Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Opinion: City handling of Shaughnessy heritage is cause for concern Vancouver Courier September 1, 2015

Recently, I have had heritage conservation on my mind.

Many of my friends and colleagues are very concerned about the city’s proposal to designate Shaughnessy a Heritage Conservation Area.

A partner and I recently purchased a heritage property in West Vancouver that we hope to restore under a Heritage Revitalization Agreement.

This weekend, I am off to St. Petersburg to make a presentation at an event organized by the Moscow Urban Forum, on how Vancouver encourages property owners and the development community to conserve heritage properties.
While Vancouver is a young city, especially compared to St. Petersburg, in recent years our city planners have been trying to encourage retention of older properties, both to support sustainability, but also to enhance the character of the city.

In December 2013, Council approved The Heritage Action Plan which sets out a variety of policies and tools to conserve and “celebrate heritage resources”.
These tools include heritage designation which protects a single building or landscape “from unsympathetic alteration and loss of character or value” and Heritage Revitalization Agreements (HRA). 

Under HRAs, property owners and developers can receive density bonuses and density transfers in return for rehabilitation and legal protection of heritage buildings.
The city has also established Heritage Conservation Areas.  Within these areas, special regulations and design guidelines help preserve and protect the historic character, and ensure any new developments are compatible with this character.
Chinatown, Gastown, Yaletown and Shaughnessy have all been established as Heritage Conservation Areas (HCA).

Since Shaughnessy has already been designated a HCA, readers may wonder why some Shaughnessy residents have recently been very vocal in their criticism of the city. Their concern is that the city’s latest proposal would prevent the demolition of any pre-1940 house within the area known as First Shaughnessy. This is the neighbourhood bounded by West 16th, Marpole, Wolfe and Richelieu Avenues to the north; King Edward to the south; the west lane of Oak Street to the east; and Arbutus to the west.

Second Shaughnessy, which extends to West 41st Avenue, is not included. At least not yet.
Other neighbourhoods such as Dunbar and Kerrisdale are also excluded. However, many fear that First Shaughnessy could become a precedent for other neighbourhoods in which older character homes are being demolished.

One of the key questions related to any heritage designation is whether the city has an obligation to compensate property owners for the loss in value which is likely to ensue.  In the past, the city has generally been willing to compensate owners of heritage designated properties.  In addition to allowing the aforementioned density bonuses and transfers, it has also permitted owners to “bank” and “sell” extra density.

Unfortunately, as developer Robert Fung and others will tell you, this has not always worked, and some property owners have never received the financial benefits they were promised.

In the case of Shaughnessy, the city is offering residents the opportunity to subdivide certain heritage buildings or build coach houses and other infill buildings on lots over a minimum size. However, many either object to, or do not plan to take advantage of these offerings, since they want to live within a special neighbourhood with large single family homes set within substantial grounds.
Others claim the city’s conditions related to coach houses and infill dwellings are too restrictive to be of any benefit to them. I agree.

An overriding concern is that while many pre-1940 houses have significant architectural character, many do not. I agree with this too.

Furthermore, the city has not offered an appeal process which might allow the exclusion of properties in poor condition, or with no redeeming architectural value.

I share the city’s overall desire to enhance Shaughnessy as a Heritage Conservation Area. However, the city must offer more equitable compensation to those with smaller houses on smaller lots, and establish a reasonable appeal process. Something like the Agricultural Land Reserve appeal process could be put in place to allow exclusions over time.

While some property owners are convinced the city’s motive is to densify the neighbourhood, I disagree. Nor do I think this proposal will turn Shaughnessy into Kitsilano.

But to those who are convinced it will, I have a one word response. Move.
Twitter @michaelgeller

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Opinion: Rezonings~Learning from the past Vancouver Courier August 26, 2015

The Crescent on McRae is now an attractive development which appears to have been accepted by many of the neighbours who fought against it for three years.

Art Cowie's Fee-simple row houses on Cambie Street
The |Larchwood as viewed from the lane
Last Saturday I wrote a column in another publication about the need to undertake regular ‘post-mortems’ of controversial rezoning projects that get built, in order to see whether neighbourhood concerns actually materialized. The article featured three Westside projects: McRae Crescent, overlooking the intersection of Granville Street and West 16th Avenue; “fee-simple” townhouses developed by the late Art Cowie on Cambie Street at West 33rd Avenue; and Larchwood, a townhouse and stacked townhouse development on Larch Street, just south of West 37th Avenue. 

Each of these projects was very controversial and took years before being approved. However, today they are well accepted and provide much needed housing choices.
Two of the three developments fit nicely into the surrounding neighbourhood. Ironically the third, Cowie’s Cambie Street townhouses, is dwarfed by a new six-storey development immediately to the north.

In writing about these developments I was not suggesting that community concerns are never valid. On the contrary, they often are. But it is important to recognize that oftentimes community fears are not validated and neighbourhoods realize benefits from new housing choices.

Following publication of this story, I received messages from many Vancouver residents and planning professionals proposing other projects that should have been included.
Planner Lance Berelowitz reminded me of architect Bruce Haden’s Koo Corner project in Strathcona. It received opposition from neighbours and the city’s planning department which almost turned it down. Today the city features the development in their EcoDensity and Greenest City promotional material.

The most frequently mentioned project was Sasamat Gardens along West 8th at Sasamat.
For more than thirty years, this half city block, owned by the O’Hagan family, sat vacant.
In 1996, rather than subdivide the land into 22 single family lots, Fred O’Hagan hired architect Roger Hughes to plan a comprehensive development including townhouses and small apartments catering to empty nesters and seniors seeking alternative accommodation in their community.

A 1998 survey revealed that 86% of West Point Grey residents were opposed to anything other than single family lots.  The plans were modified, including elimination of the low-rise apartments, and the development was ultimately approved. Today, nearby residents like Fred Veuger wish there were more ground oriented housing choices like Sasamat Gardens available for West Point Grey residents seeking an alternative to their single family homes, but not yet ready for an apartment. He is not alone.

It is hard to see Oak Gardens at West 42 and Oak Street.

I was also reminded of two of my own developments; one on Oak Street and the other on West 41st Avenue.  Anyone driving today along the west side of Oak Street between West 42nd and 43rd will find it hard to believe that the three storey apartment building hidden behind the trees was once the scene of a major community battle. Designed by NSDA, the 1992 proposal was to rezone four single family lots to allow a four storey seniors’ apartment building catering to those wanting to downsize in a location close to the Jewish Community Centre, Louis Brier Home and Hospital, and Kaplan’s Delicatessen.

Neighbours objected to the height claiming it was out of scale with the nearby bungalows. They also feared significant traffic and parking problems. Eventually the project was approved but at a reduced height and with much more parking. Today the bungalows are gone, replaced by larger homes. Many of the building’s parking spaces sit empty, and you can barely see the building. 
Elsewhere along Oak Street new four storey developments provide popular housing choices for those who cannot afford, or do not want a single family house.

The Lanesborough: once described by Councillor George Puil as intrusive and obscene and comparable to the then ugly blank wall of Eatons

A similar story can be told about my 1997 proposal for low-rise seniors’ apartments on West 41st Avenue between Carnarvon and Balaclava. In a Courier article by Alison Appelbe, Councillor George Puil called the NSDA designed building “intrusive and obscene” and compared it to Eaton’s ugly blank white wall. Nearby residents predicted traffic and parking problems and a loss of character. Some even claimed the predominance of families with children in the area made the location unsuitable for seniors’ housing. Fortunately it was approved and subsequently developed by Polygon Homes.

Now highly regarded in the community, it bears absolutely no resemblance to the Eaton’s wall, which ironically is now gone-replaced by architect James Cheng’s elegant Nordstrom store.

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.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Opinion: Generation Squeeze needs to have more say Vancouver Courier August 20, 2015

Last week I met Dr. Paul Kershaw, a most interesting young man wearing red shoes.
He claims to be a farmer by morning and night, but by day he is a UBC professor in the Faculty of Medicine’s School of Population and Public Health, and one of Canada’s top thinkers about generational equity.

What is generational equity, you ask?
For the best answer, I recommend the website of Generation Squeeze www.gensqueeze.ca the campaign he started in 2011 to encourage Canadians 25 to 45 to become more politically engaged and increase their influence on future government policies.
He wants them to become a lobby group, like the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP) which promotes and protects the interests, rights and quality of life for those of us over 50.
Why does he call it Generation Squeeze? Because this younger generation is increasingly squeezed by excessive student debt, a shortage of good work opportunities, expensive childcare costs, anxiety about mounting public debts, and of course, the exorbitant cost of housing.

Kershaw likes to point out that governments spend less than $12,000 on benefits and services per Canadian under 45, compared to more than $33,000 for every retiree. He notes that to compete for better employment opportunities, Generation Squeeze has to spend significantly more time and money than their parents’ generation to get an education. 
To buy a home, they accept jobs or contracts that require years to save a down payment. For many, this means waiting longer to move out of parents’ homes, or to establish financial independence.
I suspect that many of you know exactly what he’s talking about.

I met with Kershaw to discuss the Generation Squeeze Housing Policy.
He wants to see more municipalities build affordability targets into municipal bylaws through what’s often termed inclusionary zoning. While this is happening in Vancouver and other jurisdictions, it is by no means widespread. He would also like to see a return of federal tax incentives for builders and owners of long-term, purpose-built rental housing.  On this he is not alone.

He is rightly concerned about the future of affordable housing on leased public land. This includes aging developments along the south shore of False Creek, in Champlain Heights and the Fraser Lands, and thousands of other sites scattered across the country.

Kershaw would also like to see provincial governments adjust the property transfer tax so that first time Canadian buyers can be exempted from the tax for properties priced below the metropolitan median value. He would also like municipal governments to reduce municipal fees and taxes on residential properties priced below the municipal median value. More expensive properties would pay a progressively higher percentage of tax.
He would like to see a doubling of the federal government’s first-time home buyers’ tax credit, an idea he presented to Stephen Harper in Ottawa, with little success. However, he and Harper do agree on one thing, namely the need to monitor the flow of foreign investment, perhaps by attaching a residency declaration in land transfer documents.

In addition, he would like governments to subsidize childcare so households with young children would have more money to spend on housing.

While these may all seem like good ideas, especially to younger Canadians, a key question is how to pay for these programs. Kershaw told me he does not want to pit generations against one another. He maintains we need to narrow the generational spending gap only slightly, adding his ideas would raise government spending per Canadian under age 45 from $12,000 to $13,000, while maintaining spending around $33,000 per retiree.
While this may seem like voodoo economics, he argues one way to free up money for the younger generation is by addressing healthcare costs. Today 50 cents of every medical care dollar goes to the 15 per cent of the population over 65. He proposes we reduce spending by creating a more cost-effective health care system; one that focusses more on prevention than on cure. 
Remember, he works in the Faculty of Medicine.

Kershaw is urging those 25 to 45 to sign up and be part of GenSqueeze. But you don’t have to be under 50 to join. If you agree with his sentiments, you might want to sign up too. I already have.
Twitter @michaelgeller