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City of Vancouver's anti-demolition policy is a failure

Speed of demolitions of character homes has accelerated

If the intention of the city’s “character home” policy introduced last June was to somehow protect these older buildings by slowing or even preventing their demolition, it appears to have been an abysmal failure.

There was a demolition moratorium in one section of Shaughnessy. But for the rest of Vancouver, the city offered density bonuses for owners who chose to renovate rather than remove pre-1940 character homes. Builders were also offered a break if they chose to “deconstruct” those houses and recycle the building materials rather than shredding them.

Neither option appears to have made much of a difference. If anything, the speed of demolitions has accelerated. In the first four months of this year the city issued 342 demolition permits. That is an increase of 20 per cent over 2014.

The city may take some pleasure in noting that no marijuana distribution outlet exists within 300 metres of my corner of Kits. But within a city block or so, I can count at least a half dozen “fences of doom.” Those are the orange plastic fences put up to protect any trees lucky enough to be outside the new building footprint while destruction of the old house and construction of the new one takes place.

The house across my back alley, built more than 85 years ago, was pulled down with such zeal that the excavator operator managed to punch a hole in the roof of the house next door. And then, with equal care and attention, he peeled off part of the wall of that neighbour’s garage. Tidying up that mess was just part of the cost of doing business.

Caroline Adderson hosts the Facebook page “Vancouver Vanishes” where followers regularly posts pictures of houses about to be terminated. The most recent one was just around the corner from me at 2813 West 13th Ave.

Her campaign on this issue had a lot to do with the city’s policy change a year ago. She is not impressed with what has transpired.

If you live on the West Side of town, in Kitsilano, Dunbar or Kerrisdale, you likely will have a front row seat in what is a historically high rate of change.

Artist and writer Michael Kluckner has chronicled Vancouver’s history for years now and explains why houses in these neighbourhoods are particularly vulnerable to being crushed and hauled away.

In the older parts of Vancouver which were built up before the First World War, houses tended to be bigger. Look at Grandview Woodlands, Mount Pleasant and North West Kitsilano. Those “character homes” took up much more of the lot space and there is more economy in renovating them than taking them down. Ironically, gentrification has meant that those that were turned into rooming houses in decades past have been returned as single family dwelling reducing population density.

In the ’20s and ’30s, Kluckner says, tastes in housing changed, as did the economy, and people were satisfied with the smaller homes that were built through much of the rest of the West Side of the city.

The economic advantage to developers now of tearing those smaller structures down and building houses which are 70 per cent bigger in a market where the price folks are willing to pay seems limitless and is simply irresistible.

Kluckner describes the frenzy of demolitions and new constriction as a kind of “gold rush.”

These older buildings are being hauled away without any serious thought given to deconstruction. Perfectly good timbers, clear cut fir in the form or rafters, floor joists and wall studs — far better quality than the material going into most new buildings — are either heading for the land fill or being chipped and burned as bio-fuel. Speed trumps savings.

While the new homes are bigger, the numbers of people living in them, Kluckner say, are often fewer. As owners of these new homes are choosing to enjoy “the great indoors,” the population in parts of Kitsilano is actually declining.

To make matter worse, the city insists these new buildings have two and three car garages. That often means more trees are being eliminated.

Next week city staff is expected to issue a report that puts its own spin on the impact of this policy. By then another half dozen older homes in Vancouver will have vanished.