Michael Geller writes in Postmedia’s Vancouver Sun with many thoughts on land use, as aired at the recent Re:Address conference. To me, the big opportunity is increasing density where our old suburbs now reign supreme. 

Thanks to Nick Procaylo, Vancouver Sun
Concerns:  homelessness and affordability.
Solutions (among others):

  • Mandatory inclusionary zoning. You don’t get rezoning unless you include affordable units.  This is not new in Vancouver.
  • Better use of existing land:  densify Vancouver’s huge areas now zoned for single-family.

Mr. Geller also calls for something that we Vancouverites rarely do.  That is to perform a post-mortem on various fearful public predictions of various types of -mageddon. Do these apocalyptic predictions actually show up in post-project real life?


  1. Kudos to Michael for his broad range of views and long experience.
    Another thing that needs to be addressed in my opinion is strata title. Strata has its role in housing complexes that share common walls and space, but it is problematic when the individual must pay often tens of thousands for repairs to other’s units, or infighting becomes rancorous. The condo rot debacle brought that issue into the light.
    This brings into view freehold ownership of attached homes, or the subdivision of the standard 4,000 square foot lot. These ideas seem to meet great resistance at city hall, and that resistance has stifled the very creativity needed to address our demographic, land availability and affordability issues by building the ‘missing middle’ housing types that use land more efficiently without resorting to towers or forcing people to live with the traffic din of arterials.
    It is possible to design rowhouses with complete separation (save for fire breaks) by building a small gap between them (e.g. 2 inches), thus creating independently standing homes with no party walls. as a requirement of purchase, owners of each group of rowhouses should be required to sign a simple contract to manage their individual homes equitably and respect the neighbours. No strata council, no paying for your neighbour’s repairs.
    Each rowhouse could contain a suite that is rented, not sold under strata. There could be a studio apartment above a garage in the backyard, rented as well. Alternatively, a standard lot should be allowed to subdivide into two or three separate lots under new zoning, each with comfortable urban houses possibly with rental suites.
    We have to encourage council to start nipping away at the inertia that so encumbers the urban solutions we really need.

    1. Who would own and manage a single rental-only suite?
      Would a single rental-only suite be subject to all the stratas’ bylaws?
      Could the strata council then sanction the tenant in the case of a bylaw infraction?
      Would the tenant then be eligible for all of the present tenants protections?
      There would be an interesting mix of laws that would necessitate new laws being written.

  2. Montreal has a lot of terraced or row housing – what do the ownership models look like there? how do they manage common walls?

  3. One project I’d like to see a post mortem on is Sassamat Gardens, on Sassamat and 8th in Point Grey, a townhouse development that looks almost indistinguishable from neighbouring single detached houses, but with combined underground parking and vastly better landscape. Bitterly contested by neighbours as the thin edge of the wedge and then wholly adopted as soon as it was built. I would be particularly interested to know how many people who opposed it now live in it because it is one of the only places in the area where people can downsize and still stay attached in some way to both the ground and the community.

  4. I’m not a fan of reflexively putting high density housing on arterial streets. This seems to consign the largest number of people to live in the noisiest locations with potentially the fewest amenities, while continuing to preserve the blocks behind for single family housing. That said, the political difficulty of ‘neighbourhood’ rezonings is well known.
    A city-wide discussion to consider medium-density townhouse development along most RS-zoned arterials served by bus transit however might be useful. Taking West 41st Avenue as an example, townhouses along 41st from Dunbar to Arbutus (similar to developments on Oak Street) would boost densities along an existing bus route, and hopefully would not generate the same resistance from adjacent neighbourhoods as a wholesale up-zoning might do. The same could be said of many bus-served RS-zoned corridors throughout the city.
    Using bus transit routes as a guide to create ‘modest up-zoning’ as those routes pass through single family neighbourhoods makes sense, just as does using Skytrain as a guide to create higher density development around stations. Townhouse development is recognized as a much needed family-friendly housing type that can also include some private green space. It’s a form that is less likely to antagonize neighbourhoods, and also does not overdo residential densities on what are, after all, still arterial streets. Use of existing transit routes would increase gradually in a predictable manner.
    Could such an approach be a useful step towards a more sensible strategy on densification?

    1. That is certainly a sensible approach. The ultimate goal should be for even more density in the long run.
      I believe 41st Ave would be a good place for a feasibility study on light rail accompanied by a zoning upgrade, more in the medium density and low-mid rise ranges. The upzoning should extend at least two blocks into the neighbourhoods from 41st to build a critical mass of population and amenities with a very high walk score. But that needs to be tempered with design guidelines, far more restrictive demolition permits and heritage preservation clauses.
      The rail needs to accommodate a higher capacity than the current bus service or narrow trams and could make a direct connection with stations every 500 m or so between Metrotown and UBC.

      1. Perhaps West 41st wasn’t the best example for what I was proposing. I was thinking of streets that are unlikely to receive major density (or or any form of rapid transit) in the foreseeable future, but do have established bus routes.
        Another example might be East 22nd Avenue, from Nanaimo east (the route of the #25 bus), or portions of the #33 bus route on the west side, or any remaining pockets of RS zoning along streets such as Fraser or Main.

    2. I prefer to see office over retail on arterials since noise is less of a concern. More density will require more office space and retail in the neighbourhood – not likely enough to make it the norm everywhere, but in key blocks particularly where arterials intersect. it allows the street to be more animated and loud, (restaurant and bar patios etc.) in the evening without bothering residents who would be primarily one street back at higher densities.
      It might also reduce the need for height on the arterial to maintain sunlight on the most public of streets – the high streets.
      Low to midrise buildings should front on the parallel streets to each side of the arterial and then step down to row houses and finally single family in the blocks farthest from the arterial grid.

      1. I agree with office over retail on arterials or at least not the densest housing. While it makes sense to be close to bus routes, living on arterials is unhealthy. Noise and pollution (especially from diesel buses and trucks) have a significant negative impact on health. Why should especially families with kids get only the option of living in the unhealthiest areas of the city?

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