The City held a Public Hearing on the introduction of a Heritage Conservation Area for Queens Park last Tuesday. To no surprise, the Public Hearing was long, as both advocates for and opponents of the HCA had turned up in force at previous Council Meetings to delegate on the topic, and feeling in the community were strong on this issue.
I have spent much of the last couple of months talking to people about this issue, and acting like the Devil’s Advocate on both sides, challenging the assumptions of both supporters and opponents. I have done this not to be a jerk, but because I needed to find a way to understand the arguments and concerns of each side. I have received more than 200 e-mails (and have tried to respond to them all – still working on that!) and more written correspondence, and have answered the occasional irate phone call. I have had conversations with people in the community who have not initially expressed an opinion one way or the other. Councillor Trentadue and I spent some time doorknocking in Queens Park to get a feel for what people (especially those without lawn signs) know, what people’s concerns are, and where the support and opposition lie. I have met for coffee with strong supporters and vocal opponents of the policy. As such, not much that I heard at the Public Hearing was a surprise to me.
The purpose of a Public Hearing is for me to listen, not for me to challenge or debate the delegates. I heard a few things I strongly disagreed with, and I heard a bit of bad information, but mostly I heard people concerned about the future of their neighbourhood and about the future of their homes. To my mind, the challenge the City had was to develop a policy that did its best to address those concerns. The HCA policy that was approved by Council is not perfect, but I believe we found a moderate approach that balanced individual and community desires.
The HCA was not something I thought I would be supporting when I ran for Council. This was something that the community brought to Council, and right from the start more than four years ago (when the Queen’s Park Neighbourhood Heritage Study Working Group was put together), bringing in measures to protect heritage homes in Queens Park has been an initiative driven by the neighbourhood, supported by staff, and endorsed along the way by Council. The inference by a few that this was a top-down Council-driven initiative is untruthful. When the Working Group brought recommendations to Council a little more than a year ago, it was the first time I was faced with the idea that we may institute an HCA, and I have had a lot to learn in the year since.
Ultimately, the two questions I need to address when supporting a measure like this are “Is there a policy goal here worth achieving?” and “Is this approach a good way to achieve that goal?”
The first question may seem like the easy one, but it isn’t. Supporters of the policy provided many reasons to support the protection of heritage homes, and even most opponents acknowledged that “they love heritage”. However, few made the argument (which I think is a valid one) that Queens Park style heritage homes are perhaps a luxury that the lower mainland can no longer afford, given the ongoing and worsening housing crisis. During the process, a few of us on council have made clear that the HCA policy cannot stop all development, infill density, or other ways of increasing housing choice in the Queens Park neighbourhood. We need to accelerate our work towards increasing laneway and carriage house infill, stratification of large houses if they wish to re-configure into multi-family buildings, and protecting the multi-family housing stock that already exists in Queens Park. The HCA as adopted will not prevent that progress, and I look forward to our work on the OCP and new Zoning Bylaws to address these issues.
However, at the risk of feeding the “elitist” narrative, Queens Park is unique in New Westminster, and in the Lower Mainland. A neighbourhood of 700 homes where 500 of them are pre-WW2 represents a significant heritage asset in a province that only has 160-odd years of Colonial history. The heritage value of the neighbourhood has been acknowledged for almost 20 years, with progressive increases in heritage protection, an active heritage conservation community, and voluntary design guidelines since 1999. There are heritage homes in every neighbourhood of New West, but not at this concentration across a neighbourhood, and there has never been any concerted effort from those neighbourhoods to formalize heritage protection like there has been in Queens Park for more than 20 years.
The second question is where most of the conversation has occurred for the last year, and this is where the vocal opposition to an HCA has helped the City develop a better, more flexible, and more sustainable policy. One commenter noted that Council voted unanimously for this proposal, demonstrating “group think”, but one can only surmise that if they have not been paying attention for the last year. Since the recommendation from the working group was adopted, there have been a dozen Council meetings and workshops where various aspects of this policy were discussed and debated. There were motions moved, ideas tossed around and sent back to staff for more work, there were split votes and motions defeated, and at one meeting, something akin to an argument of fundamental principles of the policy. If we got to consensus at the end of this process, it is a credit to the hard work of staff and the community members on the working group to forge a policy that all could live with. That more than 2/3 of the correspondence and presentations to Public Hearing also spoke in favour of the policy further reflects the great work staff and the community did to develop a strong policy package.
The policy is not perfect, and we have some work to do over the next year on incentives. The research I have done suggests to me that the HCA will not put long-term downward pressure on housing prices in Queens Park in this overheated housing market (although I guarantee some homeowners will be going to the Assessment appeals board to argue for a drop to save a bit on their taxes), but that it will more likely smooth out the spikes in a volatile market. However, the City committed to addressing impacts through creative incentive programs. I hope those incentives can also help bring more housing choice to Queens Park so it continues to be a neighbourhood where young families can afford to live (although I think we are past the point where it could be “affordable” in any meaningful way without some serious region-wide market corrections)
The policy will also not mean the end of demolitions and new construction in Queens Park. Houses younger than 1940 have no increased protection, and there are many pre-1940 houses that will be shown to not have sufficient heritage character or structural integrity to protect. The new design guidelines are “performance based”, meaning they don’t prescribe any specific architectural style. This means architects will still be able to develop creative designs that complement the neighbourhood. There will still be debate in the neighbourhood about aesthetics, and things will continue to evolve, but the process at City Hall will be transparent and defensible. In that sense, I think we have achieved a good balance.
Finally, I do want to acknowledge that this process brought out many people’s passions, yet the discussion was incredibly respectful and civilized. New Westminster lived up to its reputation as an engaged community that cares about issues and shows up to voice opinions, but we are a community first. Change (I recognize that preserving heritage is a somewhat ironic form of “change”) is hard. We often see the worst case as the likely case, and that is scary. However, if you want to go to 180:30 at the Public Hearing video, you will hear an elegant presentation by Jeffery Dresselhuis that left me wondering if he was “for” or “against” the HCA, until I realized his presentation was about the importance of community, consultation, and consensus in public policy. It is worth listening to, and something I will be thinking about for some time.