Paul Houle: No vision for Vancouver’s history
The ruling power at city hall, Vision Vancouver, deserves a failing grade in protecting this city’s heritage. When it comes to preserving the beauty and history of heritage neighbourhoods and buildings, Vancouver is definitely a “no fun” city. It is also definitely not “world class”.
A graphic example of this is the current sad demolition of the Pantages Theatre—the oldest surviving one in the city. Its stage was once graced by the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Babe Ruth. Its acoustics were considered close to perfect. Now, the theatre near the corner of Main and Hastings is almost a pile of rubble.
When I spoke to Don Luxton, president of the Heritage Vancouver Society, about the loss of the Pantages, he did not mince words, calling this “an enormous black eye for the city”. Luxton pointed out that things like bike lanes can be built or changed at any time, but once we lose an important cultural venue like the Pantages “it is gone forever”. Heritage Vancouver had done stellar work in doggedly fighting for the Pantages for years.
The most recent development proposal for the Pantages called for the theatre to be restored and a social housing tower built next to it. It was an incredibly exciting idea, but our visionless council did not have the political will to push it through.
It is funny how our mayor, Gregor Robertson, can push big sports events held in stadiums with half-billion-dollar roofs but cannot promote saving one small theatre in a city that is short of cultural amenities, especially theatre space. Please don’t get me wrong. I am not anti sports. I just believe there needs to be fairness and balance. We need arts, culture, and heritage as well as sports.
I appreciate our mayor running around with a Canucks jersey supporting our local team. We can all cheer for the Canucks. However, Mayor Robertson, I did not see you at any events held to try to save the Pantages. Perhaps we might see you out there advocating for the Hollywood and Ridge theatres—two other historic film palaces that are at risk. Also, Mr. Mayor, it is not just about saving the theatres. It is also about supporting our actors, filmmakers, and others who work in these cultural industries.
Fortunately, the York Theatre on Commercial Drive was saved. But there often seems to be an attitude on the part of city council of “Well, we’ve saved one old theatre, we don’t need to do anymore.” There is a shortage of theatre space throughout the city and each community must have the opportunity to restore its important theatre and other heritage amenities.
Of course, it must be acknowledged that a city government cannot do the best job with heritage totally on its own. Ideally, there should be a strong commitment from the senior provincial and federal levels of government. That strong support from the feds and the province is certainly sorely lacking right now. Luxton points out that, as a city, province and country, we are at “the lowest ebb of support for heritage in many, many years”.
That being said, our Vision government is certainly failing, even within the limitations of a municipal mandate, as any kind of cheerleader for heritage. Vision needs to offer a positive “green door” to any citizen wanting to save heritage.
As Luxton points out, the city should be saying “How can we help you?” Heritage should not be a disincentive to get a building project done because of reams of additional paperwork. Luxton adds that it should be “at least as easy to get a heritage project through. Don’t make it harder.” Luxton wants the city to have a firm policy that “we’re going to facilitate heritage”.
Another graphic example of this city’s lack of commitment to heritage: the Vogue Theatre on Granville Street. Did you notice, or maybe wonder, what ever happened to the beautiful art deco terrazzo sidewalk that used to be in front of the Vogue? Well, it appears that some misguided person at city hall had the sidewalk jackhammered out early one morning not long before the Olympics started—even though city works crews had covered it over to carefully protect it during the Granville Street redevelopment.
Apparently city workers were quite distressed when ordered to remove the sidewalk and outrage from the community soon forced city staff to make a hasty trip to the dump to retrieve the broken pieces. I certainly hope that the person who ordered the demolition of the sidewalk is not working in the heritage department anymore.
After this bit of vandalism, the city pledged that it would duplicate the colours from the broken fragments and re-install an exact replica of the original. But, here it is folks, many, many months later and we see no Vision protecting Vancouver’s nationally recognized heritage theatre, the Vogue. Please Vision, I would like to see the vision of the terrazzo sidewalk back where it should be. How long does it take you to put back a sidewalk that should not have been destroyed in the first place? This is not just a staff issue. This is about leadership from politicians.
While we are still on Granville Street, Vision is presiding over the gradual demolition of heritage buildings on that street and their replacement by sterile glass and concrete boxes.
Part of the problem in effectively saving heritage on Granville and in other neighbourhoods is that Vision chopped funding for the badly needed and long overdue updating of Vancouver’s heritage building registry. This registry was done way back in the 1980s and has many gaps and omissions. Vision had many other priorities when they refused to fund the registry update, but clearly heritage was not one of them.
Now we come to the towers for Chinatown, recently approved by Vision. Council approved the insertion of nine to 15 storey towers in designated areas of Chinatown on April 19 of this year. I am not sure I relish the prospect of 15 storey towers overshadowing the peaceful Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Gardens as I meander through them on my lunch break.
Towers are clearly out of character for the heritage heights and history of our Chinatown—one of the finest original Chinatowns in North America. Visitors from around the world come to see our Chinatown and Gastown. We want to present these neighbourhoods with all their rich history and not corrupted with condo towers inappropriately placed.
Residents of Chinatown and Gastown fought valiantly in the 1960s and 1970s to protect their neighbourhoods from massive destruction and redevelopment with proposed freeways slated to go right through the centre of Chinatown and the whole neighbourhood being torn down block by block to be replaced with towers. It was referred to then as getting rid of “urban blight”.
Would we really want to trade the beauty and incredible heritage of today’s Chinatown and Gastown for the concrete freeway vision (or nightmare) of the 1960s? Well, our Visionless crew want to put high-rises into Chinatown by stealth, sort of the sticky edge of the wedge approach. “Exclamation Points” (to use the city lingo) of high-rises that soon spread like a virus.
The Vision-dominated school board is also presiding over the potential demolition of dozens of heritage school buildings. Rather than seismically upgrading solid brick buildings that have stood the test of time, they have been opting to demolish and replace these structures with cheap seismic buildings that ultimately have a far shorter life expectancy than the buildings they replace. This is false economy and certainly not “green” to potentially haul away tons of rubble to the landfill from needlessly demolished school buildings. Admittedly, the provincial government also deserves a very large, if not the largest share, of blame for this situation.
Another example: the Vision-approved Shannon Mews redevelopment that overloads a neighbourhood with too many high-rises to protect an important heritage mansion. The historic Beaux-Arts structure could have been saved with a much more sensitive, less dense approach. However, Vision pushed through the current plan at 2 a.m. on July 29 of this year. You can bet that the developer of this project will make a big donation to Vision in the current election campaign.
The heritage Cambie Street corridor is also under threat with the new Canada Line SkyTrain and we will start seeing enormous pressure to redevelop historic neighbourhoods in favour of “exclamation points” of condo high-rise towers around all the new SkyTrain stations.
So, during this electoral season, voters may want to take a very close look at Vision’s record in protecting our heritage. Vision has supported irresponsible development and destruction of heritage buildings and neighbourhoods. There are many responsible developers, business owners, and other city residents who have done great work in protecting our priceless heritage buildings and communities. Vision has not encouraged this type of responsible development and they have not looked to strengthen our heritage protection.
Vision has failed to look at ways of expanding mechanisms for heritage preservation: not just density bonuses to developers, but also expansion of facade grants and tax exemptions for developers, business owners, and residents who want to protect heritage structures throughout the city.
Also, Vision needs to immediately fund the updating of the heritage registry. Cut the red tape for heritage restoration. Start advocating for the city’s heritage, culture, and arts. Get out there and have fun with heritage Mr. Mayor—you can wear a Canucks jersey while you do it.
A recent case in point, Atira Women’s Resource Society would very much like to save Vancouver’s second oldest house at 502 Alexander as they convert it to social housing. However, current city facade and tax benefits do not apply in that area of the city which is just outside the Gastown designated heritage district. Lack of flexibility, creativity, and initiative by Vision and city hall may mean that we lose another priceless heritage structure.
If Vision had a real vision, they would look to the province of Quebec and to Europe as just two examples of some of the best heritage conservation practices in the world.
In criticizing Vision for their heritage record, I am not excusing the poor record on heritage of previous NPA governments. (COPE has only had majority control of city council for a single three-year term, but, of course, COPE candidates in the current election should still be pushed to support heritage.) However, I am suggesting that voters talk to candidates of all civic parties and get their views on preservation of heritage communities and buildings.
Conservation of these communities and structures means livability, beauty, variety, tourism, history, and it can mean affordability if done right. Saving heritage does not automatically mean gentrification. Some of the best social housing has been built in heritage structures—just look at the Pennsylvania and Rainier Hotel projects in the Downtown Eastside or the Heatley Block on East Hastings. Another prime example is the stunning Mole Hill project in the West End.
Talk to the candidates from Vision, the NPA, COPE, independents, and other civic parties. Put them on the spot in protecting the soul and character of our city. Support candidates who favour sensitive, responsible development that protects the heritage of our neighbourhoods.
Let’s have a new vision of our city that protects its heritage and shows a rich history to the world. Let’s start acting like a world-class city and a fun city in protecting our history and culture—the way Quebecers and Europeans do.
Paul Houle is a Vancouver social worker and community worker who is a member of Heritage Vancouver Society and has previously served on the board of that organization.