British Columbia·In Depth

Character clash: Vancouver's next big real estate debate

As Vancouver embarks on a process that could lead to the preservation of more older homes in the city, Siobhan Murphy says the story of her Commercial Drive bungalow is a warning about taking the notion of character too far.

'You have to set a very high bar for what you are actually going to make people keep,' says heritage expert

Siobhan Murphy in front of her Commercial Drive bungalow. (Salma Nurmohamed/CBC )

As Vancouver embarks on a process that could lead to the preservation of more older homes in the city, Siobhan Murphy says the story of her Commercial Drive bungalow is a warning about taking the notion of "character" too far.

"I appreciate the character [of my home] but I'd like the freedom to have a little more livable space," said Murphy as she explained her idea to pop up the roof of the small East Vancouver house to create a full second story.

Murphy, a city planner in Maple Ridge, wants to make more room for her and her two adult siblings who currently share the small house.

Her brother has spent the last six months sleeping on the living room couch.

But strict zoning rules stress preserving the exterior character of homes in her neighbourhood, and she's been told that means she can't tinker with the roofline.  Even if the city allows a small dormer, the ceiling in the attic may not be high enough to make it work.

The current zoning rules in Siobhan Murphy's Commercial Drive neighbourhood in Vancouver mean she can't alter the roof line of her bungalow. (Salma Nurmohamed/CBC )

"I wish we could just have a little more flexibility," said Murphy of the RT-5 zoning requirements.

Synthetic homes

Exactly what kind of character should be preserved and what leeway owners should have to change — or outright demolish — their houses is the central theme of Vancouver's Character Home Zoning Review, which starts November 21.

So far, all the city has said of the public consultation is that its focus is on homes built before 1940 in single family districts — which make up huge swaths of the city of Vancouver.

Siobhan Murphy's house is the burgundy bungalow at the end. She's not allowed to change the roofline of her house because of city zoning rules that require her to keep the exterior character. (Salma Nurmohamed/CBC )

The review is fuelled in part by groups such as Vancouver Vanishes, which decries the demolition of older homes, particularly on the city's West Side. The group's Facebook page has more than 12,000 followers.

Caroline Adderson, creator of the Vancouver Vanishes website, puts it this way: "This is about redevelopment catering to the luxury market. It's about people parking their money in a safe place, without consideration of the local economy." 

Adderson feels too many pretty, old homes — made with old growth wood — are being "crushed" by bulldozers to make way for large, "synthetic" new homes, instead of being preserved with the help of incentives from the city.

'You don't dress like your grandmother'

Within Vancouver's heritage circles though, the idea of maintaining homes based on when they were built — in this case prior to 1940 — is arbitrary and even counterproductive.

Heritage Vancouver society president Javier Campos, who's also a house designer, said character and heritage is not just about keeping homes with old window brackets or pitched roofs.

Javier Campos with the Heritage Vancouver Society outside a neighbourhood coffee shop on a residential street in Kitsilano. Campos says zoning that allows for this type of traditional neighbourhood character is worth preserving. (Salma Nurmohamed/CBC )

"Preservationist arguments are not something I can take seriously. These are people who want to preserve everything," he said.

What's worth preserving he argues, is the character of a neighbourhood — for instance, zoning rules that allow for the tradition of a corner coffee shop in the middle of a residential street or for community gardens.

"You have to set a very high bar for what you are actually going to make people keep," he said. "Was someone famous born here? Does the house have a unique history or heritage merit?"

Cities must be allowed to evolve, but can't, he argues, with too much focus on the appearance of homes, rather than livability. 

"You don't dress like your grandmother with the big bloomer underwear and granny shoes, but we can keep her memory alive by continuing cultural traditions, celebrating her birthday."

Add to heritage registry

Other heritage proponents worry if the city places onerous restrictions on older homes, it will thwart efforts to create more flexible, modern, diverse living spaces.

"We need to live in our own time," said Helen Cain, a Richmond city planner and past board director of Heritage Vancouver Society.

"When we focus too much on wanting to keep properties, we're not giving the space for contemporary culture and that's very important for a living breathing city."

Cain's solution is to simply classify more homes — from all time periods and backgrounds — on a heritage registry.

Dismissing density?

A fuller heritage registry would provide clarity for owners and not stand in the way of another stated Vancouver city goal — encouraging density.

Siobhan Murphy's home is on a lot that allows it to be turned into a legal duplex.  But with the city's strict character-zoning law in her neighbourhood, she feels it would be virtually impossible to create one.

As it is, Murphy may have to actually 'de-densify' and let go of her long-term basement tenants to make room for her own family.

Extending the same restrictions, according to Campos, on single family homes, will just make harder to create multi-family housing in the future.

"We're limiting people's potential to develop the city, to address issues around affordability and how livable our neighbourhoods are because we're trying to keep houses that aren't worth keeping."

The density debate, however, has little traction with Vancouver Vanishes creator Caroline Adderson.

She dismisses suggestions that there's a need to convert single family homes to duplexes.

"There's a myth that we don't have enough units. Why would we keep building more before foreign ownership and the vacant homes issue is straightened out?" said Adderson.

The demolition of older homes has been one of the big sources of angst in the city's on-going rancour over housing and affordability.   

Agreeing on what exactly "character" is and what's worth preserving may be part of the eventual solution.


Salma Nurmohamed is a freelance journalist working in London, England. She was previously a Senior Producer and assignment editor with CBC News in Vancouver.