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Kits locals search for solutions to preserve last of old neighbourhood

When Deborah Scott moved into the oldest section of Kitsilano about 30 years ago, things were different. The rows of…

By Emma Smith , in City Feature story , on October 17, 2012 Tags: , , , ,

When Deborah Scott moved into the oldest section of Kitsilano about 30 years ago, things were different. The rows of Victorian houses ran for blocks on West Fifth and Sixth avenues. Now, many of them have been torn down, often replaced with concrete apartment buildings.

Deborah Scott lives in the top floor of Boyd House, built in 1905 in Kitsilano’s Delamont area.

The city bought the land in the 60s to reserve it for highway expansion. When it became clear that wasn’t going to happen, the 22 heritage houses were instead rented out, creating an oasis of affordable units.

But local residents are worried this last vestige of old Kitsilano may disappear after city planners recently approved the demolition of a privately-owned heritage home on the block. The loss of one house was enough to cause concern not just for locals, but a larger group, prompting them to pitch new ideas to protect the historic houses.

“It’s like a sad sort of thing to think that [the history] of it isn’t recognized,” says Scott as she frets over the fate of the Delamont properties, named after Kitsilano Boys Band founder Arthur Delamont. “It’s sort of seen as just units or land that’s got this kind of value.”

Scott, who’s worked on other neighbourhood campaigns combating development, says the issue isn’t just about one house getting torn down.With no guidelines in place to protect the historic district, Scott worries that the combination of developer pressure and a city strapped for money will determine what happens to the area.

“The city having this property that’s worth millions, you know, and developers are probably drooling down their backs,” says Scott.

Mixing history with affordability

Renters aren’t the only people concerned about the future of the properties. For Sean McEwen, a Kitsilano architect, the loss of even one house is significant.

“All those houses are important,” says McEwen, who was involved in the West End’s Mole Hill, a project that converted city-owned historic houses into social housing in the 1990s. “When you take one house out of the streetscape, the streetscape is changed inalterably and you lose so much of, you know, the historic consistency.”

The West End’s Mole Hill project was completed in 2003.

At a recent city competition for ideas on how to create low-cost housing in Vancouver, McEwen proposed a plan that would save the original heritage structures, while dividing the houses into affordable units and putting in infill housing. The concept is based on the Mole Hill project, the city’s most successful model of heritage retention and affordable housing.

This idea has been picked up by Coun. Geoff Meggs, who says creating a “second Mole Hill” would add value to the area. He’s working on a formal proposal to bring to city council that would save the houses and add low-cost housing. At this point, the city has no plans to develop the area.

In 1982, the community rallied to save the Delamont properties when the city planned to demolish the block to expand Delamont Park. But unlike at Mole Hill, the houses weren’t given iron-clad protection.

Mole Hill, though a model of heritage converted to affordable housing, did come with challenges.

Margot Beauchamp, executive director of the Mole Hill Community Housing Society, admits the project had a hefty price tag. The restoration and construction of the 27 heritage houses with 170 units cost the province and city $21 million. Today, 60 per cent of the units are subsidized by BC Housing.

“It couldn’t be [the same] because the city wouldn’t put in that kind of money, nor would BC Housing,” says Beauchamp. “They don’t have it. We’ve hit a different economic time.”

Protecting heritage homes, a balancing act 

Because of this, Beauchamp and McEwen acknowledge that finding a model that retains heritage, creates affordability and promotes density is going to take time. But McEwen wants the city to use the heritage properties as part of the solution to the city’s housing crisis.

Arbutus Coffee on the corner of Arbutus Street and West Sixth Avenue is Delamont’s most recognizable structure.

“Something’s got to give,” says McEwen. “You can’t just keep building new condos and thinking that that’s going to solve the problem.”

For Scott, the small-town feel of the neighbourhood is worth protecting. Rather than creating more density through multiple suites and infill housing, she’d like to see the space between the heritage houses turned into communal gardens or park.

Growing up in Turkey and moving to Vancouver in the 70s, Scott has seen the city change as history takes second place to development.

“I’ve lived in places where the old is considered valuable,” she says. “It’s part of sort of like a heritage. It’s like how you trace your roots. It’s how you feel at home, you know, even when everything is changing rapidly.”