue, he says, is the failure to develop communities, such as dense housing around Dunbar Street, close to stores and transit. He doesn’t see the impact of the new zoning as immediately detrimental, however, partly because market sales have slowed.
“I just hope with a new council and new thinking on this that people will go back to their planning books, and say how do you build a complete community? And how do you zone for a complete community? It’s not by doing these little tweaks.
“I really do sincerely hope the city looks at RS areas, and looks at fourplexes, and row houses and mid-rise apartment buildings, but looks at them in the context of creating village centres, that have walkable cores of about eight blocks across, and going down from there. People can live in lower-density forms. That, to ,me would be what would save Vancouver. But I don’t think the sky is going to fall.”