Under the shade of a towering tulip tree, another piece of Vancouver is being destroyed. By the end of May, most windows were ripped from the 115-year-old Legg residence, and the sound of saws and hammers echoed from its gutted interior. Although the 1899 Arts and Crafts mansion in the city’s west end was on the “A-list,” the highest level of the city’s heritage register, its status as one of 260 such buildings of “primary significance” didn’t spare it from the landfill. It makes way for a parking garage and a 17-storey residential tower.
Some 1,000 such demolition permits are issued annually in a city that seems fixated on the shiny and the new. The destruction is changing the character of many neighbourhoods, and it calls into question Mayor Gregor Robertson’s commitment to make Vancouver the greenest city in the world by 2020, says city Councillor Adriane Carr, a former leader of B.C.’s Green Party. The waste and environmental impact of destroying so many older homes undermines the city’s green initiative, she says. “This is a huge, very rapid change,” she says. “People are feeling their city is being ripped apart.”
With a municipal election looming on Nov. 15, Robertson’s left-leaning Vision Vancouver slate is expected to back city staff proposals this week to put a temporary moratorium on the demolition of “character homes” in the Shaughnessy district, which was prime picking grounds for developers who flatten its older homes and use the large lots to build mini-mansions. A second report would institute a mandatory construction and waste recovery program for pre-1940s houses approved for demolition. Under the program, as much as 40 tonnes of material from each house could be diverted from the landfill, says a staff report. A voluntary pilot program, which encouraged the “deconstruction” of older homes and the sale of materials, had mixed success and didn’t curb a recent spike in demolition permits.
The loss of the Legg residence, which had been carved into rental apartments, is an extreme example of the complexity and competing priorities in a motherhood issue such as greening a city. After residents failed to derail the city’s controversial decision to allow a narrow residential tower on the large lot, they were left to debate the best of two bad options. There was room on the lot to accommodate both the tower and the Legg house—or the tower and a beloved tulip tree that soars about 12 storeys and dominates one end of the lot. After public input, the city approved a revised architect’s plan that saved the tree and trashed the mansion.
“I think it’s a wonderful carbon conundrum,” says Tsur Somerville, professor and director of the University of British Columbia Centre for Urban Economics and Real Estate. “That must have twisted some people on the left just in complete pretzels: ‘Do I save the living tree or the embodied carbon footprint [of the house]?’ ”
Somerville says that, as admirable as it is to save older homes as a social objective, it’s unfair to make property owners pay for preservation by banning demolition and mandating renovation, thereby dropping the value of a property that could contain more valuable new construction. “The honest thing to do is, if I’m going to take away your property rights, I’m going to compensate you for them and we, in society, are bearing the financial burden for the objective,” he says. “The idea that we, as a society, value heritage seems eminently reasonable. But it seems dishonest to make somebody else pay for them.”
About 200 people gathered at the Legg mansion for a rain-soaked rally in late May in a futile effort to save it. The developer had already made a token effort to fulfill a city requirement to find an alternative to demolition. A tiny classified ad was buried in the May 14 weekly Vancouver Courier: “LARGE ARTS & CRAFTS HOUSE (1899), available for relocation . . .” The ad made no mention that it was the historic Legg residence, and it gave a reply deadline of May 16, just two days later, for a project requiring massive logistics and hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Among the speakers at the Legg “demo about the demo” was Michael Kluckner, the author and illustrator of Vanishing Vancouver: The Last 25 Years. He says the city has had a selective commitment to green initiatives, putting bike lanes ahead of preserving neighbourhood character. “We’ve been fighting a clear-cutting mentality in British Columbia for the past 50 years, in our forests, and in the way that we fish and [design] our neighbourhoods.”
Now, the choice may indeed be clear-cut for those thinking of building new in old neighbourhoods. The proposed changes would add considerably to the cost of demolition. Those choosing to flatten older homes may find Canada’s costliest real estate market is about to climb even higher.