Last night I attended the Vancouver Public Library’s talk on “Vancouver Vanishes: Narratives of Demolition and Revival” at which Michael Kluckner, Eve Lazarus, and Caroline Adderson gave presentations before answering questions from the floor. The room was almost full, with perhaps one hundred in the audience.
Ms. Adderson acted as MC and also gave the first presentation. She is a very fine writer and this was reflected in the quality of her speech last night. She talked about how a period house starts with the seed of a tree which grows and is then transformed by hand into a structure (comparing this favourably with much of the machine- and factory-built houses of today). She then took us through the history of her own house and rhapsodised about the emotional narratives that become embedded in homes. Adderson deplored the vast number of demolition permits issued in Vancouver over the last 18 months, noting that these not only took away the buildings but the narratives attached to them; and we are all the poorer for that. As she noted: “It is going to be quiet around Vancouver when all the old houses are gone.”
Next up was Michael Kluckner who began by describing his beginnings in heritage preservation during the post-Expo “demolition derby” as he described it. He noted that Vancouver used to be a city of “shared landscapes”, with small houses on large lots with trees and gardens. It had been a front-porch society where neighbourhoods were shared, while today we have become a backyard society protected by hedges and walls. He recalled the concerns of the 1979-1980 period — when mortgages ranged from 15% to 20% — wherein newspapers and residents wondered if there were still properties available in Vancouver for $100,000. As Michael stated, Vancouver has gone through many booms and busts before.
The final speaker, Eve Lazarus, noted that her interest was piqued when, as a newcomer to the city, she had looked at old photographs of downtown and wondered where all the fine buildings had gone. She then gave us a guided tour, illustrated by many before and after images, through the many splendid buildings that have been lost in the West End.
In answer to a question from the floor, the panel agreed that the heritage situation in Vancouver was worse than in, say, Toronto or Montreal. Our primary heritage building material, wood, is a lot easier to demolish than stone or granite, for example. Also, especially on the west side, the standard comparatively small house on a comparatively large lot from the 1920s and 1930s almost invites demolition and redevelopment on a larger scale. This is not the case in Strathcona, Mount Pleasant or Grandview because the houses fill much more of the small lots and therefore the scope for rebuilding is much less.
Following a further question, the panel agreed that the current situation makes a mockery of both the Greenest City and pro-density ideals. As we all know, the greenest house is the one that is already built. The energy it takes to demolish and rebuild can take a modern “green” building up to fifty years to recoup — by which time it will probably be demolished once again. As for density, many of the older houses had multiple suites and are being replaced by large single-family dwellings, thus actually reducing density in many cases. The general feeling was the current Greenest City programs are more akin to Monty Python than a serious attempt to solve a problem.
All in all it was a very worthwhile couple of hours.