Saturday, March 2, 2013

Selling High Density in West Van: Globe and Mail Saturday March 2, 2013

The retro looks of Hollyburn Mews are one strategy in an effort to bring more multi-family offerings to the wealthy community

by Hadani Ditmars

Where will all the aging boomers go when their large footprint homes become too much to handle?

The traditional choices have been apartments or condos. But a new development in West Vancouver offers the best of both worlds.

Hollyburn Mews, a cluster of cottage-style duplexes and coach houses located on Esquimalt Avenue, is for people who "want to downsize but not downgrade," developer Michael Geller said.

While West Vancouver boasts some of Canada's best examples of mid-century modern design, the 1990's and 2000's saw the birth of large 5,000-plus-square-foot homes that were worlds away from the small footprint single-family homes by the likes of Ron Thom and Fred Hollingsworth.

But now, as many empty-nesters find themselves looking for more practical and sustainable alternatives to fit their changing lifestyles, there are very few intermediate options available in the wealthy district of 42,000. Smaller ground oriented homes with access to yards and outdoor spaces are few and far between.

Marlou and Iain Hume, a retired couple who moved here from Montreal several years ago, are typical of the kind of buyer attracted to Hollyburn Mews. "I wish there'd been something like this when we first arrived," Mrs. Hume said as she tours the six duplexes and three coach houses with developer Michael Geller. "Everything we saw was just so big - we didn't need all that space." Their quest to downsize but stay in the community has led them here.

The new development, with its shared green space, reduced setbacks and community feel, reminds the couple of Montreal or, indeed, of Mr. Hume's native England. But the architectural inspiration (with design by Formwerks and general concept by Mr. Geller) is actually from early-20th-century West Vancouver cottages. While interiors and green technologies are state-of-the-art, nostalgic references like covered porches, board and batten siding, and steeply sloped roofs with dormers hark back to another era.

And yet Hollyburn Mews is actually considered "high density" in bucolic West Vancouver. There was huge controversy about the development, with columnists such as Trevor Lautens of the North Shore News, being quite vocal in their opposition to it. "But now that the homes are on the market," says Mr. Geller with a smile, "some of the same critics are on waiting lists to buy them."

The development which manages to fit three units on a standard 50-foot lot, went through a five-year approval process. The concept won kudos from prominent West Vancouver residents like former mayor Pam Goldsmith-Jones whose plan for "gentle densification" fits Hollyburn Mews like a glove.

West Van resident and former city of Vancouver planner Ray Spaxman (referred by many as the "father of Vancouverism") also liked the concept. "But he felt the density was too low and he didn't think it was correct to do craftsman-style housing in 2013," noted Mr. Geller.

But the reality is, he said, "If I had done a higher-density development in a more modernist style, there would have been much more community opposition."

The traditional touches like wainscotting and specially trimmed windowpanes helped sway Council and community groups, as did the design for the duplexes that avoided traditional boxy duplication in favor of a seamless and assymmetrical frontage that appears from the street as a single-family home.

And unlike Vancouver laneway houses that are generally used for rental and are relatively small, these coach houses (the first in West Vancouver) are 1800 square feet and on three levels.

Formwerks employed aging-boomer-friendly details for added appeal. Each bathroom has illuminated mirrors and staircases have been designed extra wide and with plugs at the bottom for stair lifts.

Features like large porches help create layers between units and common green areas, while Dutch doors that can be opened from the top or bottom half evoke a more neighbourly era.

"I wanted to create a development that offered both privacy and a sense of community," explains Mr. Geller.

Locating the development in such a central area also scores high points for a walkability. The village like environs include the West Vancouver United Church, the HCMA designed community recreation center, a bowling green, the library and many small retail shops and restaurants.

It is no surprise that Mr. Geller is inspired by American architect Ross Chapin and his idea of the "pocket neighbourhood."

"It's the idea of the neighbourhood within the neighbourhood," explains Mr. Geller. "There are many successful examples in the U.S. of gorgeous little cottages with big porches built around communal space."

Indeed, the strip of landscaping between the south facing duplexes and the coach houses to the north will offer neighbourly benches and gardens. The north facing coach houses will in turn engage and re-energize the laneway.

It's hard to believe that sleepy West Vancouver is on the vanguard of new housing for aging boomers. But thanks to former mayor Pam Goldsmith-Jones and her plan for "gentle densification," it actually is.

The contrast is striking compared to areas like Dunbar on Vancouver's West Side, where empty-nesters living in sprawling 3500 square-foot Arts-and-Crafts-style houses is the norm, and where housing for seniors has been actively opposed by an aging community.

"They key," says Mr. Geller, "is to design higher-density developments like this in a way that suits the needs of residents and fits in with the existing neighbourhood. There's a real niche market out there for people who want to stay in their area but aren't ready to move into an apartment."

Special the Globe and Mail.


Anonymous said...
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Faaiza Lalji said...

Kudos, Michael, for producing such a necessary project for West Vancouver. Not only does it address some of the most pressing planning topics of our day, including aging in place and walkability, but it does so in a way that is both sensitive to the design and temperament of the existing neighborhood, as well as politically attune to West Van’s culture. I look forward to a tour ☺. Congratulations, again.

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SPAM said...
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Michael Geller said...

Faaiza. Given your familiarity with West Vancouver and the knowledge and wisdom you're gaining in architecture and planning at Harvard, your observations are most appreciated!

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