It’s time for another character home zoning review

Last week, the City of Vancouver announced a series of public consultation events to explore options for retaining character or heritage homes in single-family (RS zoned) areas of Vancouver.

If this sounds familiar, it might be because Courier reporter Naoibh O’Connor reported on a similar city initiative in February 2015: “Conserving heritage subject of City of Vancouver open houses.”

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According to the city press release, the latest review will consider zoning changes in several neighbourhoods with higher concentrations of character homes including West Point Grey and Upper Kitsilano, Dunbar, Kerrisdale, Second and Third Shaughnessy, and parts of Arbutus Ridge.

Character homes are those built before 1940 and not necessarily on the city’s Heritage Register. However, they are deemed to have merit in accordance with a "Character Checklist" set out in a June 2014 Planning Department bulletin.

In addition to exploring zoning options to encourage retention of character houses, the city will also be looking at zoning changes to improve how new houses fit into established neighbourhoods.

I support city initiatives to conserve heritage and character houses. As I mentioned in a 2014 column entitled, “New homes a shadow of what they could be.”

I’m currently conserving a century-old house on a large lot in West Vancouver, in return for approvals to build a coach house, garden cottage and garden suite on the property.

Not only will this project retain one of West Vancouver’s original houses, it will create new housing choices for nearby residents ready to downsize and remain in their neighbourhood.

Vancouver wants to do the same thing with pre-1940s homes. However, as I wrote at the time of the Shaughnessy Heritage Conservation Area zoning changes, just because a house was built before 1940 does not mean it necessarily merits protection and conservation. (See: “City’s handling of Shaughnessy heritage cause for concern”)

Therefore, as part of any heritage program, there needs to be a clearly defined and accessible appeal process. This became apparent in a letter I received last week from a Dunbar resident who was hoping to build her dream home on a large 60-foot-by-130-foot lot.

After hiring an architect, she discovered the city has assessed her 1930 house as having “character merit.”  Consequently, she can only apply for an ‘outright’ permit for a new house not to exceed 2600 sq. ft. over two floors.

Although a “conditional” application would allow a larger home, she cannot apply unless she is prepared to retain the existing house. She claims this would basically mean a big and expensive renovation on a house that is falling apart.

She approached the city with additional information and explained that many of the supposed “character” features are foam elements that she glued to the walls, but to no avail.  

While she wanted to know if I could identify an appeal process, unfortunately, she may be out of luck.

Instead of using a zoning stick, I believe the city should be offering zoning carrots to those prepared to keep a character house.

One carrot would be to allow the development of an infill coach house for sale on the property. Its size would be determined based on the size of the lot and area of the character house, combined with a modest density bonus.

If a character house is to be retained on a corner property, the city might permit a subdivision to create two smaller lots.

In some situations, it might be feasible to allow a single-level suite for sale under a character house. In others, a larger home could be converted into a duplex or triplex, with each unit offered for sale or rent.

If you have your own ideas on what the city should be doing to retain and conserve character houses, four open houses are being held over the coming weeks. Times and places, and an online survey can be found

Recommendations from the Character Home Zoning Review are expected to be presented to Council in early 2017, followed by additional public consultation before any zoning changes are made.

Since February 2015, many lovely character homes have vanished on the west side of Vancouver. Hopefully, this time city hall will follow through with zoning changes, along with a fair appeal process.

The result will be many character houses conserved for decades to come, and new neighbourhood housing choices.



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