It’s a natural that the conversion of big old mansions into multiple-unit housing can boost density and protect our heritage in the process.

As one of Vancouver’s developers found out the hard way, one of the biggest sticking points is if the neighbourhood will allow it.

Developer James Evans and architect Timothy Ankenman, who are old friends, are also responsible for two recent conversions: one in the hotbed of community activism, Commercial Drive, and the other in the polar opposite prestigious hood that is Kerrisdale.

Anybody who’s lived around Commercial knows the Jeffs Residence at 1240 Salsbury Dr. It’s a hulking three-and-a-half-storey, 1907 house that’s provided rental housing to the area since the 1920s. It was built as both residence and doctor’s office for Dr. Thomas Jeffs and his wife Minnie and their kids. The popular doctor, also a city council alderman and police commissioner, moved out of the house shortly before he died in 1923. It may be considered an old working-class neighbourhood now, but in the early part of the 20th century the Commercial Drive area was a rich person’s enclave, and the Jeffs Residence was surrounded by many other Queen Anne Revival grand houses with turrets, pitched pyramid roofs and hipped dormers.

Mr. Evans lives about a block away, so he’d walk by the house all the time and think about restoring it. One day, he contacted the owner.

“We put together a deal and went through a rather painful approvals process, ended up buying the site, and here we are today,” says Mr. Evans, standing on the job site.

The painful process he is referring to is community reaction against the loss of rental stock.

“It’s a pretty reactionary neighbourhood with anything that smells like development, so here I am, getting launched in the middle of the thing,” he says, sounding dismayed at the memory. “A lot of people in the neighbourhood know who I am, and so I was walking around the neighbourhood with a bull’s-eye on my back over the course of the year I went through it.

“Loss of rental continues to be a sensitive issue,” he adds. “And I looked into trying to use this as rental and I figured the only way I could do it was to spend $1-million on the site, which would have bumped everybody’s rents by about 30 per cent, and that’s not affordable housing anymore.”

Instead, he and Mr. Ankenman went through the process of getting the house added to the heritage registry in exchange for density and other variances. The result is a seven-unit house comprised of mostly two-bedroom units, except for the top unit, which will be one bedroom, with an amazing view from the turret. The price starts at $400,000 for a 750-square-foot condo, and Mr. Evans says he’s already pre-sold three of the units. It’s about two months away from completion.

As well as restoring and converting the old house to condos, Mr. Evans and Mr. Ankenman created new two-and-a-half-storey row houses to the north and east of the house, which occupied five lots. A family from San Francisco purchased one of the townhouses, although not surprisingly, most of the interest has been in the restored Jeffs house.

I don’t know how homeowners got away with it, but there was a lot of bad renovation done on the old houses back in the sixties and seventies. Before the restoration, Jeffs Residence, as it’s now called, was a sprawling 18 units, with boxy add-ons attached to it over the years like barnacles. Mr. Evans tore away the additions, gutted the house, lifted it and moved it to a new foundation 15 feet closer to the street corner, bringing it up to code and rebuilding any rotten parts.

“It gives me a lot greater satisfaction to recycle buildings than fill up the demo yard,” says Mr. Ankenman, whose firm, Ankenman Marchand Architects, is also renovating the 34-year-old former Van East Cinema building on Commercial Drive. “We’ve done a lot of this with 100-year-old houses and buildings downtown, adding stories, giving them new life and new use. But they don’t have to be old to save them.”

The Wilmar Residence is their next project, located at 2050 Southwest Marine Dr., built in 1925 by New Brunswick transplant Willard Kitchen, who was director of what became B.C. Rail. The 9,000-square-foot mansion made headlines last year, after the writing was on the wall that the Tudor-style mansion, owned by one family since it was built, would probably have a date with the wrecking ball. Mr. Evans negotiated a deal with the owner, and with Mr. Ankenman they devised a proposal to save the heritage B-list house by turning it into a duplex, converting the old coach house into a cottage, and creating five single-family homes on the 0.8-hectare site as infill.

“It will basically be affordable housing for rich people on the west side,” says Mr. Evans.

Affordable housing, that is, for anyone who’s got about $2-million in their pocket. That project is about six months from going to market, and Mr. Evans concedes that the higher-end market is a far riskier venture than the mid-market housing he is building at Salsbury. Home sales have dropped 14.3 per cent this time last year, according to a recently released report by the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver.

“When you are dealing with a smaller pool, it is more of a concern,” he says.

Mr. Ankenman interjects: “I agree that Marine Drive is a different demographic, but at the end of the day, the homes on that site will be priced a lot cheaper than on a 50-foot lot on the west side.”

Because it costs about 20 to 30 per cent more to restore a heritage house than rebuild it, bonus density and other city sanctioned tools are necessary to make it financially feasible for a developer. The unique subdividing of the Wilmar property put those tools to the test.

“That one is actually quite complex and quite uncommon but creative, in terms of using the tools available to allow conservation of the historic house, which was originally felt to be threatened,” says Heritage Vancouver’s Don Luxton, who was consultant on both houses. “We’re absolutely delighted that this went ahead.”

The neighbourhood has mostly been supportive, says Mr. Ankenman. And because there is a massive privacy hedge that runs along Marine Drive, nobody will see the extra houses on the property, anyway.

“The viewscape from Marine Drive won’t change – everything else is behind the hedge,” says Mr. Ankenman. “To that extent, I think people are extremely supportive of what we’re doing. We just got lucky.”

Over at Salsbury, the controversy appears to have settled down, says Mr. Evans. Most of the community seems pleased the house is turning out to look better than its former self.

I ask him if he would do the Jeffs Residence project over again, having gone through a year under the hot spotlight of contention. He pauses.

“This one is unique,” he finally says. “There’s only one of these in Vancouver. And I’ll be able to walk past this thing in 10 years and it will look great and continue to look great, and I will get some personal satisfaction out of that.

“Will I make any money out of it? I don’t know yet. Time will tell.”


Article was written by Kerry Gold, of The Globe and Mail and published February 10, 2013
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