Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Opinion: City handling of Shaughnessy heritage is cause for concern Vancouver Courier September 1, 2015

Recently, I have had heritage conservation on my mind.

Many of my friends and colleagues are very concerned about the city’s proposal to designate Shaughnessy a Heritage Conservation Area.

A partner and I recently purchased a heritage property in West Vancouver that we hope to restore under a Heritage Revitalization Agreement.

This weekend, I am off to St. Petersburg to make a presentation at an event organized by the Moscow Urban Forum, on how Vancouver encourages property owners and the development community to conserve heritage properties.
While Vancouver is a young city, especially compared to St. Petersburg, in recent years our city planners have been trying to encourage retention of older properties, both to support sustainability, but also to enhance the character of the city.

In December 2013, Council approved The Heritage Action Plan which sets out a variety of policies and tools to conserve and “celebrate heritage resources”.
These tools include heritage designation which protects a single building or landscape “from unsympathetic alteration and loss of character or value” and Heritage Revitalization Agreements (HRA). 

Under HRAs, property owners and developers can receive density bonuses and density transfers in return for rehabilitation and legal protection of heritage buildings.
The city has also established Heritage Conservation Areas.  Within these areas, special regulations and design guidelines help preserve and protect the historic character, and ensure any new developments are compatible with this character.
Chinatown, Gastown, Yaletown and Shaughnessy have all been established as Heritage Conservation Areas (HCA).

Since Shaughnessy has already been designated a HCA, readers may wonder why some Shaughnessy residents have recently been very vocal in their criticism of the city. Their concern is that the city’s latest proposal would prevent the demolition of any pre-1940 house within the area known as First Shaughnessy. This is the neighbourhood bounded by West 16th, Marpole, Wolfe and Richelieu Avenues to the north; King Edward to the south; the west lane of Oak Street to the east; and Arbutus to the west.

Second Shaughnessy, which extends to West 41st Avenue, is not included. At least not yet.
Other neighbourhoods such as Dunbar and Kerrisdale are also excluded. However, many fear that First Shaughnessy could become a precedent for other neighbourhoods in which older character homes are being demolished.

One of the key questions related to any heritage designation is whether the city has an obligation to compensate property owners for the loss in value which is likely to ensue.  In the past, the city has generally been willing to compensate owners of heritage designated properties.  In addition to allowing the aforementioned density bonuses and transfers, it has also permitted owners to “bank” and “sell” extra density.

Unfortunately, as developer Robert Fung and others will tell you, this has not always worked, and some property owners have never received the financial benefits they were promised.

In the case of Shaughnessy, the city is offering residents the opportunity to subdivide certain heritage buildings or build coach houses and other infill buildings on lots over a minimum size. However, many either object to, or do not plan to take advantage of these offerings, since they want to live within a special neighbourhood with large single family homes set within substantial grounds.
Others claim the city’s conditions related to coach houses and infill dwellings are too restrictive to be of any benefit to them. I agree.

An overriding concern is that while many pre-1940 houses have significant architectural character, many do not. I agree with this too.

Furthermore, the city has not offered an appeal process which might allow the exclusion of properties in poor condition, or with no redeeming architectural value.

I share the city’s overall desire to enhance Shaughnessy as a Heritage Conservation Area. However, the city must offer more equitable compensation to those with smaller houses on smaller lots, and establish a reasonable appeal process. Something like the Agricultural Land Reserve appeal process could be put in place to allow exclusions over time.

While some property owners are convinced the city’s motive is to densify the neighbourhood, I disagree. Nor do I think this proposal will turn Shaughnessy into Kitsilano.

But to those who are convinced it will, I have a one word response. Move.
Twitter @michaelgeller

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