Thursday, July 26, 2018

Vinson House and the 'Missing Middle' Globe and Mail July 26, 2018

Arial view showing Vinson House and new garden and laneway 'cottages' to the east on a 12,000 sq.ft lot in the 1400 block of Gordon Avenue in West Vancouver's Ambleside neighbourhood.
     Over the past few years, Vancouver journalist Kerry Gold has written extensively about the loss of heritage and character homes and the need for new housing choices. I  therefore welcomed an invitation to give her a tour of the Vinson House Cottages development in West Vancouver.    
     During our visit, I mentioned to Kerry that this development was the first Heritage Revitalization Agreements (HRA) to be completed in West Vancouver. I support HRAs since they can help protect heritage houses and result in new housing choices.
View of the centre hall plan from the large entry vestibule with the living room to the right and dining to the left
Most of the heritage features of the house have been kept although while adding completely new heating, plumbing, electrical and security wiring and discretely placed sprinklers
The redesigned kitchen, with its Wolff and Sub-Zero appliances is quite different than the original 1913 kitchen!
Interior designer John McCrae sourced new marble floor and wall tiles to respect the Edwardian character of the house

A new energy efficient gas-fireplace replaces the original fireplace in the beamed living room.
     As you can see from the interior photos, this is the kind of house you might expect to find in Shaughnessey, Kerrisdale or Kitsilano, rather than West Vancouver. However, it was built in 1913 for Valient Vivian Vinson, a renowned Vancouver photographer and future Reeve of West Vancouver, one year after the municipality was incorporated. It has always been one of West Vancouver's most impressive Edwardian houses.
      In return for the heritage designation, we obtained approval for three additional homes: a single-level garden suite constructed below the house (which was moved approximately 30 feet onto a new foundation); a garden 'cottage' with a large front porch and three patio areas; and a laneway home with an entry through the central garden, and also from the lane. Each home has its own private garage and lots of space, especially designed for a household downsizing from a larger home. More details can be found here
      When it comes to 'housing affordability', when you have to pay $3 million or more for a heritage property, even if you can obtain approval for 2 or 3 more dwellings on the lot, with a land cost of $750,000 to $1,000,000 for each unit, this is not going to be 'affordable housing'. However, it will be more affordable than virtually every other new West Vancouver house on the market. It will also provide another housing choice for those seeking an alternative to a duplex or townhouse, or not yet ready to move into an apartment.
      While I was perhaps a bit too frank in discussing the financial aspects of this development, I am delighted that the following story will soon appear in the print edition of the Globe and Mail. I am hoping that it might help us find the right buyer for the heritage house, someone who can appreciate all the work that went into restoring this house.

The developers of Vinson House Cottages took a large lot with a prized heritage house and converted it into four generous-sized homes, while preserving the 1913 house. Photo by Vincent Lee
Here is Kerry's Globe and Mail story, and some additional photos.

Developers say Vancouver's housing plan won't address the 'missing middle'
     Vancouver City Council recently endorsed a new program that has the potential to transform the city.If it passes, areas currently filled with detached houses will become neighbourhoods filled with townhouses, taller laneway houses and low-rise apartment buildings. The move is part of the city’s call for 10,000 units of additional ground-level housing within neighbourhoods that are considered low-density. A staff report went to council on Tuesday.
     The idea is that if we generate yet more supply, prices will inevitably come down and fill the void for affordable housing, which would benefit local income-earners that have been shut out of not just the market, but the city. Affordable housing is a crucial goal.
     However, developers who have for many years been beefing up existing detached-house properties with added density are not convinced that such a plan will generate truly affordable housing – at least not for the average income-earner. A recent Bloomberg article cited Vancouver as having the “ignominious” distinction of requiring 11 years of household earnings to afford a home of any type. That compares with 8.2 years for San Francisco, 5.9 years for New York and five years for Seattle. The median household earns $61,036 a year in Vancouver, which, as analyst Andy Yan points out in the article, is in line with Columbus, Ohio.
     In other words, Vancouverites earn Columbus incomes while paying Bay Area prices.
     That’s far too complex a problem to solve through more development, said Rob Chetner, a Vancouver developer who has been delivering so-called “missing middle” projects throughout his long career.
     “People say, ‘Well, we’re just going to build more affordable housing.’ It’s kind of an oxymoron, because what people don’t talk about in the media, that I’ve heard, is the actual cost to build,” Mr. Chetner said. “If you gave me free land in some of these [pricey] municipalities, I couldn’t figure out how to build affordable housing.
     “The cost of those units will be $400,000 or $500,000 or $600,000 per unit, [not including] cost for the land, because it’s that expensive to build these places.
“It’s a very complicated issue. It’s not an easy answer.”
     Mr. Chetner partnered with developer Michael Geller and architect/developer Jim Bussey recently on a project in West Vancouver, B.C., Vinson House Cottages. They took a large lot with a prized heritage house and converted it into four generous-sized homes, while preserving the 1913 house. The two added houses on the lot are the only new homes in West Vancouver that are less than 3,000 square feet, according to Mr. Geller
     The smallest unit, a 2,000-square-foot garden suite added underneath the Vinson House, sold before the project had completed for about $1.87-million. That’s less than a new condo in a concrete building, Mr. Geller says. They might not be “affordable homes,” but they’re “more affordable,” he said, adding they are still a risky venture for the developers.
     “It’s almost more a labour of love than a traditional real estate venture,” Mr. Geller said, as he walked through the old house. “We don’t know even today how profitable it will be. We are hoping we will make money, but who knows what the market is? But we won’t lose money at the end of the day.”
     He expects the 2,600-square-foot heritage house to sell for at least $3-million, most likely to a middle-aged couple. That demographic, or anyone else who has already benefited from high market prices, is the likeliest buyer of the units.
     He has a policy against selling to investors who might leave the properties empty. After he developed West Vancouver’s Hollyburn Mews, a similar project, he sold one unit to a buyer who said it was for a daughter and son-in-law living in Richmond, B.C. However, after the purchase, the unit was left empty for a year. It eventually sold to a woman who’d previously put an offer on it, but couldn’t buy it at the time because she couldn’t sell her own house.
     “As a result of speculation, which has resulted in lots worth $3-million or more on the west side of Vancouver or West Vancouver, these new homes won’t be low-cost or affordable for many,” Mr. Geller said. “But they’re much less expensive than the other new houses built in the neighbourhood.”
The speculator ticked Mr. Geller off. Speculators, he said, are the culprits behind high prices.
“Vancouver is unique,” Mr. Bussey said. “I think what’s happened is that speculation has come in and distorted everything.”
     All three developers involved in the project have extensive experience in maintaining the character of neighbourhoods while adding density. They know a thing or two about what it takes to create the “missing middle” housing types the city admirably aims to create. Mr. Bussey and Mr. Geller are proponents of the city’s Making Room program to rezone certain areas for greater density and diverse housing types. Affordability, they said, is a different beast.
     Even if the city were to rezone to add significant density, Mr. Chetner said prices would just go up. He pointed to a standard lot in Vancouver’s Kitsilano or Marpole neighbourhoods, purchased for maybe $1-million 10 years ago, now worth around $2.5-million.
“My perception would be that a lot of these folks would say, ‘I have a development site now,’ and they would probably want more money for that site, because in their mind, you can now create four units on what was yesterday a single-family home lot.
     “It would probably put upward pressure on the value of the land, which would then give somebody like myself an opportunity as a developer to purchase that. But now I’m buying this property for $3-million and I can put four units on it; so out of the gate, each unit is $750,000 for the land and another $750,000-plus into each home. Add soft costs and carrying costs, and the homes again are now at $2-million.
     “So what are you creating? I don’t know if we will ever create more affordable housing, just by virtue of the fact that land is so expensive and the cost to construct anything is so expensive.”
     Mr. Bussey, who designed the townhouses at the corner of West 16th Avenue and Granville Street, in Shaughnessy, as well as many multiunit projects in Vancouver’s West Side, said business is brisk for the sort of missing middle developments that he creates. The long-time architect is now a developer as well. He said he’s excited about the opportunities to build new housing types that the city’s Making Room program could offer. He has acted as an industry adviser to the city. However, he, too, isn’t confident affordable housing will result. It could be “more affordable,” he said, but not for most first-time buyers.
     “Providing housing choices for people that are in that $1-million range seems to be that juicy spot that all the developers are looking for,” he said.
“I think [the market] is already correcting in a way. But whether it’s going to come back down to Vancouver’s low-income level, I don’t know.
     “As soon as you throw that word ‘affordable’ into the equation, wow, I don’t know where to go any more, because it’s such a loaded word. I don’t know how the affordability thing works, quite frankly.”
     Patrick Condon, an urban planner and founding chair of the urban design program at UBC’s school of architecture, said prices will “absolutely” go upward if the city quickly pushes through rezoning for more density. Mr. Condon, who withdrew his mayoral candidacy after he suffered a stroke recently, has long advocated for “gentle density” that is sensitive to the social makeup of each neighbourhood. He’s also pushed for a citywide plan that would tax land speculation to fund non-market housing, such as co-op housing.
     “If the per-square-foot cost of the dwelling unit is the same, after you pack it with five or six dwelling units, it just means the land is going to inflate by exactly that amount,” he said in a phone interview last week.
     “I firmly believe it has to be in the context of a very careful city plan – and a key piece of that city plan is to figure out the taxing structure you are going to deploy in order to limit speculation and provide funds for non-market housing.”
     The only type of housing created that would be somewhat affordable would be a 350-square-foot microunit, he said. And even that would still cost more than $1,000 a square foot. Only the landowner would profit.
     “That price is totally out of whack with what people earn. That is not a sustainable city. Urban failures start to cascade from that.
“The process is flawed because [the city] is using a very blunt instrument of vast citywide zone change without looking at the details, such as how much should a neighbourhood grow.”
The Garden Cottage at the front of the property offers approximately 2570 sq.ft. of living space and a large front porch. Three outdoor patio areas are designed to appeal to someone not yet ready for an apartment.
The Laneway Cottage, with 2400 sq.ft. is accessed from the rear lane or up a flight of stairs from the central Edwardian garden. It too offers outdoor spaces including a grade level patio, a large deck of the living room, and sleeping porch off the master bedroom.
Detailing in the laneway and garden cottages is more contemporary. However, the selection of marbles, wainscoting and moldings reflects the heritage of the adjacent Vinson House. 

Friday, July 20, 2018

Vinson House Cottages: demonstrating financially viable heritage conservation

Sitting on a large 12,000 sq.ft. Ambleside lot, realtors expected the 1913 Vinson House to be demolished when it was about to go on the market in early 2015. Instead it was purchased by Trasolini Chetner and Geller Properties with the intention of seeking a Heritage Revitalization Agreement from the District of West Vancouver to add a new single-level Garden Suite below the house and two infill units on the lot.
     On Wednesday July 18th, Trasolini Chetner and Geller celebrated the completion and formal 'opening' of Vinson House, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring West Vancouver mayor Michael Smith. In attendance were former owners of the house, neighbours, and some of the 15 different consulting firms who were involved with the project.
You have to look closely to see what is old and what is new inside Vinson House. While the living room appears the same as before, if you look closely you will see that a sprinkler system has been added, along with discreet pot lots, under the direction of heritage consultant Donald Luxton.
Original push button light switches have been kept. Well, some have. CSA approved replacements were sourced in the US and installed in other rooms, along with a state-of-the-art security system.
While some stained glass was retained, additional stained glass was sourced and incorporated into the design. These windows, from a 1913 Portland Oregon home were added to the new second floor laundry room.
Looking down from the restored second level sleeping porch, one views the new garden with its bird baths and plantings designed to replicate the original Edwardian garden.
     So far, the lower level garden suite has been sold and the infill units are on the market at $2.6 and $2.8 million. While not inexpensive, they are approximately 2400 and 2570 sq.ft. and cost considerably less than any other new West Vancouver houses.
     The heritage house will soon be listed for sale. While the price hasn't been finalized, there will be a '3' in front of it.
     While the project took 50% longer to build, and construction costs were approximately 50% more than initially budgetted, by obtaining approval to add new units on the lot, the project should remain profitable.
     Details can be found at To arrange a viewing contact Elaine Biggan at or 604 880 4559. For more information contact me at or 778 997 9980.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Finally, Vinson House Cottages is finished! Ribbon Cutting Ceremony July 18th

      I started the Vinson House heritage conservation project in January 2015, and I'm delighted to say that it is finally finished. In addition to moving and restoring the old house, we built a new suite below and two infill houses, all surrounding an Edwardian-style garden.
     Below is a news release I have sent out in the hope that this small but innovative project might attract some media interest.
     After all, it is West Vancouver's first Heritage Revitalization Agreement project that has been completed, and is the first involving an older, heritage house. And while one home has sold, I need to sell the three remaining homes. Prices start at $2.6 million (or about $1100 a foot for those of you who think that way.)
     The irony is that when I started this project, the real estate market was very hot and I didn't worry about selling the homes at a reasonable price and profit. But things have certainly changed and while we didn't cut back on the quality, especially in the case of the heritage house restoration, I do now worry about the market response.
     While we are about 7 months behind schedule in finishing the development, I am delighted with the way the development has turned out. Trasolini Chetner, who was both the builder and a partner in the development has done an excellent job. So did the full consulting team led by Formwerks Architectural.
     I'll report back in a couple of weeks. More details at

For immediate release.
July 16, 2018

West Vancouver mayor to cut ribbon at District’s first completed Heritage Revitalization Agreement (HRA) development.
At a time when many heritage and character homes are being demolished to make way for larger new houses, on July 18th, West Vancouver Mayor Michael Smith will be cutting a ribbon to celebrate completion of West Vancouver’s first Heritage Revitalization Agreement for one of the District’s early heritage homes.
Situated on a large secluded lot at 1425 Gordon Avenue, Vinson House was built in 1913 for the well-known photographer Valient Vivian Vinson, who was also Reeve of West Vancouver between 1918 and 1929. It was the first house in the upper Hollyburn area, and originally stood on a two-hectare lot.

The house, which is an excellent, well preserved example of the Craftsman style, has been relocated on the lot and renovated in accordance with a Conservation Plan prepared by heritage consultant Donald Luxton. Construction was by Trasolini Chetner who, along with architect and developer Michael Geller, was a partner in the development.

Designed by Formwerks Architectural, in addition to the heritage house, the development includes three infill homes: a single-level garden suite below the heritage house; a laneway cottage at the rear of the lot; and a garden cottage tucked into the front corner of the property. Each of the homes has its own private garage and range in size from approximately 1900 to 2600 sq.ft.
According to Geller who initiated the development in early 2015, this project is significant for two reasons. It retains an important part of West Vancouver’s history and neighbourhood character.
It also results on new ‘missing-middle’ housing choices that are not being offered in the community.
Like his earlier Hollyburn Mews development that was also built by Trasolini Chetner, Vinson House Cottages attempts to combine the charm and neighbourliness of yesteryear with the modern conveniences of today. Residents can enjoy a large shared Edwardian-style garden.
While the Garden Suite has been sold, the heritage house and two infill cottages are now being offered for sale. Prices start at $2.6 million.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony will take place around 4:45 on Wednesday July 18th, 2018.
For more information contact Michael Geller 778 997 9980 or geller@sfu.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Opinion: Property taxes should better reflect different types of homes Vancouver Courier July 5th, 2018

Single-family lots and multi-family properties should have different taxation categories      Everyone knows that July 1 is Canada Day, while our neighbours to the south mark July 4 as Independence Day. But both are special days for other reasons.

      In British Columbia, July 1 is also Valuation Day. It is the date B.C. Assessment estimates the market value of your home to determine next year’s property taxes.
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     July 4 is the date the balance of this year’s property taxes is due. (I hope you didn’t forget
My first 2018 Courier column was about property taxes. Since then, property taxes have been in the news on an almost daily basis, thanks -- or no thanks -- to Vancouver’s Empty Home Tax, and the province’s so-called School and Speculation Taxes.
     I recently sat down with veteran broadcaster Stu McNish who hosts “Conversations that Matter” to discuss these taxes and other concerns about B.C.’s property assessment system.
     We are being told our property taxes are too low and should be increased to collect money from foreigners who do not pay Canadian income taxes, and to transfer wealth from homeowners in $3-million-plus homes and those with second homes, to those struggling to afford housing.
     While I oppose these NDP government tax changes, I would like to see changes to our current property taxation system to make it more equitable and effective.
     While travelling in Vietnam, I noticed a lot of tall, skinny buildings, often in rural locations. I asked my guide why the buildings were designed this way and was told it was because of property taxes. Skinny buildings paid lower taxes than wider buildings since they required less roadway, sidewalks, water and sewer pipes.
     In B.C., residential property taxes are based on the value of a property. I once owned a house on an island at the end of a long road and a downtown highrise apartment. Since both were assessed at the same value, the property taxes were the same.
However, the apartment required fewer roads and services to be constructed and maintained. It received no municipal garbage collection; residents paid for private collection through their strata fees.
     While property taxes cover more than just roads and sewer pipes, if we want to promote more efficient uses of single-family land, and encourage people to live in more compact, sustainable forms of housing, B.C. Assessment should have more than one residential classification category. As a minimum, I would propose two categories: one for homes on single-family lots and one for multi-family properties. In future, there could be additional categories for rowhouses, apartments and possibly rental housing.
     Each category would have its own mill rate. This is the mathematical factor used by municipalities to calculate property taxes, based on assessed value. Single-family properties would have a higher mill rate than townhouses and apartments.
     Although the total taxes collected would remain the same, the result would be higher property taxes for single family homes and lower taxes for multi-family homes of the same assessed value.
While my single-family neighbours might not like this approach, it would better correlate taxes with services. Ultimately, it would encourage more efficient use of land and reward people for living in more compact housing forms.
     I also encourage the B.C. government to change its tax policies as they relate to certain ALR properties. British Columbia law stipulates that agricultural properties with more than two acres can keep their farm status with very significant tax breaks, if they sell just $2,500 worth of farm products a year. This can be achieved with a vegetable garden or a few dozen chickens in a corner of the estate.
     As a result, many Southlands and Richmond mansions are paying less in tax than small East Vancouver houses.
     I complained about this in a Courier column exactly four years ago. Sadly, nothing has happened.
     Our property tax system requires other changes to prevent local shops and restaurants from shutting their doors because of high property taxes, since they are based on “highest and best use” (which may be a future highrise), not as a florist or fish market.
But that is another story for another day.