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One step forward and two steps back for heritage homes in Vancouver

Last Updated Nov 23, 2015 at 6:41 am PDT

Author Caroline Adderson in front of a character home set for demolition. (John Ackermann, NEWS 1130 Photo)

2015 is shaping up to be record year for home demolitions in Vancouver

Caroline Adderson started the Facebook group Vancouver Vanishes two years ago

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – 2015 is shaping up to be record year for home demolitions, making a book with the title Vancouver Vanishes all the more timely.

We spoke with author Caroline Adderson about the state of heritage protection in the city.

“Things are a little bit better and a lot worse,” she admits.

The novelist started the Facebook group Vancouver Vanishes two years ago, after noticing character home after character home in her West Side neighbourhood was being knocked down in favour of larger, so-called monster houses.

“I’m certainly not saying we can’t build new houses or people can’t come here and build their dream home,” she says. “Go ahead, that’s wonderful, [but] pick a different house.”

Thousands of likes later, her Facebook group has been transformed into a new coffee-table book, full of pictures and essays by experts like John Atkin and Michael Kluckner.

While she is happy to see the city taking steps like establishing a heritage conservation district in First Shaughnessy, Adderson points out character homes elsewhere are still being knocked down at a record pace. “1,141 permits will be issued by the end of the year and that means we’re losing more houses than ever.”

In her words, old houses aren’t just shelter. They are repositories of narrative. “…and this adds just so many layers to our lives to know who went before us and we lose all that when we tear these houses down,” she warns.

NEWS 1130‘s John Ackermann spoke with Caroline Adderson earlier this week.

The book is an outgrowth of a very popular Facebook group. What inspired you to start that group?

“Well, I began that in January 2013 after spending a couple of years watching my neighbourhood, house by house, be destroyed. And I tried to engage city council about it and didn’t really get any satisfying responses so, one day, I sat up and thought, ‘Well, I’ve got all these photographs, I think I’ll start a Facebook page.’ And I did and was quite amazed at the results. As I suspected, I wasn’t the only person concerned about the loss of our original housing stock and a few years go by and I was approached by Anvil Press and they asked me to put some kind of book together and I did.”

That Facebook page did become very popular, very quickly.

“It did and I was surprised and not surprised. It’s actually my only attempt at social media so I didn’t have anything to judge it by, but I was very heartened by the fact I was no longer alone with my concerns that close to 7,000 people have joined in the lamentation. And then in Spring 2014, Anvil Press approached me about putting a book together based on the photographs. I already has some writing myself, I’d already written a couple of essays, so I got together a group of local writers whose work I had admired and who I felt could together create a kind of deeper look at this issue, which is in the media quite a lot but, you know, generally tends to be surface: you know, affordability, foreign ownership. These are very important issues, but I was thinking of putting something together that explored the deeper value of old homes.”

When we talk about what we’ve lost and the state of heritage preservation in Vancouver, just as a snapshot, where are we right now?

“Well, things are a little bit better and lot worse. A little bit better because we are in the middle of a heritage action plan and this had its probably first major success in September when First Shaughnessy was declared a heritage conservation area, so that automatically designated the 317 pre-1940 homes in our historic mansion district, those can no longer be demolished. There were quite a number of them in line to go down before this happened and so this is wonderful news. However… the city has also issued the most demolition permits in the last decade. This year, 1,141 permits will be issued by the end of the year and that means we’re losing more houses than ever. So, we’re entering this new phase of character home review and hopefully they’ll come forward with some kinds of solutions but I’m just hoping its fast.”

And you’re hoping the book will be a way of sounding the alarm about this.

“Sounding the alarm and getting people to think more deeply about this subject because I think, you know, houses aren’t just housing. It’s not just shelter. They are so much more than that. They are repositories of narrative. They hold all the stories, not only of these superior materials, old growth wood, the stories of the people who built them and everything hand-crafted, they didn’t have power tools then. The wood is even logged by hand, I mean it’s astonishing when you think of it. And if you look at one deconstructed, you’ll see three-quarter inch thick old growth wood planks on the outside and very strong framing, far superior than what’s thrown up out of plywood today. And then [there’s] the stories of all the people who have lived in these houses and their contributions to this city. I know this personally, once I was living in my house, which is a 1925 modest little craftsman bungalow, I researched everybody who lived in my house and actually met the first person who lived here, who came in a dresser drawer from Saskatchewan at the age of six months, and found out that living in my house was a semi-famous magician at that at one time the basement was full of magician’s equipment and doves and this adds just so many layers to our lives to know who went before us and we lose all that when we tear these houses down. We start fresh, but these new houses, the standard of building is 30 years now and I’m seeing houses… [an] 11 year old house went down not far from here. I just phoned about a house that I saw with a development placard on it… two years old! So, we’re just wiping everything away, over and over and over again and we’ll become a city without layers.”

Is Vancouver particularly bad for that?

“Well, this is happening all over. I know, I’m hooked up with groups from Portland and someone from Seattle was just contacting me as well, so I think it’s really an issue everywhere, but it’s particularly bad here, because we all know that this is fueled largely by the desire of local companies to cater to foreign capital, whether it’s new immigrants who are coming with a lot of money or people who are just parking their money and as an investment. So, this is a whole new thing. I’m not sure it’s ever going away and I’m certainly not saying we can’t build new houses or people can’t come here and build their dream home. Go ahead, that’s wonderful, [but] pick a different house. Because we know we have all these houses that were built in the `90s that are actually reaching the end of their lifespan [so] how about build there and let’s save some of our history.”

The book is just coming out but what has the response been like so far?

“Well, I’ve been very encouraged. People seem to be really responding. They seem to really get it so that is wonderful.”

Now that the book is coming out, what do you hope happens from here? Do you sense a shifting of the ground at city hall? Do you think the establishment of First Shaughnessy as a heritage conservation district will be the start of other measures like it?

“Well it’s supposed to be one of many. They seem to be getting the message but also I think people are stirring too. I was at a meeting [on Wednesday] in Point Grey and 75 people came out for a meeting about character home demolitions in that neighbourhood and I was asked to just come and give a talk and it was amazing. Joyce Murray the MP was there and David Eby the MLA was there. Sadly, nobody from the city [was there]. But people are really seeing how much this issue is affecting all different areas. It’s not affordable, it’s not green, it’s not even denser. These are massive empty houses [being built] and clear-cut lots.”

Is it necessarily the case that if you live in a heritage conservation district, you lose value?

“The opposite. I interviewed the chief planner, heritage planner in the city of Victoria, where there are 11 heritage conservation areas and all of them saw an increase in value.”

Adderson will attend the book launch at the Main Street location of the Book Warehouse, Monday night at 7:00.