Posted by: VPSN | June 10, 2010

The limits of preserving heritage? The Great Harwood Tulip Tree


Over the years, density bonusing has acted as an important tool in Vancouver’s city-building methodology. It’s a tool with which planners, guided by Council, have used to support the development or enhancement of important public benefits – parks, community facilities, and public art to name a few.  Under the process, extra allowable height (“density”) is permitted on a given project, and in exchange for this, developers provide a public good.

Heritage preservation, as a type of public good, has also been factored into this process — and through this scheme various aspects of Vancouver’s material culture have been supported.   Important building fascades have been preserved, historic structured restored, and key architectural features have received protection.

But when it comes to our natural heritage — that great commonwealth of green and blue that one sees on all the postcards — the ability to use the density bonusing as a preservation tool begins to run into difficulty.

Earlier today City Council has voted against providing a heritage density bonus  to a West End developer.  The developer wanted to access the bonus in exchange for working around the largest known specimen of tulip tree in the city.

The problem, however, is that part of the tree’s root structure stretches into the neighbouring property — meaning that while the bonus might save the tree in the short term, it wouldn’t guarantee long-term protection because it didn’t preclude any future development on the adjacent site.

The VPSN had written to Council asking them to consider the bonus anyway.  In our letter, we noted that:

We recognize that Council is facing the challenging task of assessing the utility of the City’s density bonusing process in light of an situation that doesn’t neatly fit the current process.  At heart is the desire to protect a hallmark tulip tree – one of the largest and oldest deciduous trees in the City, and a magnificent specimen of Liriodendron tulipfera.

The challenge is that the tree’s root structure lies across two properties – and there is a lack of guarantee that any density bonus granted to the one property for protecting the tree (1245 Harwood, currently proposing a residential tower on the site) will not be squandered if the adjacent property (1225 Harwood) undertakes an activity that damages the root structure of the tree.

We did so because we felt that the value of the tree was significant enough to warrant taking this chance… and because we felt that a similar bonus scheme might just prove to be useful in the case of any future development on the adjacent site.

While the complexities of heritage bonusing are the focus of much of the present report, the essence of the issue to us relates to finding a way to protect this tree, to preserve it because of its unique characteristics, and to recognize its intrinsic value as part of the city’s urban forest.

We note with dismay that there appear to be no options that would afford protection to a tree of this sort that don’t involve an economic incentive for a developer to work around it.

That being said, we understand that the economics of development and the currently regulatory environment creates a system that supports the use of bonusing in this regard.  As a lever with which to preserve important aspects of natural and cultural heritage it is useful even if limited by the complexities posed by the present issue.

We therefore offer our conditional support for OPTION B [in the staff report], which would allow the bonusing to proceed.  However, we suggest that a further notation be made to allow the owners of the adjacent property at 1225 Harwood access a similar form of incentive given that a significant portion of the root structure lies on their site.  Given the desire to maintain the health of the tree, efforts and incentives such as these should be put in place as a form of insurance to protect Council’s investment in the tree.

We felt that the form of investment made in allowing the extra density would provide a further incentive — one that might see Council direct staff to develop the sort of tools and methods that could be in place for the next big tree.

We would further request that Council acknowledge that the
precedent-setting nature of the present situation and take this opportunity to request that staff review (with public consultation) the existing tools that it has (including heritage bonusing) to protect the City’s ecological and arboreal heritage.  Given that property lines are often an artificial overlay on top of the landscape, there needs to be a stronger process in place the next time this sort of situation arises.

We are disappointed that the bonusing didn’t take place and feel that the preservation of grand tulip tree warranted the leap of faith that would have been required.  It was a situation with uncertainties; granted, but it was worth a try. There would have been no material loss to the City by doing so (two or three floors on an already approved tower development).  Instead, in a process sense, the tree got missed for the forest.

That being said, we are hopeful that that the situation might yet result in a more thoughtful approach to ecological heritage preservation — particularly given the current Council’s green agenda.  In the absence of other measures Council could–and should–advance this notion.

The tree still stands for the moment.  Let’s hope that the property owners (and developers) on both sides of the fence might also step up to the plate and work to set an example for heritage preservation:  one that is motivated by the idea of natural heritage as an intrinsic good …and not necessarily for the instrumental value it brings vis-a-vis a a bit of extra density.



  1. My friend did a story on this for the CBC – it seems to me this is a case where it might be worth stepping back and looking at the environment this tree is in.

    Is it really ecological heritage preservation to sustain a tree that will likely soon be wedged between two residential developments?

    Maybe we need to rethink our urban encroachment as a whole.

    • Hi Nicole,

      Good point on stepping back for the big picture. Part of the challenge with the present issue – and one of the points that we made in our letter to Council – was that the array of tools that was on offer was pretty slim, and boiled down to a question of “heritage bonus or no heritage bonus.”

      That being said, the tree is currently located between two existing residences — with one site (not both) going through a redevelopment process. There’s plenty of reason to assume that affording protection would be useful and not squandered, beneficial to both the surrounding landscape and the people (and other critters) that inhabit it.

      If you have a link to your friends story please feel free to post it here! The more ideas on the subject, the better the discussion.

      – Andrew Pask

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