After five years of unfettered majority rule on city council, hundreds of heritage demolitions, and thousands of tonnes of landfill; Vision Vancouver today trumpeted long overdue measures to thwart the unmitigated destruction of our city's heritage housing.*
It's hard not to be cynical, reading today's Vision Vancouver twitter and media reposts, lauding themselves as champions of preservation; particularily given the context of an imminent civic election and Vancouverites' growing anxiety over the pace of demolition and development. At first blush, this is a move in the right direction, but beyond the previous cynically framed comment - what took them so long?
The frustration over the pace of demolition is not new news. Housing activists have long decried the loss of affordable rental resulting from the demolition of older character homes to build new single family "monster" houses. Writers like the Vancouver Sun's John Mackie, Michael Kluckner and Vancouver Vanishes' Caroline Adderson have long been sounding the alarm over our rapid loss of heritage stock for many years. It's worth noting that often these demolitions run in tandem with significant loss in our tree canopy (we have lost 10% in the last 8years).
I recently (joined by fellow Green, City Councillor Adriane Carr) attended a protest over the demolition of one of the West End's last remaining historic properties, the Heritage-A listed Legg Mansion and mature gardens (being torn down to make way for luxury condos). As Kerry Gold reported in her Special to the Globe and Mail As pace of home demolitions quickens, Vancouver protest grows: the Legg Mansion is the second A-listed building to be demolished in the past two years.
Of those, 42 per cent pre-dated 1940."
As Gold goes on to report, interviewing builder builder Jake Fry [no relation],"[It is] the commodification of housing, which is the antithesis of building a community, laying down roots, and creating density, if that’s the goal. In other words, you don’t see much street hockey happening in neighbourhoods that are used as land banks. There aren’t many people. You are not adding housing... Generally, you are decreasing the density when you put in these big homes.”
While the high profile Legg Mansion demolition is to make way for denser (luxury) condos, in the majority of cases, houses are being demolished to make way for bigger houses. Estimates have the typical house demolition sending 50-55 tonnes of landfill, and often at the additional expense of affordable rental stock. According to a recent Tyee article by Fiona Tinwei Lam cites a British study by the Institution of Civil Engineers that said a new house uses up to eight times more resources than the restoration of an equivalent old house.
As architect Carl Elephante famously put it:
Stronger demolitions bylaws will hopefully preserve some more of Vancouver's remaining character homes and divert waste from our landfills; but there is an additional and very workable solution available through city council's powers to determine zoning. As outlined in Elizabeth Murphy's blog (Murphy is the former property development officer for the City of Vancouver’s Housing & Properties Department, and former senior development officer for BC Housing) how we zone RS and RT districts are likely an even more powerful tool than how we levy demolitions.
So what took so long for Vision Vancouver to come up with some kind of strategy? Far from a mea culpa, the CBC reports Councillor Heather Deal as almost crediting this move to the Greenest City Action Plan, even though said plan was a mayoral promise from 5 years, hundreds of demos and thousand of tons of landfill ago.
Far from saving Vancouver's old homes, I suspect today's announcement is more about saving Vision Vancouver.
* Vancouver proposes new bylaw to stem heritage home demolitions - Global BC, June 5, 2014