What Bad Planning Does To A Neighbourhood

This evening, for the first time in a while, I will be speaking to City Council at a Public Hearing on what many of us consider an out-of-scale building that shows no sensitivity to the neighborhood and which disrespects all the work that was put into the Community Plan just a few years ago. Preparing for the hearing triggered thoughts about the wider context in which development is taking place in Grandview.

In most cases, stately and adaptable Edwardian buildings are being replaced with cookie-cutter back-and-front duplexes. There are serious issues both with why this is occurring and the effect they will have on the long term social fabric of the neighbourhood.

The houses being demolished generally started life as single family properties. But they were large and spacious and their interior structure allowed them to be configured to suit multiple uses. The single family house often developed into a multi-generational home, then perhaps into a rooming house or complex of individual suites, and many saw further use as a renovated SFH with a basement suite helping the mortgage.  Families and neighbour community were encouraged by this kind of architecture.

The replacement duplexes, with their lack of basements and attics and their fixed regular patterns discouraging or inhibiting family growth, are designed for the modern two-person tech couple isolated within their own cells and digital networks. Families and community groups are being replaced by “household units.” This is a fundamental and unwelcome change in the social fabric for a family-friendly residential neighbourhood such as Grandview.

Why is this happening? A generally accepted view is that the planning and development process has been so damaged in Vancouver (we have all heard of relatively trivial projects taking years to complete through the bureaucracy and with tens of thousands in fees attached) that developers are deciding against innovation and are sticking to templated duplex designs they can get through the process with a minimum of fuss and delay.  There still seems to be a market for these at around $1.4 million per half-duplex and a slightly lower profit margin is preferred to the risks of serious delay with any other kind of development proposals.

But should we really be changing the nature of our communities just to suit a failure of competence in the planning process?

The immediate consequences of the trend to demolish old Edwardians and replace them with duplexes are to reduce density and increase  housing costs — absolutely contrary to the shrill claims of the build-build-build brigade.

On a block on Venables that was recently ravaged, we have firm knowledge that two of the houses demolished housed twelve people. They have all been displaced.   The four duplex units that have taken their place will generally have no more than two people living in each, for a total of, say, 8 people.  That is a 33% reduction in density. The affordable rentals were replaced by $1 million+plus price tags. If they are put out for rent, I would be surprised if they were offered at less than $3,000 a month — that’s a 100% increase in the cost for someone used to paying $1,400 or $1,500 a month to live in that space.

An earlier example of this same issue happened when townhouses came to Adanac. We see this happening all over Grandview.

We would do a let better by allowing and incentivizing current owners to increase the number of units on their lots, adding internal suites, laneways, etc. This will increase density while retaining the current neighbourhood look, feel, and scale.  It will reduce costs both by eliminating the need for land acquisition and reducing the bureaucratic burden (especially for heritage homes) that makes such renos and improvements almost impossible these days. It will increase affordability by creating incentives for rents to remain at income-suitable levels. A further benefit would be an increase in work opportunities for smaller local builders who could handle projects of this size.

Whether you agree with these specific ideas or not, it should be clear we cannot keep doing what we are doing.

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