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Owner says 19th century ‘heritage’ house is a teardown

Vivian O
Vivian O'Connor is having trouble selling her Sixth Avenue home in the West End because it's in limbo pending a heritage assessment by the city despite it not being on the city's heritage register. The lot's size allows it to be eligible for subdivision but she says if it's assessed as being redeemable for heritage no buyers will be interested in the property.
— image credit: Grant Granger/NewsLeader

Vivian O’Connor sits in her Sixth Avenue West End home surrounded by stuff she’s in the process of packing for a move.

But that’s not all she sits in. O’Connor is also firmly entrenched in emotional and financial limbo as she awaits a report she hopes will say her 19th century house isn’t worth saving.

O’Connor and her husband recently purchased a home on a 13-acre lot outside of Princeton with everything on their house wish list.

They take possession on Wednesday and it looks like they’ll have two homes to take care of and pay for. They didn’t plan it that way.

The O’Connors purchased their New Westminster home in 1996 figuring it was their retirement fund.

They knew it had been built in 1890, or at least half of it, with an addition put on the front in 1927. A few years ago it was added to the heritage register, but the O’Connors opted to have it removed.

When that was done, O’Connor believed any heritage impediment to allowing the large 66x124 foot lot to be subdivided had been removed.

That didn’t turn out to be the case.

When they put it on the market a month or so ago it was advertised as eligible to be subdivided into two lots. They had some interested buyers, particularly from builders.

But when the builders did their research at city hall they found out rezoning was nowhere near a slam dunk.

They contacted the realtor and claimed he had misled them.

City heritage planner Julie Schueck told O’Connor that although the property is eligible for rezoning simply because of its size, any application would have to be accompanied by an independent assessment that determined the house’s heritage value was “unredeemable.”

That’s the rule for any home, whether on the heritage register or not, that is more than 50 years old on a property being rezoned or demolished. The usual firm the city uses to do the assessments is extremely busy and Schueck is trying to find another.

“There was no reason to think we had to jump through any of these hoops,” said O’Connor.

If the assessment determines it has heritage value as a pre-1900 house that can be restored within financial reason, O’Connor fears she and her husband will be stuck with an unsellable home and having to pay off a line of credit they took out to purchase their dream home in Princeton.

“That could just screw us. I don’t know what we’d do,” she said. She has listed the home at $699,000 but believes it would have been worth more than $800,000 if they’d sold it two years ago. “Nobody wants this house. They want the land and we knew that when we bought this place. This was going to be our retirement fund. The way people buy property in this area is to split the lots in half and make two houses and make some money out of it.”

O’Connor figures it would take $200,000 to $300,000 to renovate the home for several reasons. Much of the interior walls were done in lath and plaster, a long outdated technique. The electricity is knob and tube, a method that hasn’t been common since the 1930s, which she figures will have to be replaced. While the old sash windows were nice at one time, the frames are rotten.

“It’s just an old house, there’s no gingerbread on the outside, there’s no porch. It’s not a heritage house, it’s an old house,” said O’Connor. “People don’t want that anymore. If you’re going to spend that much money they might as well get a new house ... I wish someone would be willing to take it on, but it’s not realistic. They would have to spend too much money. They can build a state-of-the-art house for less.”

Schueck said any potential application for rezoning would likely have a much better chance of being approved if the home was retained and restored. She added if the assessment determines the building is restorable council is not going to like any proposal that calls for its demolition.

“[O’Connor] sees the heritage house as a negative, as a detriment, and I see it as a way to move forward potentially to be successful with the rezoning,” said Schueck.

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