When Wendy Urquhart looks upon her 1930s Dunbar cottage, she sees 80 years of family history. That’s why, when she was forced to sell it last month for financial reasons, she was terrified that it would be torn down.
Her street is one of many on the city’s west side that has become a favourite for developers. The original smaller houses are being torn down to make way for bigger ones that make maximum use of the square footage allowed on the area’s larger lots.
In the past few years, three houses were torn down on her block alone. She looks out at a new construction site across the street and worries that her home could meet a similar fate.
“I would be heartbroken, really heartbroken,” says Urquhart, who moved into the family home in 2001 after her grandmother passed away. “It’s a sweet little house and this whole family’s history – poof! – gone.”
Urquhart has temporarily saved the family home, finding a buyer who agreed to rent it back to her for the next two years, but she knows anything could happen after that.
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As she recalls her youth over lunch at “The Cheese” – her name for the Cheshire Cheese Inn that has been her local hangout since she was a teenager – it is clear that this is about more than just the home. This is about a neighbourhood that has evolved from its working-class roots when her grandmother, a chambermaid and single mother, moved there in 1935.
Urquhart’s 33-foot-wide lot is now valued at nearly $1.5 million and a new house could sell for a million more. Her neighbours are increasingly doctors, lawyers, and executives.
The importance of home
Urquhart’s anxiety over those changes is hardly isolated. The “demolition issue” has come up at every one of the meetings held by a Dunbar residents’ planning committee for the past 10 years says the head of that group, Jane Ingman Baker.
She says that residents are concerned about the lavish style and enormous size of the new homes and the waste that is created by demolitions. And they particularly don’t like the high number of new homes that sit empty upon completion.
According to planning expert Wendy Sarkissian, a visceral reaction to change in one’s neighbourhood is to be expected given our attachment to the familiar. “In general, humans are hard-wired to protect their territory,” she says. “When you mess with the core territory of home, you’re touching a very delicate place in the psyche of the average person.”
In a neighbourhood like Dunbar, which remained seemingly isolated from change until recently, the rate of demolitions has been particularly jarring.
[pullquote align=”right”]They want to live on a street with cute, well-maintained houses and families and kids running around[/pullquote]According to a recent report in Business in Vancouver, 354 demolition permits were issued in Dunbar-Southlands between 2009 and 2012. That’s more than anywhere else in the city.
This has had some long-time residents searching for ways to slow the change. A conversation has been bubbling on the neighbourhood’s online forum over the past year about the idea of encouraging local residents to consider selling their houses for less money if the new buyer is willing to preserve it.
Others have pushed the idea of having the city put restrictions on demolitions.
The burden of renovation
But Ingman Baker questions whether any of this is realistic. “People want their cake and they want to eat it,” she says. “They want to live on a street with cute, well-maintained houses and families and kids running around. But they want to be able to sell their house for the best market price.”
She also questions whether there is much of an appetite for the smaller houses anymore, noting that the majority of offers are coming from developers.
“Some of these older houses are considered to be a burden or to not provide the conveniences that people would like in their house and the cost of renovation or reconstruction is so high that you want something more modern.”
There are still a few buyers who don’t feel that way — though not enough of them to slow the demolitions.
Anil Singh purchased a 1928 character home in Dunbar about 15 years ago and has been meticulously restoring the home to the way it looked when it was first built.
But even he is realistic about what will happen when the time comes to move on.
“Even though we would have invested 30 years at that point, we’re not attached,” he says. “It’s just a thing. At the end of the day, are you going to forfeit $50,000 just to preserve a house you’re leaving behind?”
The life-long Dunbar resident is equally pragmatic about the change occurring in his neighbourhood, comparing it to the outcries over subdividing lots and the Vancouver Specials of previous decades.
His advice for his neighbours: “Take one day at a time. Change is not a bad thing.”
Urquhart knows that these are words she might have to live by when she moves out of her family’s home. For now, though, she’s hoping there might be one way to prevent that change. She buys a lottery ticket for every draw and says if she won she’d buy the house back at an offer that couldn’t be refused. The numbers are always the same – her family home’s address.