September 10, 2015

Out-of-town topic: A Vote on Heritage, Values and Who We Really Are

I’m off for a week to speak at a conference – and so Price Tags is in your hands.

Here’s a topic to keep the discussion going in the Comments, based on Kerry Gold’s column in the August 28 Globe and Mail: “Shaughnessy heritage homes moratorium debate gets heated.”

Vancouver City Council will be making a decision, likely on September 18, whether to extend a demolition moratorium on Shaughnessy houses built prior to 1940 by establishing the city’s  first heritage conservation district.  “If passed, it would offer the ultimate protection to all pre-1940 houses, which were built with the best craftsmanship and materials that money could buy, circa 1907.”

Kerry Gold’s column was remarkable for the brutal honesty of the real-estate agent quoted:

Real estate agent Peter Saito has a problem with the city’s proposed ban on the demolition of Vancouver’s oldest, most prized collection of heritage houses.

The old Shaughnessy estate houses, he says, aren’t worth saving. They just don’t bring in the money. As is, they’re too small. Mr. Saito says he and his agent partner have sold about $100-million in Shaughnessy property in the past year and a half. But he says home values will drop with a new zoning amendment that would turn First Shaughnessy into Vancouver’s first heritage conservation district. …

“The houses are 5,000 square feet on a 20,000 square foot lot. It’s not efficient any more,” Mr. Saito says. “Those old houses are half the size of the new houses.”

Wealthy people want big houses, not heritage houses, he says.

“If you worked hard all your life and you succeed, and if you want to feel like you made it, you buy a big house.”




The City is offering incentives along with the restrictions:

Importantly, the city is offering Shaughnessy homeowners something in return: the opportunity to add infill, coach houses, secondary suites and multiple conversions.

Mr. Saito’s response: “They just don’t bring in the money.”  And if you don’t let rich people demolish the city’s heritage to build something new and very much bigger, it’s discrimination.


Saito again:

Rich people today care more about space – and they want lots of it, according to Mr. Saito, who also spoke at the hearing. As an agent, Mr. Saito thinks in numbers – specifically price per square foot. With the moratorium, the returns are ridiculously low, he argued.

“This is discrimination against the rich,” he said later in an interview. “Guess what? The rich are not stupid. If they feel discriminated against, they will look to the Canadian Charter of Rights. They’ll say, ‘I don’t want density because I don’t want to turn my lovely Shaughnessy neighbourhood into Kitsilano No. 2,’” says Mr. Saito, who lives in Kerrisdale.

No density, no renters, no loss of property values.  And no heritage.

Mr. Saito isn’t the only one fearing lost property values. At the hearing, several people with vested interests in redeveloping First Shaughnessy stood to complain about how the homes were falling apart and had outlived their use. A woman named Pearl Chow said if people wanted the houses preserved, they would last longer if they were completely rebuilt and made new – an argument that defies the point of heritage conservation.

Again, the extraordinarily blunt Mr, Saito:

Mr. Saito explained that rich people like Shaughnessy because of its brand more than the actual houses. It’s about status, as well as the sizable lots.

“They don’t buy in Shaughnessy because the houses are old, but because there are big lots. There’s a prestige value attached to that. And the environment is different. You drive down a street in Shaughnessy and it’s different from the street in Kitsilano.”

For Mr. Saito, Kitsilano is a lost cause from over crowding – the opposite of prestige. …

Mr. Saito says he’s only looking out for his rich clients’ best interests. And he has his own proof that prices are already dropping. He cited the example of 1338 Matthews. That house, on an 18,500-square-foot lot, sold for $7.38-million. The house is protected by the moratorium, at least for now. It took two months to sell the house, and the new owner is hoping the moratorium ends so that they can rebuild, he says.

The new owners “rented it out for cheap,” instead of living there, Mr. Saito says. His tone of voice makes the house sound like a dump.

So many issues.  Penny Gurstein, SCARP director, lists a few:

Allowing the destruction of an old house to build a new, bigger house that won’t shelter any more people is counter to everything the city needs, says University of British Columbia professor Penny Gurstein, director of the School of Community and Regional Planning.

“I think it is a good move,” she says of the moratorium. “But I’m sure what will happen is [the opposition] will get lawyers involved. These people have their minds made up.”

By maintaining the character and also allowing coach houses and basement suites, the Shaughnessy moratorium would be a move toward the greater good, rather than the interests of a few. Added density is not even new to Shaughnessy. In the 1950s, many of the big houses were carved up into rental suites, religious retreats and retirement homes. The historic neighbourhood already has had a Kitsilano moment.

If the rest of the city is learning to accommodate more density, what makes Shaughnessy exempt? It simply doesn’t make sense that one of the most central neighbourhoods in Vancouver should be allowed to maintain such ridiculously low density. Mr. Saito may cite Kitsilano as a ghetto for the masses, but its RT-2 zoning has made it one of the most walkable and livable neighbourhoods we have, Ms. Gurstein says.

“If you look at the population [in Shaughnessy], and how many people are actually living in these houses, it’s probably shocking,” she says. “That is some of the most prime property in the city and the density is incredibly low. That is a problem.”

Or is it?  Does keeping Shaughnessy as it was originally intended – a reserve for the very rich to display their wealth and prestige in the form of estate housing, distinctly separate from the rest of the community – actually violate its heritage, or reinforce it?  Should City Council a sense change the character of a community by trying to artificially preserve it at a moment in time, with the potential loss of property value (though, as Gold notes, that would not necessarily be the case over time.)

Does it become a precedent for other parts of the city as values continue to escalate?

Here’s an example from a friend who recently sold their house:

We sold this house for close to $2 million last August. It is now on the market again a year later for over $3 million.
The house was never occupied but it appears after a year one of “occupants” will claim capital gains on the house.
The price is being put up nearly another million and a half after 12 months.  That is over $100,000 a month in gain.
It is being marketed offshore.
Which, of course, touches another sensitive issue in this town: are we selling off the place to international capital which sees it as a hedge against the financial turmoil of our time?  And then gets to do what they want with it to maximize values even more?
Or is heritage zoning a way of implicitly trying to depress values without doing so overtly?  Will it invariably be seen as another form of discrimination, more ethnic-based than class-based?  And are property constraints resulting in a real or perceived loss of value justifiable in a culture and economy like ours?
And what exactly is our economy and culture in this hyper-sensitive town?
All of those issues, and no doubt more, will be included in the decision that Council has to make, knowing that, no doubt, lawyers will be involved regardless.  But it does strike me as a particularly indicative vote about our values, which combined with other votes we have taken recently as a people (no more taxes, less collective services) says so much about who we are.
Normally we don’t see it come together so, um, brutally.
Your turn.

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  1. Yikes. If a nominally centre-left municipal government can’t manage to snub the investment class in one of the most central and undeveloped neighbourhoods in the city, then there really is no hope.

    Kitsilano holds a lesson about density dressed as heritage: that square footage and infill bonuses have to be enough for would-be developers to make money. This is particularly challenging in Shaughnessy given the land values. Margins on conversions in Kitsilano are already thin on much smaller lot sizes.

  2. Council is putting a disproportionate amount of their attention to this issue that effects so few. The ideological impurity described above always fascinates me: if the concern in Vancouver was really preservation of “heritage”, homes on the east-side would be protected as well – they are not. If the heritage of the neighborhood was sacrosanct, it would remain a low-density vestige of the wealthy, without suites, infills, etc. Walking around in this neighborhood one can clearly see that “restorations” of older houses follow the letter of bylaws, but not the intent. Houses are stripped to the framing, moved, added to, and ultimately do not resemble their original splendor.

    I ask myself almost daily (I am a renter in Shaughnessy): why do people care? Shockingly few people enter the neighborhood on foot, bike, or by car to enjoy the heritage architecture that exists. Most houses are behind hedges, long driveways, or are hidden.

    Does heritage matter if nobody sees it?

    My conclusions on this issue after much thought and personal experience: it is foolish to think this is actually about architectural “heritage”: it is about making it more difficult, or less desirable for wealthy immigrants to move in.

    The “heritage” that is desired is about ethnic heritage, not architecture.

    Regardless of the outcome in this case, this decision will exclusively impact the ultra-wealthy, without exception. There is absolutely no “greater good” as Penny Gurstein seems to find. What a ludicrous statement about adding so few, assuredly stratospherically priced units.

    1. There’s a precedent of leveraging heritage for density in Vancouver, and I’m sure that’s partly what council has in mind even if conversion numbers don’t add up under current First Shaughnessy bylaw provisions. Bylaws can change incrementally.

      The moratorium is undoubtedly also a political move to placate a very small number of Shaughnessy residents who likely penned indignant letters to council, similar to what recently happened in Dunbar.

      There’s still reason to agree with Gurstein, because there is no politically viable alternative to the density-by-heritage model in this case. There’s pretty much no other policy direction that would leave the possibility of discretionary infill or potentially lower property values.

      1. I think you are ignoring the input of organizations like Heritage Vancouver. These volunteers are usually not wealthy, nor do they own Shaughnessey mansions. But they arguably know First Shaughnessy architecture better than the residents. In fact, those who have researched Maclure and other architects of the early 20th Century have a very keen understanding of the artistry that is threatened or already lost. And most are willing to compromise on relocating heritage mansions withinh their very large lots to accommodate infill as long as the original architecture is preserved or rehabilitiated.

        1. You’re right, I probably am being ignorant of well-researched input to council from heritage groups and their volunteers. Ideally the protection of heritage structures and their repurposing for novel urban use should be win-win. Instead, density is increasingly framed as an antagonist of heritage protection in Vancouver’s historic neighbourhoods, or the bonuses to redevelop such structures are currently insufficient to spur a profitable conversion (i.e. not enough allowed density versus the value of the lot). A simple moratorium is not progressive enough, in my opinion — these buildings need thoughtful discretionary zoning in order to be preserved through density allowances.

        1. Actually, quite a few new “units” can be gained. Look at the SE corner of 16th x Granville: About a dozen new and attractive Georgian townhouses were built on the lower end of this immense lot under an agreement that the original (and very beautiful) heritage house fronting The Crescent on the upper side of the lot would be retained and renovated into suites with the appropriate architectural control. The house was moved a few metres to one side of the lot from the centre to accommodate more efficient site planning. In essence, it went from one family to 15+ while protecting heritage.

          You are right to draw attention to the price. These are homes for the wealthy even thought the site planning allowed for multi-family. However, much greater density and modern building codes were acheived without destroying the heritage. This was possible due to the sheer size of the lot. In Vancouver land is now at a premium and infill is one response to the shortage.

          The development of that lot also saw significant tree loss. However, the arbourists determined a good number of the trees were originally planted too close and became weak and spindly as they grew into each other. Some of the others were damaged and not in good condition, though a number of them were. The best mature trees near the upper end were protected. This is where a tree planting compensation plan could work where the developer contributes to a fund so that the trees are replaced at a minimum of 3:1 (or even 5:1) partly on the lot and offsite, perhaps in the park system, and where the best trees on a site are protected. The city will experience a net gain in trees per development with a plan like this, knowing it will take three decades before the new trees start achieving significant height and spread.

          What really bugs me about demolition in general is that the older houses have frames that are often made from old growth Douglas fir, a far superior wood than the spruce/pine and OSB delivered by the lumberyards today. Dismantling older houses and recycling the materials adds to the time and labour cost embedded in the prices of new or renovated houses. And there is the Catch 22. It’s one thing to recognize the high cost of housing in Vancouver. But those who righteously bemoan the high cost of housing in one breath and the loss of heritage in the next, usually do not offer solutions to this dilema nor wish to acknowledge compromises, like infill. Some enlightened owners keep the original structure and work with it, though it often badly breaks their budget and causes much pain if they are living with renovations for years.

          In Shaughnessy, the exterior and interior character of many, many houses are irreplaceable and, without legislated protection and economic compromises like intelligently-designed infill, would be lost to the aesthetic of suburban plastic and the Home Depot School of Design. That is unacceptable in a neighbourghood where the owners can afford to retain heritage and quality.

    2. Some of the infill built in the 80s and 90s in First Shaughnessy were designed for a carefull fit into the back yards. The public services there have aged and cannot meet today’s rain intensity and duration, so things like detention ponds are required but cleverly disguised often as sunken grass tennis courts or stone-paved courts.

      There are some architectural gems reflecting Vancouver’s early history that should never, in my view, be demolished. Moving these gems around a large lot to make room for appropriately-designed infill is acceptable in my opinion as an alternative to demolition, as long as it is done well and in accordance with intelligent design guidelines. Some of the houses are Class A heritage inside as well as out. The quality of architecture, craftsmanship and materials are superb and will never be replicated today, especially with the magnificently misinformed attitude that size mysteriously equates to quality.

      Consider the careless air gunning of sheets of inferior OSB to the studs, the peel n stick rock cladding and the oceans of dog-biscuit concrete driveway pavers fronting quadruple garage doors that now pollute this area. Hand-turned English oak newel posts, period-appropriate stained glass windows and fitted granite walls are just not commissioned much anymore because many of today’s wealthy are just plain cheap.

      We can’t forget that First Shaughnessy also comes with a magnificent public realm. Osler and The Crescent are always quiet, green oases and a delight to walkers and cyclists, rich or poor. They will never be gated off. There is also There is such a thing as heritage street trees, and this neighbourhood could be classified as a public arbouretum. It’s the private realm that needs preservation work.

      There is also the Hycroft mansion, now the University Women’s Club which is a public asset often hosting public events. Its heritage plays an important part of the club’s functions. Perhaps enlightened wealthy families can be encouraged to similarly endow their Shaughnessy properties to public institutions and universities.

  3. I feel sorry for the ultra wealthy. The world offers them so few choices of housing. /s

    Seriously if there are no “suitable” homes here in Vancouver go somewhere else. We’ll do just fine, in fact we’ll probably do better, without you.

  4. It would sure be great to read comments by architects who specialize in heritage preservation on this one. Shaughnessy represents one of the first roots set down in Vancouver with respect to the CPR land grant and its very careful platting, parceling and sales to clientele that had to meet stringent standards. If “heritage” now equates to classist rankings at the expense of craft, then what’s next, the demolition of the Marine building?

    Samuel Maclure must be rolling in his grave.

  5. What kind of city doesn’t value it’s own heritage? It might shock many to realize LA puts more emphasis on heritage than Vancouver. I realize in an Era when it’s become de river to refer to unceded territory whenever one makes a speech that celebrating our heritage is perhaps out of fashion. Of course tides will change and celebrating our place in the greatest empire the world has seen, and its architectural legacy, might be more acceptable.

    Where is it written that increasing property values is the prime purpose of civic government, even over livability? Penny Gustin is absolutely right. Why are we preserving this neighbourhood so near to downtown as a place only for the ultra rich? Why is the more middle class residents of Cambie are forced to see their neighbourhood changed but not Shaughnessy? If outsiders who don’t value heritage or want the newest vulgarian masterpiece money can buy don’t like it, tough. They’re welcome to descend on the next city and pick it’s bones clean.

  6. ‘I don’t want density because I don’t want to turn my lovely Shaughnessy neighbourhood into Kitsilano No. 2’

    Oh man. The problems of the 1%.

    1. Lol. I thought the same thing when I read that. Oh, that slummy ghetto Kitsilano. They’re not the creme de la creme like Shaughnessy is. I even heard that a bicycle lane runs through Kitsilano.

      Thinking about it, if that “creme de la creme” statement was said in Vancouver today, it probably wouldn’t cause as much outrage. The income gap is so wide and expected now that most people just shrug and move along. I remember the outrage when developers first starting selling condos in Hong Kong before Vancouverites could buy them. Now they sell them in China, and no one cares because who else can afford them?

      1. The City Hall neighbourhood is probably a better comparison/contrast to Shaughnessy than Kits. Despite most of the fin de siecle homes there being multifamily now, you’d be hard pressed to tell with some of them. The rooming houses are easier to identify and surprising that they continue to exist. There’s no reason Shaughnessy”s character homes couldn’t be retained in the same way. If you must have that tacky vulgar McMansion, well, there’s always Texas.

  7. It is time to make all of Vancouver including Shaughnessy more affordable so anyone has the opportunity to live there regardless of their income. Using overly resistive zoning to make an exclusive neighbourhood is fundamentally wrong. Shaughnessy should become more like the West End. A vibrant diverse neighbourhood with people of all income levels living there. Rezoning is needed to allow multi unit rentals and condos at market rates that are affordable to average working people. And social housing is needed as well.

    1. No need to make the city look the same everywhere. There will always be more wealthy people so why not preserve outstanding heritage homes at the same time. I rarely have the opportunity to go to Shaughnessy but love the tree shaded streets, large gardens and old houses. There is more to cities than density, plazas and bike lanes.

      1. Except there are real problems and consequences from over regulating areas near the core. New homes and more people living there means signicantly less driving and traffic. This close to downtown, in is reasonable to expect 30% or more of people to walk or bike to work. Force them to live further out, that will drop to maybe 10%. Most will drive.

        And very few people bother walking or cycling around these areas. Most of the people I see outside are the hired help.

        I find the West End much more interesting. Still plenty of greenery and interesting buildings and lots of people walking around.

        In most parts of Shaughnessy, there aren’t enough people to support businesses within walking distance forcing pretty much everyone to drive even if they wanted to walk.

        1. Richard, the West End also exerts tremendous pressure on its heritage (“interesting buildings”) to upzone and therein demolish the beautiful, one-of-a-kind three-storey Art Deco walk ups to bland towers. Perhaps you should audit a few architecture courses or attend some Heritage Vancouver functions to get a grasp on what will be lost. The most valuable neighbourhoods to me are not uniform (one envisions “affordable” Soviet slab apartment blocks marching up the arterials) are neighbourhoods that respect their heritage. When you lose repect for heritage, or don’t really understand what comprises it to begin with, then you promote the lowering of our collective social values and standards to mere balance sheets, line items and columns of numbers.

          Shaughnessy stands alone and requires special treatment not for its genius loci for the wealthy, but for its high quality, most of which originated from the drafting tables of distictly unwealthy architects completely committed to their craft. But that doesn’t mean it can’t fulfill its 21st Century social obligation to be intelligently rezoned for very carefully executed infill.

      2. I don’t disagree with any of your points, but there is more to Shaughnessy than low walking/cycling. Much of Vancouver is pretty low density when seen from the air, so why destroy the heritage homes, green space and a unique neighbourhood. The drive from Shaughnessy into downtown or to the nearest store is at least shorter than from the British Properties.

        1. If I read the article correctly, it is the wealthy who are seeking to destroy the heritage homes because they are not big enough. I like the idea of densifying to save these wonderful buildings.

          And if they were going to knock them down anyway I would rather see townhouses or even towers than mcmansions built there.

  8. So, the consensus is that owners and architects today are incapable of building anything that might have heritage value in the future. The peak of architecture, construction, and rich people’s taste was in about 1915. Anything we (well those rich people) build today is crappy, sucks and will fall apart in 25 years.

    That’s quite a sad reflection on y’all’s opinion of today’s society. And you should reflect on what that implies about the towers and city design that you (by which I mean the highly influential bloggers and insiders who comment here) are creating today…

    1. And yet there is much truth to it. You will not find much “craftmanship” in homes built today, those skills simply don’t exist in today’s trades. And the timber used in these old homes, straight from BC’s pristine forests, is far better than what is used now.

    2. Go have a close look at a new home being built in a high priced neighbourhood and you’ll find plenty of cheap materials and work done incorrectly that is then “fixed” in sometimes awkward ways. The finished product usually looks beautiful, but is hiding a myriad of problems underneath.

      Go inside the walls and you’ll find dozens of plumbing and electrical issues. My father is often called in by realtors and home owners to fix the errors that got past everyone the first time around. Shoddy workmanship in multi-million dollar houses keeps him busy.

  9. My point is that you all believe that nothing of quality can be built today. That nothing can be built today that will be perceived to have heritage value by our descendants 100 years from. If that’s the case, what’s to be said about all the towers we’re building, all the condos and townhouses you’d prefer to be built in Shaughnessy? What about the very city the people of today who are incapable of creating things of quality are building?

    Of course we can’t build wooden houses any more the way people did 100 years ago. For one, we don’t destroy the old growth forests anymore. That doesn’t mean new technologies, new building methods, new materials don’t have value.

    I’m not advocating willy-nilly destruction of every house in Shaughnessy. I’m just suggesting it’s a little overboard to prevent people today from building new things that will one day contribute to the history and heritage of the place.

  10. Unclear why taxation isn’t mentioned in this context. Don’t restrict foreign ownership or house demolition/construction. Just tax it higher. FAR HIGHER.

    How about 1% per $1M in value, up to 15%. That would curb speculation but would also generate much needed income for the homelesss or social housing.

    What about linking house sales to a SIN number ? Then one can track house ownership and tax it on resale. Much abuse here too as gains on personal residences are not taxed, but on non-resident owned or investment properties should be. Much abuse here and much tax leakage. Billions likely Canada-wide and tens of millions annually in Vancouver.

    related link

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