Binning House: Statement on HRA Proposal
VANCOUVER: The West Coast Modern League is opposed to, and concerned for, the Heritage Revitalization Agreement (HRA) proposed on the B.C. Binning House (a Municipally Designated Heritage Property and National Historic Site). Our concerns are that the proposal aims to develop a site that is already legally protected, that the intervention, in its current form, will significantly undermine key aspects of the property’s heritage value, and that this scenario presents a precedent which could undermine the immutability of heritage protections in the District of West Vancouver.
The West Coast Modern League is generally supportive of Heritage Revitalization Agreements and view this policy as an important and effective mechanism to incentivize the protection of undesignated properties with significant heritage value. We commend the District of West Vancouver on its efforts to offer and enact this policy, to actively explore this mechanism with owners of historically notable sites, and to preserve the rich design history that is unique to this area. It is our position, however, that in this instance the HRA proposal is inappropriate.
This HRA proposal presents an aggressive redevelopment of the property, to subdivide the narrow, comparatively small lot, to construct a larger garage with caretaker suite, and to build a new home on the existing ocean-side terrace. In exchange for these incentives, the proposal offers to rehabilitate the existing house and to entertain an HRA. The Binning House, however, has been subject to heritage protection and legally required maintenance since 1999, namely Heritage Designation Bylaw No. 4157 and Heritage Maintenance Bylaw No. 4187, and has been recognized as a National Historic Site of Canada since 1997. This constraint was commonly known and publicized at the time of purchase, and was reflected in the subsequent market price. The repercussions of opening up an existing heritage property to this level of redevelopment, particularly a site of such stature, sets up a scenario whereby all heritage designated sites could be contested in order to unlock development potential. This could undermine the District’s enforcement of existing and future protections, and further threaten an already insecure heritage stock.
Both regionally and nationally, the Binning House is revered in artistic, architectural, and heritage circles. Designed by B.C. Binning, with consulting architects C.E. Ned Pratt and R.A.D. Berwick, the house and property stand as a testament to Binning’s artistic influence, and to his pivotal role in the emergence of a regional architectural expression of modernism on Canada’s west coast (i.e. West Coast Modernism). Beyond being a cultural hub in the artistic and architectural communities, the Binning House stands as Canada’s first modern residence. It is a pioneering example of the characteristics that have come to define West Coast Modernism and the design principles which have since permeated city building efforts across the region.
Chief among these characteristics, and significant to its heritage value, is the connection between architecture and landscape. As cited in both the District’s and Parks Canada’s Statements of Significance, “the building’s stepped plan follows the slope of the land and the use of large windows, wide terraces and overhanging trellises have the effect of extending the architecture out into the landscape and breaking down the barriers between interior and exterior space.” While we acknowledge the intention to rehabilitate the house and terraced garden from Mathers Crescent, as proposed, the application also seeks to significantly alter the ocean terrace and landscaping–one of the primary relationships between the interior and exterior space. Standard 1 of Parks Canada Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada asserts “to conserve the heritage value of an historic place…do not remove, replace or substantially alter its intact or repairable character-defining elements.” The resulting pressures of subdividing and densely developing this relatively small lot acts to significantly isolate the house from its landscape. We question how sensitive the intervention is to this character-defining element.
For its artistic, architectural, and cultural impact, the Binning House holds a significant place in our shared history. The house and property, under the original auspices of Jesse Binning who acted to preserve the house and surrounding grounds, is legally protected, required to undergo regular maintenance, and is a nationally celebrated historic site. The HRA policy was developed with the intent of offering densification in exchange for heritage protection. In this case, the proposal aims to extensively redevelop a lot that is, in contrast to neighbouring parcels, modest, and this increase in development will have an irreparable impact on key character-defining elements of a legally protected property.
If the District demonstrates that it is amenable to revisiting existing heritage sites with a view towards development, while ignoring the very essence of the particular heritage value, these legal protections are thus rendered ineffective, setting a precedent which could further endanger the District’s existing and future heritage stock. We urge the District to uphold the existing legal protections and work with the owner to seek a more appropriate solution.
Steve Gairns (Chair), Adele Weder, Chelsea Louise Grant, Geoffrey Massey, Jeanette Langmann, John Patkau, Kim Smith, Wendi Campbell.
Board of Directors, West Coast Modern League