The Eco-density Charter was unanimously approved by Vancouver City Council on June 10th, 2008. This Charter commits the City to make sustainability a primary goal in planning decisions. It outlines eight major commitments to its citizens, present and future. However a close review of these commitments makes it questionable as to whether the Laneway Housing program, as it is currently being implemented, is meeting the goals and commitments to its citizens set out in the Charter.
The actions by the current Vancouver Mayor and Council with respect to Laneway Housing (LWH) are not consistent with many aspects of the Eco-density Charter. The following extracts from the Charter demonstrate the inconsistencies:
Charter commitment #3: A Greener, Denser City Pattern
Achieve greater densities smartly and strategically in land-use patterns, locations and designs where carbon footprint improvements and environmental gains are highest and where affordability and liveability are also fostered.
City Council has rezoned 96 per cent of the residential properties in Vancouver to accommodate the construction of LWH and basement suites with no restrictions as to the number of LWH per block and no process for neighbourhood notification or input. It is arguable that this significant re-zoning of Vancouver without additional regulation is both “smart” and “strategic” planning. The fundamental assumption in this blanket decision is that “one-size fits all” because the decision simply ignores the fact that different neighbourhoods have unique characteristics and each has a different capacity to increase density. Some neighbourhoods, such as UBC gates, already experience high levels of densification with high-rises along a major corridor and with many basement suites in homes adjacent to the high-rises. LWH will most certainly exacerbate the existing parking problems because of the fact that persons living in the main homes will be forced to park on the street due to the absence of garages and persons living in the LWH will not be “obliged” to park in the narrow parking space provided, in or beside, the LWH. Where the capacity of individual neighbourhoods to easily absorb the impact of LWH is not accounted for and the potential negative impact on neighbourhoods is not anticipated in the planning process “smart and strategic planning” is certainly not evident.
It is also questionable that this one-size fits all planning concept will “achieve greater densities smartly and strategically in land-use patterns”. This is the case particularly where rezoning is a possibility. Rezoning opportunities can occur and where possible ought to be given consideration as part of good planning. One such situation occurred recently on 4600 block West 11th where a 100’ by 126’ lot became available for development. Without notice this large lot was clear-cut of all existing vegetation and sub-divided into three 33’ lots. This was followed by the construction of three very large homes with three very large LWH. Many local residents expressed the view that a “smarter, more strategic use of this land’ would have been to rezone the large original lot to allow for a small apartment or townhouse complex. The neighbourhood would then have achieved greater densification without increased parking pressures.
Promote ‘gentle’, hidden, or invisible density in suitable locations across the city with design that respects neighbourhood identity and sense of place.
LWH as it is currently unfolding cannot be accurately described as “gentle, hidden, or invisible” given the fact that the majority of LWH built to date are two storey structures up to 20’ in height with intrusive designs which often increase shadowing and reduce privacy for neighbours. Neighbourhood identity and character is threatened in cases where the proliferation of LWH demolishes older buildings and removes established vegetation. Most LWH built to date involves the demolition of the main house and the redevelopment of the entire property.
Charter Commitment #4: More Housing Affordability, Types, and Choices
Use density, design, and land use strategically to support and facilitate greater housing affordability and diversity, in partnership with all government levels.
While LWH may provide new types of housing and offer citizens different choices for housing, these choices are being provided to those who already enjoy a high standard of living rather than to those who are seeking “affordable housing”. Property owners wishing to build a LWH will require approximately $250,000 and will be required to pay increased taxes. Renters seeking this type of accommodation will be expected to pay approximately $2500 per month. These costs will undoubtedly rise with increases in interest rates. Clearly LWH is not currently providing the “affordable housing” option envisioned in the Eco-density Charter.
Plan densification strategically – including when and where to densify – to recognize the value provided by existing affordable housing stock and low income housing, including the strategic retention and enhancement of existing purpose-built rental options.
Furthermore, the increased construction of LWH will result in an increased demand for city services such as garbage pick-up and recycling, postal services, lane paving, lighting etc. All property owners will share the increased cost in the form of increased taxes, not just those who have built laneway homes. The LWH project will not likely increase the stock of low-cost housing on Vancouver. The impact is more likely to increase the overall cost of renting or owning property in Vancouver.
Charter Commitment #5: Greener and Liveable Design with a “Sense of Place”
Design new density to achieve both sustainable, timeless design, and respect for authentic neighbourhood values, context, character, and identity at all scales.
“Authentic neighbourhood values” are being ignored where there is no process to hear what neighbours’ concerns may be when LWH springs up in their respective neighbourhoods without notification or consultation. The guidelines for building LWH were formulated by city planners and developers. They decide for our neighbourhoods, without consultation, what is in keeping with our “values, context, character and identity”. Many, especially those of us directly impacted, perceive this lack of democratic process as an assault on our neighbourhood identity and character. It is our view that the Charter goal of providing Vancouverites with “liveable design with a sense of place” will not be achieved without grassroots neighbourhood participation.
Combine heritage conservation and the sustainability inherent in retention/reuse of existing structures and materials with dense, efficient, sustainable design and technology.
To date LWH appears to have encouraged the destruction of existing homes with redevelopment to include a new larger main house and a LWH. This redevelopment phenomenon is contrary to the City Council commitment stated in the Charter of “heritage conservation and the sustainability inherent in retention/reuse of existing structures”. At present many developers stand to profit because the sale of a property previously zoned for a single family can now be sold with two homes. The profit incentive for developers appears to be overshadowing the incentive for homeowners wishing to build a laneway home for family use or for rental purposes.
The commitment of “Greener and Liveable Design with a sense of Place” is difficult for many affected homeowners to comprehend when many of the 20’ high LWH currently under construction have imposing windows and balconies into neighbours’ yards and houses. In a number of cases these imposing structures produce significant shadowing of neighbourhood gardens and green spaces between houses.
Charter Commitment #7: Neighbourhood Voice, Neighbourhood Responsibility
These commitments will be achieved with traditional and creative approaches to consultation, education, (in all directions), engagement and dialogue with all voices, while anticipating the needs of future unrepresented voices.
This requires a balance between the need for leadership and respect for neighbourhood-level influence, capacity-building and ownership.
Where there is no process to hear the “voices of neighbourhoods” there can be no “respect” for those voices. All decisions relating to LWH are made at City Hall with complete disregard for the negative impact experienced in a particular neighbourhood. Concerned residents are prepared to make changes and to share responsibility. Many of us fully understand the challenges faced by urban planners now and in the future. We sincerely believed that when the Eco-density Charter was adopted by City Council that individual neighbourhoods would be part of the planning and problem solving process as it pertains to LWH. This was because we believed the Mayor and Council would honour their commitment of ensuring “neighbourhood voice” and the “capacity-building and ownership” promised in the Charter.
We will respect and foster the voices of neighbourhoods, and their special values, aspirations and approaches.
Is this a credible statement with respect to the implementation of Laneway Housing?
4600 Block, Vancouver