Transitioning Shaughnessy’s Real Estate Market
June 1, 2013
Loy Leyland's Porsche cruises slowly around the Crescent. As we pass through the ring of old mansions built for CPR executives over a century ago, deeper into this affluent enclave within the city, we start to see another kind of structure: houses built in the last couple of years for the wave of investors from Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan who are the majority of Leyland's clients.
Leyland is the busiest architect in Shaughnessy, and if you do a Google search you'll see he's the go-to guy for the type of housing redevelopments that are getting approval in Vancouver's old-meets-new-money neighbourhood. To his client base, he's a bit of a star, and he's busier than he's ever been in his 30-year career.
"So much for ‘soft market,' " I say, as we pass by the umpteenth just-built mini palace.
"We really do live on an island of prosperity in a sea of despair," says Leyland. "Not everybody is poor and struggling. Not in my market."
Considering all I'd heard over the years about Shaughnessy residents being so protectionist about their island, as Leyland and I take a proper tour I'm surprised that so much of the neighbourhood is actually a bit of a hodgepodge. Amid the original arts-and-crafts houses, there are a few ill-conceived experiments from the '60s or '70s, a bunch of staid ranchers, stucco bungalows, and, of course, the 1980s equivalent of the prom dress with big puffy sleeves, ruffles, and rhinestone headband. You know the houses. I cringe while Leyland tries to be more diplomatic.
"Why don't you redevelop those houses?" I ask him, knowing full well it's not really up to him.
Almost all the new buyers in Shaughnessy, says Leyland, want to rebuild. More now than ever, there is tremendous pressure from this demographic, and although the area already looks deep in transition, he says it's become increasingly difficult to get approvals for new houses. At issue are 30-year-old guidelines for First Shaughnessy, which aim to protect any pre-1940 house that is deemed of merit. The problem, as he sees it, is that a lot of the houses aren't worth saving, and if they are, we need a better plan to save them.
He suggests that houses should be converted into multiple family dwellings to make them financially viable. That kind of thing has been going on since the war. "If they really want to keep them, the city will have to cross that political area of increasing density in Shaughnessy, so that it breaks the barrier of people who will only buy them for single-family homes," he says. "You'd get a whole different market.
"But very few people would have the stomach to do that. They have that stigma about Shaughnessy as a single-family issue, as an affluent privileged area." He tells me that a number of the old houses are sitting empty, or barely used, their owners living elsewhere while trying to decide what to do with them.
To say this matter of momentous change has ruffled a few feathers is an understatement. People who appreciate the old craftsmanship are ticked off. Richard Keate, a fourth-generation Shaughnessy resident and chair of the city's heritage commission, takes issue with Leyland's houses. "He could just work with a heritage house, and not have something so in-your-face like a lot of these billboard-type houses he's been doing," Keate says. "The front of the house is totally flat and the setback goes from one side to the other side. It eats up all the space. A typical Shaughnessy house would have had a more asymmetrical balance.
"I can send you pictures of the before and after of 3688 Osler, because it's probably Loy Leyland's most indulgent moment," he says, referring to a grand European-style house with a turret-his signature, says Keate. "There is only one predate house with a turret east of Granville, and there are only seven predate houses west of Granville that have turrets, out of 359 houses."
Leyland says he's not necessarily over his turret phase. (He self-deprecatingly, laughingly, tells me how a city planner once joked about him, "Loy has a bad case of turrets syndrome.") The new houses are brand-spanking-new versions of what's been torn down, but so cleanly rudimentary by comparison that they look like magnified versions of toy houses. As we drive by these shiny scrubbed homes, I feel like we could be in the Twilight Zone, little people driving a little car around a giant child's play set.
When you love old stuff, it's hard to understand the mindset that doesn't. The old stuff was designed to inspire awe-like being in church-and inspire it did. Why chuck it? With all the advances in home entertainment, old houses don't have spacious media rooms or built-in speakers everywhere. The bathrooms aren't designed for flat-screen TVs. Leaded or stained-glass windows don't cut it-too energy inefficient. There's the closet space issue, drafty corridors, and general creaky oldness. But still. The finest example of a new house can't hold a candle to the finest examples of old houses, with their benefit of an old-growth forest and cheap labour.
Besides, the old-time moguls got hung up on high-end detail. I've seen Medmenham tile the colour of muted laurel leaves that were imported from England. I've seen nickel ribcage showers with showerheads the size of dinner plates imported from J.L. Mott of New York City. I've seen newel post lights that bookend flying staircases that ascend to Juliet balconies, illuminated by Tiffany chandeliers.
Let's put it in perspective. The typical middle-class home back in the day would have cost around $1,500 to construct. The price of that ribcage shower I just mentioned? Five hundred bucks. Antiques collector Robert McNutt told me that, and he would know: he collects vintage showers. He's ticked at Leyland, too. "Every new house that comes in slowly destroys an old one," he says. "They don't fit."
McNutt also said that back in the day, in order to protect their enclave, those CPR execs enacted necessary covenants, including a minimum construction cost of $6,000, to keep out the riffraff. Jews, Japanese, Chinese, and other minorities are noticeably absent from the CPR's plan approval book, a hand-written document dated 1910 to 1921, which contains the names of applicants for those first houses, names like Cartwright, Macdonald, Marpole, Shaughnessy, and Waterhouse. The CPR carefully reviewed all applications, approving locations and details as minute as the number of panels of bevelled glass in a front door. Early residents had learned their lesson when they built their first mansions in the West End only to have some working-class family build a modest house at the other end of the block and there went the neighbourhood. When they relocated to Shaughnessy, they meant to do it right. There's a certain irony, then, that Leyland's clients are responsible today for reshaping so much of Shaughnessy.
We turn down another street so Leyland can show me another property. "The city is adamant about trying to keep this house. I won't give you my opinion, but we'd like to build a new house. I'm just going to ask you if you think this is a house worth saving." The place is all beige stucco with a flimsy brown effort at Tudor trim, and it's got none of the grandness that gets the endorphins fired up. Point taken.
But what about the house that is worth keeping? I know by now that Leyland is a lover of the fine old craftsmanship, too. Throughout our tour, he's pointed out the gems, such as Yosef Wosk's ongoing, costly restoration of a 9,500-square-foot arts-and-crafts beauty, built in 1913 by a lumber baron.
I ask him how he responds when a client wants to tear down a house that he himself would deem worthy of merit. "I would try very much to convince them, as I have many times, that it would be lovely if they try to retain the house," he says.
"Most people in that league want a new house," Leyland tells me. "They don't want to take on an old house. If you were in that league, why would you want an old house?"
I tell him that if I loved the old house I'd keep it. Leyland chuckles. He doesn't believe me.
"If somebody said you would lose $2 or $3 million when you go to sell it, I doubt you would."