In the wake of the NDP monster rally about housing affordability, reported below, provincial Housing Minister Rich Coleman rose in the legislature to say that Vancouver “has to learn from Burnaby” how to do density properly. I can’t find a story on-line to link to, but perhaps a diligent reader can. Brent Toderian, the former director of planning for Vancouver, said on his regular “On The Coast” gig on the CBC yesterday that he “picked his jaw up off the floor” when he heard Coleman’s statement.
This, and Brentwood, is the kind of development Coleman is apparently referring to:
Full story here from
I could be back at UBC in 1970, taking pre-architecture courses, with the professors getting us to read Le Corbusier’s Vers Une Architecture Moderne and study the Radiant City, while we all wanted to read Jane Jacobs!
It’s an interesting contrast with this quote from a Barbara Yaffe column in the Sun at the beginning of the month:

Local politicians for years have tried valiantly to convince Lower Mainlanders the only real solution to unaffordable housing is densification.
But if results of a new survey on preferred development are to be believed, there is a big problem with their strategy: The public is not buying it.
Incredibly, 44 per cent of those surveyed last July said, “All or most future development should be single, detached homes” — a category of shelter considered something of a relic in a region with a shortage of land and housing stock.

This is the dreamscape (hallucinatory!) at work, but it speaks to a deep desire people have for their own little plot of land, somehow, somewhere, that is theirs and theirs alone. A corollary is the suspicion many people have of strata-title, of strata councils, of all the potential mess of collectively managing a huge asset. The demand for fee-simple housing, which is far outrunning the supply of it in Vancouver and elsewhere, explains its skyrocketing price.
Could Vancouver provide more opportunities for fee-simple, ground-oriented housing on small lots (say, 30 x 66 feet, like some of the end-block houses in old neighbourhoods like Mount Pleasant and Grandview)? The townhouse-building community hasn’t responded, to my knowledge, with fee-simple rowhousing. Could the RS-1 McMansionland on the west side of the city be carved up into smaller lots, densifying along the way, while retaining the opportunity for fee-simple ownership?


  1. Apartment living requires a lot of sacrifice. The first thing my kids used to do when they got to the grandparents’ house was make noise and freely walk on the floor without having neighbours complaining. My daughter still can’t believe grandma has an entire table dedicated to sewing. In our place, my kids want to do crafts, but it’s such a pain to take stuff out and then clean it all up again. So, no big projects, nothing that takes more than a couple hours and isn’t too messy.
    It was obviously our “choice” to stay in the city, but there are days I dream about being able to turn up the volume on the stereo and dance around. My daughter wanted to build herself a doll house out of cardboard. In a moment of weakness, I gave in. And now we’ve lost a chunk of our living room. I’m going to toss it in the garbage soon. I’m not being facetious when I say this, but thank goodness for Netflix and video games. They don’t take up any space at all and there’s full volume control. I’m completely serious when I say that. Just the simple things in life that house people probably take for granted. 🙂

    1. Suburban home ownership also requires a lot of sacrifices. They’re just different ones like owning and maintaining multiple cars, long commutes, driving for everything you do, mowing the lawn, weeding the garden, fixing the fence, trimming the hedge, repairing the roof, expensive heating bills, isolation from community and amenities and generally more isolated, chauffeured and coddled children.

      1. Heh heh. A house on The Drive would be ideal. If I could afford that, I’m sure I’d be able to afford a gardener and the odd repair bill.

        1. Well, I did some searching and found this:

          Children in High Rises
          No evidence we could find shows that high rises are good for children. The literature includes several studies that suggest high percentages of dissatisfaction among parents about the suitability of high rises for their children. Every study of behavioral problems finds more among children in high rises. There is some evidence that children in lower floors of high rises, where traffic noise is prominent, learn more slowly. Children in high rises may develop certain practical skills more slowly, according to Japanese studies. Long ago, Jephcott (1971) said, “Practically no one disputes that this form of home [the high rise] is unsatisfactory for the family with small children” (p. 130). Some have suggested that this need not be the case (e.g., van Vliet, 1983) but, more than 35 years later, no available evidence contradicts her conclusion.

          As an apartment family, this is pretty scary. If anyone has any other studies, please pass them along. I’d love to read them. And, if there’s any sociologists out there, might I suggest Vancouver would make a great test study.

        2. It seems likely that upper floors aren’t the greatest for children. In our 11 storey building all the kids I’m aware of live below the 4th floor. That seems reasonable to me.
          I’m concerned about this: “where traffic noise is prominent”. Let’s not blame the building here. There is no reason why traffic noise needs to be prominent. Cars are responsible for a lot of ills. High rises not so much.
          It also seems to me that I hear a lot more about troubled and violent kids in the suburbs. And a lot more of them die in car crashes when they get into their late teens.

        3. You also have to be weary of the socio-economic factors that the study may not have taken into account – i.e. that families living in highrises (in other, less expensive cities) may be of a “lower” socio-economic class (i.e. rental social housing) and are therefore subject to other environmental factors – poor diet, stressful family life, etc.)

    2. Kirk, about the only upside I can read into your story is that your children will grow up with more consideration of others than many kids who are free to rampage around. On the other hand, will they have any opportunities to explore and develop independence by themselves in small stages? Do children in the burbs with helicopter parents? Doubt it…

    3. Kirk; You don’t need a study to determine the consequences to children growing up in apartments when you by your own admission restrict your children’s noise making and romping around, require no mess making, no big projects, and begrudge your daughter a corner in the “living room” where she can, irony of ironies, build her own house even if it is made out of cardboard! You may toss dreams in the garbage and plug children into Netflix and video games but take a moment to ponder the idea of the Zombie Nation. Clearly it is you that has chosen an inappropriate environment for a creative kid, and you can’t blame that on market forces when there are plenty of basement suites in the city.

  2. The proposal for Lougheed is the best mall conversion I’ve seen in this region. What it offers over the others is much more public space and a serious infusion of car-free outdoor urban environments. Contrary to Yaffe’s reference to polls about housing desires, these developments have no trouble selling out. Like them or not, this wave of mall makeovers are a massive improvement over what exists there now. They create the critical mass that allows car and bike sharing and the amenities and jobs that make car ownership an option rather than a demand.
    Having said that, towers shouldn’t be seen as a panacea. We should learn from European cities how to do low rise, medium to high density, development – largely but not always ground oriented. But as long as we have NIMBYs clutching desperately to stagnant single family neighbourhoods there is little choice but extreme density where ever it can go.

    1. In effect, the plans at Lougheed Town Centre are to deconstruct the enclosed mall in favour of a more street-like environment.
      The owner of Lougheed Town Centre is Shape Properties, which also owns Brentwood Town Cantre (and for which they have taken a different approach similar to Oakridge’s redvelopment).
      Lansdowne will likely see a similar plan to Lougheed, as the City of Richmond would like to punch some roads through that site.

    2. Of course they have no problem selling out when they’re marketed to the same demographic that are snapping up west side houses. Their kids might live in these while they go to SFU or they are just a hedge against your money seized at home.

    3. One wonders what the urban response will be from the City of Coquitlam, just across North Road to the right. They’re just a few metres shy of sharing this town centre without paying for the city services.

  3. To me it seems like Burnaby is on a pretty impressive roll. Add up Brentwood, Metrotown and Lougheed and you’re looking at a huge amount of people potentially living within close walking distance of a skytrain station. Probably another 100,000 or so once this wave of projects complete.
    The debate on Vancouver’s view cones has been heating up quite a bit recently as well. The scale of these developments in Burnaby highlights that clearly there is a huge economic case for these massive buildings. Moreso in Vancouver than in any suburban centre due to the higher market prices.
    Two huge questions loom:
    How many billions in CACs and public benefit is the city throwing away in favour of the view cones?
    How much is that inflating the unit price of develop-able land?
    I’m really struggling to see the magnitude of public benefit that they supposedly represent.

  4. For ages now I’ve been saying that what young people want when they are starting a family is a townhouse. A townhouse with a small patch of green for their children to play on. A modest contact with nature and somewhere they can grow some herbs and maybe some carrots.
    The green/save-the-planet/transit-intensive/no-car meme is towers. This was emblematic in Vision’s proposal for Commercial & Broadway. This has been extensively written about here by a few people, including a prominent city planner that was involved in that process. That proposal for up to 20 towers on that site has changed the Vancouver dynamic. Now, every development proposal is looked at as a probable tower plan because the entire population now understands what Vision believes the planet needs and what Vision is up to.
    The heavy emphasis is towers is evident too by the Marine Gateway buildings. Everyone sees what’s happening and not everyone is pleasantly excited.
    So, young couples are migrating to the burbs where that product is popping up like mushrooms. All over parts of Coquitlam, Delta, Surrey and Langley they can find the townhouses that they desire. There are also plenty available on the North Shore.
    This leads to the growth of the region and is why the need for the replacement of the non-earthquake-ready Massey Tunnel becomes more critical. It’s also why the Insights West poll showed an overwhelming majority of residents, including Vancouver residents, support a new crossing of the Fraser River at that point.
    Young people cannot afford a house in the centre of the city. Just as young people cannot either in New York, San Francisco, Paris or London, etc.
    Vancouver will one day have a large enough population for fast rail from the outskirts, including North Vancouver, which also is growing fast.

    1. Many agree with you but the problem isn’t Vision. The problem is the single family home owners who do not want to see change. Without a massive swath of single family homes changing to townhomes, or similar, there isn’t enough capacity to meet demand. So towers go in the path of least resistance – former industrial areas where nobody cares, shopping mall sites and arterials that already have a tower or two as precedent. Or they go at transit stations which is difficult to argue with.

    2. You should note, Eric, that Metro Vancouver long ago mandated a certain proportion of development, including towers, to include “ground-oriented housing.” Townhouses. This is why you see hundreds of doors facing the street, even in Yaletown. Point towers on a podium of townhouses are now ubiquitous. Whether they are able to accommodate child-rearing may depend on the individual development and the strata council, but thousands of kids are growing up downtown, to the point new schools are being planned.
      Ron also pointed out the necessity to examine subdividing large and standard lots to permit attached single-family homes (some with a basement mortgage helper). Townhouses and rowhouses could become the standard.

      1. “townhouses” at $1400/sq ft in Yaletown are NOT traditional townhouses with a yard but luxury condos for those few that can afford it and prefer to be on lower levels.
        Some people love tiny shoeboxes in the sky .. but most do not. The flight to the burbs will thus continue ..

    3. Burnaby has had its town centre plan since the 1970s – and it’s only now coming to fruition.
      True, its densification is somewhat easier since it’s not trampling on single family homes, but the rezonings are a question that any historically developed city will face when it comes to densification.
      Vancouver has, up until the Cambie Corridor rezonings, largely played the “opportunistic redevelopment” card – rezoning historically consolidated parcels (Safeway sites, mall sites) or light industrial areas that don’t force a decision to rezone single family homes.

  5. Options for fee-simple townhouses and RS-1 subdivisions (to say nothing of stratified conversions) have been discussed ad nauseum in Vancouver for over a year. Anyone with a passing interest in the subject knows that the problem is a lack of political leadership at the municipal level. The fear of NIMBY homeowners paralyzes the city government from doing anything that would add non-condo housing at the expense of single-family homes.
    This would be typical of a wealthy, preservationist enclave like Santa Barbara or Saint Tropez. But it is becoming embarrassing for a city that became world-famous for progressive urbanism. I feel the window for broad zoning changes may be beginning to close in Vancouver. We can choose San Francisco-style stasis or something more ambitious. I volunteered and voted for Vision in the last election, but increasingly feel like I would have to lodge a protest vote the next time around.

    1. Excellent points, Chris. There are solutions and all are expensive. But the huge vacuum in the array of medium-priced housing types between condos and unaffordable detached homes that waste an exceedingly large area of land will not be filled without political leadership.
      I prefer a mixed council over a slate for that reason, the fewer reactionaries and ideologues the better.

  6. Would detached homes on smaller lots be easier to implement than row-house? You need only to assemble 2 lots (2 x 33 for CoV) and you could sub divide that into 3 lots that are 22 feet wide. That would create 10’s of thousands of new detached homes in the City on Vancouver.
    Lots in the suburbs are 50′ wide most of the time. Just 1 lot could become 2 – 25′ lots.

    1. Not aggressive enough to do much good. I’d say 6 attached houses on two 33 foot lots – 3 facing the lane. That would triple the density at a low-rise human scale.

    2. Some older neighbourhoods already have this solution (two full lots subdivided crosswise into four or five freehold lots with smaller detached homes), and most of them predate the zoning bylaw by a half century. This idea has been staring at councillors and planners for 100+ years.

  7. Overall, I would agree that Burnaby is building more density (highrises) than Vancouver, and doing it only near rapid transit stations (its town centres) – so in that respect, it is doing it “better”.
    You won’t find an oddball highrise on a former Safeway site away from rapid transit (i.e. on Hastings) just because it was a large redevelopment site.
    Compare to King Edward Village or Granville & 70th in Vancouver, or the recently approved hotel redevelopment at Fraser & SE Marine Drive, or the River District on former sawmill sites in SE Vancouver.
    The term “better” is of course very subjective.
    I think that you can sum it up by saying that Vancouver thinks that “better” is less density (or fewer highrises) than what Burnaby or other cities like Toronto are building.
    But I don’t think that spreading them around in locations far from rapid transit is necessarily “better”.

  8. Of course Coleman cares little for those low income people displaced wen all those walk-up apartments get demolished for towers. Renters are NDPers after all.

  9. Dennis – yes, he is. And he refuses to even attempt to provide social housing, saying its not the municipality’s responsibility. He may be cold heartedly correct in that, but neighbouring cities feel an added burden due to that position.

  10. My cousins from the Netherlands visited here when the Little Mountain site was still intact. I guess they thought it odd that most dwellings in the area were single family and mentioned that Little Mountain which had two story walk up apartment blocks reminded them of home with the exception of all the green space surrounding the buildings. This was social housing at its best. My cousins all live in row housing. I did see some detached houses when I went to see a house where my grandparents lived, but these are extremely rare in the Netherlands. Up-zoning RS1 to row housing makes a lot of sense – especially at ends of blocks and in areas close to transit corridors.

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