Sunday, February 19, 2017

My latest undertaking: an affordable housing community in Nanaimo.

 While it may appear I spend all my time on Twitter and Facebook, or pontificating about housing and planning issues on TV and radio, I do continue to work on small, worthwhile real estate projects.
     In addition to a few interesting consulting assignments, I am undertaking Vinson House Cottages, which involves the conservation of a heritage property and creation of 3 infill units, in partnership with Trasolini/Chetner, on a double lot in West Vancouver. One of the homes has sold, and two other homes are now for sale

     I also recently purchased another West Vancouver heritage property, the Rush House, where I am planning a similar conservation/infill project.
    However, last week I concluded the purchase of a 8.63 acre property which offers the potential for a rather different type of development in South Nanaimo, yes Nanaimo.
    So why was I interested in this property?
    In 1970, I studied mobile home parks and manufactured/modular housing on a CMHC travelling scholarship which took me across America with Warren Chalk, one of the founding members and 'catalyst of ideas' for Archigram. For those not familiar, it was a truly avant-garde English architectural group which proposed, among many other things, the concept of plug-in cities
The property offers significant potential for a variety of housing concepts
Immediately to the northwest of the site is a new subdivision. It looks like it's all dressed and ready to go!
     Zoned Mobile Home Park, the Fielding Road property is near Highway 19 and Cedar Road, about 6 km from downtown Nanaimo. While I am not contemplating a traditional mobile home park, the site may be suitable for a pocket-neighbourhood type of development with up to 50+/- affordable cottage-style homes and community amenities. Alternatively, I might explore an alternative development standards subdivision. Nanaimo officials have been quite open-minded and creative in allowing new forms of housing subdivision. Who knows, maybe one day something like this Aurora, Illinois subdivision might be appropriate?
     I also think Nanaimo is an attractive city with considerable potential. It is close to many natural amenities and just a ferry or float plane ride from Vancouver. Moreover, servicing for a new subdivision is now being completed just beyond the property, and a major comprehensive new community, Sandstone, is planned for a property that begins across the road. While there's no doubt it will take many years to complete, it will further enhance the area.
I now look forward to again meeting with municipal officials to discuss how best to proceed with the planning and development of the property. Stay tuned!

Opinion City housing proposals alarm architects, designers, home builders Vancouver Courier February 16, 2017

Do you think these are character houses? Some people do.

     Do you know what architectural features give merit to a character home? If you’re not sure, don’t be embarrassed. You’re not alone.
     Last November, I wrote a column about the City of Vancouver’s Character Home Zoning Review that was just getting underway.
     Two weeks ago, I wrote how the city’s desire to retain character homes seemed somewhat at odds with its desire to make Vancouver homes more energy efficient.
     I subsequently attended a planning department “practitioners workshop” for architects, designers and home builders specializing in projects that include character home retention, or new home construction in Vancouver’s older residential neighbourhoods.
     At the workshop, participants were provided with a workbook containing photos of five pre-1940s houses and the city’s “Character Merit Checklist.”
     The checklist included items such as overall massing and roof form, whether there was a porch or veranda, the type of exterior materials, window openings and trim and whether there were period details or decorative elements.
     We were asked to determine which houses should be classified as having character.  
     It quickly became apparent that there was considerable disagreement on what constituted a character house. City planners thought many more houses should be classified as character homes than the invited experts. We were told that 80 per cent of the approximately 800 assessments carried out by staff in recent years resulted in homes being classified as meriting character classification.
While I support zoning changes to encourage the retention of character homes, I, and most of the attendees at the city’ workshop, were alarmed by some of the city’s latest proposals. Let me tell you why.
     The city has numerous single-family zones, each with regulations related to house siting and appearance. The key regulation is the Floor Space Ratio or FSR, which determines the size of a house in relation to lot size. Currently the outright FSR is 0.7 in many single-family zones. In other words, on a 5,000-square-foot lot you can build a 3,500-square-foot house.
     However, it is not such a simple calculation since the city also regulates how much of the area of the house can be built above or below ground, and whether the design should accommodate a basement suite. In some zones, existing houses can be a bit larger than new houses.
Where laneway houses are permitted, the area is in addition. The permitted FSR is 0.16, equating to 644 square feet on most 33-foot lots or 976 square feet on a 50-foot lot. Laneway houses must be rented.
     To encourage the retention of character homes, the city is considering offering additional density to allow construction of an addition, or a separate coach house which could be rented or sold.
So far, so good.
     However, city planners told the audience they have been advised this might not be a sufficient incentive to retain character houses. They are therefore proposing that if a character house is demolished, the allowable floor space for any new house be reduced from 0.7 to 0.5. On lots over 8,000 square feet, the FSR would be further reduced to 0.4.
     In practice, the city cannot pre-determine which lots have character houses, so the planners are proposing a total FSR reduction for all single-family properties in Vancouver’s older residential neighbourhoods.
     This would result in a maximum above grade area of 1,400 square feet for a house on a 33-foot lot and 2,100 square feet on a 50-foot lot.
     Now some might say, as the city planner at my table did, surely this is sufficient space in which to live comfortably. After all, who really needs four bedrooms, each with its own ensuite bathroom?
     The answer, of course, is many people currently buying new homes in Vancouver.
     To my mind, there is another important issue to be addressed. If we are going to make more zoning changes in Vancouver’s single-family neighbourhoods, why aren’t we addressing both retention of character houses, but also construction of smaller duplexes and townhouses. 
Gil Kelley, the city’s new chief planner, made a brief appearance at the workshop. To his credit, he told the audience he is not deaf to the conversation about housing affordability.

     I just hope he listens to the many workshop attendees and Vancouver residents who believe the latest city proposals are heading in completely the wrong direction.
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SFU Lecture: Higher density housing and new communities: Lessons from Europe February 15, 2017

     For the past few years, I have enjoyed presenting SFU evening lectures on topics that interest me, and are hopefully of interest to others.
In 2015 and 2016, I offered 12 affordable housing ideas and 12 new affordable housing ideas and
and I will be delivering another talk on this topic on April 4th 2017. (that will make 36 ideas!)
     A 2008 lecture presented lessons for Vancouver from around the world following my around-the-world sabbatical (Michael Geller's Planet)

Last year I also took the audience to Russia, where I have been working on a number of projects
     For the last five years I have travelled around Europe, looking at various housing developments and new communities. I have often been struck by the fact that while Vancouver tends to build high-rises, European cities tend to build more higher density low and mid-rise housing. This prompted last week's lecture that presented housing projects in Netherlands, Germany, France and Denmark. I can't watch this, but you might want to. Pour yourself a large drink first. Here's the link
     My key message was while I believe there is most definitely a place for high-rise development, Vancouver should learn from the Europeans and introduce more mid-rise development, similar to what we are now seeing along Cambie street and in some of the new 6 storey wood frame buildings. Hopefully municipal planners and politicians will rezone some of the single family properties along arterials, and just behind arterials so that we an increase the supply of this type of housing and in turn hopefully moderate house prices.
     In addition to smaller apartment buildings, we need to create more 'fee-simple' individually owned rowhouses. This is one of the most generic forms of housing in the world, but for some reason not being built in Vancouver, although some units are being built in Coquitlam and other suburban municipalities.
     A local on-line publication The Source did an interview with me about the talk.

     Prior to giving the lecture, CBC kindly invited me to chat with Rick Cluff on the Early Edition and following the interview posted a summary of our discussion and some pictures on their website. If you are interested, the 7 minute interview can be listened to here

Some of the images from the talk can be found below:

Hamburg's Hafencity comprises predominantly mid-rise building forms, framed by its new 26 storey philharmonic hall
Bjarke Ingels VM House is a striking mid-rise complex in Orestad Copenhagen
Ingels' 8 House is also in Orestad Copenhagen. A dramatic housing solution
Another Orestad development for those seeking something a little bit different
The Iceberg Project on the Aarhus waterfront (Denmark's second largest city)
Parc Marianne is a wonderful planned community in Montpellier France

Vancouver should be copying forms of development like these Dutch fee-simple row houses, with back lane mews homes. The resulting density is comparable to some high-rise buildings.
Outside of Almere Holland is this 'do-it-yourself' housing development for those who want to build their own homes without too much regulation to deal with

Sunday, February 5, 2017

In the newspaper: Malcolm Parry Vancouver Sun Saturday February 4th, 2017

     I woke up Saturday morning to find a photo of myself in Mac Parry's column on page B2 of the Vancouver Sun. Malcolm had kindly included it along with an item about the SFU talk I am presenting on February 15 which will look at European examples of higher density living.
     If I look a bit younger, that's because it wasn't a recent photo. It was taken at the 2008 Arts Umbrella Splash when I was running for Vancouver City Council.
     With me are two Arts Umbrella students and Margot Paris, my campaign manager who was wearing a pair of scissors as a necklace. At the time she told anyone who asked it was to highlight the fact that if elected, I would cut red tape at city hall. Subsequently she told me it was her woeful lack of fancy jewelry that necessitated a rummage in her sewing box for the perfect sea aqua accessory.           Those who know Margot will tell you that's typical Margot. Thinking outside the box. Those who don't know Margot are missing one of the most creative minds in the city. Married to another creative soul, Chuck Brook. They now live in the south of France half the year.
     Often when my photo appears in the newspaper I'm reminded of the early 1990s when I was managing the rezoning of Langara Gardens for Morris Wosk of blessed memory. Council had approved 83 new rental apartments in Tower 4 but with staff support, we were then seeking approval for three more rental towers.
     Unfortunately, one of the new towers would block the bedroom view of Mount Baker for one of the senior city planners, who helped organize neighourhood opposition to the project. Really!
     Eventually Gordon Campbell (wrongly I might add) announced he would not even allow the project to go to Public Hearing.
     I have never quite forgiven Gordon for that, especially since I subsequently learned at Jack Poole's funeral it wasn't the neighbourhood outburst that killed the project, but rather something entirely different. Jack's VLC Properties was in negotiation with the city on leasing city lands to build rental housing, since no private developer would build rental units. And here was Morris Wosk offering to build 350 apartments without any government subsidies. It didn't look good.
At any rate, after the Council decision, one of the neighbours wrote a letter to the editor who included my photo. Sally was upset since normally letters to the editor do not include photos.
      "Did they have to use your photo?" she asked in front of our daughter Georgia.
     From then on, every time my photo appeared in subsequent newspapers, young Georgia would ask "Is it bad again, daddy?"

Friday, February 3, 2017

Opinion: Are the City of Vancouver’s character home initiatives at odds? Vancouver Courier February 2, 2017

After writing the column set out below, about100 architects, designers, planners and builders attended a City of Vancouver planning department workshop. Following staff presentations on the carrots and sticks being proposed to encourage conservation of character homes, most of the audience was united in the opinion that the city's approach was wrong-headed, especially the proposal to downzone many single family neighbourhoods from approximately 0.7 FSR to 0.5 FSR, (and even less on larger lots).

The city's justification was a report by Coriolis Consulting advising that simply offering carrots to encourage character home conservation (eg: some extra density; opportunity to create separate strata lot) was not enough. There had to be a greater incentive, hence the city proposal to reduce allowable density. Staff added that this was also intended to ensure new houses were more in scale with the character houses.

I was subsequently contacted by some builders and architects who were very concerned since they had been advised the city is not proposing to reduce the density just on lots with character houses. It is proposing a blanket downzoning of many single family neighbourhoods! 

This seems very wrong at a time when the city should instead be rezoning single family neighbourhoods to encourage greater densities, and more duplex homes, row houses, basement suites in duplexes and rowhouses, smaller homes for sale, etc. 
Based on what we all heard, it is time for all Vancouver residents to pay attention to the Character Home Zoning Review. If the zoning changes being proposed are approved, the maximum above grade home on a 33' lot will be 1400 sq.ft.

The following is this week's Courier column:

     The City of Vancouver is currently undertaking what might seem to many observers as two contradictory programs. One is the Character Home Zoning Review; the other is the Thermal Imaging Program
     The purpose of the Character Home Zoning Review is to look at options to encourage retention of heritage and character homes in single-family (RS) zoning districts. It was initiated in response to community concerns about the many demolitions of high-quality older homes, mostly built before 1940, and the size and scale of the new homes being built in established single family neighbourhoods.
     The Thermal Imaging Pilot Program was launched in January to help homeowners identify energy loss in single-family homes and to share information on energy saving incentives that are available.
In Vancouver, 55 per cent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from buildings, and detached homes account for 31 per cent of these emissions.
     The city has identified five neighbourhoods to participate in the pilot, including Dunbar-Southlands, Riley Park, Strathcona, Victoria-Fraserview and Hastings-Sunrise. Thermal images of the fronts of houses in these neighbourhoods will be taken using a special camera mounted on a car driving along the streets.
     A thermal image is a picture of the heat that comes off an object. When something is hot, the image is bright yellow; if cold, it shows up as dark blue, with varying degrees of colour in between.
The images will be taken throughout the month of January and staff will follow-up with homeowners later this spring.
     It should be noted that these pictures only show the fronts of houses. To get a more detailed assessment, it will be necessary to hire a private contractor who will often pressurize a house to see where leaks occur. I am told the cost for this starts at about $600, but it can be well worth the money.
     So why will many think these programs are contradictory?
     Anyone who has lived in a pre-1940 character home can tell you. As a rule, the walls have little or no insulation and they leak air like a sieve. Even when renovated, it is often difficult to make older homes as energy efficient as new homes, without a loss of exterior or interior character.
For these reasons, it is not surprising that both programs are promoting Heritage Energy Retrofit Grants, being offered by the Vancouver Heritage Foundation in partnership with the City of Vancouver.
     The Heritage Energy Retrofit Grant program covers heating, fuel-switching, insulation and air sealing, and has recently been expanded to include wood storm windows and water conservation measures.
     Grants are available for owners of homes built before 1940, as well as homes listed on the Vancouver Heritage Register.
     However, they are not likely to cover all the cost of renovations. A maximum of $3,000 is available per home towards qualifying retrofits; or a maximum of $6,000 per home if fuel is switching from gas (or oil) to an electric air source heat pump, including other retrofits.
     The Home Energy Retrofit Grant program is open from September 2016 to Aug. 31, 2018 or until all grant funds are allocated — whichever occurs sooner. Applicants are encouraged to apply early and hire an Energy Advisor to conduct a pre-retrofit evaluation.
     In addition to this program, Fortis and B.C. Hydro are also offering grants to offset energy retrofits costs. They apply to both new and older buildings.
     A detailed schedule can be found online. Grants can be used to offset the costs of insulating attics, which often offers the greatest payback, and improving wall insulation, heating systems, hot water, windows and ventilation.
     As I wrote in an earlier column, I am very much in favour of trying to preserve Vancouver’s character homes. However, my initial review of the Character Home Zoning Review caused concerns.
     The city had not determined many important program details, and while offering some carrots, it was also wielding a big stick by reducing the permitted size of any new houses replacing pre-1940s homes.
     I will soon be meeting with the city to discuss how it might make this program more equitable and effective. But in the meanwhile, if you have an older home that you want to conserve, apply for some of the grants before all the money is gone.
- See more at: