Thursday, July 30, 2009
Mews and Back Lane Infill Housing in Toronto
While the housing is generally urban, as this photo shows, one doesn't have to go without a white picket fence! Thanks Reuber for sharing your insights into your city.
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!
Thursday, July 23, 2009
Council OKs ‘mortgage helpers’ in the sky (as small as a 5 ton truck)
One small correction...the units will not be 'condos' within condos' since they cannot be subdivided off and sold. They can only be rented.
I spoke in favour of this zoning change at the Public Hearing, although I did question the sizes. At UniverCity, after some trial and error, we concluded that 250 sq.ft. was a good minimum size. The City of Vancouver is requiring larger units, but allowing some relaxation. While this should ultimately work, I worry that in this case the permitted minimum size is too small, and the need to request a relaxation may add uncertainty and unnecessary additional work load for staff.
(Astute readers will note that on the Laneway Housing matter, I was arguing the opposite....that MORE discretion should be given to the Director of Planning...but he didn't really want it because of its impact on workload!)
A copy of the staff report and applicable areas can be found at http://vancouver.ca/ctyclerk/cclerk/20090721/documents/phea5.PDF
Availability, affordability expected to rise with condos within condos
July 23, 2009 5:00 a.m.
Secondary suites within high-rise condominiums the size of a five-ton truck are coming to Vancouver.
In a move to increase the city’s rental stock and home affordability, city council approved Tuesday night the development of secondary suites within suites.
Vancouver architect Michael Geller, who pioneered the idea in the UniverCity development at Simon Fraser University, said people should think of them as “basement suites” or “mortgage helpers” in the sky.
Just as basement suites allow people to purchase a larger house, Geller explained, secondary condo suites could enable homebuyers to purchase a three-bedroom over a two-bedroom condo.
It would also increase rental stock in Vancouver.
The suites have their own bathroom and kitchen area and can be as small as 280 square feet. Geller compared them to a hotel room with kitchenette.
That minimum size could be further “relaxed” by the director of planning down to 205 square feet if the developer meets numerous livability guidelines, like adequate lighting and storage space.
Vision Coun. Raymond Louie said the suites would allow families to “age in place,” if they choose to do so.
Families could rent out the suite before they have children, expand into the suite when the family grows and rent it out again when their children leave the nest.
Louie said he expects it will be a year before the first development with secondary suites is built.
The city has previously approved secondary suites in the planned East Fraserlands development in South Vancouver.
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Laneway Housing Public Hearing: Night One
Below are the speaking notes that I prepared in advance of last night's Public Hearing. Unfortunately, I only got to speak to the first two items before running out of time. As it turned out, I was the only person speaking in favour of requiring a second parking space to address potential neighbourhood concerns...I couldn't believe it. It seems like everyone in this city has now traded in their cars for bicycles, if you were to believe the first 15 or so speakers at the Public Hearing!
Near the end of the evening, representatives of Arbutus, Kerrisdale, Shaughnessey and Dunbar came out to express their opposition to the zoning changes, due in part to concerns over the lack of consultation. But by then, the Laneway Housing supporters had won the evening. It was a surprising and impressive display of support.
I stayed until the end...around 11:30 and I'm glad I did, since while most members of Council and staff were not very impressed with my argument to treat this more as a 'pilot project' with more discretion in the hands of the Director of Planning, the last speaker, Bob Williams did note that he was in agreement with my suggested approach. So who knows, while I don't expect the councillors to take advice from me, hopefully they will consider the wise counsel of Bob Williams.
SPEAKING NOTES FOR MICHAEL GELLER: LANEWAY HOUSING PUBLIC HEARING
I STAND BEFORE YOU AS AN ARCHITECT AND THE FORMER MANAGER OF A CMHC STUDY ON SENSITIVE INFILL HOUSING THAT LOOKED AT LANEWAY HOUSING IN VANCOUVER, TORONTO AND MONTREAL IN THE 70’S. I AM ALSO PRESIDENT OF LANEWAY COTTAGES INC. A COMPANY THAT HAS BEEN ESTABLISHED TO BUILD LANEWAY HOUSING IN THE CITY.
I AM PLEASED TO SUPPORT THE PROPOSED REZONING AMENDMENTS AND CONGRATULATE STAFF FOR THE WORK THEY HAVE DONE. HOWEVER, I WOULD LIKE OFFER SOME THOUGHTS IN THREE AREAS: PARKING, BUILDING HEIGHT, AND THE CHARACTER OF THE LANES:
1. PARKING…WHILE I HAVE BEEN A VOCAL SUPPORTER OF REDUCED PARKING STANDARDS FOR RESIDENTIAL DEVELOPMENTS ELSEWHERE IN THE CITY, I WOULD RECOMMEND THAT COUNCIL REQUIRE AN ADDITIONAL SPACE FOR THE LANEWAY UNIT. GIVEN THE MAIN HOUSE, A BASEMENT SUITE AND A LANEWAY UNIT, THERE COULD BE 3 UNITS ON 33’ LOT TOTALING 2900 SQUARE FEET…REQUIRING 2 SPACES IS NOT UNREASONABLE AND WILL HELP ADDRESS A POTENTIAL SHORTAGE OF PARKING WHICH COULD BE A LEGITIMATE COMMUNITY CONCERN IN SOME NEIGHBOURHOODS;
WHILE SOME WILL SAY LOWER INCOME PEOPLE WILL NOT HAVE CARS, THE FACT IS THESE UNITS, WHEN RENTED ON THE OPEN MARKET, MAY RENT FOR $1200 TO $1600 A MONTH OR MORE DEPENDING ON THE SIZE AND LOCATION (BASED ON WHAT A RECENT UNIT WAS RENTING FOR ON CRAIG’SLIST!)
I KNOW THAT SOME OF YOU MAY NOT WANT TO REQUIRE A SECOND PARKING SPACE SINCE IT WILL LIKELY RESULT IN A 1 ½ STOREY UNIT ON A 33’ LOT. HOWEVER, THERE IS ANOTHER OPTION THAT HAS NOT BEEN PRESENTED BY STAFF….AS EDWARD DE BONO MIGHT SAY, LET’S BRING SOME LATERAL THINKING TO THE PROBLEM….AND ALLOW TANDEM PARKING (ONE SPACE BEHIND THE OTHER)….WITH A REQUIREMENT FOR PERVIOUS MATERIALS. WHILE NOT AS PRACTICAL AS TWO PARKING SPACES, THIS IS BETTER THAN NOT REQUIRING ANY ADDITIONAL PARKING;
2. NOW SPEAKING OF HEIGHT, I WANT TO THANK COUNCILLOR LOUIE FOR PROPOSING THE AMENDMENT TO ALLOW LONGER, LOWER UNITS ON DEEPER LOTS. WHILE I DON’T WANT TO FLOG A DEAD HORSE, FOR THE RECORD, I DO WANT TO NOTE THAT I STILL THINK A 36’ DEEP SINGLE STOREY FLAT ROOF UNIT WOULD BE LESS OBTRUSIVE ON A 33’ LOT THAN A 1 ½ STOREY UNIT THAT ONLY INTRUDES 26 FEET.
WHILE I APPRECIATE IT IS NOT REALLY FEASIBLE TO ANTICIPATE ALL THE SITUATIONS WHERE ALTERNATIVE SOLUTIONS WOULD BE PREFERABLE, I WOULD PROPOSE THAT COUNCIL ASK THE LAW DEPARTMENT TO COME UP WITH SOME WORDING TO GIVE THE DIRECTOR OF PLANNING DISCRETION DURING THIS TRIAL PERIOD, TO APPROVE SUCH UNITS; A CONDITION OF SUCH DISCRESSION MIGHT BE A REQUIREMENT FOR THE APPROVAL OF THE IMMEDIATE NEIGHBOURS.
THIS WOULD BE CONSISTENT WITH THE ORIGINAL GOAL OF COUNCIL, THAT THIS BE A ‘PILOT PROJECT’ TO TEST OUT DIFFERENT IDEAS. I AGREE WITH COUNCILLOR REIMER…IT IS COUNTER INTUITIVE TO REZONE MUCH OF THE CITY SIMPLY TO ALLOW 100 DEMONSTRATION UNITS. BY GIVING THE DIRECTOR OF PLANNING DISCRETION (EVEN IF THIS WILL INCREASE HIS WORKLOAD) THIS WILL ALLOW MORE CREATIVE SOLUTION.
3. FINALLY, SOMETHING WE HAVEN’T DISCUSSED BEFORE…A KEY TO THE SUCCESS OF LANEWAY HOUSING COULD BE THE CHARACTER OF THE LANES UPON WHICH THEY ARE BUILT. MANY VANCOUVER LANES ARE AWFUL, AND I DO HOPE THAT SOME OF THE LIMITED ADDITIONAL MONIES THAT WILL FLOW TO THE CITY FROM INCREASED PROPERTY TAXES CAN BE DEDICATED TO THE UPGRADING OF REALLY BAD LANES WITH LANEWAY UNITS.
THIS MIGHT EVEN BE AN INCENTIVE FOR THE RESIDENTS OF SOME BLOCKS TO COME FORWARD WITH LANEWAY PROPOSALS!
MANY MUNICIPALITIES ACROSS NORTH AMERICA WILL BE WATCHING VANCOUVER CITY COUNCIL AND THIS EXPERIMENT. I KNOW WE ALL WANT TO SEE IT SUCCEED. THIS IS MY MOTIVATION FOR OFFERING THESE COMMENTS. I HOPE YOU FIND THEM HELPFUL.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Architectural Record's take on Laneway Housing
"Laneway Housing" Gets Green Light in Vancouver
After years of discussion, tonight Vancouver City Council will begin a Public Hearing on Laneway Housing. While there are many details still to be resolved, including the parking requirements, I expect this initiative will pass.
While I suspect that further refinements to the zoning schedule and guidelines will be required as units are built, ultimately this zoning change will lead to a new 'legal' housing choice in our city. I say legal since there are many 'illegal' laneway houses already dotted around our single family zones. It will also result in other jurisdictions allowing this form of housing.
Recently, Architectural Record, one of the premier architectural journals in the world did a short story on Laneway Housing. While the article 'jumped the gun' a bit, it is worth reading. The author, Linda Baker is a highly acclaimed Portland-based journalist who writes for the New York Times and many other publications.May 6, 2009
By Linda Baker
Correction appended May 22, 2009When former Vancouver B.C. mayor Sam Sullivan introduced the city’s groundbreaking Eco-Density initiative in 2006, one of the key goals was to increase the amount of affordable infill housing. Several years later, the Vancouver city council has followed up on that promise—by approving the use of “laneway housing” in the city’s single-family home neighborhoods.
To maintain affordability, the new housing type will be limited to rental use—no for-sale units will be allowed. The design parameters are not so clear-cut. “The proposition is that the footprint of a laneway house will replace the footprint of a two car garage,” says Michael Geller, a Vancouver architect and developer who aims to fill the new niche with prefabricated construction. “What is not yet fixed is the maximum size, height, and whether a parking space will be required.”
As city planners draft laneway housing amendments to the current zoning regulations, Jake Fry, principal owner of Smallworks, a local design-build company, has already developed a possible prototype. His 624-square-foot, one-and-a-half-story Laneway Loft House features large windows and backyard views, as well as sustainable building materials such as bamboo flooring, structural insulated wall panels, and recycled shingling. It also has an eco-roof. The larger design challenge, Fry says, involves building on a narrow driveway without casting shadows on back yard vegetable gardens or providing sightlines into adjacent properties.
Since the Vancouver initiative was approved last October, the nearby cities of Maple Ridge and Nanaimo have also started revising zoning bylaws to allow laneway housing; the suburbs of North and West Vancouver will likely follow suit.
For several decades now, Vancouver has been a leader in high-density urban planning circles. As policy makers expand their attention from the inner city to single-family home and suburban neighborhoods, new questions are surfacing about how to densify gracefully. As Geller notes in the case of laneway housing: “The key design feature is accommodating the garbage cans.”
Correction: In October 2008, the City of Vancouver approved a plan to allow laneway housing in the city's single-family-home neighborhoods. As part of the process, city council directed staff to draft specific zoning amendments for laneway housing, which will be considered during public hearings July 2009. The original article mistakenly stated the laneway policy would take effect in July 2009.
Friday, July 17, 2009
Vancouver or Seattle: Who's greener?
The two cities have plenty in common, particularly their enthusiasm for sustainability
By Michael Geller, Special to the Vancouver Sun July 17, 2009
Last month, two stimulating debates took place in Vancouver and Seattle to decide which city has the better-built environment. Sponsored by VIA Architecture, which has offices in both cities, the debates featured former Vancouver Councillor Gordon Price, who heads the City Program at SFU, and architect Peter Steinbrueck, who also served as a Seattle politician.
But what made them so fascinating and entertaining was the fact that the two speakers switched their normal roles -- Price spoke in favour of Seattle, while Steinbrueck defended Vancouver.
While each admitted that it was difficult being a booster for a competing city, these two urbanists had little difficulty identifying the shortcomings of their hometowns.
Steinbrueck thought Vancouver was better because of its absence of downtown freeways, its extensive SkyTrain network, more downtown residents (especially families), thin high-rise towers and podium townhouses, more public waterfront access, walkable neighborhoods with bikeable streets, and history of visionary planning.
Price praised Seattle for its Pike Place Market, unique neighborhoods with distinctive characters, downtown ferries, streetcars and free downtown buses, more varied and risk-taking architecture, beautiful downtown office buildings, major medical and research complexes and better cultural institutions supported by more generous civic patrons.
Each also highlighted his city's negatives. Steinbrueck noted that Seattle doesn't try to accommodate families in its new inner city communities, and Price criticized Vancouver's homogenous highrises and lack of architectural variety.
Recently, I was invited to Seattle to speak to a group of Urban Land Institute professionals from Portland and Seattle. These under-35 architects, planners and developers are Cascadia's future leaders in urban planning and development. Over a day-and-a-half, the Vancouver/Seattle debate continued, with the Portland delegates making the case for their wonderful city.
I talked about the mayor of Vancouver's desire to be the greenest city in the world, and while the American delegates did not laugh, they did smile, since both Seattle and Portland are considered the two most sustainable cities in the United States.
But there are similarities. As Vancouver gets ready to start its rapid transit line from the airport to the downtown, today Seattle is opening its long awaited 23-km, $2.3 billion light-rail line that will connect its downtown to Tukwila. An extension to SeaTac airport will begin later this year.
I was surprised to discover that there are striking similarities in our housing initiatives. When I mentioned that Vancouver City Council would be holding a public hearing next Tuesday, July 21 on laneway housing, Diane Sugimura, Seattle's director of planning and development handed me a brochure promoting backyard cottages, their version of laneway housing.
This summer, Seattle City Council will consider a proposal to allow homeowners across the city to build cottages in their backyards. In 2006, the city considered allowing detached cottages to be built citywide but instead approved them only for southeast Seattle as an experiment. Since 2006, just 17 have been built, but a city survey indicates neighbours either like them or do not notice them. The new proposal would limit the number to 50 per year and require the homeowner to live in either the main house or the cottage for at least half the year. Cottages cannot be added to homes that already contain a basement or 'mother-in-law' suite, and there are very specific guidelines for building height and area that vary depending on the width of the lot.
Not surprisingly, as in Vancouver, the concept has generated both supporters and critics. While I can see advantages and disadvantages to each city's approach, I think there are lessons we can learn from Seattle, and vice versa.
We can also learn from another Seattle initiative which encourages the redevelopment of single family lots with small infill cottages. Sugimura directed me to the corner of 16th and Jefferson where I found four attractive detached single-family homes that had replaced a larger older home. While one had an enclosed garage, the other three shared a surface parking area in the rear.
Each home was less than 1,000 square feet, but provided more than ample living space. On-demand hot water systems eliminated the need for bulky hot water heaters, thus freeing up more storage space. Sarah Bernstein, one of the residents told me that each home was individually owned without the need for any strata corporation.
In neighbouring Kirkland, on a quiet neighbourhood street, I discovered Danielson Grove, a delightful collection of small houses designed by Ross Chapin and developed by The Cottage Company.
This award-winning neighborhood offers sixteen one-, two-, and three-bedroom homes, each on a private lot, arranged around lavishly landscaped garden courtyards. Parking is provided in individual garages on the periphery of the development. Danielson Grove was built under the City of Kirkland's Innovative Housing Demonstration Program.
As Portland, Seattle and Vancouver struggle to accommodate growing populations, I believe that innovative ideas such as laneway housing and cottage homes can provide new choices for those seeking smaller and more affordable housing, but not wanting suites above commercial spaces or large downtown apartment buildings.
I would encourage all municipalities to establish demonstration programs to encourage architects and developers to explore innovative housing ideas. In so doing, we will help ensure that Cascadia remains at the forefront of sustainable living in North America. And Vancouver may one day become the greenest city in the world.
Michael Geller is a Vancouver based architect, planner and property developer and president of Laneway Cottages Inc.
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