More action needed to preserve heritage

 Peter Miller, president of North Shore Heritage

Peter Miller, president of North Shore Heritage

Over the past decade or more, the relentless demolition of our built heritage has been the cause of great concern and regret to our community. Why does this matter? Because heritage buildings give communities a deep sense of history and identity, known in the jargon as a “sense of place.”

Our early buildings and structures played a valuable and unique role in our development, from (the role of Lions Gate Bridge in connecting the North Shore to a wider community, to the contribution of North Vancouver’s shipyards building ‘Victory’ ships in World War II).

Century-old heritage houses, whether grand or modest, remind us of the early years of development, often built by personalities still remembered in the names of streets or parks. Mid-century modern houses serve as testaments to our internationally renowned architects.

As today’s generation walk the streets and ponder these buildings, they develop an understanding of how our community has changed and developed. Just as a family needs its roots, whether stories from a grandfather or a deeper history of ancestors, so does a community.

It helps us belong. It links our present surroundings to our past, it binds a community, and gives it depth. We can also learn from the past. The magnificent schools of the early 20th Century, such as Ridgeway and Queen Mary, were not built out of extravagance. They were testaments to the importance of education, at a time when this was not taken for granted. Their existence reminds us that education matters, and was not always a right. 

Every building that is demolished loses this precious link to the past.

From an environmental perspective, we believe the upgrading and reuse of buildings is far preferable to demolition and replacement, to protect our natural resources and limit the huge volumes of landfill from construction waste.

Bans on plastic bags and other such waste are commendable. Why, then, do we sit and watch truckfulls of demolition waste leave the North Shore daily? Little, if any, is recycled.

North Shore Heritage is trying to stem this tide through actions in three area. Firstly, by lobbying in support of built heritage at the three municipal authorities. Secondly, by providing information and support for landowners, where development of heritage properties is planned. And thirdly, through education and information programs for owners of heritage houses, providing advice and resources for heritage restorations, for example.

At the moment, the permitting process in all three municipalities simply gives them the power to place a 60-day “stop” on any demolition application where a recognized heritage building is involved.

Unfortunately, by the time a property owner or developer applies for a demolition permit they have already made decisions and paid for professional services, making it difficult for them to change course.

We hope to see municipalities become more proactive in approaching and informing owners about the benefits of maintaining a heritage building, with incentives where appropriate. We would like to see the heritage advisory committees in the District and City of North Vancouver play an active role in this. And we are pleased that the District of West Vancouver has decided to reactivate its heritage advisory committee, which had been disbanded for over 10 years.

In practical terms, municipal staff should be prepared with material, armed with sufficient incentives, and ready to give the time it takes to save an important building. This should not be used by councils or developers as an excuse to impose extra density on communities. But we ask local communities to be tolerant, and to accept extra density in some cases, to mitigate the costs of retaining and restoring important historical buildings, in the interests of the greater good.

One planning tool, called a Heritage Revitalization Agreement (HRA), has been developed to provide a big “carrot” in the form of more flexible options on zoning restrictions for the property. North Shore Heritage is planning informational workshops to explain the HRA process to as many property owners and realtors as possible so that the option to retain a character house is well understood and, hopefully, becomes established as the normal way to handle such properties.