Tag Archives: nimby

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).

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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. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NIMBY

Zoning: it’s killing Vancouver

5 Aug

Vancouver has a complex set of zoning measures, a legacy of zoning rules that shaped the cities of North America during the time of the industrial revolution, a period of rapid growth and social instability.

Zoning was originally implemented to keep crowds, noise, and industry separate from single family homes; to ensure the continuity of urban spaces by obliging developers to follow the guidelines of an established community plan. These plans were a crucial step forward during the industrial 19th and 20th centuries, a period of rapid growth, disease, and conflict (1).

Nowadays we live in a world of declining employment and stagnant wages, land is expensive, automobiles are pricey, and public transit is costly. The risk of pandemics and global conflict is reduced – no one of sound mind wants to send the civilized world back to 1917. So why then is the largest chunk of land in Vancouver reserved for the automobile and large single family homes? Between parking lots, boulevards, streets, and avenues, it is estimated that some 40% percent of the city if dedicated to cars, and this does not include the actually roadway, just the curbside parking (2). Even more astounding is this number also does not include the single family homes themselves!

A study of the zoning map of the City of Vancouver is a visual statement of the presence of the automobile and the single family home (3). Apart from the CBD there is no other high density housing in the city. Medium density and mixed use is limited to a few yellow blobs on the map. So why is it that the city of Vancouver has so much of its urban space zoned for single family homes?

Vancouver Zoning Map

The answer to this is pushback. Many of those who are already fortunate enough to live and own in Vancouver constantly push against any effort to modify zoning across the city – think NIMBY or BANANA. The attitude of homeowners is to “keep it the same”, totally nonsensical given the demographic wave the city is experiencing. It is ludicrous that 30 and 40 year old professionals cannot afford to buy anything anywhere near where they work or where their baby boomer parents live. It is absurd that the average Vancouverite is forced to drive to a supermarket for their groceries, rather than be able to walk to a corner store. It is just as ridiculous that because of existing zoning the only place one can drink a coffee, eat a croissant, or sip a glass of wine is on a noisy thoroughfare, and not at a quite street side café near one’s home. Yet as long as pushback continues, it will be business as usual.

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoning_in_the_United_States

(2) http://daily.sightline.org/2013/08/08/park-place/

(3) http://vancouver.ca/files/cov/Zoning-Map-Vancouver.pdf