Preservation vs. The Future

I will start this off by saying that I am a flaming preservationist. I worked for a year in a small downtown in Oregon leading a Main Street program with a focus on business development but from a preservationist approach. It’s easy to do that there, in a small town setting that thrives on its history. In a place like Vancouver, or any other large city with inflated housing and development markets, the preservation approach is much more difficult to use as a reason for keeping buildings, and it is clear that usually new, higher use buildings get the go ahead from developers and city council, replacing the few existing historical gems we have left.


[Thanks to Illustrated Vancouver for the images!]

Yes, cities like Vancouver must plan for the future. Yes, there is a housing crisis, and the demand and dire need for more housing is absolutely a priority for municipal policy. Yes, Vancouver is pretty much built out, and higher densities are needed as more and more people choose Vancouver as their home. But where do we draw the line?

As a relatively new Vancouverite, I struggle finding very many historical buildings in the city, and often I wonder what was located on particular sites before the high-rise “green” condo buildings and same old modern style structures that define the Vancouver skyline today. Vancouver continues to be known worldwide as one of the greenest cities. A new report from the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the States has concluded that, “when comparing buildings of equivalent size and function, building reuse almost always offers environmental savings over demolition and new construction.”

Being green is great and not being discounted, but when the issue of greater residential and commercial demand exceeds the capacity of existing heritage buildings, the dilemma arises. Demolish the old building for something higher capacity? (See the new plans for 720 Robson St) Keep the building, but build around it, maybe with a new tower soaring above? (See the Patina/YMCA in Vancouver) Or keep the historic building, maybe with a few renovations, but no major capacity changes?

These are the issues cities are facing today and in the future. Keep these historic gems that are part of our cultural pasts and tell stories of a Vancouver that once was, or make way for new density that attempts to solve problems of high demand and bring more tax dollars to the city and profits to developers.

What’s your take on this? Is there a right or wrong answer?


3 responses to “Preservation vs. The Future

  1. I find my opinion is split down the middle.

    On one hand I am a student of Heritage Resource Management, and feel almost obligated to say that since our country is so young keeping what few heritage buildings we have is very important to maintain a cultural tie to our past. (Nevermind trying to maintain my own job security? Selfish Jenny, selfish.) I was recently reading about the debate around the Christchurch Anglican Cathedral downtown and all the things citizens, designers and church congregation members had come up with to do with the building when it’s use as a church wasn’t enough to keep it running. (I believe the article was called ‘When God Can’t Pay the Rent’ in the Globe and Mail a few years back) It was interesting to read about how the church community was fine with building an underground church and allowing the land topside to be turned into a business building, but the general community refused, saying the church was a part of the feel of the neighborhood and should be preserved. I think maintaining the purpose and spirit of the building was just as important as preserving the building itself and maybe that’s what folk should be looking at.

    Then the other hand, as just a woman who lives with her family in Vancouver (well, Burnaby) I think that we try to keep every little thing just for the sake of keeping it. History is important but when you’re dealing with a residential building of no great significance, either because of who lived there or what may have happened in it or to it, then the reasons to keep it are purely sentimental. I think heritage buildings need to be assessed building by building (possibly more job security bias there) to determine if there is any actual significance in keeping it or if people are just resisting change because they don’t like it. I’m also aware of the environmental impact of demolition and while I do not claim to be a builder in any way, I don’t see why materials from buildings deemed less important culturally can’t go to maintain buildings that are. Let’s not pretend that no one has fixed up these heritage buildings since they were made because to do so would be foolish, so adding pieces from other buildings to keep them in a similar heritage state would both serve the purpose of preservation and re-use something that would have been thrown away.

    I think I went around in circles a bit, but that’s generally what I think. Good post though, thanks for the thought fodder.

  2. I tend to lean towards preservation as well, but I wonder sometimes what it is about some buildings that makes us want to preserve them, while others we couldn’t care for. I suspect that our tastes for what makes a building worth preserving evolve over time. In my home town of Peterborough, entire neighbourhoods of late-Victorian era houses have only recently begun to achieve widespread appreciation for their heritage value. The features (hardwood floors, brick exterior, clawfoot tubs, wood-framed windows and so on) are now symbols of affluence, but for many decades these features were not appreciated for having any heritage value, and in many cases they were concealed or removed altogether.

    You can find similar examples in Vancouver: wood siding on houses is in vogue again, and if you tour around some residential areas (especially in Strathcona and eastward) you are likely to find a handful of houses in the midst of having Stucco removed, revealing a (in my opinion) much more pleasing wood siding. A great example is the building at the corner of Victoria and William, which, in the process of removing stucco, uncovered and old mural which is now being preserved ( It makes me wonder, what were people thinking when they covered up that wood siding with stucco, or when they covered the hardwood floors with shag carpet?

    Our tastes change over time, and when something gets old enough, it starts to look nice again. I wonder, in a few decades when there are only a few Vancouver Specials left, will we see the value in preserving them too? Somebody already does:

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