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New North Vancouver district plan focuses on heritage preservation

But strategy may not save historic homes from wrecking ball

Setting aside more grant money to help preserve heritage homes, encouraging heritage revitalization agreements to save significant buildings, and embracing a broader definition of what heritage means are just some of the key points in a new heritage strategic plan adopted by the District of North Vancouver.

“The plan is a really important step,” said Coun. Mathew Bond, who headed the committee that came up with the plan. “It’s making it known that heritage is important. We’re placing a higher value on it than we have in the past.”

But whether the plan will actually help save heritage buildings from the wrecking ball remains to be seen.

Currently, there are about 280 buildings on the municipality’s informal heritage inventory. Those structures don’t have any legal status or protection, but are flagged as being an important part of the district’s history and culture.

Many of those buildings are examples of West Coast Modern architecture typically built on the North Shore in the 1950s and ’60s.

“You don’t have to be super, super old to be heritage,” said Tina Atva, manager of community planning.

The list includes a number of features besides buildings – significant trails, views, forested areas, water courses and sites of historical importance are also listed in the inventory. Among many other features are areas of old growth forest, the site of an old shingle bolt mill, farms, shipyards, the Baden Powell Trail originally built by Scouts Canada, old apple orchards and monkey puzzle trees.

Maplewood shacks
Small-scale replicas of the shacks at Maplewood mud flats that artists and writers squatted in during the 1950s and 1960s. The last of the actual full-sized shacks were eventually torched by the District of North Vancouver in the 1970s. photo supplied District of North Vancouver

A smaller list of about 140 homes are on the district’s official heritage registry. Those buildings are also not legally protected, but are eligible for grants and special incentives for owners who agree to retain the heritage homes on their properties, including flexibility on some aspects of the building code and eligibility for increased density – usually in the form of an additional dwelling – for owners who agree to retain the heritage structure.

Many owners may not even be aware of those incentives, said Bond. “It makes it easier for people who are trying to upgrade these homes.”

The new strategy also recommends significantly increasing the amount of grant money available for upgrades of heritage homes. Currently the only grants available have been for $500 with an annual budget of just $3,000.

The plan recommends upping the available grant pool to at least $100,000.

Coun. Lisa Muri spoke in favour of that at the recent council meeting where the plan was adopted. “The previous allocation to heritage would be enough to buy a doorknob,” she said.

Being on the register also allows council to delay handing out demolition and building permits for those properties for up to two months.

But that delay still doesn’t allow the district to hold up the wrecking ball indefinitely if owners request it.

Of the heritages structures originally listed as significant on the district’s inventory, 44 have since been demolished.

In contrast, only 13 heritage homes in the district are legally protected.

Bond acknowledged that can making saving heritage difficult.

“Municipalities have rather limited tools to require or dedicate private property,” he said.

heritage house DNV
The 1913 Mollie Nye House on Lynn Valley Road is one of only 13 heritage buildings with legal protection in the District of North Vancouver. photo supplied District of North Vancouver

Dominica Babicki, a former district planner and heritage advocate who owns a heritage home in Edgemont Village, said more action is needed in the face of market forces that drive the destruction of heritage buildings.

West Coast Modern homes especially tend to be smaller buildings on big lots, she said. “The problem is the price of real estate. The people buying it aren’t necessarily the people who want a cute little Modern home.”

“There’s this obsession to maximize the size of the house on the lot.”

Usually the house ends up getting torn down, she said, and “large monster homes get built. I’ve seen it in my own neighbourhood.”

Babicki said her complaint with the municipality is that by allowing a large maximum house size, the district has contributed to that trend.

She added there should also be better tax incentives to keep smaller heritage homes.

In her own family’s case, Babicki and her husband Alastair Moore completed a heritage renovation on their 1950 McNichol Residence to bring it back to much of its original architectural condition. The couple also used environmentally friendly building strategies and materials. Babicki and Moore won a municipal heritage award for the work on their home.

But the project was expensive, costing about $500,000.

And afterwards their municipal taxes went up.

“It was ridiculous. You get penalized for doing the right thing,” she said.

Babicki worries that without better incentives for owners, heritage houses will continue to be torn down.

“The finances are a huge issue,” she said. “It does come down to money sometimes.”

Babicki heritage house2
North Vancouver heritage advocates Alastair Moore and Dominica Babicki inside their heritage home on Colwood Drive designed by architect Fred Hollingworth, whose designs are iconic of local West Coast Modern style. The couple won a heritage award from the district for a renovation which restored many of the home's heritage architechtural features. photo Mike Wakefield, North Shore News