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5 Nov

Zoning is a protectionist measure, which much like trade tariffs, constrain supply and restrict the ability of the market to respond to real demand. In the case of restrictive zoning, the housing market experiences a rise in the price of houses due to limited supply, a situation that leads to a market becoming detached from the real economy, to the detriment of the city and the region as a whole.

In a normal balanced market, the supply of housing stock either rises with the corresponding demand so as to keep prices stable, or rises only slightly more than inflation. In the condo market in Vancouver, comprehensive zoning allows developers to build sufficient product to meet consumer demand so prices neither rise nor fall dramatically. This is a healthy situation, as it allows future and current homeowners to better plan their housing needs, while at the same time permitting developers to better project budgets and sales revenues. Another benefit of this zoning environment is the neighbourhood can grow and evolve, meeting the needs and representing the ethnic diversity of a dynamic city.

Sadly in the case of a market distorted by a protectionist measure such as zoning, the prices of the available product rise quickly and unpredictably, faster than real wage increases. This reduces the number of potential buyers, as they fail to save fast enough to access the single family home market. Families, professionals with large amounts of student debt, seniors with rising property tax bills are among those forced to move elsewhere for their housing needs. Over time the profile of residents in a neighbourhood begins to narrow and become ethnically uniform, where more established ethnic groups who arrived in Vancouver early and benefited from the modern real estate booms, start to dominate the single family zones of the city. This explains why the City of Vancouver is a mostly Caucasian and Chinese city, while Surrey, much newer, is more ethnically diverse and representative of the population dynamics of Greater Vancouver.

I do not advocate turning Vancouver into a giant comprehensive development zone similar to the downtown, since this would lead to utter chaos in the market and destroy the livability of the city. What I propose is that each area in the city be up zoned, meaning single family zones become duplexes, duplex zones become more comprehensive low rise, and so on. This will permit more people to live in and enjoy the City of Vancouver’s amenities and give home buyers more choices than either moving to the suburbs or living in a condo in the downtown. It must be noted that the stock of single family homes will not dry up under such a measure, rather the market will adjust their price and quantity to match the buying power of potential home owners – those who want a single family home will demolish a duplex or retain a single family home. Up zoning will also preserve the aesthetics of the city without overly crowding neighbourhoods – one can just look at the success of the duplex zones in Kitsilano, which have preserved character and tree cover while providing a lot more housing than Dunbar or Point Grey.

The time to act is now. Restrictive zoning is strangling Vancouver, it creating a socioeconomic divide that is not healthy for our economy, our city and the region as a whole.


Building a Home in Vancouver

18 Oct

The bulk of my focus on this blog is on the urban issues here in Vancouver, specifically snapshots of bike lines, cycling, zoning, property development; however, more general themes related to urbanization as a global phenomenon, the urbanization of the Internet (clustering of activity around super sites such as facebook or google), and other not so Vancouver themes will occasionally pop up.

One of the reasons I returned to blogging was an interest in the micro process of property development. What happens on the ground? How hard is to build or renovate a house in Vancouver? What is like working with City Hall? The best way to do this is to actually blog about a project from its inception to its conclusion, which is what I intend to do.

The current project I am working on was originally intended to be a demolition and new multi-unit development; however, that objective has evolved quite radically into a restoration project. The motives behind this are that the city has imposed very strict rules on what homes can be demolished. While the property in question has limited redeeming features (what I thought when I wrote the offer), the residents in the neighbourhood have pushed City Hall to favour restoration over density. The initial work with the architect and consultations with the city planning department have confirmed this, which means the end product will be mostly a completely refurbished old house containing two, rather than one single home. In all honesty I tend to prefer the restoration option, primarily because less waste goes to the landfill, but also our company is a master in the area of home renovations and restoration.

At this point it is still uncertain as to whether I will hire a full service builder or end up building the house myself and hire services to fill in what is outside of my area of specialization. Increasingly the cost game is forcing my hand in one direction; however time will tell. One of the areas I have no expertise in is raising a home of its foundations. This procedure is increasingly common in Vancouver, as the City of Vancouver balances a push towards medium density outside of the downtown, with the demands of local residents to retain the existing neighbourhood feel.

Regardless of the option I choose, the aspect of jacking the house up, laying the new foundation, drainage, services, and framing infill will outsourced. One thing I have learnt in business is to focus on what you know, do it well, and outsource what you don’t know to strategic partners. The world’s most successful companies do this – Apple, Adidas, Bombardier. The less successful companies try to do it all – think HP, Target Canada, RIM (now called Blackberry).

Vancouver Developing a Duplex in an RT7 Zone

19 Sep

As I’ve alluded to on multiple occasions, Vancouver suffers from a housing crisis of sorts, not uncommon to many desirable cities around the world. I am not as instructed on the complexities of cities such as Paris, Rome, or Barcelona, which are part of Europe’s “museum” cities – city centres devoid of permanent residents and almost entirely inhabited by tourists, or San Francisco, New York, or Hong Kong – city centres occupied by the creative and entrepreneurial classes, where everyone else lives on the periphery, or for that matter London (arguably the most exclusive of them all). Vancouver’s housing crisis is different to these cities because it is neither a museum city, nor is it a global alpha city with a large creative and entrepreneurial class.

In Vancouver the problem is the juxtaposition of zoning and the BANANA (1), as is evident in my employer’s most recent property development project. In the past our company has always built and renovated in North and West Vancouver, nearby upper middle class suburbs with a mixture of density and suburban development, with pockets of early 20th century Queen Anne and Edwardian period homes. Zoning in these suburbs, as well as community amiability to development has enabled the North Shore to develop some very successful mixed neighbourhoods. Despite this, I decided to make a strategic shift towards the City of Vancouver because of a better values fit – cycling, bike lanes, public transit, pre-automobile city grids – all sadly lacking in the suburbs of North and West Vancouver.

I digress, back to zoning and the BANANA. The City of Vancouver’s zoning is approximately 80% single family or commercial and condominium development, with the remainder open to duplex and other smaller medium density projects. For those not familiar with the City of Vancouver, I like to call these zones places where one can build the kinds of medium density flats and town houses typically seen in the inner cities of Chicago, Boston, London, Montreal, and Toronto – not more than 5 stories high, and everyone has street access without an elevator.

Since these zones cover such a tiny area of the city, the prices are exorbitantly high, which means developers have to charge top dollar on completed product in order to cover costs and turn a profit for the next project. In my blog I have repeatedly called from the end to single family zoning, so I’ll avoid dwelling on it here. More importantly, this is where the BANANA part of the problem comes into the equation. Residents in these zones often fight back on proposed new density, as they do not want to see their neighbourhoods undergo any significant change. They argue schools will become too crowded, street parking more scarce, libraries overused, and privacy diminished. Yet what the BANANAs fail to understand, is that the very density they fight is the density that allowed them to get into the neighbourhood in the first place. Put simply, if houses could not be converted into duplexes, triplexes, and small apartments, no one other than high income earners and those with rich parents would be able to live in these zones. One only need look at the pricing in the single family zones to see the evidence. Density brings the price per square foot down, which allows more people access to housing.

So the developer has to bend to the demands of BANANAs, who through lobbying impose all sorts of restrictions on the sorts of development that can be done in these limited medium density zones. These restrictions are reflected in the City of Vancouver’s building legislation, where blanket restrictions on demolitions force builders to restore homes of questionable heritage value, often sacrificing both housing density and neighbourhood restoration.

I am currently going through this very situation at the moment. The architect we’ve engaged has been told by city hall that the house we are planning to convert is stamped as heritage, so to demolish it would mean we would sacrifice 850 square feet of living space. Agreed, the house was built in the 1920’s; however, it has suffered from so many “renovations” inflicted on it prior to the zoning restrictions, that today it nothing more than a neglected cement block with aluminium widows, a car port addition, and a concrete front stairway.

Yet the legislation is clear, the city, directed by voters and lobbying, placed blanket measures to encourage housing retention and discourage the development of the horrid MacMansions that were built during the 1980’s and 1990’s, when waves of Chinese immigrants fled Hong Kong and Macau to park their money offshore in giant pink stucco homes devoid of any garden space. The pushback from local residents was reasonable at the time; however, the city now faces a housing challenge that can only be resolved by relaxing zoning and standing up to the BANANA.

A more practical solution to fit today’s needs would be to offer the developer the option to demolish the unit and retain the allowable building space, if they integrated a minimum amount of salvaged heritage material. This salvaged material can come from other homes or from secondary resale markets. Square feet could be rewarded to the developer for installing restored timber beams, salvaged lighting, hardwood flooring, gables, stained windows, etc. Naturally even more square feet would be given to developers who retain the house; however, at least this more versatile option would ensure heritage is retained in the neighbourhood, but not by just “saving” a building that has lost all the “heritage” value it had, apart from the year it was originally built in.

For us the next step is negotiations with city. There is a four month backlog at City Hall, so this project has a long way to go before breaking ground.

 (1) BANANA – An acronym for Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything, also known as the NIMBY – Not In My Back Yard.

Understanding Zoning and Heritage Classifications

4 Sep

The City of Vancouver planning department and Vision administration are both remarkably efficient and transparent. Online searches yield a wealth of information, which in most other cities around the world one would require making phone calls and visits to obscure city departments to gain access to information.

This level of transparency means the City of Vancouver is a relatively easy city to do real estate transactions in. Apart from the zoning issues, which afflict most North American cities, Vancouver benefits from established institutions with high levels of trust, a clean environment and stable climate, and a relatively effective transit network. Many Vancouverites who have not spent time abroad are quick to criticize the city administration; however, they do not realize how fortunate we are here. 

Below is a little of the information I have dug up in my research:





Frances Bula and Gordon Price are also a wealth of information for anyone wanting to understand Vancouver from a broader urbanist’s perspective.

My Vision is not a Laneway House

21 Aug

In 2004 I moved from Montreal to London with the intention of making a career transition from sales to marketing, while setting up a life on the European continent – it was a well executed plan built on 7 years of undergraduate and graduate education. In the end it did not work out. I had made the move too late in life, I didn’t hold a EU passport at the time, and London was never a place I aspired to live in, rather a city I enjoyed to visit, a stepping stone for moving to the European continent.

2005 was a reset, a return to the Westcoast. The objective was to build a property business, which would in time marry well with the construction company our family had established. It has been a battle, the details of which are not worth repeating here. At a global level, big changes of this sort often involve deep questions, they also lead to conflict, as different parties try to marry together often incongruent visions and expectations. Nonetheless, there has been success, as what was once a tiny holding of a one bedroom condo in the suburbs has taken fruit into something considerably more substantial. My hopes and aspirations are that the upward trajectory will continue and our property business will make the next big step in becoming an important contributor to the development of beautiful, smaller, more efficient housing in this fair and so beautiful place, “The Land of the Lotus Eaters”. 

I continue to devote considerable time and thought to this endeavour, as I believe it to be a worthwhile one. People need homes to live in, just as they need hospitals for care, and schools for learning. So why not make these homes beautiful? Why not make them just the right size for a Vancouver family – one or two people a room and not two or three rooms a person? Yes, how novel, small efficient beautiful homes that don’t waste space.

The latest challenge we are finding to executing our vision is the availablity of housing stock that can be developed into duplexes. For a city that is awash in condos and single family homes, the “everything in between” is neglected. It is as if the consumer and the smaller developers are channeled to one of two options: buy a condo in a tower developed by a large developer, or demolish a single family home and build a bigger single family home to recoupe the costs. Neither of these options is particulary appealing, and neither applies to our vision. Condos don’t build communities, rather they isolate people from each other and the street scape; bigger houses house less people and are an inefficient use of space and energy.

Lane houses have been pushed as the answer to this conundrum; however, I believe they are a misguided solution for two reasons. Firstly they are short sighted, as once the infill investment is made, the lot becomes indivisible should zoning change in the future. This means the land becomes locked in with a big house and a small house, when it could have been built as a triplex or fourplex – units that in turn could be owner occupied or rental stock. Secondly, lanehouses do not increase the supply of land stock for sale, as they cannot be sold separately from the principal house, which means that one of the residents will always be in a landlord position, while the other will in perpetuity be in the more precarious role of the tenant. The reality is that most people don’t want to rent, and most people do not want to be landlords, most people just want to own their own home that they can do with as they please. 

In Vancouver there is little hope the city will abolish the single family zoning in the forseeable future. This remains the biggest obstacle to delivering our business’ vision.

The Way Back from North Vancouver Lonsdale to Kitsilano

19 Aug
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My ride home follows more or less the same route, with some modifications. The most challenging part of the trip is navigating the rush hour traffic off the North Shore, which can be mayhem, especially if there has been an accident on one of the bridges. This may seem a rare occurrence, but in fact between the two of them, there are accidents on the bridges on a daily basis. At rush hour this can mean chaos, the kind of chaos that ultimately got me out of a car.

This is an area just entering the lower road (1st Street) from Marine Drive and 3rd Street. It has morphed into a substantial construction site as the City of North Vancouver and a developer swapped properties, giving City road works the south side of 1st, and the developer the north end. The result is a large high density project, which upon completion will hopefully do a lot to improve Marine Drive, one of the North Shore’s ugliest stretches of road. For the time being it is a dangerous section of road, where trucks and and cars often cross into the cycle lane, so much so that the lane paint has disappeared.

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On 1st Street the bike lane is littered with obstacles – signs, bumps, parked cars and trucks.

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The ride after this section is perfect to the start of the Lions Gate Bridge deck. Apart from an errant dog, the Spirit Trail is open sailing, populated with cyclists, walkers, and joggers most of the year.

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Part of the Provincial Highway 99 network, the Causeway and Lion’s Gate Bridge crossing is typically terrifying and should come with a parachute. As usual the sidewalk is shared between cyclists and pedestrians. Pedestrians can walk in either direction, which means more often than not one comes across a pedestrian oblivious to the world, listening to his music, sunglasses on, walking with his back to vehicle and cycle traffic – insanity. Only in British Columbia, “The Best Place on Earth” can pedestrians walk wherever they please without being responsible for their own and others’ safety. The results of such lawlessness can be fatal, as on this stretch of the causeway, where a cyclist was killed trying to avoid an mindless pedestrian.

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Cyclists easily gather speed on the causeway, and since the sidewalk is narrow, traffic is loud, and bushes are overgrown, communication between cyclists and pedestrians is challenging – I personally use an air horn, which is useless when a walker has their back to me and is engrossed in their telephone.

The causeway ends here.

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No barrier separating cyclists from death at the hands of a wobbly SUV.

The cycle through the West End is a bit busier than in the morning, as most people are out of bed and on the seawall, especially if the sun is showing its face. The most congested area of the Seawall is at the Cactus Club, where cyclists, cars, and pedestrians converge on several square meters of space. This area was not the most intelligently designed, and it still bewilders me as to why Vancouver has not considered removing one of the 7 lanes of roadway that connect Beach Road with Denman to widen the seawall in that area.
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Getting from the West End to Burrard Bridge has its challenges, involving riding Beach/Pacific Roads up to the start of the bridge. There is often congestion on Pacific, and motorists almost always speed to get to the lineup as fast as possible.
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Burrard Bridge is currently undergoing a renovation, the first in its 81 year history, as far as I know. The roadwork has caused some delays and inconvenience for motorists, this despite the fact the city has made it abundantly clear that Granville Bridge is just two blocks away and has 4 lanes of mostly empty road – people prefer to sit in traffic rather than try a different route.

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While the bridge work is still ongoing, the south end of the bridge has been completed. The result is a drastic improvement from the parking lot that once was the gateway to Kitsilano. The new layout moves cars, pedestrians, and cyclists safely and efficiently, all while requiring less road space.

These are a couple of pictures from before, when cyclists and pedestrians shared the sidewalk.


And when the tree and Kitsilano welcome sign sat in the middle of 12 lanes of converging traffic.


And this is how it looks today.

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There is still work to do on the Kitsilano side. The Park Board bungled the plan to implement a bike lane in Kitsilano Park, and Cornwall still has no bike lane to connect the bridge to the bike way on Point Grey; however, this is a work in progress. The Councils, mayors, and Squamish Band should be commended for their vision in working to building a safe pedestrian and cycle network in Vancouver and the North Shore. Now if only the Province would get on board and fill in the gaps.

To follow, time for the “big league”, your merry cyclist changes it up and goes 2nd Narrows!

My Commute from Kitsilano to North Vancouver Lonsdale – There

12 Aug
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A recent series of articles in the Globe and Mail on commuting and transit caught my attention today (1). While I no longer really read Canadian “newspapers”, as the quality of the journalism pales in comparison to the likes of the Guardian, the Economist, or Le Monde, they unfortunately remain one of the few options for Canadian news.

Journalism in Canada is sick and rotten, it is the most concentrated of all media agglomerations in the developed world, far outscoring the United States for concentration of the press in the hands of the few (1). Canada has become a model for pervasive digital convergence, where newspapers have become a tiny piece of a content pie owned and channeled through just a handful of major portals: Bell, Rogers, Postmedia, Shaw and Quebecor. In some regions of the country the reader has literally no choice, as is the case in Vancouver and Montreal, where the news media is entirely owned by a single source – Quebecor in Montreal and Postmedia in Vancouver.

I digress, back to those Globe and Mail articles. As a two bridge commuter I have tried everything to make my journey as efficient as possible – car, bus, metro, ferry, bike, you name it. After years of driving I gave up my car to go with transit. This was motivated by bridge traffic fatigue, rising gas prices, and the cost of running a car. This option did not last, as I soon tired with sitting on crowded buses stuck in traffic, and grew frustrated with being forced to buy a two zone pass even though my commute was only one stop outside of my zone. Truth be known, I have long been a proponent of touch cards and fare gates used by sophisticated transit systems such as Transport for London, or Transantiago, where fare is charged by distance travelled and not by arbitrary zone maps (2).

So I eventually gave up on transit and switched to cycling. This option has provided certain benefits, with the obvious ones being that I no longer have to spend time and money on running a car, or money on a two zone transit pass. One unexpected benefit is I now need to eat copious amounts of homemade cookies in order to keep weight on – something unfathomable when I was a motorist. 2014-05-27 22.40.33
Yet cycling is not all cookies and cream, it is a battle against rain, cars, sleet, sun, and other bikes. From April through to October the levels of rush hour congestion on certain bike routes approaches the intolerable, with pinch points on the seawall and Burrard Bridge. These congestion zones are prone to accidents, as everyone converges together in a cacophony of bicycles and scooters. November’s cold rain puts out the party and empties the streets for most of the winter.

So what about my bike commute, what is it like? I start my day at here, on one of Vancouver’s most beautiful streets in one of Canada’s most rarest of neighbourhoods.
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Here the streets are narrow, the blocks are small and on a grid, and the scale is perfect for a pedestrian and a cyclist.
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I consider myself fortunate to live in such a place, but also find it inherently unfair that other Canadians do not have the option to also be able to live like this. This is something government and Canadians need to address. It requires bold leadership and a real cohesive plan from the levels of government with money and power: Ottawa and Victoria.

My commute takes me from Kitsilano to the city core over Burrard Bridge. This is where it gets tricky – squeezing everyone into the space of a sidewalk. This picture was taken at 9:15, so the rush hour crowd was long gone.2014-06-06 08.59.23In the morning there can be upwards of 30 cyclists converging at the south end of the bridge, and there is usually at least one who left home late and is in a hurry.2014-06-06 09.00.46

From the bridge I turn south down the alleyway to access the seawall, which at the present time does not link up to the bridge. 2014-06-06 09.04.42As a result I ride along Beach Road to the intersection at Pacific and then take the sidewalk to reach the seawall, as the alternative would be to try making a left turn from Pacific – not ideal at rush hour.

The Seawall connects nicely with a shared bike road route across the West End to Stanley Park and under the Causeway. From there I head North along Pipeline Road, across the wooden bridge and up one of the trails to the head of Lion’s Gate Bridge. This section of the route only has one tricky area, which requires expert navigation across Pipeline Road to the wooden bridge. 2014-06-06 09.20.21Many motorists speed on Pipeline as they use it as a shortcut to get to Lion’s Gate Bridge; they are also not expecting cyclists to turn left to the wooden bridge, as while it is marked as a one way, it is open to bikes. 2014-06-06 09.20.29The grade up to Lion’s Gate Bridge is very steep, but it is a short trip and much nicer than the noise and fumes from riding up the causeway alongside the vehicles.2014-06-03 08.39.13

Riding Lion’s Gate is not for the faint hearted. The sidewalks are narrow, pedestrians walk with their backs to you and are often looking at their phones and listening to music, completely disconnected from their surroundings.
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This has lead to accidents and fatalities. Someone we know of was killed on the bridged when he lost control of his bike and ran into one of those steel cables – no padding on them, which means not even slow speeds and a helmet can save you.

The downhill from the top of the bridge to the North Vancouver is straight and narrow. In the winter I dislocated my shoulder when I pedestrian abruptly walked into me and knocked me over – luckily I was going slowly and was able to fall on the sidewalk and not into traffic or over the side of the bridge.

Once in North Vancouver the ride is a mixed bag. There is a brief section on Marine Drive before going down Tatlow to the Spirit Trail, which is one of the best cycle pedestrian paths I have ever had the pleasure to ride on.
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It is separated from cars and wends its way through leafy suburban streets and is wide enough for everyone to have fun. Unfortunately the trail comes to an abrupt end as it throws you back into traffic at Welch and 1st.
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In my early days I used to take the bridge over the railway line at this intersection to connect with the “bikeway”; however, I soon avoided this as it takes longer and it also throws you into the automall – not a good place for a bicycle. The alternative – the one I take – is to stay on 1st, which becomes steadily worse as both it and the “bikeway” converge onto Third Street. Ah yes, Third Street, another example of a lack of urban planning.
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Anyone going east or west on the North Shore has just two primary options, this one, or the Trans Canada Upperlevels Freeway. Needles to say this stretch of road is always jammed with SUVs, trucks, and cars, while pedestrians, skateboarders, cyclists, and poles are forced to share a one metre wide sidewalk and avoid certain death by falling into traffic.

The horrid section of Third Street is thankfully only 3 blocks long, coming to an end at Forbes, where bikes and pedestrians are given the short end of the stick at the poorly designed intersection.

The last few blocks to the office take me through a small successful area of development at Lower Lonsdale, made up of mostly medium density and narrow leafy streets. One still needs to be alert riding here, as North Shore drivers are not known for their respect of pedestrians or cyclists, nor for their patience – certainly a result of the evolution of most of North and West Vancouver into large suburban sprawl that is entirely dependent on cars.

To follow: My Commute – back