Character house zoning

Saving Vancouver character houses through incentives

By Elizabeth Murphy, Vancouver Sun, March 2, 2017

The City of Vancouver is reviewing incentives to retaining character houses, such as allowing additional suites. Elizabeth Murphy / PNG


The City of Vancouver is doing a character house zoning review to consider saving character houses through incentives such as increased size, number of units, and infill. This retains character while accommodating growth in a more sustainable way.

Although this is good in principle, additional options need to be considered.

There is an urgent need for the review. Since city zoning rules were changed in 2009, demolitions increased to over 1,000 a year with replacement construction of much larger and more expensive “monster” houses. On average, home demolitions have increased 80 per cent between 2009 and 2015, and by 73 per cent on average for pre-1940 homes.

Most of these demolished homes were livable and structurally sound, many substantially upgraded, many with secondary suites. Prime old growth wood was sent to the chipper, materials sent to the dump and little, if any, materials reused. Many of the new houses, often twice as expensive as the older ones they replaced, are left vacant purely as investments. Hardly a green or sustainable city.

City of Vancouver survey results show that 90 per cent of citizens think the retention of character buildings should be encouraged. 

Some in the development lobby say retention of character houses through incentives is freezing single family zoning. In fact, it is doing just the opposite. Character zoning is proposed to conditionally allow a variety of additional options to meet current needs through adaptive reuse. This is by far the most sustainable way to accommodate growth, increase rental and ownership options, provide more affordability and mortgage helpers, and retain neighbourhood character.

This is not an issue of needing more zoned capacity to meet growth. The city’s consultants and new head planner, Gil Kelly, have confirmed the city has enough already zoned capacity to meet regional growth to 2041 and beyond. We just need to find the right balance for more affordable sustainable housing choices while retaining neighbourhood character.

This can be achieved with a few adjustments to the character options proposed in the review.  Although there may be some opportunities for new housing types such as duplexes, row houses, townhouses and low-rise apartments, this can be done through detailed neighbourhood-based planning at a later date.

However, if we don’t deal with the character house issue now, the opportunity to expand housing types through adaptive reuse of character buildings will be lost forever.

Much attention is rightly being made to the plight of millennials and their needs for affordable housing. However, there should be no delusions that new construction of duplexes, townhouses and row houses will fill this gap. Even east side half-duplexes go for more than $1 million, not much less than an older east side character house.

More than likely you will today find millennials in secondary suites and shared multi-suite character house rentals, which are quickly disappearing.

So how do we retain character houses while being fair to all? To find the answer we just have to look at examples in existing successful character retention zones and adapt what we have learned there.

Vancouver used to be a leader in sustainable city building. In the 1970s, inspired by the teachings of urbanist Jane Jacobs, Vancouver was one of the few to reject freeways and urban renewal projects into the downtown core like that proposed for Strathcona, Chinatown and Gastown in the 1960s. Inner-city neighbourhoods such as Strathcona, Mount Pleasant and Kitsilano created new RT zoning that was conditional on the retention of character houses, providing incentives for adaptive reuse and creative infill.

These RT zones have shown that when economics are balanced between the retention and new build options, land values are stabilized to be roughly equal whether they are character or not. In some instances, the character house is often worth more since the incentives are better than what could be built outright.

For example, in Kitsilano there are both RS5 (non-character) and RT7/RT8 (character retention) zoning. Based on 2017 B.C. assessments, the land values of typical 33 ft. x 120 ft. lots are roughly equal among the zones when comparing similar average locations. This shows that the conditional incentives have properly balanced the values of the various options in the RT7/RT8 zones.

The city needs to consider how best to balance the economics for the areas now under review to result in equivalent land values for both the retention option and the new-build option. This is achievable.

The main incentive is floor space ratio (FSR). Retention needs to have more than new construction options overall, especially in the main house, while new build options have to be at least big enough to be viable. Currently only allowing 0.5 FSR for new (reduced from 0.7 FSR) doesn’t allow enough, especially on smaller lots such as on 33 ft. frontages. On non-character lots, the FSR could be earned back through meeting design guidelines and ensuring it is suite ready, for example.

However, if maximum allowable FSR for new construction is increased, then perhaps more needs to be done for the retention option other than just 0.75 FSR such as exempting part or all of the basement FSR as a further bonus since older character houses have subprime lower floors.

Design guidelines for both new and retention options should be approximately the same and require about equal processing times. Indeed, preferably, the renovation option should take less processing time by fast tracking approval as an incentive for retaining character homes.

There is a push from mainly modernist architects and other development interests to abolish design guidelines. But we have seen the results of removing design guidelines and they are not increasing good quality creativity. Since design guidelines have been reduced in RS5 zones in 2009, effectively eliminating them altogether, there has been an overall increase in expensive “monster” houses that maximize the square footage, allowed without any design context. The lack of design guidelines allowed the pink stucco boxes of the 1980s and the newer faux-rock and tiled versions of today.

Retaining character streetscapes and buildings using authentic materials are important elements. But there are some opportunities for more modernist forms where streetscapes have already been substantially altered by non-character forms.

One of the biggest impediments to more sustainable adaptive reuse of character buildings are the building and development bylaws and how they are administered. Changes to the building code need to allow for more of the original house to be retained for multi-family conversion dwellings and major renovations. Alternative equivalencies should be established for renovations of older character houses and a separate dedicated approval stream with specialized dedicated staff should be set up to fast-track renovations. 

Right now it can take as much as 20 months to get building permits for even a small interior renovation. The current system is entirely dysfunctional.

There are many existing unauthorized suites in character houses that were converted years ago, that the city will order removed once made aware of them. Many of these are in RT and RM zones as multi-suite conversions from the 1940s when the War Measures Act overruled municipal housing bylaws to encourage the creation of additional suites to relieve housing shortages.

Councillor Adriane Carr is bringing a motion to council to grandfather these suites and administer them under the secondary suite program rather than the current practice of shutting them down. That’s a step in the right direction.

There are many things that need to be done to provide incentives for retaining character housing stock through adaptive reuse. This is the most sustainable way to add more housing options and we only have a small window of time to do this before we lose this opportunity forever.

Elizabeth Murphy is a private sector project manager and was formerly a property development officer for the City of Vancouver’s housing and properties department and for B.C. Housing.





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3 Responses to Character house zoning

  1. Pingback: “Saving Vancouver character houses through incentives” (Elizabeth Murphy, Vancouver Sun): Topic in Council this week | CityHallWatch: Tools to engage in Vancouver city decisions

  2. Renovations, retentions where possible. I like that.

  3. Pingback: Incentives for Character Home retention: City survey ends June 18 (Sun) | CityHallWatch: Tools to engage in Vancouver city decisions

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