Many living in Oak Bay’s first subdivision hope to be part of the community’s first Heritage Conservation Area.
They took notice, and worried a little, this summer as character homes from Oak Bay and Victoria barged off to the San Juan Islands.
As other historic homes came down in favour of new buildings, they started to bump around an idea.
When a 1912 landmark mansion in their Prospect Place neighbourhood changed hands, it cemented the growing concept for Oak Bay’s oldest suburb – a Heritage Conservation Area.
“That was part of the catalyst, the change in ownership and concern,” said Michael Prince. “Just because they’re old and beautiful doesn’t mean they’re protected.”
Prince and wife Karen Wallace-Prince live on Prospect Place, a scenic road that winds down from Oak Bay Avenue to Beach Drive.
It was designed originally as the route home for architect Frances Rattenbury, who then lived where Glenlyon Norfolk School now holds classes.
Oak Bay has 28 houses designated heritage, 11 are in the neighbourhood Prince hopes Oak Bay will consider for an HCA.
“We wanted to look more long-term and be more proactive,” he said.
It would be Oak Bay’s first HCA, but there are about 60 in B.C. with several in Victoria.
“I think this HCA, if it’s successful and evolves over time, it could be a really successful model for Oak Bay in terms of identifying areas of heritage value and there are pockets everywhere,” said Cairine Green, chair of the Oak Bay Heritage Commission which supports the idea. “It aligns with a lot of values that this community seems to care about.”
The Oak Bay Heritage Foundation issued a $2,500 grant to develop a statement of significance for the potential HCA, now underway.
“We think there’s some urgency because we see some properties around us at risk,” Prince said. “I don’t think we’re asking for the moon.”
Municipal and regional governments can create a Heritage Conservation Area that establishes regulatory guidelines and may list individual properties for protection. They protect ambience, landscaping and little historical things such as a rural lane way or low stone walls, Prince said, noting his neighbourhood is “rich with history.”
“We can’t take it for granted,” Prince said, pointing to the hot housing market across Victoria. “A lot of people are spending a lot of money on land and knocking down perfectly good houses.”
Prince and Wallace-Prince shared the thought with council members and senior staff at Oak Bay municipal hall, garnering advice prior to presenting the concept at a council meeting last month. They invited council members into their 1908 Francis Rattenbury-designed home (featuring Samuel Maclure houses on either side). The neighbourhood is, as Prince says, the first designed suburb of Oak Bay.
“They had a vision for the area,” he says, noting Rattenbury’s drives past his ex-wife’s home on a daily basis also feeds into the fodder of local cultural history – another area he’d like to see explored, perhaps with walking tours.
A challenge any designation could face is the perception that it would negatively affect property values. Not true, says Prince, noting research shows property values go up. “People know … they’re attracted to the quality of an area.”
Wallace-Prince notes that residents are heavily involved in development guidelines for an HCA.
“They’re specific to the guidelines we write up,” Wallace-Prince said, echoing. “We don’t want rigid rules.”
Those guidelines are again about being “sympathetic and respectful” to the neighbourhood and that includes keeping happy neighbours on board.
For example, one resident expressed a desire to protect the topography, the outcroppings of rocks that often meet a blasting fate.
The predictability and stability of such a written document, with expectations for future owners clearly is also a draw, Prince said.
“Things are topsy turvy,” Prince said, and designation would offer some reassurance.
It would keep development sympathetic to surroundings, in-keeping with the neighbourhood, they both say.
“An HCA is a tool the province has vigil local government for almost 30 years. It’s new here but it’s not new across Canada,” Prince said. “It doesn’t stop development … you get the best of both worlds.”
Wallace-Prince did a lot of door knocking this summer to garner support, with about 75 per cent of the neighbourhood on a petition suggesting exploration of an HCA. Of roughly 57 homes in the area they propose, about 43 indicate support. Those numbers do leave some notification and research work for the district, Prince said, and would likely need some cash included in next year’s budget.
“This is a very exciting potentially demonstration project for Oak Bay if they are successful,” said Green. “I certainly admire the neighbourhood for coming together like this for a common purpose. That’s a very good demonstration of neighbourhood togetherness.”
Learn more about the proposed HCA area at www.protectoakbayheritage.ca online. The proposal is expected to come up during Oak Bay’s committee of the whole meeting on Dec. 5 at 7 p.m. in council chambers at 2167 Oak Bay Ave.
Court-tested Heritage Conservation Area
The BC Supreme Court recently upheld the City of Vancouver’s First Shaughnessy Heritage Conservation Area Official Development Plan that legally protects pre-1940 heritage properties in the area from demolition and provides clarity around conservation.
“Establishing the First Shaughnessy District as Vancouver’s first-ever Heritage Conservation Area in 2015 was an important move by city council toward preserving and protecting valuable heritage homes in Vancouver,” the city said in a news release. “First Shaughnessy is a historic Vancouver neighbourhood which was developed in the early 1900s as a premier residential area. The heritage conservation area designation is a strong response to the steadily increasing number of demolition permit requests for pre-1940 homes in the area in recent years.”