Drive for Density Transforms Vancouver Housing
DERRICK PENNER (VANCOUVER SUN) VANCOUVER — A single house in Vancouver is no longer a single house in the age of eco-density.
With property prices in the stratosphere and the city under pressure to encourage more affordable forms of housing, most single family homes can potentially be three housing units — a main house with a secondary suite, then a separate laneway suite.
And as the city completes more of its neighbourhood plans, single family lots can become something else entirely as developers assemble properties to turn them into higher density multi-family townhouses or mid-rise apartments.
“I think the focus that the city has placed on affordable housing and what they’re doing in other areas opens up the discussion at the city in terms of alternate forms of development,” said architect Larry Adams, principal at the Vancouver firm NSDA.
The move toward densification is most visible along streets such as Cambie or around Oakridge Centre, where it’s the city’s priority. Seeing what is happening there has definitely “piqued people’s interest” in the potential for continuing it along other arterial streets in other areas of the city, Adams added.
His firm is working on a rezoning proposal to turn three lots zoned for two-dwelling use at First Avenue and Victoria Drive into a 26-unit housing complex designed as an “intentional community,” which would include social housing.
Adams called the site something of a “poster child” for higher density, because although the lots are surrounded by single-family homes, they are used as parking by the Grandview Calvary Baptist Church and are at a high-traffic intersection.
The process, however, hasn’t become any less complex, Adams said, and hasn’t become an easier sell in single-family neighbourhoods.
Proposals for land assemblies of single-family lots for multi-family rezoning have recently begun to hit the city’s planning department in the Norquay Village neighbourhood surrounding Kingsway and Slocan Street in East Vancouver, according to Brian Jackson, the city’s general manager of planning and development.
Jackson said the city wants to encourage row housing and stacked townhouses in that area — housing types that are less common than houses and condos.
The city is pleased with the types of townhouses being built on the Cambie and Granville Street corridors, noting “housing innovation happens at the high end.”
The city approved a new Norquay neighbourhood plan in 2010, and to help applications along, Jackson said they’ve “pre-zoned” most of the neighbourhood’s blocks to accommodate higher-density uses. And this is where he wants to see similar housing types, but at a much lower cost.
“There are creative ways of increasing density in our single-family neighbourhoods,” Jackson said. “And the city has done that by allowing three units on almost every single-family lot in the city of Vancouver.”
The laneway house is the most visible manifestation of that effort, and Jackson said more than 1,100 have either been built or are going through the planning process since the policy was approved in 2009.
Such developments should give homeowners the incentive to do some research about the potential for their single-family home when they are considering selling, according to realtor Geraldine Santiago.
“If you only have one property, you want to maximize it,” said Santiago, a realtor with Re/Max Crest Realty Westside.
Santiago held a seminar recently for homeowners on subdividing and rezoning — titled Subdivide and Conquer — to test the waters of public interest. She said the event attracted close to 20 people, and there were several realtors in the crowd.
The key point of her seminar was for homeowners to know the exact size of the lot their house sits on and what its specific zoning is, so they can determine what is allowed on the property.
“The most important asset you have right now is your lot,” Santiago said, noting the physical improvements on the lot — the house — eventually depreciate.
And Santiago said the development potential for land assemblies isn’t always in large-scale, multi-family projects. Smaller builders might be interested in pursuing duplexes in some single-family zones.
However, there are limits to the city’s willingness to expand higher-density options, according to Jackson.
Jackson said the city’s preference is to work in locations that are covered by updated plans or specific policy, such as Oakridge, Norquay and Marpole. Outside of those areas, Jackson said planners are discouraging land assemblies along arterial streets until updated plans are in place.
Adams said single-family neighbourhoods are typically resistant to changes that bring higher density housing, although the city does need change.
“I don’t think every single single-family lot is right for development,” Adams said.