Reflecting Vancouver

Urbanism and Life on the West Coast

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The Kits Boomer Dilemma

Vancouver Spring 2016 001.JPG

Working at the Kitsilano Collaborative Garden this past weekend, we were approached by a few passing patrons of the Community Centre. A silver-haired woman in colourful clothing and friendly mood tentatively inspected a bed of perennials near the sidewalk.

“I like how you’ve separated the soil with rocks. I was thinking of doing that in my garden!” I encouraged her to try bricks instead. The crushed rock was cheaper, but seems to perpetually fall out of place.

“So do you live nearby?” I asked.

“Oh yes, just on Balaclava. But the maintenance on my house is a lot of work, especially for my husband. I wish we could downsize and stay in Kitsilano, maybe with a smaller garden.”

I had encountered the typical Kits Boomer. She bought around 1980, as the neighbourhood emerged from boarding house dilapidation to heritage desirability. She has a room full of books. She carries a distinctive beads-and-granola air. She knows her neighbours and has always loved living here. But she’s tired of taking care of an aging house, and wonders if she should cash out. The classic Kits Boomer dilemma.

Some have chosen to take the money and move on. Others have become reluctant landlords. A few have even hired developers to restore and stratify, where zoning allows it. But I suspect most will simply stay put, perhaps deferring property taxes. Which leads me to the next thought: what will happen as the Kits Boomers pass away?

Will their children inherit the homes? Will the neighbourhood become wealthy legacy families and UBC students only? Or will the lure of investor money, assuming no collapse of home values, be irresistible to their benefactors? Will Kitsilano retain its latent values of environmentalism and progressive politics — already under threat — as the aging personalities of the counterculture disappear?

I like to think of my block as one small bulwark against the demise of Kitsilano as a healthy and conscious community. But I see how many Kits Boomers number among my neighbours. What will my community be like when they are gone?

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Placemaking in Kitsilano

Placemaking Kitsilano 1

Tear down that hedge, Mr. Gorbachev! Some weeks ago we hatched a neighbourhood project in placemaking. The catalyst was twofold. First, to make a permanent, inviting space along the sidewalk and verge where adults and children alike tended to gather. Second, to shake up the surrounding streetscape with a measure of openness and eccentricity. Small talk led to suggestions, until we all expressed the sense that our corner of Kitsilano could use a dose of community and art.

Placemaking Kitsilano 2

First to go was the imposing cedar hedge that separated our adjoining properties. We replaced the cedars with a short row of Portuguese Laurel, and added a raised vegetable bed on our driveway to benefit from the improved sunlight. Framing the laurels, our neighbour Michael built an L-shaped bench from hemlock, cedar, and fir. A shared space could then spill around both houses for flexible use.

Placemaking Kitsilano 3

Across the sidewalk, the heart of our project soon began. We had used the grassy strip beside the sidewalk as a kind of impromptu outdoor living room for a season or two, leaving out deck chairs and lawn furniture for sunny days. Eventually Michael set a bench on concrete anchors, but the patchy sod was still a wet inconvenience. With the help of a Neighbourhood Small Grant, we decided to pull out the grass and create a kind of plaza to focus the block. I spent one hot Saturday chopping out the sod and roots, and Chris provided pavers for us all to try laying. Just about everyone set at least one.

Placemaking Kitsilano 4

Beyond the physical improvement of space, we’re sharing intangible know-how of carpentry, gardening, and landscaping. We’re also sharing ideas, laughs, and food, gathering interest from the rest of the community as the space continues to evolve. Dog walkers and locals with grocery bags sometimes stop to ask what we’re doing, along with many smiles and murmurs of approval. “You guys are doing it right!” said one Kitsilano tank-top dude, motioning thumbs up.

Up next: the art projects. See our fun-loving dinosaur pictured below? He will soon be transformed into a Gaudi-inspired trencadís sculpture to liven the street. He will accompany a tall, standing bear crafted from cedar topiary — his feet visible in the photo above — a kind of nod to the staid hedge that once divided us.

Placemaking Kitsilano 6
Photo credit Keiko Honda and Gabriel Pliska

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Wisteria in Bloom

Kitsilano Wisteria

Wisteria is blooming across Kitsilano. Somehow I never noticed how much there was until this year. Perhaps there are more blossoms than usual because of the pleasantly warm spring? The climate of the Lower Mainland seems to become more like vintage California with each passing year, whereas the real San Francisco Bay Area is increasingly struggling to provide drinking water to its residents.


The Case Against RS Zoning in Vancouver

The latest leader in The Economist discusses the cost of restrictive land use in cities. Barriers to development have hampered growth, pushed rents through the roof, and limited labor supply in prospering urban centres. San Francisco, New York, and London are particularly singled out for forcing new workers to bid up the cost of limited housing, resulting in oppressive mortgages, exorbitant rents, or numbing commutes. The main culprit? Restrictive and costly local development codes, particularly in the form of conservative zoning for wealthy residential property owners. Is this starting to sound familiar?

Vancouver needs to loosen its residential zoning to remain livable. Housing affordability has been the number one issue for several municipal election cycles, yet the vast majority of our city remains zoned for single-family homes (RS-1). Why? Changes to RS-1 are presumably the third rail of Vancouver politics, and would immediately prompt voter revolt against any politician with the chutzpah — I would call it leadership — to propose higher density. This despite the fact that Kitsilano, Strathcona, Grandview, and other desirable neighbourhoods have enjoyed decades of multifamily zoning policies that serve to enhance their residential diversity and character.

Across Greater Vancouver, the benchmark price of an apartment is $390,200 and a dizzying $1,052,800 for a detached home. In Vancouver West, this rises to $514,400 for an apartment and a stratospheric $2,447,700 for a detached house. Given these figures, can anyone seriously believe that sales of detached homes west of Main Street represent anything more than investment vehicles for the already-wealthy? In what world does $2,447,700 function as housing for a family on Vancouver incomes, even among the highest earners?

Kitsilano Townhouses

The cornflour blue home pictured above is a recently renovated two-family dwelling at the corner of Larch and 6th Avenue in Kitsilano. It was built in the late 1980s, around the same time as the duplex where I live a few blocks away. The building is stratified, meaning that owners on each side of the wall need to talk to each other about maintenance and effectively split the costs of any major repairs. I’d guess that each unit has around 2000 square feet and three bedrooms. While doubtless expensive, the arrangement slashes the cost of a house in Kitsilano for the inconvenience of sharing a wall with someone else. It’s certainly more than a townhouse, and likely more spacious than row housing on equivalent lots. Practicalities aside, the design is cheerful, inviting, and respectful of the surrounding character homes.

Yet this charming home is illegal in most of the city, only possible though special Kitsilano RT-8 zoning. In the words of the City of Vancouver RS-1 District Schedule, the cornflour blue duplex would presumably hinder “neighbourly development” by obstructing the “outdoor space and views” that RS-1 afford. Would such a building really pose an existential danger in the 60% of our city currently restricted to one principal dwelling per lot (and often much larger lots)? How can the vernacular eaves and bay windows possibly be construed as an affront to neighbourly development and livability? Indeed, our single-family districts are already littered with illegal secondary suites, so density of people cannot be the issue. Why is a duplex, where two families are able to own the lot instead of one, so vastly different so as to be prohibited across most of the city?

Juxtaposed with ever-increasing Vancouver home prices and the near-constant grind of news on affordability, the preservation of single-family housing (that is, RS-1 zoning) merely for the sake of “outdoor space and views” makes less and less sense. I would challenge anyone to visit RT-7 and RT-8 in Kitsilano and explain how the scale of these neighbourhoods would materially impact their use of space and enjoyment of views, and further challenge them to explain why the City should actively protect such low residential density when a house costs over $1,000,000 anywhere within city limits. Could it be that our politicians are too frightened of telling west side owners that a small reduction in lawn space must be made to ensure that relatively well-off families seeking to own more than two bedrooms still have a chance of living in Vancouver? We’ll set aside the pernicious issue of whether any grass needs to be set aside for the sake of middle-income residents or — God forbid — the poor.

In a sense, the restricted supply of Vancouver housing has already resulted in a desirability trap. Even if swaths of single-family lots are rezoned to permit duplexes by fiat, those duplexes will then signal an investment opportunity, and many units may simply be left vacant to accrue value for absentee owners, as single-family homes are today. It will also take time to satisfy pent-up demand for such housing, of which Vancouver has long had precious little stock. Prices would not magically fall, and our elementary schools would not suddenly fill their classrooms.

But it would be a necessary step to keeping our city open to more residents than those who are already here. Many young families would be happy to live in the cornflour blue duplex, if only there were more of them.


A New Vancouverism

This video segment from CBC has been making rounds:

Planners around the world once looked to Vancouver for advice on transforming their cities. Today we face a looming urban design crisis, and are rapidly losing vanguard status to cities willing to take greater risks. Our legacy still informs dense residential developments and luxurious condo schemes, particularly in North American cities where urban revitalization is incomplete. But we have precious little to teach the world about the challenges we now face, and that our imitators will soon be forced to confront as well: a rapidly rising population, diminishing brownfield, and intense resistance from inner suburbs to the platform-and-tower model.

I previously discussed the impact of this crisis on housing affordability, the gravest symptom of our need for new ideas. As the addition of new housing stock slows due to fewer available development sites, along with financial incentives to build smaller and smaller units on increasingly expensive land, housing for young families will soon vanish from Vancouver. Even if we mandate a minimum percentage of new apartments with two or more bedrooms — a recent Vision promise — less and less construction will occur as available land for traditional Vancouverism runs out. In parallel, these units will become more and more expensive, until they rocket past the financial means of young couples to afford them. Purchasing a two-bedroom apartment in Vancouver now requires a household income of about $70,000 per year, given a brutal 60% to housing expenses, plus a hefty down payment. There is dangerously little room for the cost of housing to rise further if we want a demographically balanced city.

It is often said that high housing costs are a geographic inevitability in Vancouver. That we are doomed to be a city of expensive condos and strapped renters because there just isn’t enough space to go around. But we are not Hong Kong, and this crisis is not for lack of land — greater than 50% of our city is zoned for single family homes. It is unthinkable to allow our city to slip into stasis after the final CD-1 tower, while pretending that our vast single-family vernacular should remain untouched. Vancouver must accept that single-family neighbourhoods will densify, or otherwise become vacant portfolio assets beside packed and pricey towers. Our city deserves better.

If we don’t start planning for the densification of our residential neighbourhoods, many thousands of new Metro Vancouver arrivals will instead flow to suburban development outside Vancouver’s borders. This almost certainly means being trapped in a vicious cycle of new automobile infrastructure to facilitate one-car commutes. Motordom will win. It’s time for Vancouver to step up again and show a better way forward for urban living, one in which everyone can participate. Diverse transportation options are crucial for healthy urban design, and the transit plebiscite must be won. But land use planning is the foundation on which transportation policy is framed, and changes to zoning start with the City.

The concern isn’t whether Vancouver has an optimal number of residents, but how we will design our city to remain livable as our population increases. Constraints of comfort, space, and price will determine our quality of life in tomorrow’s Vancouver, and these are all factors amenable to policy. In the coming months, I’ll share ideas from my own neighbourhood of Kitsilano, where a history of creative densification provides many instructive examples.