Architecture
July 10, 2020

Thin Streets: From Asphalt to Affordable Housing

By Christina DeMarco and Peter Ladner

Great ideas are as much about timing as content.

Remember the first attempt to block a car lane for bikes on the Burrard Bridge? If you weren’t around for that debacle, ask Gordon Price how it went. Years later, after more careful planning and community education, the lanes are in and thrive today.

Similarly, for decades, any attempt to expand the parts of the city where basement suites were legal was met with vicious opposition. Then one day in the early 2000s, city-wide legalization of suites was passed by council without a whisper of opposition.

Now, with the city more desperate than ever for new revenue and affordable housing, the monopoly of car use on so much city land being widely questioned, and gentle infill density on the rise, Thin Streets may finally have their breakthrough moment.

Is this a good use of valuable City land? The City of Vancouver has an abundance of road and lane space in their quiet residential areas.

Look at the street in the Streetview above. The equivalent of two city lots—worth, say, $1.5 million each—is being tied up to provide the luxury of a passing lane for two cars driving on that block at the same time. How often does that happen? Three, six, a dozen times a day? A two-way street isn’t even necessary. Many Vancouver streets work quite happily and safely with one lane of traffic: oncoming cars pause at the intersection until the lane is clear.

Looking at our future city through the “pandemic prism” has caused many of us to question the large amount of space unnecessarily dedicated to cars.

What if that “wasted” pavement could instead provide land at no cost for affordable housing, parks or other uses, simultaneously providing newfound revenues for a cash-strapped city, increasing pedestrian safety, and reducing traffic volumes, traffic speed, automobile collisions, asphalt maintenance costs, heat island effects, and rainwater runoff?

In Vancouver, dividing the typical little-used two-way 66 foot right-of-way in half produces two new 33-foot residential lots per block, and a narrower 33-foot right-of-way, with a 17-foot thin street, easily enough space for one-way travel, parking for cars, a sidewalk for pedestrians, and boulevards for street trees.

The two new lots are now available for a variety of uses such as affordable housing, park space, community gardens, and daycare centres.

A couple of years ago, the City of Vancouver made duplexes a permissible use in all RS zoning districts (single-detached housing areas).  This change allows two dwelling units plus two secondary suites/ lock-off units on a conventional building lot. Narrowing the north-south street for just one block can now create twice as many housing units by creating two lots with a 33 foot frontage. The land could be sold on a long-term lease to individual owners or the City could develop the lots themselves.

Not only that, but converting wasted asphalt into leased land for housing would immediately create a new revenue stream that has the potential of raising millions of dollars a year, forever.

 

Thin Streets is an idea that has been around since the 1990s, been the subject of city council resolutions, and otherwise in the “great planning ideas” pipeline for decades. In 2012, Ted Sebastian and Christina DeMarco (right), former City of Vancouver planners, teamed up with Charles Dobson, Professor Emeritus of Emily Carr University and submitted the idea to  the City’s  “Re-think Housing” competition to help increase the amount of affordable housing. It was one of the winning ideas.

Unfortunately, at that time, as with every time this idea has been proposed for some kind of pilot project, it has failed. The killer issue is making peace with the adjacent property owners and neighbours. Without their buy-in, political pushback has been vicious. Understandably.

Equally important as making sure a proposed block is suitable – e.g. no sewer lines would be covered up — is figuring out how to make this attractive for the neighbours.

Some possibilities:

  • The City could start by coming up with some exciting design ideas for this form of ground-oriented housing.
  • The City could buy adjacent lots and then lease them and the reclaimed asphalt to a developer or individual owners to build out affordable housing.
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Shortly after the Notre-Dame de Paris fire in 2019, according to Architectural Digest, “Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced a competition for fresh ideas for the cathedral, and designers rushed to create original renderings and post them to Instagram. They range from the tasteful and restrained, to the borderline inscrutable, to social experiments never intended to be built.”

But how can you tell the difference, especially when some unserious interventions are justified as intended to ‘start a conversation’?  (A justification used so much these days – as though the ‘conversation’ was the purpose, not the process.)

Here are four of the seven that AD found on Instagram, all from practicing architects:

After all the conversation, the decision, announced a few days ago, was this:

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Until a few years ago, space beyond the curb was for parking, picking stuff up, getting on a bus and dropping stuff off.

Curb space was for accessibility by vehicle.   Very valuable space.

So logically, there was no place for uses that reduced accessibility – especially when the intent was just the opposite, to get people to linger.

Photo by Cal

Because of the pandemic, we’ve quickly made space for Non-Motordom users who need more space.   But now there is less parking and vehicle accessibility.

Is that a fair trade-off?  Only if there’s no alternative for those with no alternative.

And there is: the space beyond the patio.  As part of a slow street, double-parking and double-sitting is the expected way.  If on slow streets, pedestrians can walk down the middle of the street, cars can stop and linger for a bit too.

This way of thinking about a street violates the understanding we have had of Motordom, where the vehicle retains dominance.  Those who wish to maintain Motordom are using marginalization – ableism, ageism – as a defense, assuming that the needs of seniors and the disabled can only be respected with the full apparatus of a 20th-century road system.

Where the space beyond the curb is for cars.  And that’s so not so.

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In Grey Days and Grey Ways, PT asked why grey seems to be Vancouver’s default colour.  Lots of great comments, ending with this by Sam De Groot:

… in this town in particular, like other places that have grey climates, architects really do need to come out and embrace a bit of colour. Nordic countries, Slavic countries and traditional Newfoundland have colourful towns for the very reason that we need them, it livens the place up when the weather conspires to deaden.came in:

From the Nordic to Sub-tropical climes – notably those in Australia, like Brisbane – architects play with colour.

With respect to a place like Brisbane and its use of colour in urban design and architecture, I’ve been there before:

 

Here’s some examples from my most recent trip in March (the last month of the pre-covid world we’re in), starting in Brisbane.

 

Queensland is subtropical, and March is still in summer.  But note that these images are taken on cloudy days in a light similar to ours.

 

 

 

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Say “corner store in the West End” … and the romantic among us think of this:

Most aren’t really ‘corner stores’ of course – more remnants of an age prior to ‘Euclidian’ zoning when the owner of a house with a front yard could build a storefront to the sidewalk and open for business, providing, as Sandy describes below, “a place where locals can buy milk, cheese, some staples and hear the local goings on and gossip.”

When I first moved to the West End in 1978, there was such a place literally down the lane – empty now – operated by a Korean immigrant family whose daughter I watched start to turn into a teenager.  (Perhaps now writing a novel or screenplay on the west-coast version of Kim’s Convenience.)

No wonder we feel so romantic about them, though many of those that remain are really coffee shops, able to survive on the caffeine mark-up and artisanal sundries.

For places that never had such conversions in their post-war history – starting with ’50s suburbs like Oakridge – corner stores of this kind are not allowed today, and there are reasons.  A new structure would have to be built, and it would require rezoning, raising two problematic challenges: parking and the impacts, perceived or otherwise, real or mistaken, on the present neighbours.  Ask the opinion of someone who would live in their single-family home next door to a design-controlled, limited-service, locally serving commercial establishment without parking, and then wonder whether the proposal would survive the public consultation process.

In reality, of course, there are still corner stores.  They’re very viable, selling diary, staples and many flimsy packages of fat, sugar and salt in all their processed variations, and they look like this:

They may be the only places, under 20,000 square feet, that can meet the ‘popsicle test’ – where your kids can go out by themselves to a store safely to purchase a popsicle and return home before it melts.

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What will fill this:

Since we’re never going back to the pre-Covid world anytime soon, will we still have large conferences, or even small ones?  Why have conventions in attractive places, meant as much for socializing as exchanging?  Why deliberately bring people together to learn and bond, to show off their public faces, to see who fate might introduce them to? With splashes of alcohol, rich food and entertainment.

Well, actually, those reasons seem pretty persuasive.

Gatherings need to be special, even an extraordinary experience, and they have to be something that can only be experienced through being there, together with others.  That means they must appeal to all five senses: deliberate listening, constant conversation, light gluttony and human contact.  A time for show and tell and feel.

Zoom or Skype don’t do all that, because it’s not what they’re for.  Electronic communication since the telegraph has been about more efficient ways to share information, and now there are skilled generations who don’t need to be physically together just to exchange data or ideas, no matter how complex.  The tools are getting really good.  But they don’t substitute for light romance.

A conference to be special – to justify the expense and risk – also needs a ‘name.’  Someone on the billing.  Whether for a concert  or event, the personality needs to pull in the otherwise risk-adverse with enough celebrity status, polished presentation and performance, and something worth saying, in a setting that can’t be replicated on a screen.  Otherwise, it’s just a Zoom.

 

Thoughts from Jude Crasta in conversation.

 

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