Missing Middle Maze of Meddling Mediocrity
City Conversation #104: Arbitrary options poorly explained mask a bankrupt planning process.
Pardon the title’s alliteration as we ask some questions that you might also.
Current & proposed RS Housing options
The city’s Missing Middle initiative has three public consultation options during February, of which the first two are now complete:
Online Survey—I’ve taken it, wrote about it but admittedly in many more words than the Twitter-lite limits on public survey responses. It’s open until March 5 and I urge you to take it.
Open Houses—Seven of these have been planned in the month of February, I guess more than enough for the city’s 23 neighbourhoods. I’ve attended two so felt qualified to comment.
An Online Session—Scheduled for February 27th. Again, I recommend you sign up for that. Coming at the end of the seven open houses, perhaps it will be a moment for city staff to share what they’ve heard.
A third of the city’s Information Session Boards that support this public consultation are devoted to Background + Context issues. Please read them yourselves if you must.
The second third of the Boards is devoted to the Multiplex Concept. Some interesting take aways:
Staff have already had four workshops with local small home builders and designers, while the entire citizenry of Vancouver is allotted just seven information sessions. Not workshops, mind, where attendees roll up their sleeves and have at the concepts; rather, information sessions where no staff member took notes, there were no places for Post-It notes or other markups and all was presented as a fait accompli.
Site requirements being explored for any growth in RS areas include: rainwater detention tanks (say $10,000 + one-third of your front yard); a 12’x12’ space on the lane for a BC Hydro Pad Mounted Transformer (PMT), because bigger buildings apparently need them (say $25,000 + more than a third of the width of a 33’ lot); new tree planting, presumably to replace the trees lost to the rainwater detention tank, the PMT and the larger multiplex footprint.
Lest anybody except the city make any money from multiplexing, there will be an unspecified density bonus paid by the owner/developer to the city. The Boards say this would “help fund amenities like parks, childcare, community centres and affordable housing across the city,” except they really go to general revenue, could be used for anything staff wants, anywhere in the city. Such is the history of almost all such bonuses collected by the city for the past decade. Notice the proliferation of new parks, community centres, pools, etc…
There is an interesting concept introduced called Below-Market Homeownership (BMHO), except it’s just an option being explored—the devil is in those details. See suggestions at the end of this Conversation.
The city’s Boards suggest a development rate of 150 multiplexes per year, growing over time. Given the city’s proportion of 33’ to 50’ lots (about 70-30), at 150/year multiplexes with maximum development on each site that’s about 240 additional homes per year. It’s not included in the city’s Boards (?) but staff have elsewhere advised that the current rate of gentle densification in the city is about:
250 duplexes per year
475 laneways per year
So that’s 725 additional homes per year, three times what multiplexing is expected to produce—despite all the challenges to simple renovation and laneway construction.
While waiting for tomorrow’s online session, I took some time to consider the six RS housing options in the city illustration above, three existing and three new. I found the city’s diagram to be confusing for my spreadsheet-focused mind. I have considered implications for 33’ and 50’ lots, which make up the vast majority of city residential lots. Please humour me while I examine the options that way:
The essence of current RS zone houses
Interesting that under current zoning, you can build more square footage with a home+laneway than you can by duplexing a lot—penalty or math error?
The current duplexing option
My “character home” looks like a big strata winner?
When we bought our 1939 33’-lot home (by construction date and city definition a character home) 35 years ago with no family help and a frighteningly large mortgage, I was surprised to find after measurement that it was already built to the maximum allowable 0.6 FSR—so no expansion possible. Since then, allowable FSR has been increased to 0.7, an additional 400sf on a 33-foot lot. Then there’s the 640sf laneway home potential. At various times I explored both those options, discovered that there were so many requirements (think sprinklering of a character home) and fees (all utilities must be duplicated, etc.) that it never made economic sense. I’ve previously suggested how this might all be simplified.
Imagine my surprise at the information session I attended when I discovered that there already exists an option to place up to six strata homes on our lot—same overall FSR as main home+laneway, but way more parking required—another development option evaporated!
My “character home” as a rental?
Then there’s the character home rental option, should I decide to become a landlord—same parking issue.
The downzoned RS home
As the neighbour to a 0.7 FSR + laneway mini-mansion under construction, I like the 400sf penalty proposed for those who continue to opt for these neighbourhood destroyers. To preserve some privacy, I see a row of 12’ high cedar hedges in my back yard’s future.
Ironically, in about the year 2000 I worked on a study of how to deal with that era’s “monster houses.” We discovered by meeting with and interviewing hundreds of Vancouverites around the city that they hated neighbouring back yards with carport annexed to main house and resulting roof deck overlooking and shading their yards. Our adopted recommendations included a required yard space between the main house and a garage/carport. Of course, this mandatory green space preserved the future option of a laneway home, a concept I introduced at the first ECOdensity forum in 2009.
Which brings us to the multiplex concept:
The multiplex endgame
I feel there is a certain desperation in the multiplex proposal. It trades off a higher FSR and reduced parking for just one extra unit on a 33’ lot (four versus main house + secondary suite + laneway as already permitted)—not to mention the dramatic increases in shadowing and overlook of neighbours as well as a larger footprint that will result in the loss of much of our mature tree canopy. Add to these urban design impacts: a density bonus payment to the city; a $10k detention tank and $25k PMT; an unknown cost for all the other levies the city is (in)famous for. All these costs are hits to affordability.
I took a walk through the snowy lanes earlier today, passing exactly 100 homes (50 each side of the lane) in the almost three block walk to the Camosun Bog. Along the way were 15 rental laneway homes, all built despite 6-month minimum permitting delays, multiple additional and excessive utility fees—many disincentives to construction. 15% penetration is not bad in the circumstances. I predict the 475/year laneway and 250/year duplexing construction rates would increase dramatically if a fresh look at the regulations and permitting requirements and fees was taken.
I encourage readers and their friends to take the online survey, attend an open house and sign up for the online session. The survey closes March 5th.
Suggested questions for the online session:
Why not allow simple strata titling of laneways, charging a high enough fee to discourage wholesale conversion of existing rental laneways to strata? Perhaps waive the fee if the laneway is a BMHO home?
Why not take 0.1 FSR from new replacement homes and allocate it to laneways, BUT only if they are rental or BMHO? Take the 0.1 FSR from replacement homes in any event, to incent more generous laneways.
Today’s question: Have you taken the survey and attended an open house? If not, why not? If yes, what was your experience?
I read and respond to all comments, also capturing them to relevant neighbourhood files for more detailed future conversations.
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Brian Palmquist is a Vancouver-based architect, building envelope and building code consultant and LEED Accredited Professional (the first green building system). He is semi-retired for the moment, still teaching, writing and consulting a bit, but not beholden to any client or city hall. These conversations mix real discussion with research and observations based on a 45+ year career including the planning, design and construction of almost every type and scale of project. He is the author of the Amazon best seller “An Architect’s Guide to Construction.” and working on a book about how we can accommodate a growing population in the Vancouver we love.
I took the survey. I was mystified by the BMHO and attempted to find a way to ask how it would be financed.
Thank you for your detailed and cogent postings. The future liveability of our neighbourhoods and city is certainly compromised.
I am also not happy with the idea that high rises are a given!
WHERE did all those neighbourhood plans go....... Dunbar’s planning sessions were comprehensive and reflected how neighbours could come together and build consensus..... unlike the process by the City Councils and City staff.....