March 8, 2019

Let’s Get Small: Jake Fry on Building a New Housing Typology

This is the creation story of laneway housing in Vancouver…and, perhaps, the beginning of the end of the Bartholomew era of restrictive zoning.

The protagonist is Jake Fry, a self-proclaimed — metaphorical, mind you — child of Trudeau, who grew up in small-town Ontario and attended a one-room schoolhouse. His real education might have come half a kilometre underground; coming from a family of miners, this is where Fry learned hard skills, carpentry first and foremost among them. This ultimately led him to Toronto, and a career in construction in film and television. It also afforded him the means to travel.

So when he and his family eventually moved west, his world view was informed by an intimate knowledge of older, denser places, and an appreciation for living light. He began to work in housing construction, and then one day it all came together. As Fry tells it, he literally lay his tools down in the middle of a job. No more. Time to do something different. Something small.

“Small is Beautiful” was the name of a book by British economist E. F. Schumacher which may be unfamiliar to an entire generation of young people who, nonetheless, live out its values today. The idea that ‘small works’ informed an ethos for Fry, which fomented into a vision of a new type of housing. Small housing, a type that suggests a home can be just enough to meet your needs. Not necessarily a restrictive, one-size-fits-all checklist — ‘just enough’ could mean something different to everybody — but the idea that we might need to start building homes differently.

Fry founded SmallWorks, and speaking the language of EcoDensity, the sustainability strategy created under former mayor Sam Sullivan’s administration, he softly, steadily, surely began to lobby Vancouver City Hall. The objective? To change the rules restricting the building of secondary housing forms — additional density — on lots with existing primary residences.

It worked, and in 2009 laneway housing was legalized. In the decade since, Fry has developed an entire portfolio of laneway homes, co-founded non-profit Small Housing BC (with Bob Ransford of developer Century Group), and is about to release a study showing the economic and environmental advantages of small homes. There’s almost literally nothing standing in his way.

Except, maybe, politics.

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In much of the commentary over the West Van B-line, there’s an oft-repeated assumption, articulated by our very own Thomas:

You obviously do not know many folks in NVan or WVan. Many would never take the bus (or a bike for that matter). That is why there is so much opposition to it.

Embedded in that assumption is this: North Shore residents live primarily in large single-family houses, on steep slopes, that were designed (and still are) car-dependent.  So pervasive is that narrative (and the argument that then follows: no need or desire for transit) that it requires a significant and wilful blindess to ignore all this:

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We’ve covered the rejection by the District of North Vancouver Council of the Delbrook affordable housing proposal, CHAC funding and previous consultation processes.  Here’s another:

Hollyburn Family Services project killed in camera

  • Hollyburn Family Services operates two safe houses/transition houses for young people on Mount Seymour Parkway, in two single-family homes that house six young people each.  Hollyburn leases the land from the DNV.
  • Hollyburn put some resources into crafting a proposal to redevelop the sites into a larger, multi-family style facility with approximately 40 units.
  • Additional density on Mount Seymour Parkway was not acceptable to the majority on DNV Council, so they rejected the proposal. They were able to kill the project in camera because it was a decision re: the disposition of DNV land.


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After scrapping an 80-unit rental apartment building, with rents offered 20 per cent below market, along with a seniors’ respite centre, and after rejecting funding for the Community Housing Action Committee. (CHAC), the Council of the District of North Vancouver is now undermining an extensive consultative process for the Delbrook site.

Indeed, it has scheduled a special council workshop with only the community association that was opposed to the project.

It’s a one-item agenda with no report or guidance for the workshop.  It effectively de-legitimizes the extensive public process that involved more than just the immediate neighbours, according to Robin Prest, program director at the SFU centre for Dialogue that facilitated the process.

From the North Shore News:

“The 2015 Delbrook Lands community dialogue put the district on the map as a leader in inclusive, participatory democracy. Any future engagement process that intentionally privileges the loudest voices over the silent majority is not only undemocratic, it risks breaching the trust of those who participated in good faith in the 2015 engagement process, including many residents living immediately adjacent to the Delbrook Lands,” he said.

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Worth bringing forward: Sam Sullivan took the opportunity to comment on the upcoming ‘Tales from the West End’ talk on the People’s Park fight at Coal Harbour in the early 1970s.  (Click on headline for all illustrations and text.)

The 1971 model. Much more on the project by the invaluable John Mackie at The Sun

Sam Sulllivan:

Actually the original proposal (1964) was 15 towers of guaranteed rental for 3,200 residents. Towers from 15 to 30 stories. There would have also been a 13 story hotel near the entrance to the park. Critics didn’t mention the apartment rental and focussed on the smaller so-called ‘luxury’ hotel.

Instead Council spent $30 million in today’s money to turn this into a park. This depleted five years of park aquisition money which would have been used for park deficient east side neighbourhoods instead creating an additional park beside the 100,000 acre Stanley Park.

Gerald Sutton-Brown believed we could convert waterfront industrial land into high density towers to provide quality homes and keep down the price of housing. This would have been years ahead of the rest of the world. TEAM opposed this and fired him. They implemented their vision in South False Creek which had lower densities than a typical single detached house neighbourhood. It would be almost two decades before Coal Harbour, Concord Pacific and City Gate would revive Sutton-Brown’s vision.

TEAM went on to oppose townhouses in single house neighbourhoods(Shannon Mews), tried to end the Vancouver Special by removing the basement exemption, end any approval of residential towers for over a decade and introduce processes that have succeeded in preventing the densification of RS neighbourhoods

When I was in elementary school our teacher took us on a tour of Peoples’ Park and met the protesters. It all seemed quite wonderful. But in light of what has happened to the price of housing since we lost Sutton-Brown, I think of the apt symbolism of what happened to the city vision, looking in our purse for what was on our head.

Bayshore Gardens and Harbour Park today.

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Did you have  model toys of cities when you were young? Did you have SimCity the computer game? First developed in 1989 this game became a bestseller as “planners” created a city from a postage stamp of land. The Los Angeles Times’ Jessica Roy reviews the SimCity game that is (gasp) thirty years old this year.

I have previously written about Super City, a previous generation’s  interlocking block toy released by Ideal Toy in 1967 that allowed kids of all ages to create their own cities.  Unfortunately the toy was too complex for children, and the product was pulled from the market. Artist and author Douglas Coupland said that “anything made from Super City looked like a Craig Ellwood, or a Neutra or a Wallace K. Harrison“.  But every kid that saw the commercial below wanted a Super City set.

Ms. Roy takes a novel approach in this article at looking at SimCity and the real life of  activists, urban planners and architects in asking whether this game influenced their choice of professions.

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To appreciate West Vancouver, it helps to understand this map:

This is the region’s streetcar and interurban system at its peak around 1940.


Take a closer look at the North Shore portion:


Notice where the No 3 streetcar stops: at the Capilano River, the border with West Vancouver.  At that point, if you were heading further west, you’d switch to a Blue Bus, separately owned and operated by the district municipality since 1912 – reputed to be the first bus-only transit system in North America.  And though contracted with TransLink today, it still maintains a distinct identity.

Why isn’t it fully part of TransLink, you ask, given that routes and fares are otherwise integrated?  Frances Bula speculates: “I’d suggest that it’s attractive politically, as it reinforces the image of West Van as a place that’s a little special, set apart, and with superior municipal services.”  Frances is right: Blue Buses for blue bloods.

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March’s featured storyteller is Kevin Dale McKeown, editor and publisher of The West End Journal.

As part of his “People’s Park” story, Kevin recalls the spring of 1971 when Vancouver’s Yippie movement occupied and built a tent city on the proposed site of a new Four Seasons Hotel at the entrance to Stanley Park – where Devonian Harbour Park is today.

Kevin was in the thick of the action, helping out at the camp kitchen. The protest lasted a year, Mayor Tom Campbell called it “a breakdown of society”, and obviously the campers / protesters won the battle.

Today the main attraction at the site is not a glitzy international hotel but the bronze statue of a woman sitting on a park bench, apparently searching in her purse for the glasses we can all see sitting atop her head. But things could have gone differently.


JJ Bean Cafe, 1209 Bidwell Street (Bidwell & Davie)

Wednesday, March 20

4:30 to 6:00 pm

Admission: Free, Complimentary coffee and tea thanks to JJ Bean

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From Michael Alexander:

I call them eyebrows— the weather screens that are required over building entries, and extend along some but not all building frontages. As urbanist planner Jan Gehl commented when he visited Vancouver, they don’t extend far enough over the sidewalk to properly shelter pedestrians.

That change would be a gift to the street!

But, occasionally, stuff happens, as seen on Manitoba Street in Olympic Village. Interestingly, this has been the scene for a few months.

I find the shattered-in-place look of the tempered glass very beautiful, so perhaps it will remain, as long as it doesn’t kill someone. You gotta wonder what hit it, and whether it came from above or below.


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A brilliant piece of performance comedy from two guys – Benjamin Kheng and Hirzi Zulkiflie – who together as the BenZi Progect satirize their home city, Singapore, and its people and culture.  Here are fresh eyes on the multicultural, global world we share, with a startling similarity in character but enough local references (peranakans!) to go beyond cliche.  The writing is, from the opening line, gently absurd.

Kheng and Zulkiflie play two execs at the Singapore Tourism Commission, interviewing a third, Andrew Marko, for a job.  Give it a couple of views, and then check out other skits here.

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