Friday, 23 September 2011

Cutting a Deal - Heritage in Vancouver

Since arriving in Vancouver it has not taken me long to realize that the city lacks heritage.  'But we're a new city' is the response I often hear from locals in this 125th anniversary year of the city's founding.  And coming from Europe this makes sense.  125 years is only two generations above me so there is no value in making comparisons with London or other European cities which have longer and more varied histories. As a schoolboy I was ignorant towards the fact that my high school was founded in 1563.  But to a Canadian this is beyond comprehension.

Yet after attending a talk from Brent Toderian (Director of City Planning in Vancouver) it became clear that the lack of heritage actually stems from the weak planning laws and not the relative newness of the city.  It sounds so simple, but in the UK if a building is deemed to be of merit or value it is placed on a statutory protection list.  Likewise, if a distinct area (neighborhood or street) is judged to have a 'special character' it is allocated as a conservation area.  Put simply, permission is required to make alterations or demolish properties that are either listed or reside in a conservation area.  In British Columbia the opposite is true and the City have no legislative powers to prevent a property owner from obtaining a demolition permit.  As Mr Toderian stressed in his presentation, he has more power to regulate what goes up compared to what comes down.

The reason for this is the odd mix of civic values that try to bridge European socialism with the US-favored protection of personal property rights.  Unfortunately the personal property rights win out and any sense of heritage as a city-wide resource is lost.  This is incredibly hypocritical because whilst the legislation claims to value heritage it fails to provide adequate protection and instead leaves buildings open to the demands of the development sector.  This is the real reason Vancouver has such little heritage, not just the fact the city is so young. 

To their credit the City planning department have been proactive in developing tools to combat the lack of legislative powers.  The Transfer of Density Program (described in full here) is perhaps the most prominent tool and allows the granting of bonus density to be used either on the site or elsewhere in exchange for retaining the heritage asset in question.  But as Mr Toderian argued, the result is that heritage gets mixed up with density debates and other land use issues.  Very quickly the value of the heritage asset gets lost amongst competing demands.  Furthermore, the City has been building up surplus density off the back of heritage protection which it is has been unable to deposit in new developments across the city.  

The density transfer tool is a creative response to the toothless legislation as it provides financial incentives for developers to retain heritage.  But on the evidence of the Heritage Vancouver debate those incentives are not as clearcut as one would imagine.  One audience member, who has recently been through the planning process involving a heritage property, recounted his negative experience and concluded the density transfer process was not worth the hassle - even from a financial standpoint.  So if this is the best tool the City have, what hope is there for heritage buildings without the introduction of stronger preservation legislation?  Until heritage is valued for the sake of being heritage and disconnected from the property market, the wider city will continue to suffer whether it is 125 or 250 years old.   

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