Skip to content

The ongoing fall of the Santa Fe (and its trees)

February 24, 2015


This morning the building lot at 2975 Oak Street — the site formerly known as the Santa Fe apartments — was peaceful, quiet and quite barren.

The building has been empty of tenants since early October of 2014, ahead of plans by its owner, Francesco Aquilini, to gut and half demolish it and use two remaining sides of its concrete facade as a decorative heritage feature for a new 11-story, apartment tower.

Over the last four months a small amount of work has occurred inside the building.

Yesterday afternoon I watched a white hazmat-suited fellow (sans helmet) emerge from the building.

Did any of the workers who have, since November, been tramping through the 86-year-old building — sometimes equipped with axes but never with filter masks or respirators — find evidence of asbestos or lead?

No one would be surprised; asbestos insulation and lead paint were both commonly used in construction when the Santa Fe was built 86-years-ago as the Van Arsdel Apartments.

However, no signs warning of asbestos and lead contamination have appeared outside the building.

First cut down the trees, then the building


In fact, the only outward signs of activity have been workers armed with chainsaws, a wood chipper and one boom lift, attacking the building’s majestic octogenarian trees.

The last of these three or four big trees was finally whittled down to a stump a week ago and then — only then — did the security fencing finally go up.

Meaning that the real demolition work will begin soon.

Watching some more of Vancouver’s canopy cover disappear


Two Mondays ago I paused to watch and take photos as a two person crew used a cherry picker boom lift to trim the large branches off the last tree standing on the north side of the soon-to-be-gutted Santa Fe apartments.

From the east side of Oak Street the boom lift looked almost like a long limb of the tree it was being used to help cut down.

I approached the building in the southbound lane of Oak Street and paused right out in the curb lane to snap photographs.

This prompted one of the workers in the boom lift’s bucket to yell down to me that I risked being hit by falling tree branches where I was on the road.

And truly there were little tiny bits of tree in the air around me but I wasn’t on the sidewalk, I was on the road — out in the middle of the curbside lane of Oak Street (momentarily empty of cars) — where there were no orange cones or sawhorses to direct traffic away from the supposed risk of falling tree limbs.

After I dutifully moved to the east side of Oak Street I took one more photo (the best of the lot as it turned out).

Everyone’s a critic!

As I was putting away my camera, the cherry picker’s bucket reached the ground back on the west side of the street and the same worker who had earlier warned me to get out of the way of potential falling tree bits shouted at me, asking why I wasn’t taking any more photos.

I shouted back that I was done.

For whatever reason the worker didn’t like my answer and shouted that I was just a “[unintelligible] busy-body”.

We homeless folk are more often called “lazy” than we are any kind of “busy” so I should’ve thanked him for the compliment.

Instead I asking him what his problem was.

The way he checked his stride inclined me to think that he momentarily contemplated coming across the street and “explaining” what his problem was.

Well, is there any reason why the workers should like me any more than their boss does?

Sometimes I can be such a bother

The overseer of the early phases of this slow-motion demolition has consistently shown no patience for my occasional picture-taking and always keeps a wary eye on me whenever I turn up near the building.

Telling him that I have no intention of taking identifiable photos of any of his workers and that I am simply interested in documenting the closing chapter of an historic Vancouver building hasn’t helped my case with him one little bit.

At first I chalked up his hostility up to the fact that I made no effort to hide that I was a binner (after all, he couldn’t help but see me checking the recycling blue bins in the alley across from the Santa Fe).

It further occurred to me that he might have thought I was using the cover of photography to “case” the building in order to break in and steal copper pipe (I trust that his axe-swinging crews have already gotten out most of any copper the building contained).

In the final analysis I’ve decided that the workers and their boss are just modest for some reason.

That’s unfortunate because I intend to keep on taking photos of the work because I believe that the redevelopment of the site is both interesting and historically noteworthy.

What’s being done with the Santa Fe interests to me for two reasons:

The preservation-in-place and restoration of two sides of the heritage building’s concrete facade is a bit of a novelty. It’s only the second instance that I know of in the Fairview neighbourhood of a new development incorporating an old heritage facade.

And there’s the way it makes me think about the issues around development in general, such as the role of development in the “deforestation” of Vancouver.

Vancouver real estate too expensive even for trees?

An April 2014 City of Vancouver report entitled Urban Forest Strategy shows that the city’s tree canopy coverage has shrunk by 20 percent over the last 18 years.

In 2013 a total of 18 percent of the city (about 2000 hectares) was covered by trees as opposed to 22.5 percent coverage in 1995.

The release of the report coincided with Vancouver City Council tightening a tree removal law, also on the books since 1995, which is seen to have contributed to the removal of tens of thousands of mature trees on private property.

However, watching all the very mature trees on the 2975 Oak Street lot fall to the developer’s chain saw, made me think about the role that new construction might play in the destruction of Vancouver’s tree canopy.

Development and trees: a potentially viscous cycle

The Urban Forest Strategy report actually found that of the 23.490 healthy mature tress known to have been removed from private property in the last 20 years, just over half the removals were due to development.

Consider that each round of the development cycle typically results in a building lot being scrapped clean of both structure and mature trees. And the new structure invariably has a larger footprint than what it replaces: single-family home to 3-storey apartment to 11-story condo and so on.

Every redevelopment means bigger buildings and fewer trees and those fewer trees will take decades to equal the size and effectiveness at scrubbing the air and trapping greenhouse gases as the mature trees they replace — assuming they live long enough.

Junk buildings mean pretty useless trees

In Vancouver’s Fairview neighbourhood, for example, we are now principally replacing two kinds of  apartment buildings: stout wood-frame stucco buildings from the 1920s built with old-growth timber to support heavy cast iron stoves and tubs — and nice cheap wood-frame stucco boxes built in the 1950s which have already lasted 60 years.

Any of our condos built in the 1980s will be lucky to survive 50 years and there are experts who describe the type of glass curtain wall condominium towers now filling up Toronto and Vancouver as “throw-away-buildings” that will fail in 15 or 20 years, if not sooner!

So we’re looking at larger-and-larger-footprint buildings in an ever-shorter replacement cycle.

Which seems to mean a steadily shrinking and ever-younger urban tree population.

Against an increasing human population, such a shrinking tree population would be less-and-less able to play any appreciable role in cleaning city air or sequestering carbon; trees would thus be relegated to being mere decorations.

I hadn’t thought about this aspect of development in Vancouver until I watched the big trees of the Santa Fe being cut down.

So I find the development both interesting and thought-provoking and I intend to continue following and taking photos of the work at the corner of Oak Street and 14th Avenue — until that work is finished.

And in doing so I will continue to respect the workers’ right to privacy and I won’t get in their way. Whether they choose to return that respect or not is up to them. Click the images to enlarge them.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: