Architecture
February 10, 2020

The Coupland Primer 4: Random Acts of Density

Stats-and-numbers guy Andy Coupland does a backgrounder on The Grand Bargain and what Vancouverites (City and Metro) should know about this town.

Here’s the first post in the Andy Coupland Primer. Here’s the second. The third.  And now the fourth and final:

Random Acts of Density

Can the city or the region build itself out of the current ‘housing crisis’? The proportion of rental households actually went up in Vancouver between the 2011 and 2016 censuses (and in the rest of Metro too, although with a lower overall proportion renting). The past five years have seen over 33,000 starts in the city – the past four years have seen over 28,000.

But for the city to achieve an average 8,500 new units a year (the target the mayor has mentioned) would mean moving away from the caution we generally see.* Perhaps it won’t be as difficult as it seems. It was a bit surprising that there wasn’t pushback when Wall built a huge complex on Boundary Road, quite a way from the SkyTrain. That was the most extreme example (in Vancouver) of a street of modest houses replaced by over 1,000 condos in 32 floor buildings.

The take-up of the Cambie Plan also shows a different approach – not so much the six-storey buildings along Cambie already mentioned but the more recent additions. The City now has a method to fast-track rezoning for 1.4 FSR townhouses. One existing house can become six or even eight units, half of them 3-bed family-sized. There are already 32 projects as current rezonings – all but two approved in the past year. There are nine other sites already at Development Permit stage, and they represent 341 townhouses – which for Vancouver is a huge change.  The same sort of thing is happening in Marpole and Grandview Woodland, as those plans took the same forms and density.

That will be another way in which Vancouver will continue to grow in ways other municipalities don’t, because there’s actually a lot of change happening in some of Vancouver’s single-family neighbourhoods, which really isn’t the case in other municipalities. It would be interesting to know who is buying them. The family homes generally cost well over $1 million each – so more affordable than most existing Vancouver houses, but still a pretty steep haul to finance as a young couple.

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CBC’s The Current is Doing  a Broadcast on the Future of Chinatown Monday February 10.

Join Matt Galloway for a special show in Vancouver on Chinatown’s Future.

Matt Galloway is the host of CBC Radio’s The Current. (CBC)

Why a  forum all about the future of the city’s Chinatown?

It’s a part of the city that’s changing rapidly, and faces challenges from all sides. There are fewer visitors, growing pressures to develop, and long-established stores closing up.

Is it time to re-think the future of this once vibrant neighbourhood?

Join Galloway for a special taping of The Current: Vancouver’s Changing Chinatown.

Stay after the event for a chance to meet him.

Get your free tickets from Eventbrite by clicking this link.

Additional Information

Doors open: 6:30 p.m.

Taping: 7:00 to 8:30 p.m.

Location: Floata Seafood Restaurant, 180 Keefer St., Vancouver, BC V6A 1X4

All seats are first come, first served. There will also be a rush line at the event should tickets sell out.

Please contact the organizer at cbcradioevents@cbc.ca with any questions.

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Transparency is such an important quality and nothing is as vital when developers move existing established rental tenants out of buildings that they are refurbishing or redeveloping. The language of the Residential Tenancy Regulation indicates that

“The landlord may end the tenancy only for the reasons and only in the manner set out in the Residential Tenancy Act and the landlord must use the approved notice to end a tenancy form available from the Residential Tenancy office. The landlord and tenant may mutually agree in writing to end this tenancy agreement at any time.”

As Jen St. Den writes in BCTV News when Reliance Properties moved the tenants out of the twelve unit rental building at 1188 Bidwell Street and redeveloped a  20 storey 108 unit apartment building on the site, those existing tenants that wanted to stay thought they could return to that building at their old agreed upon rents and signed an agreement to vacate the old building. Their assumption was that after a two year time period that had been agreed to by the developer and the City, that rent increases for those returning tenants would only be the annual increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for British Columbia, as stated in the Residential Tenancy Regulation.

Wrong.

Instead Reliance Properties trotted out “new” leases that brought the returning tenants’ rents up to “market rental levels” of   $2,350 a month for a one bedroom, and then offered those returning tenants a “rebate” to their old pre-development rent for two years. After that, the rent mushroomed up to the “new” rent, plus the percentage annual  increase in the CPI.

You can take a look at the agreement entered into between Reliance Properties and the City of Vancouver regarding the return of the existing tenants to the newly developed 1188 Bidwell that resulted in this ambiguity. This was approved by the Development Permit Board. It  states:

“That returning Eligible Tenants will be entitled to rent with a discount of 20% off starting rents. That discounted Starting Rents are applicable only to Eligible Tenants who exercise their right of first refusal and occupy a unit in the new development.”

Now there is a case of who said what, and exactly what a “starting rent” would be. There is  finger pointing from the City to the developer over the lack of clarity over correct lease execution,where it appears that the City’s intent was to allow the few returning tenants back in the building at their “old” rents, subject to annual adjustment.

In the end, it is the tenant who is left holding the bag, without enough disposable income  to continue living in the building. Those tenants feel bamboozled, and Reliance Properties whose website states “The company focuses on developing long-term tenant relationships and today, many Reliance tenants have been with the firm for over thirty years”  has developed a horrifying precedent. Clearly the City will need to spell out exact terms in future redevelopments.

 

There’s still time for Reliance to do the right thing and give this small handful of tenants the understood rent that they and the City believed was negotiated.

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(Click on headline above for illustrations.)


We asked stats-and-numbers guy Andy Coupland to do a background on The Grand Bargain and what Vancouverites (City and Metro) should know about this town, especially if they are going to weigh in on the housing crisis and to participate in the City-Wide Plan. 

Here’s the first post in the Andy Coupland Primer.  And now the second:

 

WHO GROWS WHERE

If you lived your life only shuttling up and down the rapid-transit system, you’d be convinced that all the growth is happening in the suburbs – or at least some of the suburbs – far more than in the City of Vancouver. Just look at the apparent density, and certainly the height, bulk and prominence of some of the transit-oriented clusters in Burnaby at Brentwood and Metrotown, and in Surrey at King George. Even in Richmond (where the height limitation means less density), the number of projects stretches to the skyline. Each of these would seem far greater than the few towers here and there in Vancouver.

So appearances can be deceptive.  A lot of lower density developments and a series of Random Acts of Density can generate more new homes than a few clusters of very obvious towers.

In fact, Vancouver is developing clusters of new towers as well. Nearly 1,000 of those 33,300 housing starts over five years in the City of Vancouver are on Davie Street, near Denman, (right) where there are five new rental buildings under construction.  Because they’re being developed in the context of other older towers, and because they are (by today’s standards) being built to modest heights, they don’t really stand out.

There’s a similar set of towers coming on Robson Street. They’re almost invisible when compared to the very prominent Vancouver House by Granville Bridge, but overall the three towers under construction add over 400 units, half of them rentals – nearly as many as Vancouver House in total, and more of them rental.

Many of Vancouver’s new homes are even more invisible. To the annoyance of some commentators, the Cambie Corridor Plan initial phase was cautious. The plan allowed six-storey buildings along Cambie and four storeys on adjacent parts of King Edward, for example. The heights were limited because the sites all held single-family homes – often 1950s ranchers. There was a recognition that, one, not every house would sell, and secondly, across the lane the zoning wasn’t going to necessarily change, so ‘fitting in’ was important.

The Grand Bargain was still in play – but in this case it was houses that were going to be torn down up and down Cambie and replaced with apartments. Without taking into account the higher numbers and densities on the big sites like Oakridge, Pearson and Langara Gardens, there have already been over 6,000 units associated with the Cambie Plan. There are 16 tower cranes along Cambie today.

Those who lament that the densities are far too low for a transit corridor forget the huge backlash against the plan, and the parade of residents who objected to the earliest projects when they came to Council for rezoning.

Even less visible are the suites and laneway houses. Over 500 laneway homes get added every year, all rental, and all modestly sized. More rebuilt homes these days have a suite than don’t, but it’s not that far back in time that there was no way of adding a suite – or legalizing one that had mysteriously appeared underneath a home. Now, providing there’s a lane, almost every plot in RS zoning can have three homes – two of which can’t be sold off, only offered for rent. It has been argued that one unintended consequence is that house prices have been maintained higher thanks to the presence of two ‘mortgage helpers’.

This situation doesn’t apply in most of the rest of Metro Vancouver, and it might explain why the numbers of new units in Vancouver is so much higher. Of the 33,000 starts over five years in Vancouver, less than 7,000 are single detached or semi detached, (many one-for-one replacements) and that includes over 2,500 laneway homes.

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Andy Coupland was the go-to guy for stats and data at Vancouver City Hall – and who periodically visits Price Tags with comments and corrections.  With John Atkin, he’s been giving us great insights on our past in Changing Vancouver, and on our present in Changing City Updates.

We asked Andy to do a background to The Grand Bargain and what Vancouverites (City and Metro) should know about this town, especially if they are going to weigh in on the housing crisis and to participate in the City-Wide Plan. 

So here’s the first post in an Andy Coupland Primer:

 

THE NUMBERS

Metro Vancouver isn’t growing any bigger geographically.  But every year its population grows by an average of over 30,000.  So in the past 30 years, over a million extra people have been added, to reach the current population of around 2.5 million.

The City of Vancouver has grown too – 200,000 more people in the same 30-year period.

Some ask: does the City of Vancouver need to add any more people? Others are outraged that the City limits development anywhere.

A reasonable approach fits into the middle somewhere: we can’t or shouldn’t pull up the drawbridge, but there has to be a managed growth that doesn’t encourage Random Acts of Density in locations where services are inadequate.

 

Within the 2,870 square kilometers of the region, two thirds is effectively off-limits for development.*

That means that effectively there are only 837 square kilometers of land where development can occur (29% of the total Metro area). Within this relatively limited area, less than 10% is ‘green field’ land.

The result: in all the region, only 78 square kilometres have never been developed – an area somewhat smaller than the City of Vancouver.

The City of Vancouver has only has five percent of the region’s total land area – just 116 sq. km. Because very little of the city is off-limits for development, it has just under 12 percent of the region’s developable area.

By the 1990s almost everywhere in the City of Vancouver had already been built on.  In a few spots in downtown, the buildings being constructed today are the fifth on the site, despite the city’s relatively short history.

Nonetheless, the City of Vancouver added on average around 5,600 people a year between 2011 and 2016** despite having almost all the developable land already built out and the highest population density of all the region’s municipalities.

Yet in the same time period, the city also saw an average of 5,500 new homes added every year. At first, that just sounds wrong – almost a new home for every new resident? There are several reasons.

The 5,500 is not net growth – about a thousand homes a year are demolished and almost always replaced by other ones. So only 4,500 additional homes are added each year. But not all of those were occupied with new residents – at least, not in 2016. Some had ‘non-permanent’ residents – students studying here; temporary foreign workers. Some were used as pied-a-terre; some were second homes, some business-owned.  Some are occupied by suburban parents to use a couple of times a week when commuting home was inconvenient. A few were owned by wealthy foreigners with multiple homes around the globe. Some were on AirBnB. Some were vacant, awaiting sale or recently completed.  A few were bought purely as an inflating investment, with rising value offsetting taxes and strata fees.

Conclusion: in five years there were just over 3,000 more dwellings in the city not occupied by usual residents.

It’s not a huge number, but in a city with very low vacant rental rate and a serious affordability problem, it was considered to be a problem worth trying to tackle. So the City of Vancouver, and then the Province (and soon the Federal Government) are taxing homes that aren’t occupied either by the owner or a tenant. Non-residents pay higher taxes. AirBnB (and similar platforms) are being pursued; the rules about how much of a home can be offered as a vacation rental, and for how long, have been tightened up and are being applied.

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At Vancouver City Hall, December 18:

Vancouver council approved a contentious rezoning application to build a five-storey rental building at Larch and West Second Avenue in an 8-3 vote Dec. 18. after a public hearing that attracted dozens of speakers, for and against. …   The Larch street building will produce 63 rental units — 13 for moderate income households.

Some neighbouring residents, who formed Kits Neighbourhood Group, campaigned against the Larch Street project, arguing it didn’t fit neighbourhood character, the building is too high, dense and bulky, and not enough affordable units are being provided to justify the incentives being offered to the developer.

Imagine trying to approve hundreds of these ‘missing-middle’ developments one by one – or even through a mass rezoning to allow them anywhere.  Imagine a ‘Kits Neighbourhood Group’ city-wide (as Colleen Hardwick undoubtedly will).

 

Meanwhile, at Surrey City Hall, December 16:

Alison Brooks Architects has won approval for a residential-led scheme in Vancouver, Canada, featuring a series of towers, the tallest a 38-storey skyscraper …

The project for Rize Alliance Properties will create 1,126 homes on the site in the burgeoning City of Surrey (City Centre) …

It was waved through at a City of Surrey Public Hearing …

 

Do the math: 63 versus 1,126.  Do the political calculation: one project tries to nibble away at The Grand Bargain, the other reinforces its expediency.

What are the odds that the City of Vancouver will provide enough housing of any kind, incentivized or not, to make a substantial difference in the housing crisis?

 

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A big shout-out to author Jesse Donaldson:

“Land of Destiny: A History of Vancouver Real Estate” is a fun, fascinating book … that more than delivers on its title. His publisher Anvil Press will host a Vancouver launch Dec. 19 at 6 p.m at Resurrection Spirits, free to the public.

Here’s an excerpt from The Tyee: 

Larry Cudney hated architects. In fact, he hated the entire architectural profession. For a time, years earlier, while still a young intern with a local firm, he had harboured dreams of becoming one himself, until a falling-out with the company prevented him from obtaining the certification he needed. …

Working as a draftsman from his cramped office on Main Street and 33rd Avenue, he designed single-family homes (the only buildings a draftsman could legally design), and his work was known for being simple and practical …

… sometime in the mid/late-1960s, Cudney sat down and drafted the plans that would become his legacy. It came to be known as the “Vancouver Special,” and for the next 20 years, it would be the most widely-discussed — and hated — type of housing in town. …

“Those brash new houses with slightly pitched roofs and aluminum balconies (known in the trade as Vancouver Specials), which are now squeezed into lots where once a single house stood in a magnificent garden are here not just to stay, but to increase,” complained the Sun, in 1978.  …Between 1965 and 1985, an estimated 10,000 Vancouver Specials were built, and by 1980, according to a Young Canada Works survey, eleven per cent of Hastings-Sunrise, and five per cent of Marpole were made up of Vancouver Specials. And as more and more were built, the backlash only grew. …

“Right now, to buy a house in the city’s east side, you have to have $20,000 in assets and a $20,000 income,” wrote the Sun’s Mary McAlpine in 1978. “Most young people with children don’t have that sort of money. The people who do are developers who tear down the house and put up Vancouver Specials …

But in the years that followed, attitudes — including city council, and the Sun’s McMartin — began to change. For many lower-income and immigrant families, council later recognized, the Vancouver Special was their only chance for home ownership. In 1987, City Councillor Gordon Price even praised the architectural style as “a tradition of our cultural diversity,” and “worthy of heritage preservation.* …

In 2005, a renovated Vancouver Special was awarded the Lieutenant-Governor’s Award for Innovation in Architecture. …

Privately, Larry Cudney was said to have been proud of the disgust his brainchild had engendered. “Creating a completely tasteless form of housing,” stepdaughter Elizabeth Murphy later opined, “was his revenge on the architect profession with which he was in conflict.”

 

*It’s true!  I remember saying that.  Still do.  But with respect to heritage preservation, I meant only that we should designate an intact original and perhaps try to save a complete block like the one above.  Let the rest evolve or eventually be replaced by higher density ‘missing-middle’ alternatives.  

Vancouver has always been in need of some kind of Vancouver Special.  The two-storey carpenter-built single-family houses along streetcar lines in the 1890s and 1900s were the originals.  Even West End one-bedroom apartments in West End highrises in the 1960s were a form of simple, affordable, mass-produced housing.  So in a different way was the illegal basement suite.  Now it’s the modular house for the otherwise homeless.  But with the high land costs, design controls, heritage preservation, and inflexible zoning, we aren’t likely to see another version anytime soon.

 

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December 3, 2019

Goodman, Vancouver’s pre-eminent seller of small (and some large) apartment blocks, has raised the alert about a Council motion that emerged from the Rental Incentives Review. The gate-worthy motion instructs staff “to prepare a report for consideration for referral to public hearing” that would extend rental replacement requirements.

…. older commercial properties with three or more rental apartments will be bound by rate-of-change regulations and will have to replace those rental apartments upon redevelopment, including redevelopment to four-storey condos.

A few observations.

If you’re in the hysteria business, don’t -gate your issue.  Overuse, like inflated currency, lessens value.

Goodman maintains that this move, if enacted, would “reduce the residual land value of these commercial properties.  (This) amounts to a downzoning.”  Leaving aside whether that is technically a downzoning, the conclusion is nonetheless “that if you own a C-2 zoned site in Vancouver, your property is on its way to devaluation.”

That, however, doesn’t necessarily mean the price will drop commensurately.  It may mean that owners over time won’t get as much a return as they might have otherwise.

It may also mean that these regulations kill off re-development and new rental housing along arterials and in some commercial zones.  But it’s hard to get as excited about something that may not happen as it is to protest the loss of existing rental stock.

It’s also hard for those who have seen a spectacular rise in their asset value to receive sympathy if the rise in the worth of their property is consequently less spectacular.  Sympathy tends to go to those downstream who pay the increased rents from the spectacular rise.

It’s surprising that the rental replacement policy isn’t already in place for apartments along commercial strips.  If Burnaby had had that requirement for its rental stock south of Metrotown, Derek Corrigan might still be mayor. In the current political climate (elections have consequences), it will be hard to persuade the Vancouver council that they shouldn’t take action to protect the rental housing stock.

However, Goodman does possibly raise something gate-worthy at the end of the missive:

“The 5th bullet says to direct staff to report back on:

“The possibility of using zoning similar to the DEOD (Downtown East Side-Oppenheimer) zoning (60% social housing and 40% rental for anything above 1 FSR) to depress land prices so it will be cheaper to buy for non-market housing.”

Gee, I wonder which councillor moved that motion.  Announcing that the intent of your policy is to sterilize land values so you can pick it up cheap won’t go down well in in the business community, or in the courts.

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When Councillors consider this report on November 26 – Rental Incentives Review Phase II – “to create new zoning districts for residential rental tenure, for use in ‘off-the-shelf’ rezonings for RS and RT zoned sites in low density transition areas that are on and near arterial roads and close to parks, schools and shopping areas”, they will:

(1) Instruct staff “to prepare the amending by-law.”

(2) Refer it to the City-wide Planning process.

(3) Other.

 

Sun reporter Dan Fumano reports:

Another change would allow four-storey rental apartment or townhouse buildings in “low-density transition areas” — defined as residential blocks within 150 metres from an arterial street. Some Vancouver neighbourhoods, such as Kitsilano and Mount Pleasant, already include many such buildings off of arterial streets. But the proposed change would open up many more parts of Vancouver to these buildings, including much of the less-dense southern half of the city, on both the east and west sides.

Asked if he expects some homeowners and neighbourhood associations might object to apartment buildings on side streets, Stewart said: “I think it’s something to digest. But all of us on council say we’re in the middle of a housing crisis, and if you’re in a crisis, you have to do something new.”

 

 

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If you’ve been following the plans by the Squamish nation to build 6000 units of housing near the Burrard Bridge, you’ll appreciate the sheer bravado of the local Tsleil-Waututh Nation.

Instead of waiting years for a District of North Vancouver council to finally approve a significant housing development, they’ve applied to the federal government to add the 45 hectares of the target property to their reserve lands. This would mean they could proceed without council approval.

Or, as one grouch on Twitter described it:

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