Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Life in the Back Lane: Toronto Style

While Vancouver City Council was considering zoning changes to permit laneway housing, I was walking the back lanes of Toronto with Alex Speigel and Mark Guslits. These two old friends, with backgrounds in architecture and property development, both share my fascination with laneway housing. While most of the locations we visited were in the inner city, and quite different in context from Dunbar or East Vancouver, what we found offers lessons for future back lane development in Vancouver, both in terms of what to do, and what not to do.As a general comment, Toronto allows back lane developments only where it has to; namely on lanes with legal addresses. There is no widespread policy encouraging this form of housing. On the contrary, it is generally discouraged, primarily for engineering reasons. But over the years a number of older lane buildings have been renovated, and new units have been built. And numerous studies have been done promoting this form of housing.

I was particularly interested in the opportunities for laneway townhousing, semi detached and zero lot-line applications in certain areas. In some areas, units are built above cars; in others the car parking is beside the home, or on the street. Now that Vancouver Council has approved the zoning changes, it will be fascinating to see what results. If I learned one thing from the Toronto examples, it is don't forget to design for the garbage cans, and don't be afraid to try out different asthetics for the laneway units. Also, don't forget about giving the new home an address! What are we doing in this regard?

The new units do not have to match the old house. Indeed, along Croft Street, an old historic back lane street, the laneway dwellings have created a mews character with great interest and success.
Oh yes, and while this infill unit is not truly a laneway house, I couldn't resist!


Desmond said...

Thanks for the great overview of what's happened/happening in Toronto. It's nice to see more than the usual photo of that one example with the curved roof (although that one is nice).

Just a couple of questions: does the City (of Toronto) have any particular criteria for which lanes get 'named' and can have legal addresses? I know that in Montréal there also seem to be some lanes that are definitely named and treated like 'real' streets, whereas others not so. This is at least somewhat (if informally) true in Vancouver, where some West End lanes could become 'streets' without stretching the imagination too much, while in downtown New Westminster, most of the lanes are already named and do have legal addresses, but mostly end up serving as the rear access to apartment complexes. Interesting to know if 'officializing' lanes by simply naming them and allowing addresses to use them would be another way to approach laneway housing, especially if larger clusters of it end up emerging.

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