I was running errands on Commercial Drive a few weeks back when I was hit with a surprising realization. As I loaded my bicycle with groceries, my eye wandered across the street and settled on a scene I can only describe as quintessential to the neighbourhood. Pedestrians — young, old and in between — navigated the narrow sidewalk, weaving through the gauntlet of strollers, bicycles and storefront produce bins. Behind them, restaurants geared up for the evening, windows and doors cracked open to entice diners. Above it all, the brick facade of the old Van East movie theatre was still recognizable despite the fact that it was now dotted with condo balconies, each showing signs of actual human life within: a potted plant here, a string of lanterns there.
It was a lovely scene. It was vibrant. It was the exact opposite of what I feared would happen to the block when, years before, it was announced the old theatre would close and clear the way for the inevitable influx of condos.
I am not a big fan of condos. It’s not that I’m against density or height, or that I don’t appreciate the contribution they make to the city’s housing stock while mitigating suburban sprawl. What I don’t like about them is what they represent. To me, condos aren’t just a housing option — they are the symbol of Vancouver’s housing crisis. They are the currency by which developers and politicians peddle wealth and influence; they are the soulless, often architecturally bland privatization of spaces once accessible to the public; they are the manifestation of inequality as more and more families find themselves stuck in studio shoeboxes with nowhere else to go. But even I can admit that, done right, dense multi-family developments can enhance neighbourhood character — even save it.
This, of course, is not a popular stance in much of the city where the mere suggestion of density begets a knee-jerk opposition from neighbourhood associations largely led by grey-haired owners of coveted single-family homes. The argument against development — against condos — is always the same: these projects are too big/too tall/too boxy and will be detrimental to neighbourhood character. Such is the case on the other end of Commercial Drive, where a development partnership proposal between Boffo and the Kettle Society has given rise to a spate of No Tower signs that have proliferated on lawns like dandelions. Such was the case a couple months back when speaker after speaker approached Vancouver city council decrying the city’s proposed Affordable Housing Ownership plan, a pilot project which would give moderate-income households help buying homes and outlines some arterials on the West Side for condo-style development. According to the NIMBY contingents, these projects are outright assaults on neighbourhood character.
That’s rather interesting, since I’ve always thought the character of Commercial Drive lay in its eclectic mix of people, not the height of its buildings. The Kettle Society development, measuring 12 storeys at its tallest (not incidentally one storey shorter than the Adanac Towers apartment complex across the street), would allow a vital social services society that has been in the neighbourhood for 40 years to remain in place and provide 30 units of supportive housing. It would also include 200 market housing units — and notably desperately needed three-bedroom condos — to allow more people to stay or buy in the neighbourhood, at least in principle.
Over on the West Side, it is the loss of character — of kids playing on the sidewalks and filling local schools, of neighbours chatting amicably over fences — that residents are mourning as they tell of empty houses awaiting the wrecking ball. But the way to preserve life in these neighbourhoods isn’t through a moratorium on demolition and development as many residents who spoke to council have suggested. It is in the addition of the very thing they fear.
It’s time we realized we’re not getting through this housing crisis without letting go of our attachment to traditional residential neighbourhoods. Even if we do manage to curb foreign demand on houses in Vancouver, it is highly unlikely prices will come down enough to make them a viable next step for average homebuyers.
Such a correction would be devastating to existing homeowners and the local economy.
Dense, affordable, multi-family developments are the only hope for breathing new life into single-family neighbourhoods, which are clearing out of families faster than you can say “foreign investment.” We need residents in these neighbourhoods — which account for 70 per cent of the city’s landmass and only 30 per cent of the population — to get on board with efforts to offer some kind of middle ground for the 8,000 Vancouver families that live with children in one-bedroom or studio “starter” homes.
If the affordability crisis has taught us anything, it’s that the era of single-family houses in Vancouver is over. The era of family-friendly neighbourhoods, however, doesn’t have to be.