Formally preserving the heritage character of one of the last surviving pockets of old White Rock has long been considered a virtual economic impossibility.
Since it was last extensively studied in 2016, multi-million dollar property values in the waterfront area have placed historic Elm Street properties beyond the pocketbook of the city — even if the buildings could be restored and upgraded to meet standards for city use.
But White Rock council has taken one step toward reclassifying the neighbourhood with a unanimous vote April 12 to remove Elm Street from the Waterfront Village designation — which allows buildings up to four storeys in height — by an amendment to the Official Community Plan.
The vote came on a motion from Coun. Erika Johanson.
She noted that Elm Street — home to three houses from the 1910 era, and one small two-storey stucco apartment building from the 1930s — was the only street off Marine Drive to be included in the Waterfront Village plan category, although it has no commercial activity and “is, in fact, part of a mature neighbourhood.”
Johanson said following the meeting that the reason for her motion is straightforward.
“I’d like to keep Elm Street as it is,” she said. “Unfortunately White Rock doesn’t have any heritage designation.”
She said she recognizes that creating this designation in the framework of current zoning bylaws could be a lengthy and labour-intensive job for city staff, particularly at present.
“If I’m elected again for a second term, this is something I’d really like to work towards.”
Johanson said that while she reconsidered including them in her most recent motion, she’d also like to make subsequent OCP amendments protecting properties on nearby Beachview Avenue which could also be considered heritage buildings, or part of a mature neighbourhood.
She said her attention became focused on the neighbourhood after a proposal to redevelop the apartment building site for a four-storey, 21-unit building came forward in July of 2020 and met with an outcry from residents.
She noted the 420-signature petition that resident Anita Nielsen had submitted to council voicing opposition to the proposal and calling for the establishment of a process for heritage designation in the city.
Johanson said that while she expects ‘push-back’ from owners of the properties due to the designation change, “we need to respect what the neighbourhood wants.”
In October, the question of Elm Street was referred to the city’s History and Heritage Advisory Committee for further study.
At that time, planning and development director Carl Isaak noted that, at present, only the ‘white rock’, the White Rock Museum and Archives building (the former Great Northern station) and the pier have been declared heritage sites by the city.
He said that while there are processes under the Local Government Act and other provincial regulations for unilaterally declaring buildings and landmarks heritage sites, in the case of private property it’s mandatory to negotiate compensation with owners.
Coun. David Chesney said the last time the previous council had looked at compensating Elm Street property owners, the price tag had been estimated at $5 million.
But Johanson said this week the general principle of creating a working heritage designation in the city should not be impossible.
“I’ve heard from some people that the homes on Elm Street can’t be considered heritage because they have been renovated inside,” she said. “But, as I understand it, a city can set its own definition of what is heritage.”