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West Van to examine options for saving Navvy Jack House

Councillors warn project still needs $1 million in private funds, can't become an ongoing operating cost

West Vancouver council will take another look in July at whether one of the district’s oldest buildings can be saved and given new life as a waterfront destination.

Councillors said they are enthused about the idea of saving Navvy Jack House and seeing it become a waterfront coffee shop or wine bar.

But they also warned there are significant dollars tied to that project and unless at least $1 million can be raised, it’s not a done deal.

Coun. Nora Gambioli said during the last council meeting that a number of people she’s spoken to have the impression that the building has already been saved. “And I just don't want to leave anyone with the impression that that is the case at all. Because we still have at least a million dollars to raise from the community,” she said. “And a lot of people come out when they talk about saving heritage, but actually, very few people are stepping up to do the fundraising, and to donate. So that is an important message that I think the community needs to hear, because this is not a done deal.”


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Oldest surviving building on North Shore

The home, the oldest surviving building on the North Shore, was built around 1872, according to a heritage report conducted for the district, and acquired shortly afterwards by Welsh settler Navvy Jack, whose real name was John Thomas. Thomas operated the first ferry service linking the North Shore to Vancouver. He married a Squamish Nation woman named Row-i-a, the granddaughter of Chief Kiapilano. Their descendants married chiefs in the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. The home was later owned by John Lawson, another West Vancouver pioneer.

Although the home is considered historically significant, earlier this year, council voted behind closed doors demolish the 147-year-old building at the foot of 18th Street, citing its poor condition, the cost of restoration and the lack of public support to sink any public money into the home.

Council rescinded that decision, however, and the home was given a stay of execution in October when local heritage advocates expressed their shock and dismay.

Now council says it’s still willing to see the home saved, and to put money towards that, but the project will still require substantial fundraising.

Three options for restoration examined

Staff is currently completing a feasibility study on three possible options for saving Navvy Jack House. The first would involve a heritage restoration on roughly the same footprint as the current structure, of between 800 and 1,000 square feet. That option is anticipated to cost approximately $2 million. A second option would see the house restored to a larger size, with an original footprint plus an addition of approximately 1,400 square feet, at a cost of approximately $3 million.

A third scenario suggested by a local citizens' group involves a restoration of the building for a coffee and gift shop that could also be used as a public space for exhibits and concerts and building of a 1,000-square foot annex to the north of the building, connected by a breezeway.

The options all also involve moving the house on the site in order to facilitate a creek restoration project by the West Vancouver Streamkeepers. The cost estimate for the creek restoration is approximately $285,000 while the cost of moving the house without a restoration is about $100,000, according to a district staff report.

In October, the municipality applied for a $1 million provincial grant under the heritage branch of the Community Economic Recovery Infrastructure Program. But word came back in February that the district would not be getting the money.

Preliminary assessments by heritage consultants Donald Luxton and Associates have shown that more of the original house is intact than originally thought, although parts of the ground floor have been rebuilt.

Council has agreed to contribute matching funds to public fundraising of up to $1 million.

But they also warned they don’t want to see the project become a white elephant requiring ongoing public funding.

Coun. Craig Cameron said while he didn’t want to be a “party pooper, I feel like I need to inject a bit of the reality in this. ... We cannot afford to take on liability after liability.”

Significant funding still required

Cameron said the only way he could see the project going forward would be if a private operator came up with the money to complete the restoration and was then prepared to run it as a financially viable business. Cameron added based on past experience he doesn’t have high hopes for fundraisers to come up with the money.

“I've heard a lot of grandiose statements made about fundraising for facilities and projects over the years. And the reality is with the exception of bequests on someone's passing ... it is very difficult to raise significant amounts of money from the private sector in West Vancouver.”

Cameron said he’d prefer to “just find something that works with a commercial operator, and go that direction.”

Mayor Mary-Ann Booth said while at first she was skeptical, the citizen’s group convinced her of the worth in trying to save the old building.

Booth said she remains optimistic that grants from senior levels of government or fundraising from private sources are still do-able.