Followup: Is “laneway housing” (infill development) meeting objectives of the West End Community Plan?

laneway house 601-comox-addressed-1071-cardero, ARROWThis is another installment of our ongoing coverage to follow up on the implementation of the West End Community Plan.

Indicating that several laneway apartment buildings are coming to the West End, a reporter recently asked West End Neighbours if the community thinks “laneway housing” is a better way to densify the West End than towers. Or are there some unsuspected issues with this form?

Below is a response from WEN. If a person is looking for binary YES/NO answers, the answers would probably be “not really” and “yes,” respectively.

Until these projects are built, it’s difficult to say whether they will be successful or not. It seems clear that these are not the types of “laneway buildings” that people anticipated through the Plan process. During the process leading to approval of the West End Community Plan in November 2013, the community was generally led to imagine laneway “houses” similar to ones can see in quiet residential lanes elsewhere in Vancouver.

But the reality of what the City is permitting in the lanes of the West End is quite different. And there are many questions about whether or not these buildings will meet many key objectives of the Plan.

Overall the focus on this type of somewhat impractical development seems to have been a distraction from the larger impacts of tower development, as the number of units arising from laneway infill development will likely be very small. Similarly, laneway homes in the rest of the city are unlikely to be solution to providing significant numbers of new housing units (and in some ways are simply increasing the price of existing single family properties). It would seem that the city could benefit from a more comprehensive approach to re-development -– an approach like other municipalities have with an overall official community plan for the entire city. But that is probably part of a larger discussion.

Below we delve into further detail.

WEN has not polled the community on the specific response to laneway infill development proposals, but the comments below summarize some of WEN’s general observations, as well as what we have heard from residents in the neighbourhood.  WEN has over time published some comments regarding the first of these proposals. For example:
Laneway Infill Proposals – Cardero, Comox, and Nelson Streets: Analysis and commentshttps://westendneighbours.wordpress.com/2014/08/25/laneway-infill-cardero-comox-nelson/

A PriceTags posting references WEN’s comments from the link above and includes some comments from Peter Ladner:

https://pricetags.wordpress.com/2014/09/19/west-end-impacts-and-issues-of-laneway-housing/

This comment in particular is one that WEN agrees with:
By Anne, September 19, 2014

I think these proposals are bigger and higher than people thought they would beI was involved in the process and some of the walking tours with planning staff. People were concerned then with the heights that were being talked about and the loss of light for existing residents. I think raising concerns and issues is fine.

Positive aspects of the laneway infill development include the potential for heritage restorations to arise from the infill development, particularly with regard to heritage homes such as 1427 Haro Street (click for project info from City).

But unit sizes being proposed are very small with “one bedroom” units of 330 to 424 square feet and even the some of the 3 bedroom units at 723 and 731 square feet likely unlivable for families (summary on page 24 of the City’s report).  These small unit sizes show up for the site at 1546 Nelson (click for project info from City)

http://vancouver.ca/files/cov/committees/report-development-permit-board-1546-nelson-street-DE418104.pdf

Also for the site at 1071 Cardero Street (click for project info from City).

http://vancouver.ca/files/cov/committees/report-development-permit-board-1071-cardero-street-DE418103.pdf

WEN questions whether these units will really help to provide family-oriented apartment units in the West End.

Now, did the community receive truthful information during the consultation process? The cartoon video used by the City to raise awareness of plan provisions specifically shows “laneway infill” as coach houses – see 2:24 on the video at this link (existing house on left, lane house on right — we added the red arrow):

Laneway house depicted in West End Plan video 2013 at 2-35 arrow

This is how the City presented laneway housing to West Enders during the planning process. A cute little house in the back, lots of space around it. 

In reality, the neighbourhood is seeing development proposals that look like this one at 1546 Nelson Street:

1546 Nelson Street

Artist’s rendering for 1546 Nelson

And like this one at 1071 Cardero.

laneway house 601-comox-addressed-1071-cardero, ARROW

Artist’s rendering for 1071 Cardero laneway housing – indicated by arrow.

A key concern includes the creation of bulky buildings with shadow and privacy impacts on neighbouring residential units.

How about character and livability of the neighbourhood? A focus of the West End Community Plan was to improve the appearance and pedestrian comfort of rear lanes.  “Laneway infill housing” was proposed as one of the ways to do this. Improvements to lanes arising from the new developments appears to be hit and miss. Some provide landscaped areas, while some (in addition to all of the tower developments being proposed since the Plan was adopted) offer ventilation grills, dumpster enclosures, and loading areas. So that generally appears to be a failure when policy is put in to practice.

Now, how about impacts on parking? Most of these projects include no parking, and are proposed on areas that are currently surface parking.In other words, they exacerbate the shortage of parking in the West End. In fact the City is conducting a survey until the end of November 2015 to address the problems that residents and visitors experience trying to park. The City says visitors currently need 10 minutes, and must drive 3 km to find one parking spot during busy periods.  Given the relatively high rents anticipated in most of these laneway infill projects, the likelihood of car-ownership is increased, which creates additional load on  street parking both from new residents, and those who might currently occupy the existing buildings on the property.

How about consultation and approval processes under the West End Plan? It was desired that new development in the West End respect and enhance West End character – a neighbourhood where livability has been established through a mix of building types and a successful integration of buildings and landscaped open spaces.  Instead, the Community Plan provides for quick approvals of tower development along “corridors” such as Davie and Lower Robson Street (applications go straight to the small, internal Development Permit Board, with no Public Hearing or opportunity for affected residents to address elected officials — which also means that Mayor and Council don’t have the opportunity to receive direct feedback), and many other rezoning opportunities for very tall towers at record high densities in the Alberni/Georgia and Burrard/Thurlow corridors.

WEN continues to have some concerns regarding the public process for these infill applications, as well as larger development applications in the West End.  Notifications are undertaken with short “lead-times” and here too, applications go straight to the Development Permit Board. The postcards are mailed only to property owners, not tenants.  In a recent tower development application at 1177 and 1171 Jervis, the Planning Department advised WEN that it was not possible to advise renter households (see link), even though over 80 % of household in the West End are rental tenure.  Here is a sample of the notification approach from the 1427 Haro Street infill application:

NOTIFICATION
On March 31, 2015, 782 notification postcards were sent to neighbouring property owners advising them of the application, and offering additional information on the city’s website.

In contrast, the proposal for a 40-storey tower at 1335 Howe Street going to Council on November 17, 2015 includes the following with regard to notification:

Public Notification
Notice of the rezoning application and an invitation to the community open house was mailed to 4,696 surrounding property owners and an additional 5,941 postcards were sent as unaddressed admail to inform non-owner (renting) occupants.

So clearly, the City is not being equitable in providing adequate notice to renters in particular.

As we move through the approval of the first half dozen or so of these projects in 2015 and 2016, it would be helpful of the city were to undertake some analysis of whether the projects are fulfilling the community plan objectives intended with regard to building form and unit mix.

Without that feedback, how can policy makers be sure their policies (in the West End Community Plan) are achieving their objectives?

As well, the City and the public deserve to know whether the zoning and design guideline provisions are being  met, or whether each of the projects to date have included variances to these bylaws and policies. To date, West End Neighbours has seen no information from the city on evaluation measures for plan implementation. Is the City flying blind?

In conclusion, until these projects are built, it’s difficult to say whether they will be successful or not.  It seems clear that these are not the type of “laneway buildings” that people anticipated through the plan process.  Overall the focus on this type of somewhat impractical development seems to have been a distraction from the larger impacts of tower development as the number of units arising from laneway infill development will likely be very small.  Similarly, laneway homes in the rest of city are unlikely to be solution to providing significant numbers of new housing units (and in some ways are simply increasing the price of existing single family properties).  It would seem that the city could benefit from a more comprehensive approach to re-development – an approach like other municipalities have with an overall official community plan for the entire city.  But that is probably part of a larger discussion.

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