Sunday, August 30, 2015

Controversial Projects Can Prove Doubters Wrong: Vancouver Sun August 23, 2015

Now that the landscaping is growing in, this development at West 16th and Granville is much more accepted by the Shaughnessy neighbourhood

Every time I drive by Granville Street and West 16th Avenue in Shaughnessy, I think about the three-year battle that preceded approval of the attractive townhouse development overlooking the intersection.
 I have similar thoughts driving by Cambie Street and West 33rd, Larch Street just south of West 39 Avenue, and the 2000 block Esquimalt in West Vancouver.
 In each location, neighbourhood residents vigorously opposed projects that are now completed and occupied. They could offer important lessons on how best to deal with neighbourhood concerns related to future developments.
 The Shaughnessy townhouses were designed by James Bussey of Formwerks Architecture and developed by Arthur Bell Holdings.  

 At the time, some residents feared city approval would encourage future townhouses and highrise buildings threatening the character of historic Shaughnessy. They also worried the project would increase noise, traffic and stress levels. 
Not everyone opposed the development. Since it included restoration of the historic Nichol Mansion, the Vancouver Heritage Commission congratulated the developer for trying to save an important heritage building. 
When the property’s trees were first cut down and construction began, I, too, worried about the project. I suggested to the developer that he put up an illustration to show what the completed development would look like, so neighbouring residents would not lose any more sleep.
Fast forward to today. The landscaping has grown in. Along with many Shaughnessy residents, I no longer have the same concerns. The development is an attractive and appropriate design for the site, offering new housing choices for nearby residents.
Moreover, concerns about future highrises and a loss of neighbourhood character are unlikely to materialize since city council is now expected to approve a heritage strategy for Shaughnessy that will save all pre-1940s housing in the neighbourhood.
Developer Brian Bell is also happy with how the project turned out and pleased that, as he predicted, many homes sold to local residents impressed with the project’s quality and attention to detail. 

Art Cowie's fee-simple row houses as viewed along Cambie Street

Sadly, planner and developer Art Cowie never lived to see his dream project at West 33rd and Cambie completed. He died during construction. However, his name will always be associated with the three fee-simple rowhouses council eventually approved on what was once a single-family-zoned property.
Ironically, his once-controversial development, which also included rental coach houses above the garages, is now dwarfed by a six-storey building to the north and other mid-rise buildings up and down Cambie.
Cowie’s fee-simple townhouses are significant in that they are not condominiums. Each is individually owned, like a single-family home, with no strata fees. 
One of his challenges in getting approval was the city’s Law Department, which worried about the legality of the proposed agreement for the shared party wall between units.
To address this legal concern, Cowie eventually had to build two separate walls. However, Suzanne Anton, then a city councillor, recognized the importance of this type of housing and convinced the province to change legislation to facilitate more individually owned townhouses in the future. 

Larchwood, as viewed from the lane

On Larch Street, just south of St Mary's Church on West 39th Avenue is a development that seems to fit seamlessly with the surrounding Kerrisdale ‘Craftsman-style’ homes. 
Completed in 2000, it replaced seven single family lots with forty-five new townhomes ranging in size from one to three bedrooms. Some were planned to appeal to young families; others incorporated features that would be attractive to seniors.
  Designed by Ramsay Warden Architects and developed by Intracorp, the development also included a full restoration of an existing heritage home.
   Planning consultant Charles Brook recalls that the initial proposal was furiously opposed by many neighbouring single family homeowners, but supported by nearby high-rise residents seeking alternative housing choices, and empty nesters ready to downsize in their Kerrisdale neighbourhood.
  Since the City of Vancouver had no policy to allow rezonings in Kerrisdale, planning staff recommended the project be approved as a neighbourhood demonstration project, an effective way to test out a new planning concept.
   Eventually all but one member of city council agreed and today the development serves an attractive model of how low density townhouses and stacked townhouses can be integrated into single family neighbourhoods, away from busy arterial roads. 

Today Hollyburn Mews in the 2000 Block of Esquimalt has been well-accepted by the surrounding West Vancouver neighbourhood

 In West Vancouver, a five-year battle preceded approval of six duplex homes and three coach houses on three single-family lots across from West Vancouver United Church. 
Over 150 people wrote letters in opposition or spoke at the multiple-night public hearing. However, some local residents were in favour and eventually the project — one of my own — was approved by a narrow four-to-three council vote.
  To improve the neighbourhood fit, each pair of duplexes was designed to look like a large house. Unlike Vancouver’s laneway houses, the coach houses were sold; one to a household with young children and the others to seniors wanting to downsize.
Today, many planners and residents have said they consider the Formwerks-designed Hollyburn Mews to be a good model of in-fill housing and gentle densification, and one that has application around the province.
The City of Kelowna recently included it in a planning document illustrating how new low-rise housing can be successfully integrated into single family neighbourhoods.
These case studies are not intended to say that neighbourhood concerns over rezoning applications are never valid. On the contrary, they often are. 
However, in order to better assess the validity of these concerns, it could be very valuable if planners, neighbourhood organizations, and perhaps journalists carried out post-mortems on controversial projects that did get built, in order to determine whether the concerns materialized. 
Is the building out of scale and character? Did nearby property values drop as feared? Were there neighbourhood traffic and parking problems? 
Ongoing reviews of controversial projects might help us all gain a better understanding of what to watch out for in neighbourhood plans and rezoning applications.  This in turn will help us accommodate future changing housing needs in our communities.

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