Saturday, November 26, 2016

The deplorable state of streets and lanes in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside

Last night, on CBC's The National, there was a story on the dramatic increase in fentanyl-related drug overdoses across Canada, but especially in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. The situation is both horrifying and tragic and one can only hope that some solutions can be found before many more people die.

I was also struck by images of the physical condition of a DTES lane shown at minute 6:42 of The National broadcast.

I suspect it was quite horrifying to many Canadians, but probably not to most Vancouverites. Sadly, we seem to have become unfathomably complacent about the state of DTES streets and lanes.

As I watched, I wondered if our mayor and members of Council were watching; and if so, were they as ashamed and disgusted as I was at how our city appeared on the newscast.

I have complained in the past about the appearance of DTES streets in the Huffington Post, The National Post and Vancouver Courier
Often I have been criticized for worrying about the condition of the streets rather than doing something about the lives of the people who live there.

I care about the lives of the people on the streets, and while I spent a year volunteering as a founding director of the Building Community Society, regrettably I do not feel I can do much about this, other than pay taxes to support health care and other needed services.

However, as an architect and planner, I would like to think that I can help improve the physical appearance of the lanes and streets. We need to do this because I believe that in some small way, the deplorable condition of the streets contributes somewhat to the deplorable lives of the people who roam them. I also think it is essential that we 'normalize' to the extent possible, this outlier part of the city.

So please, Mayor Robertson and Council, City Manager Sadhu Johnston and Director of Planning Gil Kelley, I call upon you to lead a concerted effort involving all city departments and the general public, to improve the streets and lanes of the DTES.

Let's bring out the street cleaners, artists, painters, and landscapers and do whatever it takes to regain control of this now derelict part of our city.

For those readers who may not understand what I am writing about, below are just a few of the images off the internet offering a glimpse of the neighbourhood.

Vancouver's Character House Zoning Review Open House Today November 26 10-4 City Hall

Earlier this week I attended Vancouver's first Character House Zoning Review Open House at the Hellenic Community Centre. Another Open House is being held today. Details of the program can be found here:

This is a very important initiative and I therefore decided to write this week's Vancouver Courier column on the topic. Unfortunately, to meet my deadline, I had to write the column before attending the Open House, but was pleased that some of the ideas I have been promoting are included in the proposals under discussion.

These include:
  • allowing an infill coach house for sale in return for retention of a character house;
  • allowing a character house to be subdivided into multiple suites for sale;
  • allowing increased density to those wanting to build additions to a character house along with a laneway house.
However, one of the ideas I would like to see considered was not included; namely allowing owners of character houses on larger, corner lots to subdivide their properties in return for retention of the character house. 

In addition to offering density bonuses to those keeping and conserving a character house, the city is looking at further restrictions on the size of new houses built in established neighbourhoods.

This raises a critical issue that is missing from the discussion so far.

What APPEAL PROCESS will be put in place for those who are told their ant-invested rotting house is a character house and as a result, if they want to redevelop their property, the size of any new house will be restricted.

While I need to study the city's proposals in more depth, I am concerned that many of the important details that will determine whether future zoning changes will be effective have not yet been considered and are not part of this discussion. For instance:
  • how much renovation will be required to a character house in return for the density bonus?
  • what legal agreements will be required? does the house have to be retained for a specific period of time? forever?
  • what happens if the heritage house is destroyed by fire or the ravages of time?
  • will the city allow character houses to be moved, and if so, will reduced front yard or other yard setbacks be permitted?
  • does a character house have to be on a lot with a lane in order to qualify for a coach house?
When I asked staff these questions I was advised this level of detail has not been considered. They responded that the purpose of the current round of Open Houses is to determine if there is a public attitude for retention of character houses. However, I question this since as noted in the display the city carried out a similar survey in February 2015 and it confirmed public support for heritage.
I was also disappointed to learn that there did not appear to be any significant input by architects, builders or developers into the latest one-year study process. Had there been, city staff would have learned that it is the answers to the questions and details outlined above, and other related design and technical details that will determine whether new zoning changes will be acceptable or not

Another of my other concerns is that this review is being carried out in isolation of another much needed investigation, namely the future of all single family zoned neighbourhoods.

While it is one thing to encourage retention of character houses, Vancouver's 65%+ land zoned single family offers significant potential to increase housing stock and housing choice.

I worry that at a time when we should be promoting increased densities on many RS zoned lands, with duplexes, triplexes, townhouses and small low-rise apartments, we could be unduly focusing on character houses.

Hopefully a study on how to make better use of single family zoned land can proceed concurrently Otherwise this  Character Home Zoning Review may end up being a step backward, rather than forward.

Opinion: It's time for another character home zoning review Vancouver Courier Nov 24th, 2016

To illustrate the column I photographed the house at the corner of West 33rd and Arbutus which my wife and I owned from 1982 to 1990. When we sold it we hoped it wouldn't be knocked down and are delighted to see it has been well maintained in subsequent years.

Last week, the City of Vancouver announced a series of public consultation events to explore options for retaining character or heritage homes in single-family (RS zoned) areas of Vancouver.
If this sounds familiar, it might be because Courier reporter Naoibh O’Connor reported on a similar city initiative in February 2015: “Conserving heritage subject of City of Vancouver open houses.”

According to the city press release, the latest review will consider zoning changes in several neighbourhoods with higher concentrations of character homes including West Point Grey and Upper Kitsilano, Dunbar, Kerrisdale, Second and Third Shaughnessy, and parts of Arbutus Ridge.
Character homes are those built before 1940 and not necessarily on the city’s Heritage Register. However, they are deemed to have merit in accordance with a "Character Checklist" set out in a June 2014 Planning Department bulletin.

In addition to exploring zoning options to encourage retention of character houses, the city will also be looking at zoning changes to improve how new houses fit into established neighbourhoods.
I support city initiatives to conserve heritage and character houses. As I mentioned in a 2014 column entitled, “New homes a shadow of what they could be.”
The Vinson House Cottages development in West Vancouver. A partnership between Trasolini Chetner and my company.
 I’m currently conserving a century-old house on a large lot in West Vancouver, in return for approvals to build a coach house, garden cottage and garden suite on the property. Not only will this project retain one of West Vancouver’s original houses, it will create new housing choices for nearby residents ready to downsize and remain in their neighbourhood.
Vancouver wants to do the same thing with pre-1940s homes. However, as I wrote at the time of the Shaughnessy Heritage Conservation Area zoning changes, just because a house was built before 1940 does not mean it necessarily merits protection and conservation. (See: “City’s handling of Shaughnessy heritage cause for concern”)

Therefore, as part of any heritage program, there needs to be a clearly defined and accessible appeal process. This became apparent in a letter I received last week from a Dunbar resident who was hoping to build her dream home on a large 60-foot-by-130-foot lot. After hiring an architect, she discovered the city has assessed her 1930 house as having “character merit.”  

Consequently, she can only apply for an ‘outright’ permit for a new house not to exceed 2600 sq. ft. over two floors. Although a “conditional” application would allow a larger home, she cannot apply unless she is prepared to retain the existing house. She claims this would basically mean a big and expensive renovation on a house that is falling apart.

She approached the city with additional information and explained that many of the supposed “character” features are foam elements that she glued to the walls, but to no avail.  
While she wanted to know if I could identify an appeal process, unfortunately, she may be out of luck.
Instead of using a zoning stick, I believe the city should be offering zoning carrots to those prepared to keep a character house. One carrot would be to allow the development of an infill coach house for sale on the property. Its size would be determined based on the size of the lot and area of the character house, combined with a modest density bonus.
If a character house is to be retained on a corner property, the city might permit a subdivision to create two smaller lots.

In some situations, it might be feasible to allow a single-level suite for sale under a character house. In others, a larger home could be converted into a duplex or triplex, with each unit offered for sale or rent.
The first of the 4 open houses was held last Monday, but after this column was filed.
 If you have your own ideas on what the city should be doing to retain and conserve character houses, four open houses are being held over the coming weeks. Times and places, and an online survey can be found

Recommendations from the Character Home Zoning Review are expected to be presented to Council in early 2017, followed by additional public consultation before any zoning changes are made.
Since February 2015, many lovely character homes have vanished on the west side of Vancouver. Hopefully, this time city hall will follow through with zoning changes, along with a fair appeal process.

The result will be many character houses conserved for decades to come, and new neighbourhood housing choices.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

A powerful letter by Generation Squeeze's Paul Kershaw to West Vancouver's Mayor and Council

Dear Mayor and Council of West Vancouver,

My name is Paul Kershaw.  I’m a UBC Professor, and Founder of Generation Squeeze, which is building a voice for Canadians in our 20s, 30s, 40s and the children we represent in the world of politics.  I was born at Cherbourg Drive, and started school at Caulfield Elementary.  In Caulfield, I was raised in a home with a beautiful back yard and swimming pool purchased by my mom in the early 1970s.  She worked as a teacher, and raised me as a hard-working single mom.  As a result of her great parenting and sacrifices for me, I have enjoyed much educational success and greater earnings than my mom did at my age.  But so much has changed in the city where I was born that I, along with most others in my cohort, have been squeezed out of West Van.  I now live at 17280 Ford Road in Pitt Meadows.

I write today on behalf of my organization, a coalition of more than 26,000 talented, hard-working Canadians.  Our constituency would love the opportunity to live in your municipality, and hope that you will consider our voices in support of developing purpose-built rental at 195 21st Street alongside the voice of current residents in that neighbourhood.  Normally consultations only listen to the latter.  But that privileges the voices of those who won out in the lottery of good timing in the housing market – often people who started out as young adults some decades ago – while silencing those of us who enter the market more recently.

West Vancouver is now the least affordable district in the Metro Vancouver region.  BC Assessment data show that there are no homes in West Vancouver that cost less than half a million dollars and provide access to more than two bedrooms.  Back in 1976, after adjusting for inflation, half a million dollars would have bought two entire homes.  Now it doesn’t by two bedrooms.  This is a massive deterioration in the standard of living for younger generations, and puts at risk the sustainability of West Vancouver.

For the typical 25-34 year old, BC has experienced the largest decrease in full-time earnings of any province in Canada since 1976 (when today’s aging population started out as young adults).  All the while, it is our province where home prices have skyrocketed more than anywhere else.  Nowhere is this problem more acute than in West Vancouver.

Whereas it used to take 5 years of full time work for a typical young adult to save a 20% down payment on an average home in 1976, now it takes 23 years in the region of Metro Vancouver, let alone in West Vancouver specifically.  The implication is that many more talented, well-educated, hard-working young Canadians will be renters for long periods of our lives, if not indefinitely.  Our municipalities must begin planning for this transition.  This requires prioritizing now the construction of purpose built rental, and scaling up such developments in the years ahead.  Purpose-built rental provides far more security for tenants than does renting from small-scale condo owners who purchase the units as investment opportunities. 

If West Vancouver wants to set itself on a path to intergenerational fairness, and intergenerational sustainability, it should approve the Hollyburn proposal for 195 21st Street.  This development will represent the first purpose-built rental construction in decades.  Not only is the development necessary to meet the backlog in demand for rentals in your municipality now, it boldly anticipates the future transformation in our housing market that will be required to deliver an efficient supply of suitable homes that are in reach for what typical young people can earn in our region – including those of us born here.

For further information about the data illuminating the #CodeRed housing crisis in West Vancouver and throughout Metro Vancouver, along with 10 propositions for policy reform to ease the housing squeeze, please see our study:  "Code Red: Rethinking Canadian Housing Policy." 

Kind regards,

Dr. Paul Kershaw
University of British Columbia, School of Population & Public Health

Founder, Generation Squeeze
Follow us on: twitter | facebook |  Suit Up. Spread Out. Squeeze Back. 

Vancouver Sun: November 24th 2016

West Vancouver's first major rental housing project in 40 years upsets neighbours

Published on: November 23, 2016 | Last Updated: November 23, 2016 6:07 PM PST
A proposal to build what would be West Vancouver’s first significant rental housing development in 40 years is getting a rough ride from some neighbours, who fear the loss of views and increasing traffic.
A proposal to build what would be West Vancouver’s first significant rental housing development in 40 years is getting a rough ride from some neighbours, who fear the loss of views and increasing traffic. Handout
A proposal to build what would be West Vancouver’s first significant rental housing development in 40 years is getting a rough ride from some neighbours, who fear the loss of views and increasing traffic.

But proponents of the 41 infill rental units, as well as the District of West Vancouver, say the proposal would help ease the rental crunch and encourage the development of more housing options.

The project is being proposed by Hollyburn Properties, which owns and manages nearly three dozen rental-only buildings in Metro Vancouver. It wants to build two three- and four-storey buildings on land it owns surrounding its 16-storey Hollyburn Gardens project at 195 21st St.

But the project has encountered stiff opposition from adjacent residents who say it will disrupt the neighbourhood’s stability.

“There is no one in my building who wants this,” said Ingrid Hagerlund, a senior who lives in the 46-unit Crescent strata-condo building next to the site. “My neighbours will be eye to eye with people in the new building.”

Hollyburn Properties first proposed the project more than five years ago, according to developer Michael Geller, who is steering the project. It was delayed for a while to allow the district to develop a new housing policy statement to address the city’s lack of new rental housing. On Wednesday night the proponent held the third of three public information sessions. A public hearing is set for Nov. 28.
A proposal to build what would be West Vancouver‘s first significant rental housing development in 40 years is getting a rough ride from some neighbours, who fear the loss of views and increasing traffic.
A proposal to build what would be West Vancouver‘s first significant rental housing development in 40 years is getting a rough ride from some neighbours, who fear the loss of views and increasing traffic. Handout / PNG
Jim Bailey, the district’s director of planning, said staff are recommending the project go ahead because it offers new rental housing. But he admits that some people don’t like it.

“I think it is fair to say there will be significant community concern and pushback on this, insofar as it affects things like views and even questions about parking and traffic,” Bailey said.
West Vancouver has only added 20 units of purpose-built rental since the 1970s, Bailey said. They were built into two developments in 2006 and 2007.

Bailey said the city council earlier this year adopted a staff recommendation to explore ways to encourage more housing affordability, from offering bonus densities for purpose-built rental, to infill on existing sites.

Hagerlund, who bought her condo about five years ago, does not believe the opponents will win.
“The councillors have made up their minds. They come here and talk to us and pat all these little old people on the head and that’s all they do,” she said.
The proposal for the Hollyburn Gardens project.
The proposal for the Hollyburn Gardens project. Handout, / Vancouver Sun
Bailey said that in addition to scaling down the project from 49 units to 41 and increasing the mix to include two- and three-bedroom apartments, the proponents have also offered a donation of just over $1 million to the city’s new housing affordability fund.

The money, along with some funds from a Horseshoe Bay development by another developer, may allow the district to build more affordable rental housing on land it owns, he said. It may also be designated for a nearby park.

Geller acknowledged the Hollyburn proposal won’t significantly move the dial when it comes to affordable rental in West Vancouver.

“I would suggest that the more supply you can create, certainly over time the greater the affordability,” he said.

Peter Lambur, an architect who was just elected to council in a byelection on the weekend, said West Vancouver needs to bring in neighbourhood area plans that contemplate better housing options. He campaigned on a platform of supporting spot rezoning, but said on Wednesday he would support the Hollyburn Gardens proposal if, in return, the city began to put in place neighbourhood area plans.
The project has the support of a group of affordable housing activists in Vancouver who believe West Vancouver has to make more of an effort to encourage rental housing.

“In West Vancouver if you want to go and spend $5 million in the hills, no problem, no public hearing, go ahead and do it. If you want to build a rental building, there is a public hearing, there is a lot of opposition but this is something that will house a lot more people,” said Daniel Oleksiuk, a founding member of Abundant Housing Vancouver.

“The vast majority of a lot of municipalities, especially West Vancouver, have been set aside so only the very rich can live there.”

West Vancouver's first significant rental housing proposal in over 40 years!

On Monday November 28th West Vancouver Council will be holding a public hearing on what will be the first, stand alone, purpose built rental housing buildings in over 40 years! I have been the planning and development consultant assisting the owner Hollyburn Properties.

Unfortunately, some neighbours fear the worst and have distributed the flyer illustrated below.
 You can find full details about the project here.
You will note that it comprises 41 rental units in two very attractive 3 and 4 level buildings on under-utilized portions of a 1.4 acre site at the base of a 16 storey 1970s tower. The existing FAR is 1.75 and the proposal would increase it to 2.5 FAR.

If you are a West Vancouver resident, or have family in West Vancouver who might one day want to rent a new apartment in the municipality, I would invite you to attend the Public Hearing on Monday November 28th 2016.

This is a significant date, since it is the fifth anniversary of the day I submitted my Development Consulting proposal to Paul and David Sander, Directors of Hollyburn Properties.

(I know what you're thinking. If it took 5 years to get to Public Hearing on a 41 unit purpose-built rental apartment proposal, I'm not much of a development consultant!)

Hopefully it will be approved on Monday evening!

Friday, November 11, 2016

Opinion Vancouver should make better use of land through zoning Vancouver Sun November 3, 2016

While Vancouverites have come to expect the weather and housing affordability to dominate conversations, this was particularly true last week. As we experienced one of the wettest Octobers, housing was top of mind as global experts gathered for Re:Address, a city-organized summit on housing and city building.

In an October 27th opinion column “Vancouver housing reset on track, but city can’t go it alone,” Mayor Gregor Robertson noted the city is half way through a 10-year housing and homelessness strategy.

While he listed numerous accomplishments, he acknowledged it is time for a dramatic re-set to ease affordability and ensure housing options are meeting residents’ needs. The conference was intended to produce actionable ideas.

Throughout the conference it became very clear that Vancouver is not alone. New York, San Francisco, Sydney, and London are just a few cities grappling with homelessness and severe housing affordability. However, rather than take comfort, we can learn useful lessons from these cities.

While more housing supply is essential, supply on its own is not the answer.

Additional senior government subsidy dollars are required. Compared to Vienna, where two thirds of the population live in government subsidized housing, our senior government funding is severely lacking.

However, we must not look at housing costs in isolation. For many, transportation and child care costs are equivalent to second and third mortgage payments. Millennials often have a fourth mortgage to deal with; outstanding student loans.

So, what are the solutions?

One solution being pursued in New York and San Francisco is ‘mandatory inclusionary zoning.’ It requires developers to include affordable housing units within new developments whenever land is rezoned.

This concept is not new to Vancouver where provision of 20 per cent affordable housing has been a requirement for major rezonings since the early 1990s. Other rezonings have required affordable housing units scattered within a building or in a portion of the building, sometimes prompting concerns about ‘poor doors’ for lower income residents.

Inclusionary zoning seems to be working in New York, where developers often fund affordable units through a ‘cross-subsidy’ using federal low-income tax credits, something not available in Canada.

However, in San Francisco, a requirement that all new development include 25% affordable housing has led to a complete halt of new building permits. Developers are now sitting on the sidelines while the city reconsiders its requirement.

Another solution is to make more land available for housing. While the Dutch can do this by filling in the ocean, Vancouver should do it through zoning. While in theory we may have enough zoned capacity to accommodate future growth, in practice we do not.

The invited experts repeatedly pointed out we should make better use of the extensive areas of our region zoned for single-family housing.

In addition to basement suites and laneway housing, there is a need to permit duplexes, townhouses, stacked townhouses and small infill apartments in many of these neighbourhoods.  While these new homes may not always be affordable for lower income households, they will offer new housing choices and help balance supply and demand.

To assess the likely impacts of future rezonings, we should undertake post-mortems on past controversial rezonings to see if fears expressed by neighbourhood residents at public hearings materialized.

Some single-family dwellings could provide affordable housing if municipalities updated their zoning bylaws to permit ‘collective living’ by allowing more than 5 unrelated people to live together. While shared-living may not be for everyone, this is something that could happen right away.

Two conference sessions promoted micro-suites and modular housing as two ways to create affordable housing. A small relocatable modular home was displayed behind the Art Gallery.

As some may recall, this is an idea I promoted in the 2008 municipal election and I am pleased the city is now undertaking a demonstration program to test out the effectiveness of relocatable modular units to create speedy, cost effective homes.

During the conference, it was repeatedly noted there is no silver bullet to solve a housing crisis. While taxing foreign investment or vacant properties may play a role, we can do much more.

Learning from Australia and UK, our non-profits should expand their role in housing delivery. There should also be an increased role for regional government.

This conference was expensive to organize. While many will question whether the city got value for money, Vancouver’s new Director of Planning Gil Kelley and other new senior administrators were all in attendance. If they implement just a few of the recommended solutions, I believe it will have been money well spent.

Michael Geller is a Vancouver architect, planner, real estate consultant and developer. He also serves on the adjunct faculty at SFU. He can be reached at