COLUMN: The thorny issue of preserving heritage in New Westminster
We love heritage here in New West.
And if there’s a heritage heart in the Royal City, it’s undoubtedly the Queen’s Park neighbourhood.
But what if, over time, that heritage slipped away?
What if those charming craftsman, Queen Anne and Edwardian homes slowly were replaced with new houses by owners who chose pragmatism over idealism when the time came to renovate, restore, rebuild or move?
What if the squeaky floors and quirky corners became too much?
Is there adequate protection to ensure enough of that precious heritage is retained indefinitely?
This past week marked the first steps in the demolition of a much-loved oldtimer in Queen’s Park, the Edward A. Riddell House, a 1926 craftsman at 221 Third Ave. Dave Brett, president of the Queen’s Park Residents Association, said some people called it the Hobbit House, while others called it Wellington House, in reference to early occupants. Many responded with sadness and frustration to see this gem on its way out.
People passionate about heritage feel it keenly when a house like this goes, and many worry others will follow.
Dave told me: “One comment that has circulated over the years, is ‘if they tear down Wellington House, they’ll tear down any house.’”
I have friends with a heritage home nearby. It’s on a fantastic, big, shady lot, it’s just a block from the park, and has some great features inside. But it’s got some awkward spaces inside and doesn’t fit the family’s needs as well these days. Because of its design, renovation would be very expensive. If it weren’t in Queen’s Park, they’d have an easier time deciding to rebuild.
Queen’s Park neighbourhood is a wonderful place to walk. The gorgeous homes. Well-tended gardens. The mature trees offer welcome shade and seem to freshen the air.
Most who buy houses there are drawn to the history packed in the timber bones, the stories tucked beneath the eaves. And as anyone who’s taken the annual Heritage Home Tour knows, many of these houses have been restored through enormous investment—both in sweat and cash.
So when a place like Riddell House goes, people get upset.
The city’s heritage planner, Julie Schueck, told me the owner did his best to save it.
“In one respect it’s painful for the owner too,” she said.
The house has always straddled two legal lots, something unsurprising in this ragged old city with so much that does not conform. Julie said the owner, who recently purchased the property, worked closely with the city to explore many different options to preserve the house as part of redevelopment.
This included looking at moving the house to one lot, but the home’s footprint was simply too large.
“Everything we looked at wasn’t going to work.”
One might wonder if the city could take a more forceful approach.
Today, the city uses the carrot, rather than the stick. Essentially, if warranted, the city can break its own rules to encourage retention, restoration and rehabilitation of a heritage home. It could let a homeowner subdivide, increase the square-footage of their home or offer a relaxation of parking requirements, for instance.
In return, the homeowner would sign a Heritage Revitalization Agreement (HRA).
This effectively saves the house forever. Even if it burned down, the owner would have to build a replica, Julie says.
Meantime, anything not HRA-protected could disappear tomorrow to be replaced with—well, anything that meets the BC Building Code, pretty much.
How many houses in Queen’s Park today are protected via an HRA?
Can’t we do more? Should we do more?
Are these tools enough to ensure Queen’s Park—the heritage heart in a rapidly growing city—is preserved?
If it chose, the city could create a heritage bylaw to protect a property without the owner’s consent. It’s something cities are loathe to do, and it’s only been invoked once.
Just over three years ago, the City of Victoria tried to prevent Roger’s Chocolates from renovating the interior of its 1891 building on Government Street (The interior is a National Historic Site).
The case went to arbitration. Victoria lost and paid $600,000 plus 85 per cent of legal costs.
New West city council would still like to do more, though.
Currently, Julie is consulting residents in four small areas of the city about possibly designating them as heritage conservation areas (HCAs). Demolitions could be halted, and renovations could require heritage review.
So far, Julie says response has been cool.
She hears: “We love heritage conservation, just not in our area.”
And I suppose the translation is we love heritage, and believe it’s worth preserving.
Just don’t tell us what we can and cannot do.
• Chris Bryan is editor of the NewsLeader.