First Shaughnessy likely to become Heritage Conservation Area

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

Allen Garr
Van. Courier

There are just a few things you should know before next Tuesday when city council moves to try and slow down the destruction of heritage homes in Vancouver’s most exclusive neighbourhood.

That would be the enclave known as “First Shaughnessy” where there is now a moratorium on demolitions while council and staff have been pondering how to save this bit of our city’s history.

Although you wouldn’t know it from the kvetching from some property owners, it turns out that designating a neighbourhood a Heritage Conservation Area doesn’t drive the prices down. According to the City of Victoria’s senior conservation planner Murray Miller, in data he’s collected from around the world, it stabilizes property values and, if anything, it drives them up beyond those without a heritage designation, particularly when housing “bubbles” burst.

Murray also says folks who speculated they could buy heritage designated homes in First Shaughnessy and tear them down were likely misled by their real estate agents and “it wouldn’t be the first time.”

Vancouver historian and author Michael Kluckner agrees, adding that the new property owners simply didn’t bother to look at existing city regulations.  

This particular area most recently the subject of three nights of public hearings is bounded north and south by 16th Avenue and King Edward and west and east by West Boulevard and Oak. It was part of a huge tract of land owned at the turn of the last century by the CPR and developed to serve the housing needs of the city’s wealthiest “racially appropriate” citizens — a term used in a city document attributed to CPR.

Many of them had originally built their mansions in the West End but decided to skedaddle up to Shaughnessy when they saw (ugh) apartments being built around their palatial dwellings on the downtown peninsula.

The design of First Shaughnessy was based on what was called a “garden city” concept of large building lots, exceptional selections of often exotic trees, roadways that followed the contours of the land (and often named after members of the CPR board of directors or their children) and, except for Granville Street, a design that discouraged through traffic.

About 80 per cent of the first 240 families were listed in the Vancouver social register.

Now move forward several decades to the point where the colour of a person’s skin was no longer a factor; all that mattered was the size of their bank account when it came to residing in this posh neighbourhood.

The city, seeing the value of protecting the area, in 1982 declared it a heritage area protected under provincial legislation and aimed particularly at preserving homes built before 1940.

According to Kluckner, that worked for about 25 years. Then, most recently, this particular area of town was deluged by a massive influx of mostly offshore money focused particularly on the high-end real estate market.

Kluckner says those wealthy “demanding” new owners liked the “brand” of First Shaughnessy but not the heritage housing. They enlisted the help of “creative” architects who found “loop holes” in the existing zoning bylaws that allowed them to tear down existing buildings that were usually left vacant for years and allowed to rot beyond the point of repair. Then they would be replaced by what he calls “bloated” houses, even bigger than the mansions they would replace.

They featured underground parking and utility rooms that were apparently not considered part of the overall floor space. And the size of the homes were increased even more with multi-storey “atriums”  where only the basic floor space was added to the total size of the house in determining the floor space ratio (the area of the building compared with the lot on which it was situated) rather than the volume of space contained in the atrium.

Even the wealthy neighbours were howling in protest.

What the council is considering, and will likely pass, includes a new Minimum Standards of Maintenance bylaw targeting heritage properties. Fines of up to $10,000 per day could be levied against owners that allow either the exteriors or the interiors of their properties to deteriorate.

They will also be removing benefits those now accorded underground parking and more strictly enforcing the requirement under the provincial legislation for heritage conservation areas.

It is, says Kluckner, “the only way to protect these assets of civic importance.”

© 2015 Vancouver Courier


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