I’m off for a week to speak at a conference – and so Price Tags is in your hands.
Here’s a topic to keep the discussion going in the Comments, based on Kerry Gold’s column in the August 28 Globe and Mail: “Shaughnessy heritage homes moratorium debate gets heated.”
Vancouver City Council will be making a decision, likely on September 18, whether to extend a demolition moratorium on Shaughnessy houses built prior to 1940 by establishing the city’s first heritage conservation district. “If passed, it would offer the ultimate protection to all pre-1940 houses, which were built with the best craftsmanship and materials that money could buy, circa 1907.”
Kerry Gold’s column was remarkable for the brutal honesty of the real-estate agent quoted:
Real estate agent Peter Saito has a problem with the city’s proposed ban on the demolition of Vancouver’s oldest, most prized collection of heritage houses.
The old Shaughnessy estate houses, he says, aren’t worth saving. They just don’t bring in the money. As is, they’re too small. Mr. Saito says he and his agent partner have sold about $100-million in Shaughnessy property in the past year and a half. But he says home values will drop with a new zoning amendment that would turn First Shaughnessy into Vancouver’s first heritage conservation district. …
“The houses are 5,000 square feet on a 20,000 square foot lot. It’s not efficient any more,” Mr. Saito says. “Those old houses are half the size of the new houses.”
Wealthy people want big houses, not heritage houses, he says.
“If you worked hard all your life and you succeed, and if you want to feel like you made it, you buy a big house.”
The City is offering incentives along with the restrictions:
Importantly, the city is offering Shaughnessy homeowners something in return: the opportunity to add infill, coach houses, secondary suites and multiple conversions.
Mr. Saito’s response: “They just don’t bring in the money.” And if you don’t let rich people demolish the city’s heritage to build something new and very much bigger, it’s discrimination.
Rich people today care more about space – and they want lots of it, according to Mr. Saito, who also spoke at the hearing. As an agent, Mr. Saito thinks in numbers – specifically price per square foot. With the moratorium, the returns are ridiculously low, he argued.
“This is discrimination against the rich,” he said later in an interview. “Guess what? The rich are not stupid. If they feel discriminated against, they will look to the Canadian Charter of Rights. They’ll say, ‘I don’t want density because I don’t want to turn my lovely Shaughnessy neighbourhood into Kitsilano No. 2,’” says Mr. Saito, who lives in Kerrisdale.
No density, no renters, no loss of property values. And no heritage.
Mr. Saito isn’t the only one fearing lost property values. At the hearing, several people with vested interests in redeveloping First Shaughnessy stood to complain about how the homes were falling apart and had outlived their use. A woman named Pearl Chow said if people wanted the houses preserved, they would last longer if they were completely rebuilt and made new – an argument that defies the point of heritage conservation.
Again, the extraordinarily blunt Mr, Saito:
Mr. Saito explained that rich people like Shaughnessy because of its brand more than the actual houses. It’s about status, as well as the sizable lots.
“They don’t buy in Shaughnessy because the houses are old, but because there are big lots. There’s a prestige value attached to that. And the environment is different. You drive down a street in Shaughnessy and it’s different from the street in Kitsilano.”
For Mr. Saito, Kitsilano is a lost cause from over crowding – the opposite of prestige. …
Mr. Saito says he’s only looking out for his rich clients’ best interests. And he has his own proof that prices are already dropping. He cited the example of 1338 Matthews. That house, on an 18,500-square-foot lot, sold for $7.38-million. The house is protected by the moratorium, at least for now. It took two months to sell the house, and the new owner is hoping the moratorium ends so that they can rebuild, he says.
The new owners “rented it out for cheap,” instead of living there, Mr. Saito says. His tone of voice makes the house sound like a dump.
So many issues. Penny Gurstein, SCARP director, lists a few:
Allowing the destruction of an old house to build a new, bigger house that won’t shelter any more people is counter to everything the city needs, says University of British Columbia professor Penny Gurstein, director of the School of Community and Regional Planning.
“I think it is a good move,” she says of the moratorium. “But I’m sure what will happen is [the opposition] will get lawyers involved. These people have their minds made up.”
By maintaining the character and also allowing coach houses and basement suites, the Shaughnessy moratorium would be a move toward the greater good, rather than the interests of a few. Added density is not even new to Shaughnessy. In the 1950s, many of the big houses were carved up into rental suites, religious retreats and retirement homes. The historic neighbourhood already has had a Kitsilano moment.
If the rest of the city is learning to accommodate more density, what makes Shaughnessy exempt? It simply doesn’t make sense that one of the most central neighbourhoods in Vancouver should be allowed to maintain such ridiculously low density. Mr. Saito may cite Kitsilano as a ghetto for the masses, but its RT-2 zoning has made it one of the most walkable and livable neighbourhoods we have, Ms. Gurstein says.
“If you look at the population [in Shaughnessy], and how many people are actually living in these houses, it’s probably shocking,” she says. “That is some of the most prime property in the city and the density is incredibly low. That is a problem.”
Or is it? Does keeping Shaughnessy as it was originally intended – a reserve for the very rich to display their wealth and prestige in the form of estate housing, distinctly separate from the rest of the community – actually violate its heritage, or reinforce it? Should City Council a sense change the character of a community by trying to artificially preserve it at a moment in time, with the potential loss of property value (though, as Gold notes, that would not necessarily be the case over time.)
Does it become a precedent for other parts of the city as values continue to escalate?
Here’s an example from a friend who recently sold their house:
We sold this house for close to $2 million last August. It is now on the market again a year later for over $3 million.
The house was never occupied but it appears after a year one of “occupants” will claim capital gains on the house.
The price is being put up nearly another million and a half after 12 months. That is over $100,000 a month in gain.
It is being marketed offshore.
Which, of course, touches another sensitive issue in this town: are we selling off the place to international capital which sees it as a hedge against the financial turmoil of our time? And then gets to do what they want with it to maximize values even more?
Or is heritage zoning a way of implicitly trying to depress values without doing so overtly? Will it invariably be seen as another form of discrimination, more ethnic-based than class-based? And are property constraints resulting in a real or perceived loss of value justifiable in a culture and economy like ours?
And what exactly is our economy and culture in this hyper-sensitive town?
All of those issues, and no doubt more, will be included in the decision that Council has to make, knowing that, no doubt, lawyers will be involved regardless. But it does strike me as a particularly indicative vote about our values, which combined with other votes we have taken recently as a people (no more taxes, less collective services) says so much about who we are.
Normally we don’t see it come together so, um, brutally.