by Michael Mortensen, MA MCIP, RPP – a Vancouver Developer & Planner abroad |

Vancouver City Council approved the advancement of an Affordable Home Ownership PILOT program on April 20th. Based largely on “Shared Equity” models of affordable housing drawn from the US and the UK, the program identifies sites along arterial roads well served by frequent transit systems and close to Local Shopping Areas (LSAs) as potential locations for 6-storey developments provided they generate targeted affordability outcomes. “Inboard” sites within 100m of these sites would be eligible for 3+1/2 storey forms of development (stacked Townhouses, Rowhouses etc) provided they meet similar affordability targets.

Public Involvement

Council directed City Staff to consult broadly with:
* Regional & Local Employers
* The Public
* The Development Industry; and
* Canada Mortgage & Housing Corporation 

Eligible Sites


Back to the Future? Vancouver’s Streetcar Suburbs

The policy map above appears to be a natural iteration/evolution of Commercial/ Mixed-Use “C-2” and “C-3A” zoning on the streetcar grid that has defined much of our city for almost 130 years – a development template based the dual logic of electric mass transit and pedestrian mobility, married to convenient local shopping. The notable hole in the grid above is of course the Cambie Street CanadaLine corridor which is the subject of more intensive forms of redevelopment, serviced by the rapid transit line.

In my old neighbourhood at Main and 26th , I’ve seen a few new arterial buildings –  built under existing zoning –  that maintained great neighbourhood shopping in small stores at grade with new rental and ownership units above, notably the rental building at 28th Ave with the “East is East” restaurant and the new Liquor Store, and the BlueTree development on the NE corner of Main and King Edward Ave (which replaced a contaminated gas station). They’ve been positive additions to the community and they have added and retained valued local shops and services.

main street.JPG
Main and 28th Ave, Vancouver BC

Here in the UK where I currently work, the idea of shared equity housing has been around for quite a while, typically included in large redevelopment programs and in the redevelopment of Council-Owned or Housing Association-Managed Social Housing Estates. I think that what is also interesting about the program is the income mix and the degree to which the interests of Shared Equity owners are highly aligned with those of other owners.The challenge is to find the 20% or so “public equity” and to resolve the equity questions in how that public asset is shared.

Provincial amendments to Vancouver’s City Charter are required for the City to enter into these agreements.

Read the Council Report here:


  1. Michael, this is my neighbourhood too and I can confirm the positive effect development on Main has had. There seems to be a balance between the old and new too, and the wide range of stores and other building uses (e.g. new Firemren’s Burn Unit building) makes for an interesting experience. Although overall leases and land values have increased enough now to push a few of the older antique stores out, other stores have actually expanded with the increasing support of local clientele (Baker’s Dozen, The Front). There are still quite a few antique stores left that are now well served by the new coffee places and non-chain unique cafes. Foot traffic on weekends is quite heavy.

    Another thing I really appreciate is that there are now six food outlets of varying fare (supermarket chain to independent organic) within a 10-minute walk (up from two a decade ago) a real consideration for us who are ageing but want to keep walking and hate driving to shop for groceries.

    1. MB – do you think we should allow retail zoning all the way from 33rd to 49th on Main? I feel like if we did that Main could truly become the next thriving Commercial Drive type street. The neighborhoods to the East and West would become far more walkable then too.

      Sometimes people say “Main is the next Commercial”. I used to agree and that would naturally occur, but with the current zoning is that possible? Is Main being held down by the current zoning on the street? What a fabulous, long thriving walkable arterial street Main could be if we allowed shopping/retail all the way down to Marine Drive!

      1. A good question …. My observation and that of many others in the retail field is that retail has its own “gravity”, defined by the intensity of local markets. In Vancouver – vibrant local shopping is generally contained within about four or five blocks (double sided) centered on an important intersection (Prime “A” locations). Beyond that, things thin out and you see less viable forms of retail and service uses occupying these “B” and “C” locations.

        Nonetheless, as Jane Jacobs observes “new ideas need old buildings” so some low value ground floor retail and service space can be useful. In new development, Retail has to be accretive to the project value. If affordable housing is an explicit goal, it would not make sense to force retail into low demand (and low rent) locations and have residential uses cross-subsidise it.

      2. Michael – what if we had a zone like “flex-zoning” farther down Main. Then we wouldn’t be forcing any place to be retail, and it could remain housing if there was no demand for retail. Essentially we could let market forces rather than government plans determine where retail sprouts up. What is the downside to that? We could even keep the same building restrictions, and just force retailers to renovate single detached houses into stores as they do Toronto with old mansions.

        1. That is the history of much of Georgian London! Adaptable ground floors. You need street level access and robust floor to ceiling heights. 2 hour firewalls between the commercial and residential uses. Space for signage. Provisions for commercial waste. Plus a landlord (or ownership structure) open to conversion.

        2. Sounds doable – what prevents this from happening? Can we loosen some of the regulations to make it more feasible? Is robust floor to ceiling heights really needed as a law, or can we let retailers decide for themselves whether they need them? Are more stringent fire regulations than residential really needed for businesses that don’t engage in flammable activities?

          Seems to me that yoga studios, travel agencies, book stores, and many other varieties of businesses shouldn’t need to do a huge retrofit of these houses to safely operate.

  2. Hi Spank,
    Mixed-use design can be done though it has to meet a wider set of interests (wider than just planning) that can sometimes trigger design and cost challenges:

    > Can we loosen some of the regulations to make it more feasible?

    You do have be sure the uses will meet building codes. On a practical level from the Landlord’s and Tenant’s perspective, they have to both be sure that the building can be insured against risks. Not up to code = no insurance.

    > Are robust floor to ceiling heights really needed as a law, or can we let retailers decide for themselves whether they need them?

    The landlord will need a wide enough set of possible users who want the space? Considering the needs for mechanical ventilation and lighting in commercial space, heights above typical residential floor to ceiling heights ARE necessary – you can’t go back and add extra ceiling height later, so it’s something that has to be worked out in the initial building design, how much higher is a matter of budgets and max building height limits.

    > Are more stringent fire regulations than residential really needed for businesses that don’t engage in flammable activities? Seems to me that yoga studios, travel agencies, book stores, and many other varieties of businesses shouldn’t need to do a huge retrofit of these houses to safely operate.

    Some uses are relatively benign (I won’t make any jokes about hot yoga here!), but they can have much higher occupancy numbers than residential. You may need secondary meas of egress which can create security issues for residential users.

    Other considerations:

    * Separate Strata Sections (Residential and Commercial) in Condominium developments

    * Separate Commercial Waste management facilities (additional space)

    * Additional Electricity demands for Commercial Use (you have to decide on the power supply up front when you build the building – adding it later can be problematic and $$$)

    * Separate water metering for commercial users

    * Segregated parking access for residential and commercial users

    * Etc.

    1. Thanks for your responses Michael

      Although many of these building characteristics seem beneficial, I’m still not convinced we need laws requiring them. If buildings that do not meet certain criteria cannot get insurance, those buildings are practically useless! No developer wants to build a building that is useless I assume. Same with ceiling heights, lighting considerations, security issues and whatever.

      If we stripped these laws and let developers build whatever they thought would maximize profits, it seems like they would behave in the same way IF the laws we currently have are benign and reasonable. But if our current laws are unreasonable or unhelpful, or if there is an as yet unimagined but superior way of addressing some of these considerations, then developers would have the flexibility to go in another direction. It seems to me that removing many zoning laws can do at worst no harm, and at best provide some benefit.

      Could it be that allowing such experimentation could encourage innovation in these areas, and ultimately reduce construction costs? Or that by applying blanket policies to all construction, we are preventing certain building forms which might be beneficial? Maybe a low-ceiling building could be beneficial? It is only suitable for certain commercial activities, but also might reduce rent costs. Why not just allow it and let businesses decide for themselves whether to build it, or rent it?

      Let me make an analogy – consider this calculator, the TI-84 plus:

      I own one. It’s remarkable how utterly inferior it is, given the availability of the iphone and whatever else with far greater computational abilities. Why is it still around? Because it’s the mandated calculator for schools across the world. But it’s perfectly functional, and if the iphone wasn’t around it might be hard for an uninspired layman like myself to imagine an improvement.

      When we mandate characteristics, I argue companies meet the criteria but have no incentives to improve upon them. If we let firms build whatever they can dream up, and let buyers discern the superior product, incremental but miraculous technological change can occur. I think enabling this technological change can solve the challenges of our day, including unaffordable housing. That’s why I argue we have too many building rules.

  3. Thinking more my London environment and the resilience of the classic Georgian building stock – adapted to many uses over the past few centuries. They were in fact subject to some quite prescriptive design rules and conventions but were flexible enough to accommodate a variety of uses, styles and finishes.

    Some things that made them work well:

    – built tight to the street (works well for commercial access and visibility)
    – slightly elevated first floors (privacy for residential uses)
    – building width was generous offering decent sized rooms
    – generous floor to ceiling heights
    – stone cladding weathered well
    – and of course the Brits still throw their rubbish out on the front step so no need for back of house facilities or parking!

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