Anton on the Walter Nichol house controversy

Post by Suzanne Anton in

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The proposed development on the southeast corner of Granville and West 16th avenue (next to McRae) has been an ongoing controversy for several years. To some it is an affront to the heritage of Vancouver's grandest neighbourhood Shaughnessy. To others the infill townhouse development is a way to save heritage, and add new density. In the following guest editorial, Coun. Suzanne Anton challenges opponents of the re-development to see things differently.

Saving the city’s most important home or ruining Shaughnessy?

One of the city’s most distinguished and historic mansions is located at the corner of The Crescent and McRae Avenue in Shaughnessy. It is the house designed by Samuel Maclure and built in 1912 by the owner of the Vancouver Province and former Lt-Gov of BC, Walter Nichol.

After many years, the project was recently finalized by council, but with the last few months delay by council causing extraordinary and unnecessary anxiety and expense. Actions by council such as were followed in this case put all such projects and heritage at risk in the future.

The Nichol house was purchased by the Bentley family in 1941 and remained their family home until 2005, when it was purchased by developer Brian Bell. The site is in fact 3 full city lots: The house straddles 2 lots on McRae Ave; the third lot is the site at 16th and Granville. Although zoned for a single-family house, the 16th and Granville site has remained vacant for over 50 years.

Long-established city policy allows heritage owners to come to the city and make proposals for preserving their heritage building and adding it to the heritage register. In return, the owner can seek concessions from the city.

In the downtown peninsula, the concessions often include density, which might be used on site or transferred off site. In the more suburban parts of the city, the concessions more frequently involve subdivision and infill housing.

Every site is unique, but some present more challenges than others. The Nichol house site is, on the one hand, in historic First Shaughnessy, but on the other hand, on the north, is at the major city intersection of 16th and Granville, next to a very busy commercial district, and across the road from a large apartment building.

The choices, broadly, were these: Demolish the heritage house and allow 3 large single family houses to be built on the 3 lots; keep the house but move it forward towards the Crescent and build 3 large single family houses on the 2 remaining lots (the extra house being compensation for the move); or keep the house where it is and allow compensation for the heritage preservation through townhomes.

The proposal which eventually came to the city was to leave the house where it is, restore the heritage house and front rose garden, and, in return for the heritage designation, build 16 townhomes along 16th, Granville and McRae.

The zoning and policy considerations in play were the First Shaughnessy District Official Development Plan, which focuses on heritage preservation and neighbourhood look and feel; the Arbutus Ridge Shaughnessy Kerrisdale (ARKS) community Vision, which contemplated more development along arterials; and city-wide heritage policies.

The proposal made its way to council for public hearing in Feb 2008. Councillors knew in advance that the hearing was going to be contentious. Councillors Cadman, Louie, and Stevenson did not attend the hearings and did not participate in the decision. After several nights of very challenging hearings, with speakers both in favour and opposed, the rezoning proposal passed with Councillors Anton, Ball, Ladner and Lee, and Mayor Sullivan voting in favour and Councillors Capri, Chow and Deal voting against. If any two of Cadman, Louie and Stevenson had attended the public hearings and voted according to their current stated positions, the proposal would have failed.

The main argument in favour of the proposal was, of course, the heritage preservation. Other points in favour were that the overall density and site coverage when measured across all 3 properties were the same as permitted for single family homes, and that the 16th and Granville property always was a building site. As the Director of Planning stated repeatedly during the process, no precedent is set by a one-off rezoning . The arguments against were that the townhouses would be precedent setting and not in character for the neighbourhood, they were contrary to the First Shaughnessy plan, there would be a loss of trees, and the additional traffic would be a problem.

After council approved the rezoning, the proposal made its way in the usual progression to the Urban Design panel and through various staff approvals.

It came back to council in July 2009 for final approval by way of a report called the Form of Development, a report which normally goes through by consent. Instead of approving it, the Vision council, in an unprecedented move, sent the report back to the Development Permit Board to rehear delegations. The rezoning had been finalized and it was wrong to lead citizens to believe that they might actually be able to have any impact on it. The Development Permit Board, in some disgust, sent it back saying council should do its own work. It came back to council on 22 Sept. Again it should have gone through by consent; but council instead agreed to hear delegations yet again two days later. Once again citizens came to speak to council, once again council encouraged them to believe they might be able to change the result. At the end, council made the only decision open to it to make: They approved the Form of Development report, allowing, after much waste of time, the development to proceed.

Unfortunately I myself was out of the province that day on civic business and missed the pleasure of hearing the lamentations of Councillors Louie, Stevenson and Cadman, who, as I noted earlier, could actually have changed the result if they had participated in the original hearing. I also missed the sanctimonious descriptions from the Mayor and Councillor Meggs, neither of whom had been present for the heavy lifting, about how they had inherited this unfortunate set of facts etc etc.

I remain very strongly in favour of the decision which was made. The stunning home, located now for nearly 100 years at MacRae and the Crescent, is preserved for the next 100 years. The townhouses at 16th and Granville will soon seem like they were always there.

The delay, the anxiety, and the cost to the developer in the heritage preservation of the Nichol house will be a significant discouragement to other heritage property owners. It would have been much easier to demolish the house, something happening all too often in First Shaughnessy. Many believe that this decision will hurt First Shaughnessy. But it is not the decision here which places heritage at risk, it is the process. Developers and owners will be reluctant to bring projects forward when they risk the contempt of council for their months of hard and sincere work. It is this which leads to a far greater risk to our most distinguished heritage Shaughnessy homes.

See also: Vancouver Sun's John Mackie on this story.

2 Comments

Good story by Suzanne Anton on Nichol House Controversy. My interest is in the 16th and Granville site, vacant over 50 years, zoned single-family. In the stone wall on Granville, there was a name stone "Willowdene" which is no longer there, as most of the heritage wall was rebuilt, according to a foreman on the site.In October 2009 I made 2 photos of the name stone. Where is it now, and whose home did it designate? Is "Willowdene" the name of the Nichol/Bentley estate? Was this a separate property or part of the Nichol Bentley property all along?

@Marcha

Thanks for resurrecting this article. Reading it raises my opinion of Ms Anton. She certainly, subtly, skewers Cadman, Louie, Stevenson, Meggs and Robertson!

When you mention the rebuilt wall, it seems like a problem with so much 'preservation' in Vancouver. We end up in fact with replicas. I can think of several heritage houses where nothing is left of the original but a few sticks buried in the code compliant structure.

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