Duplex zoning can make neighbourhoods viable – and fun

Globe and Mail (Adrienne Tanner)/August 25 

In 1980, when Eileen Mosca moved to Vancouver, she and her partner bought an old house on Rose Street that was split into two suites, essentially rendering it a duplex. “It was a seedy pocket of Grandview Woodlands, but it worked for us,” she recalls. “We had three kids and no money.”

The neighbourhood was and still is a development hodge podge: Interspersed with the tall, wooden heritage homes are small pockets of townhouses and three-storey walk-up apartments on streets so narrow only one car at a time can pass. Duplexes have been allowed in some parts of Grandview Woodlands since 1957. More have been added since the 1990s along with laneway homes. The density creates a lot of pedestrian traffic and has kept Commercial Drive a viable shopping destination. Gentrification has changed the demographics; over all, residents are wealthier now. Still, Grandview Woodlands remains a lively mix of renters and homeowners. And, as with similar neighbourhoods, such as Mount Pleasant and Kitsilano, it continues to gain in popularity and population.

On Sept. 18, at one of the last meetings before the Vancouver civic election, a public hearing will be held on plans to allow duplex zoning in almost every city neighbourhood. Another motion by Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson to add even more density – fourplexes and townhomes – is being studied by staff and will be debated by a new council sometime later. If approved, the housing mix in West Side neighbourhoods such as Dunbar and Kerrisdale will more closely resemble that of East Vancouver. What’s not to like about that?

Call me biased. Since moving to Vancouver in 1997, I have loved living amid the bustle of Grandview Woodlands, first as a renter in a walk-up and later as the owner of an old house. As my family and neighbours look to downsize, everyone talks about the need for more options in our neighbourhood. Until very recently, there were few condominiums, duplexes or townhomes for sale.

Mr. Robertson’s proposal is being criticized by those on the left who point out, and rightly so, that even new townhomes are unaffordable for most residents. The city’s duplex zoning report states the median household income over the past decade has increased at an average annual rate of 3.3 per cent, while the benchmark price for an East Side home has gone up at an average rate of 10.5 per cent.

At today’s land values, the market can no longer provide affordable home ownership. Barring a horrible crash, all truly affordable housing from here on in will have to be rental, built with government assistance. We need to jump on that, and fast. The duplex zoning changes are designed for a narrower, well-heeled segment of the population, upwardly mobile professionals who, even with two good jobs, can’t quite afford to buy, but might if prices came down a bit.

The plans are also being scrutinized by the likes of independent mayoral candidate Shauna Sylvester, who cautions we should take care not to simply provide more housing stock for foreign speculators and further drive up property values. To address that concern, the city proposes limiting the size of new duplexes to the square footage allowed under existing zoning. Duplexes will be modest in size – in East Vancouver it’s rare to find one over 1,500 square feet – and smaller homes are not in big demand by foreign buyers.

There will be cries, too, from people like me who love heritage homes and worry the city’s density bonus incentives for laneway and coach houses won’t be enough to preserve them. The city’s report acknowledges some loss of trees, green space and character homes as necessary trade-offs associated with densification. But a year of public surveys and meetings involving 10,000 residents, convinced city staff that most Vancouverites believe the trade-offs are worthwhile.

I might not have always agreed, but I do now. The leafy neighbourhoods of Dunbar, Kerrisdale, Arbutus Ridge and Shaughnessy, despite their beauty, have lost population over the past decade. I heard it first hand while on a looky-loo bike ride through Shaughnessy not long ago. A woman and her daughter had a lemonade stand and were hurting for customers. When we stopped, she thanked us and said sadly, “no one lives here anymore.”

I didn’t say it, of course, but couldn’t help thinking, East Van seems a lot more fun.