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This old house: In unaffordable Vancouver, push to preserve heritage homes gets pushback

Will the proposed changes encourage more density on single family home lots? Or keep unaffordable neighbourhoods frozen in time?

Caroline Adderson has documented hundreds of heritage homes that have been torn down in Vancouver. She argues that the city's proposed changes will protect old homes and encourage more basement suites and laneway houses to be added to single family lots.

Jennifer Gauthier/For Metro

Caroline Adderson has documented hundreds of heritage homes that have been torn down in Vancouver. She argues that the city's proposed changes will protect old homes and encourage more basement suites and laneway houses to be added to single family lots.

From Caroline Adderson’s point of view, proposed new regulations could prevent beautiful old homes, often with basement suites, from being torn down and replaced by a single, larger home.

From where Javier Campos sits, the zoning restrictions floated by the city would freeze already unaffordable neighbourhoods in time, preventing denser forms of housing from sharing space with heritage houses.

Vancouver’s character home zoning review comes before council on March 7, and staff will then return to council in April with final recommendations. The current proposal would apply to 80 per cent of homes built before 1940, and suggests limiting the size of the new home that can be built when an old home is torn down.

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Campos says the current proposal is much too broad, applying across the board to nearly all homes build before 1940, which may not all have heritage merit. Meanwhile, some houses built after that year may well deserve protection.

He pointed to neighbourhoods like Strathcona or parts of Kitsilano, where mid-rise apartment buildings co-exist with heritage homes.

Newly built houses in Dunbar. Homeowners often tear down smaller, older houses on single family lots and build a single large house. A proposed zoning change would reduce the size allowed if a pre-1940s house is torn down.

Jennifer Gauthier/For Metro

Newly built houses in Dunbar. Homeowners often tear down smaller, older houses on single family lots and build a single large house. A proposed zoning change would reduce the size allowed if a pre-1940s house is torn down.

“The problem right now is if you preserve these neighbourhoods, you freeze them essentially. We put all our density on our arterials and it’s killing those arterials,” said Campos, an architect.

“It’s important to look at the neighbourhood as a whole, and to say we’re going to preserve the houses and everything else can go to hell — that doesn’t work.”

Adderson lives in a single family house in Dunbar. For several years, she’s documented the older homes she sees disappearing in her neighbourhood, where modest older houses regularly sell for upwards of $3 million.

To Adderson, it’s a waste both in the environmental sense — as the old-growth wood used in many of the homes is thrown away — and a wasted opportunity to add density to the lots.

“Right now we’re having a 2,000 square foot house demolished and a 5,000 square foot house goes there and is empty,” Adderson said. “It’s a decrease in density.

This is giving an incentive to densify to local people, local homeowners.”

One of Vancouver's rare

Jennifer Gauthier/For Metro

One of Vancouver's rare "hobbit houses" was preserved while a townhouse complex was built beside it. Proposed new regulations aim to protect not just unique heritage buildings like the hobbit house, but the character of older single family neighbourhoods.

Gil Kelley, chief planner for Vancouver, said the proposal does not downzone single family lots, even though it limits the size of the replacement home.

“If we preserve a home that has some amount of character – and that has to be qualified – then we should loosen up the rules that would allow you to do more intense housing on the same lot,” he said.

The most pushback has come from homeowners who fear new regulations will reduce the value of their properties.

“There’s a big generational shift,” Kelley said. “Who’s been living there for lots of years and is comfortable with things the way they are? And then you look at people who have been priced out, and they have the opposite attitude. I think that’s the big message we’re relaying to council.”

Adderson and Campos will appear on a panel debating the issue on March 8 at the Robson Square Theatre. For more information visit urbanarium.org.

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