City of Vancouver process for preserving character homes faces backlash

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      The Shaughnessy Heights Property Owners’ Association was founded in 1939. According to its president, Christopher Shackleton, it’s the only association for residential-property owners in Vancouver.

      “Basically, Shaughnessy was created by the Canadian Pacific Railway at the turn of the century to be a tree-lined single-family-home neighbourhood with large lots and relatively large homes,” Shackleton said in a phone interview with the Straight. “Throughout the close-to-100-year history, the owners of these homes have maintained the single-family character of this neighbourhood without intervention from the city.”

      But he claimed that now this defining attribute of Shaughnessy is under threat from the city’s character-home zoning review, which held its final open house on December 6.

      Shackleton also alleged that the impact of this review could be felt in several other single-family-zoned areas of the city. That’s because the city website lists four “study areas”: West Point Grey/Upper Kitsilano, Dunbar/Kerrisdale/Second Shaughnessy/Third Shaughnessy and parts of Arbutus Ridge, parts of Riley Park/Cambie Village/Kensington, and Hastings and parts of Grandview.

      “They want to densify these neighbourhoods by providing what they call offsets—though these offsets are not economic,” Shackleton stated.

      The city has already declared that First Shaughnessy—which is bounded by Arbutus and Oak streets, King Edward Avenue, and West 16th Avenue—is a heritage conservation area. This means that homes built before 1940 cannot be demolished.

      Shackleton said that as a result of this vote by council last year, owners of the 317 homes affected have each lost about $200 to $300 per square foot of lot value in comparison to the values in Dunbar and other areas.

      In terms of market value, he suggested that homeowners in First Shaughnessy have taken a financial haircut of $2 million to $3 million each in the value of their single-family houses.

      Now, he said, the city plans to extend this model to other areas. And he maintained that the city is “gaming the public-consultation process” to achieve a desired outcome without being transparent about its intentions.

      The city defines a “character home” as a structure built before 1940 that meets “established criteria for integrity and character of original features”. In addition, character homes are not listed on the Vancouver Heritage Register.

      The character-home zoning review is part of the city’s heritage action plan. Its stated purpose, according to the city website, is “to look at options for the retention of heritage and character homes in single-family (RS) zoning districts”.

      “Geographic and zoning options are being explored that could result in changes to regulations for both pre-1940 character homes and new home development in older single-family neighbourhoods,” the website states.

      When contacted by the Straight, the city’s assistant director of urban design, Anita Molaro, said the consultation process is asking people if they think that character homes “are important pieces of our urban fabric to keep”.

      “We have zoning tools available to us that we could introduce that would encourage their retention,” she stated.

      As an example, she cited Kitsilano as a neighbourhood where property owners are “incentivized” to retain character homes by increasing density and floor area and by boosting the number of units on the site.

      “There’s a lot of concern about the erosion and loss of character homes throughout the city,” Molaro added. “Council has asked us to look at it under the heritage action plan: what can we do to encourage the retention of those character homes? That’s what we’re out consulting on now.”

      Shackleton claimed that the city’s long-term plan is to offer incentives for homeowners to turn their properties into multi-unit sites, transforming single-family areas like Shaughnessy into multifamily zones.

      He maintained that the city’s real objective is to turn his area into something resembling Kitsilano—and those who own character homes who refuse to do this will face financial penalties because the value of their houses will diminish.

      In effect, he said, the city is forcing homeowners to subsidize the city’s housing agenda.

      Molaro, however, said the city won’t be forcing homeowners to do anything.

      “We’re just saying instead of demolishing your house, we will incentivize you to keep it and here are some opportunities that you have if you do keep the house,” she insisted. “It’s not forcing them to convert it into something they don’t want to convert it into.”

      At the city's final open-house event, residents of Shaughnessy wanted to place a poster inside the room listing their concerns. However, the city refused to allow this.

      The poster cited several claims, including:

      • Rezoning will result in a significant devaluation of property values of homes built before 1940, making them more difficult to sell than a post-1940s home.

      • This rezoning "will place severe constraints on the rights of property owners to modify their property".

      • This rezoning may well grant the city "extraordinary powers of intrusion and discretionary authority" over maintenance and upkeep, the costs of which would be borne by the property owner.

      • The city's premise is that there are architectural features of existing pre-1940 homes that cannot be reproduced in new construction. The residents insist this is false.

      • The city has falsely claimed that new buyers can purchase a pre-1940 home and renovate it to the city's standard at a lower cost than building a new home. "Renovating to replace deteriorating wiring, plumbing, and heating as well as to make the home energy efficient can cost up to $1,000/sq. ft.—i.e. $4 million for a 4,000 sq. ft. home."

      According to Molaro, recommendations arising from the review are expected to go before council next year.