New homes a shadow of what they could be

What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?

When I was a child, my father often challenged me to think about this classic paradox. Today, I continue to think about it as I travel around Vancouver.

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The irresistible force is the need for change and regeneration. The immovable object is the desire to protect the past and keep things the way they are.

I think about this paradox when driving along Southwest Marine Drive where heritage mansions are being demolished and replaced with large houses often appearing to belong to another time and place. Nearby is a questionable proposal to build a seniors care facility in return for heritage designation of Casa Mia.

I think about this paradox when driving through Shaughnessy where more than 20 applications have been submitted to demolish what many of us would consider important heritage structures.

I think about this paradox every time I see orange protective fencing being installed around boulevard street trees in my neighbourhood. It generally means an older home and its mature landscaping is to be demolished to make way for a new house I probably will not like as much as what was there before.

An example can be found on Blenheim Street between West 41st and West 49th where a lovely old house forming part of a special streetscape was demolished and a large boxy house with a red clay tile roof is under construction.

When finished and landscaped, it will probably look better than it does right now. But it may never look as good as the older house it replaced. Furthermore, based on what has happened elsewhere around the city, without a change in zoning, it is inevitable that the remaining character houses in the block will one day be replaced by similar boxy houses with red clay tile roofs.

These older houses are being demolished for a number of reasons. The most significant is they do not take advantage of the maximum floor area permitted under the zoning. Also, they are often energy inefficient and not likely to last without expensive upgrading.

Ironically, while it is often said the most sustainable building is an existing building, these houses are also being demolished in the name of sustainability. The city wants to gently densify single-family neighbourhoods and create affordable housing choices.

Consequently, these older houses are often replaced by three new units: a principal dwelling, a basement suite and a laneway suite.

Unfortunately, the zoning does not always require the degree of design review to ensure new structures fit in. Moreover, it does not result in smaller, more affordable ownership choices many households, especially empty nesters, are seeking in established neighbourhoods.

There is a solution. We could take lessons from zoning changes implemented 20 years ago that encouraged builders to retain and renovate older homes by allowing construction and sale of an adjacent coach house, along with subdivision of older houses into smaller suites.

We could do the same thing in single-family zones. Builders could be encouraged to retain older character houses by allowing them to build and sell a coach house equal in size to the “unused density.” Alternatively, in return for taking special care to design a development that fits in with neighbouring properties, they might be permitted to build smaller duplex homes with or without a coach house.

These proposals were included in reports prepared as part of the Mayor’s 2012 Affordable Housing Task Force; including the Roundtable on Building Form and Design which I was pleased to chair.  The city has made good on one of these recommendations by appointing a chief housing officer, Mukhtar Latif, an international property consultant from the U.K.

The city also initiated an interim rezoning policy to encourage more affordable housing choices close to transit and commercial areas.

Sadly, given the program’s ill-conceived regulations, not one new affordable ownership unit has proceeded to date.

Hopefully Mukhtar and the planning department will now take another look at the task force’s findings and recommendations and follow up with innovative zoning changes to both encourage protection of older character houses, and offer much needed affordable ownership housing choices. This is not a paradox.

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