Shaping Vancouver 2015: Conversation 1

Are Heritage Conservation Areas Right For Vancouver?

Helen Phillips

Heritage Consultant and on the Heritage Vancouver Board of Directors.


Helen Cain

Senior Planner in the City of Victoria.

Clinton Cuddington

Principal, Measured Architecture Inc.

Pete Fry

Former Green Party Candidate for Vancouver City Council.

Julie Schueck

Heritage Planner in the City of New Westminster.

Alec Smith

Principal, Shape Architecture, Ltd.

Inge Roecker

Associate Professor in Architecture at UBC.

Donald Luxton

Heritage author, educator and advocate, consultant from Luxton and Associates.

To watch a full video of this session, please click here.

The first panel discussion of the Shaping Vancouver 2015 series focused on heritage conservation areas, and whether they are a viable method to protect the historical character found in Vancouver neighbourhoods.

The event began with a presentation by Donald Luxton, one of the lead consultants on implementing a Heritage Action Plan in Vancouver. Luxton described Vancouver’s current Heritage Conservation Program and the dire need to improve it, as it has not been updated since it’s creation in 1986. He suggested that Vancouver should be creating Heritage Conservation Areas to better manage development, following the example of many other British Columbia cities. Luxton also outlined the key objectives of the new Heritage Action Plan, which are to:

  • Review and update the Vancouver Heritage Registry
  • Improve heritage conservation tools and incentives
  • Streamline the heritage building application process
  • Take immediate action on priority character buildings
  • Maximize sustainability outcomes
  • Involve and engage the community in this process

Following this presentation, moderator Helen Phillips asked the panelists what characteristics make an area suitable for heritage conservation status. Julie Schueck responded that a suitable area would be several blocks that contain many heritage elements, but more importantly, have an overall group identity and a demonstrated significance to the social community. Helen Cain agreed with Schueck and added that these areas are not always architecturally spectacular but its significance could be its connection to a certain group of people or it’s representation of the city’s evolution.

The discussion that followed focused on the benefits and disadvantages of heritage conservation areas, what neighbourhoods could be candidates for heritage conservation status, and how heritage policy would work with existing city policy.

Another topic that emerged throughout the discussion was the idea of authenticity within a neighbourhood, and what characteristics create a strong neighbourhood identity.

Benefits and Disadvantages of Heritage Conservation Areas

Cain spoke of her experience implementing heritage conservation areas in Victoria, noting that designating the entire downtown core of Victoria allowed planners to have more input in regards to future developments. Cain was careful to note that protected status did not outright protect the buildings and their features but meant that future changes must be approved by the city with a heritage alteration permit. Cain also noted that beyond designating this zone as a heritage area, the city also provided a heritage tax incentive program, which has led to a downtown core revitalization in Victoria over the past 15 year. Schueck spoke on the importance of reexamining areas that may already have heritage designation, such as New Westminster, to incorporate areas that may have been overlooked previously.

Schueck and Cain agreed that from a community amenity point of view there are no disadvantages to heritage conservation areas. They noted the importance of educating the public when placing new zoning policies however, as landowners view this zoning as restrictive. Pete Fry noted that there is a significant political disadvantage to implementing heritage conservation zones, as it doesn’t actively encourage development growth in a city.

Clinton Cuddington added that there are ways to develop alongside heritage conservation, and the importance of bringing this issue into the forefront of development discussion. Luxton offered Commercial Drive and Main Street as a potential candidate’s, nothing that architecturally they may not be historically significant but they are places of value currently experiencing pressure to develop.

Candidates for Heritage Conservation Area

Looking beyond the First Shaughnessy neighbourhood, Phillips asked panelists what other Vancouver neighbourhoods couple benefit from heritage conservation area designation.

Inge Roecker suggested Vancouver’s Chinatown, where development guidelines do exist but are not actively being enforced. Roecker suggested taking the time to evaluate these guidelines and if they are effectively meeting the community’s interests. Cain suggested Japantown, an area which has been threatened by high density development. Fry proposed the Downtown Eastside, stating that the current density guidelines are too high which will lead to rapid gentrification of this neighbourhood, and displace the people who live there. Alec Smith agreed with this suggestion, posing that a cadence of lot sizes in this area would allow for a greater variety of people and businesses. Smith also suggested Strathcona as a heritage conservation area but noted that style and design guidelines can not be too simplistic.

The seemingly haphazard development and variety of buildings in the area greatly contribute to Strathcona’s overall character. Smith warned of lot amalgamation changing the tone of whole neighbourhoods in Vancouver.

How Heritage Policy will Work with Other Policy

Roecker suggested that we need to minimize the bureaucratic challenges that face potential restorers and provide incentive to update the energy efficiency of heritage buildings. Roecker further suggested better communication is needed between city planners and the building inspectors. Schueck responded that heritage conservation areas would ensure that there would be greater communication and collaboration across city departments.

Luxton offered that instilling heritage conservation areas would send a clear message about the city’s intentions to make heritage buildings a part of its resiliency goals. Cain stated that heritage buildings would be held to the same green building standards as new developments but heritage conservation areas would also delve into social and cultural stability policy, as these buildings contribute greatly to the overall identity of Vancouver.

Creating Authenticity in Vancouver Neighbourhoods

The topic of authentic neighbourhoods arose throughout the discussion. Panelists noted repeatedly that historical architecture is not the sole quality of resilient communities. This led to a greater discussion of what creates heritage, and if there is a place for modern development within this.

Cain stated that mimicking heritage buildings in new developments does not create thriving neighbourhoods, but is more often met with criticism. She suggested that new developments create principle based guidelines for communities which will examine how development can strengthen community identity. Cain stressed that innovation in developments should be encouraged and not restricting developers to one genre of building.

All panelists agreed on this issue, bringing up the importance of community input in future developments and flexible, case-based development guidelines.

Questions from the audience

The Granville area and False Creek South - a large percentage of these homes are leased by the city, and there is an opportunity to renew the lease soon, giving residents and the city a chance to reevaluate this land usage. Can you create a designation for communities in a city?

Smith spoke about the architectural significance of this neighbourhood, as Vancouver was a leader in Canadian architecture in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. Luxton agreed that these buildings are of historical significance but voiced his concerns about becoming fixated on dates when evaluating its significance. He suggested that protecting a building based solely on it’s age does not leave room for purposeful dense development that will contribute to a community’s character over time. Cuddington agreed with Luxton, stating that attempts to freeze a community’s character will perpetuate Vancouver’s housing challenges. He suggested that we analyze how to develop a sense of place in these neighbourhoods and incorporate these ideas into newer, denser developments.

We have not heard enough about value and costs in regard to Heritage Conservation Areas, which are the foremost concern for property owners and potential restorers. What about the time? What kind of turnaround is expected for city approval on heritage restorations? We need a city unit that combines planning and inspection as well as other development elements that the city currently oversees so there is a more integrated unit.

Smith strongly agreed that combining planning with inspection as a city department would be beneficial as well as provide incentive to potential restorers. He noted that the Vancouver’s planning department is improving; becoming more interested and engaged in working with architects to complete projects. He criticised Vancouver’s building department, voicing frustration over the department’s authoritative instead of cooperative attitude towards development and stated that this attitude makes developers wary of taking on more creative projects.

Is it possible to set a quantitative threshold for historical buildings while creating space for future developments?

Luxton responded simply that is it not possible to set a quantitative threshold for developing within a community as developers need to assess how character defining elements contribute to the overall character of an area. He stressed that a Heritage Conservation Area would not cause an abrupt halt to development but rather instill a management of change in an area. Cain agreed that attempting to quantify development would disregard the uniqueness of each community.

Architects and historians who went to South California first felt that there was no architectural style until people began to acknowledge the stucco/box homes as the area’s aesthetic. To some, that is Vancouver’s true character. Should we be acknowledging this? For planners, many tools are about muting, softening - can we get a toolkit to strengthen this?

Cuddington agreed that this style of housing could be representative of Vancouver’s character but continued, stating that diversity among these neighbourhoods are critical. Roecker and Smith both commented on the challenge of creating design guidelines for large areas in a city, as they could oppose the current values in a community.

We acknowledge the financial assistance of the Province of British Columbia. Thank you to SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement for co-presenting the series.