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That charged name — the Crescent — stands for two things in Vancouver. There is the original vortex of fabulous, do-we-know-you Shaughnessy mansions ringing an unpeopled park. And now there is The Crescent on McRae — a row of 15 “world class” townhomes built behind one of those aforementioned mansions. The infill, built under the auspices of EcoDensity in 2012, reportedly sent the neighbourhood into a tizzy, but the success of the development (which is actually quite handsome) has ensured the survival of the heritage home. Owners of heritage homes, in need of cash, are staying the wrecking ball thanks to an increasing awareness of Heritage Revitalization Agreements.
When the owner of a “significant” home is enrolled in the HRA program, the City of Vancouver, recognizing that saving a heritage building has additional costs, allows for extra density (townhouses in the back yard, for example) whose sale can offset those costs.
Not every HRA raises hackles. Timothy Ankenman, principal at Ankenman Marchand Architects, has built a business reconciling maximum density and neighbourhood standards. While the Southlands Community Association has devoted many resources to battling the redevelopment of the Casa Mia site, for example, he’s quietly seeking to bring density to the heritage-listed WilMar estate just a few blocks away. A year ago, the Province suggested the 1925 Tudor mansion would inevitably be destroyed. Today, its restoration may yet be possible if an HRA can deliver infill housing — Ankenman hopes for eight units on its enormous grounds.
“Getting these through,” he says, “is about educating the public. We have a conversation about saving these homes, about the importance of varied streetscapes, and we talk about the real options when you want to save them. We’re keeping these homes from ending up in landfills.”
Perhaps his firm’s greatest success took place far from the tony enclaves of the deep West Side. 1240 Salsbury Drive may have been a humble rooming house since 1929, but when it was built in 1907 it was the centrepiece of a prestigious residential area. Dr. Thomas William Jeffs was a physician, coroner, alderman, and police commissioner; his home was a Queen Anne-style gem, complete with octagonal turret.
When Ankenman first saw the Jeffs residence, its exterior balconies had been walled over, its latticework demolished, and its arching entrance staircase ruined. To pay for the restoration, he decided to move the house five metres, making room for three rows of townhouses — 22 units — on the lot. One neighbour, upset by the plans, grew angry, saying, “You move that house and it’ll completely destroy its heritage value.” Ankenman visited the site recently, and the same man came up, waving at the home: “So when are you moving it?”
Ankenman blinked at him: “Sir, it’s already been moved.”
There has been much talk of late about the rise of faux heritage in First Shaughnessy. Heritage Vancouver wants the neighbourhood turned into an official heritage conservation area and tax incentives and/or a freeze in property assessments introduced to assist owners of restored heritage homes. But the Jeffs residence reminds us that saving heritage should not be limited to crystallizing one precious enclave. The entire city has important homes worth saving.
Ankenman points out that the West End, too, has become a neighbourhood where our needs for density and heritage can dovetail. The 1920 Grace Court in the West End is a beloved wood-frame apartment building on Comox St. that he’s proposing gain a sibling in its back yard. The extraordinary expense of saving the Grace itself would be offset through another HRA.
“I think saving a building from being knocked down is one of the greatest kinds of design,” says Ankenman. It’s also become — for farsighted developers — one of the greatest ways to turn a profit. Ankenman calls this process “building recycling,” but that phrase belies the fact that a smart restoration can give us more than what we had to begin with.