Residents of the 3000-block of Victoria Drive are not about to let their houses get mowed down for parkland.
The homeowners, whose houses abut John Hendry Park – also known as Trout Lake – are forming an association to thwart a City of Vancouver park board plan to convert their houses to park. They are including homeowners along East 13th Avenue and Garden Drive who also might be at risk, since their homes also back onto Trout Lake.
The residents of the 3000 block only learned that their houses are slated for a park extension after The Globe and Mail reported the city's closed-door decision to purchase 3030 Victoria Dr. and demolish it for parkland, even though the lot sits in the middle of the block.
The city bought the lovingly restored 1919 character house for almost $1.6-million as part of a quiet long-term plan to eventually bulldoze all eight houses, close down the laneway to the rear and extend John Hendry Park. The house was purchased early in 2016 and it's been sitting empty ever since. That a city-owned house has been empty and neglected for 17 months has raised eyebrows, especially considering the city has just brought in an empty homes tax. As well, there is a near-zero vacancy rate. The house is zoned for duplexing, and could easily house eight people like other duplexes on the street.
Also, residents are furious that they were not informed of the city's interest in their houses. They have placed big signs around the house, urging others to write the city, and they are starting a petition, calling for the city and park board to back away from the plan.
The community was already tight, so the group mobilized easily. On Thursday afternoon, the residents of the block gathered in the park for a meeting. NDP MLA for Vancouver-Kingsway, Adrian Dix, who lives in the area, dropped by to listen.
"We're going to fight it," long-time resident Katherine York had told me beforehand. "And if we do sell, it will not be to the City of Vancouver. Yes, we have an informal pact, and not just my block. We are creating a Trout Lake Lakefront Association, running down Victoria, along 13th and Garden Drive – right around the park. The support is growing rapidly. It's been tremendous."
Catie Norris, who was one of 11 siblings who grew up in 3030 Victoria Dr., says her family would purchase the house back from the city if it came back onto the market. Her brother Dave sold the house to the city believing that it would be used for housing.
"I don't understand this. I don't get it," Ms. Norris says. "Excuse me, there's a housing shortage. Why is the city buying a home and leaving it empty to get ruined when somebody could be living there? It's absolutely ridiculous … They are literally ruining a neighbourhood."
It's also a good example of existing gentle density that is praised by urban planners. Ms. York lives at 3036 Victoria Dr., the house next door to the city-owned house. Her grandfather bought the house in 1938, her mother was married at the house, and she herself was married in the park. She plans to leave the house to her kids.
"We are a community. We have a lot of kids on our block. We all know each other. We don't want an empty lot beside us," she says.
Today, six family members live in the York house. The block of eight homes, including two duplexes and a triplex, has at least two dozen residents, including long-time renters. One woman runs a daycare.
Like the other residents, Rich York is angry that he wasn't notified of the park board plan.
"It's like we're held hostage," he says. "You're stuck in neutral."
The park board assembly of their houses into park land means they no longer have the option to sell to a developer if they wanted to, which isn't fair, he argues.
"At some point down the road, say we all want to sell, we're trapped.
"And I can understand the desire to accumulate property for 20 years down the road, but why not rent it out and generate revenue for tax payers?"
"What's going to happen is I have a crater beside me and I have to look at it every day, knowing the next one is going to come down, and the next one. It's mind games they are playing."
Several houses adjacent to park land have been purchased and demolished on the east side of the city. Malcolm Bromley, general manager of parks and recreation, said until this one at Trout Lake, the acquisitions had been a smooth process. Once residents see a house come down without a new house going up, they usually want to sell as well. Mr. Bromley said that chain reaction is part of the reason they demolish right away, instead of leaving the houses for rental.
"[Demolition] does a couple of things. If people see we are looking to expand the park, maybe the house beside says, 'We are interested in going too.' We also want to avoid having that struggle at times when you do have a tenant who is very reluctant to leave, because you can't predict the market."
The reason they do not inform residents that they have plans to buy and demolish their homes is it will drive up prices. The park board is developing a master plan of Trout Lake, but it does not include any indication that any houses adjacent to the park would be removed. Decisions to purchase and demolish houses for park are voted upon by council and are not made public.
"We do want to pay market value," Mr. Bromley says. "But there have been times when you couldn't get a property because the person asks too much."
As for why the property was not rented immediately, Mr. Bromley says the acquisition didn't go as planned.
"We were optimistic we would get a few of the properties, because typically when people see what their neighbour gets, it can create some momentum. Others say, 'That makes sense to me, too. I'll move to Parksville, off I go.' That's what has happened in our other experiences. It didn't happen here."
It didn't happen because the residents are happy with their community. Vancouver's unaffordable housing market means those that are fortunate enough to own a house now want to pass it along to their children.
But not all residents are against the idea. A homeowner who lives near the park and is not at risk of having her home bought for parkland, says she supports the park board decision.
"I am all in favour of heritage protection and retaining our housing stock, but in this instance, the city acquiring these houses makes sense," says the woman, who wanted to remain anonymous to avoid conflict with her neighbours.
"I've lived in several major cities and planners never say, 'I wish the city hadn't bought this piece of park land,' and residents never say, 'There's too much green space, we should build more houses on it.' Eventually the houses on Victoria would be torn down and sold to developers who would put up expensive duplexes anyhow.
"So it's solid long-term thinking, even if it means a small handful of houses are removed. As long as the owners aren't being forced to sell and they're getting fair market value, I think it's a good thing, and will be appreciated for generations to come."
The city is looking at renting the house at 3030 Victoria Drive now that it's facing backlash about it being left empty for a year and a half. However, because the gas line was removed, in the midst of a severe winter, the pipes burst and the house flooded. Mr. York witnessed the flooding and called the city, which sent someone right away. Mr. Bromley says there are other issues that might make it difficult to rent, such as bringing the house up to code. But the possibility of short-term rental is being considered.
"When you try to grow parks, it's a good news story. It concerns me that this has been turned into a bad news story," Mr. Bromley says. "I understand it from a housing perspective, but our motives are pure. We are community building."
Samantha Reynolds and husband Pete McCormack find the phrase "community building" ironic, since they consider themselves a community that is slowly getting the heave-ho.
"We're not properties to be acquired," says Ms. Reynolds. "We're families. We're not a dispensable block that the park board and city can dismember, house by house.
"I want the city to do the right thing and abandon their misguided plan to annex our block. Many of us on our block don't ever plan to sell our homes as we intend to pass our homes on to our children 50 years from now, but if we do sell, it will not be to the city. They should put this beautiful 100-year-old heritage home back on the market and let a family look after it, as the city proved it was unable to do."
But the park board is sticking to its plan to demolish the house one day, and it will continue to try to purchase the other houses. The park board isn't going anywhere.
"I'm not belittling people's feelings. If the other seven homeowners don't want to sell, they don't have to sell, but the park board has been here 130 years and it took 15 years to acquire Emery Barnes Park, so things change," Mr. Bromley says. "Forever is a long time. People who say they won't sell, they sell over time. We've never abandoned a strategy, where we think, 'It's impossible – we are going to back away.' But I don't want it to be antagonistic. This has touched a nerve for some people. I respect that.
"Have there been lessons learned?" he asks. "I would not leave a property vacant for this long."