OVER the last three Sundays, Our Changing Landscapes has examined the face of the North Shore and the tug of war between history and "progress."
The accelerating pace of change has created a litany of questions that are asked at every public hearing on redevelopment projects that increase the density of a neighbourhood:
- Should we build more housing on the North Shore?
- Does more building translate into more affordable housing?
- Does densifying existing neighbourhoods compromise the quality of life for current residents?
- If we do build more homes, where should they go and what should they look like?
- What are the consequences of doing nothing?
"I don't think it's too strong to call it a crisis," said Don Peters, North Shore Community Resources' community housing liaison.
"I have two sons. The older son managed to scrape together enough for a down payment on a town house up here on Keith Road, maybe 10 years ago. He works in a bank and he can just make it. My second son is a teacher and he lives in a basement suite with two boys. He wants to live in the community he grew up in. He was born in North Vancouver and went to Handsworth. My second son will never ever own a house - ever."
Donna Stewart was a founding member of the Community Housing Action Committee.
"Young families have been driven off the North Shore," she said from her Lower Lonsdale condominium. "It started ever since I got here in 1981. Housing was already too expensive, particularly for any kind of service workers.
"Rental housing is scarce and expensive," she added. "So people begin to give up and 'What the heck, I want my children to participate in sports, so we're going to move to Chilliwack."
When federal and provincial tax incentives ended in the 1980s, construction of new rental apartments dropped off precipitously. A 27-unit project at the foot of Chesterfield has struggled with its financing and asked the city for $200,000 in fee waivers last year. A Hollyburn Properties proposal for a 20-storey, 188-unit tower near city hall was shelved indefinitely after a contentious public hearing focused on traffic, parking, shadowing and lost views.
That demographic shift has long-term effects, said Peters.
"Neighbourhoods got older and schools began to close. When neighbourhoods no longer had elementary schools, the parents that remained started driving their kids to other schools."
Throw in the fact that many people who work on the North Shore have to commute in from homes elsewhere, said Peters, and you have a recipe for an ever-worsening rush hour.
"Population growth east of the Seymour River in the last seven years has been about .02 (per cent). But talk to anyone about driving on the North Shore and they'll tell you it's more crazy than ever."
Both Peters and Stewart put the blame squarely on senior government, but said residents pushback against densification hasn't helped either.
"It's all part of 'Don't bring change to my neighbourhood,'" Peters said. "I say to them that the world has turned a few times since we arrived on the scene with those attitudes. There a number of new realities that we can't escape."
According to a 2006 Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation report, nearly 9,000 North Shore families are living in homes that are either beyond their means, too small or in disrepair. All are factors that contribute to the search for affordablity. Often that means downsizing.
"I actually like the look of most of the new condominium development in the District of North Vancouver. They are quite tasteful and close to buses and to Safeways. It's my vision of what the North Shore will look like long after I'm gone," said Peters.
Gary Penway is the City of North Vancouver's director of community development. During a recent tour of the city, he said residents can expect taller buildings on Lonsdale Avenue.
"That's awfully underdeveloped," he said, gesturing towards a small business in Central Lonsdale. "You're in the middle of the town centre and you've got a one-storey store over half the lot? If we have people coming to the region, why not put them in a location right where they're near shopping and the hospital and transit and employment? Compare that to shipping them out to Coquitlam or Langley.
"People living in those units are having a lot less impact on the environment. We need to find a way to make this highly attractive and highly livable. That's quite doable."
Moving outwards from the town centre, new homes are appearing in the duplex and single-family zones, said Penway. But not all new buildings are new density.
"In the city, infill has come to mean something quite specific," he said. "You're keeping the building on the site and then usually adding something in the rear. It can be stratified. But a coach house is essentially the secondary suite that has been pulled out and detached. You're allowed to have a main home with a secondary suite. It's not about an extra unit or more density."
On the 200-block of East Eighth Street, Penway points out a pair of 50-foot lots. On the easterly property, "the family was raised here and when the daughter inherited it, they wanted to keep it. . . . So they kept the house and did a two-unit infill development in the rear. And there's a suite in the main home basement, which was approved."
From the street, it's almost impossible to tell there's more than one home on the lot. Walking past the older building reveals a pleasant, well kept courtyard and two more front doors.
"If you are living next door to it, and this is your backyard, you'd certainly notice it," Penway says. But the owner of the neighbouring lot also wanted to redevelop and built a townhouse structure with a similar style. In fact, most of the infill and coach house buildings in the city echo the style of the 1911 building boom.
"You can do good modern design or poor modern design," Penway observed. "You can do good old-school design or poor old-school design. But not everything needs to look old. We're quite happy seeing really contemporary-looking buildings."
A few minutes on foot to the southwest, Penway comes to several "mews-style" infill complexes, where three homes have been built around a courtyard at the rear of two lots, each with its original single-family home intact facing the street.
"Instead of assembling the whole block, blowing it away and coming back with a big monotonous project, we're redeveloping in this more infill style and it still feels like a city. It feels like the same city. And this is great. There's kids playing out here, it's just a great little part of the neighbourhood."
Penway stressed that some beliefs about how neighbourhoods "ought" to look are products of the city's second growth spurt, in the 1950s.
"The notion that all new buildings are bigger is a false notion," he said, pointing out a tall heritage home that would be illegal under today's zoning. "People built all kinds of buildings in the past. Some were small and some were quite large. So when we talk about 'monster homes,' it's really about architecture."
On the other end of the spectrum, a row of slender 1911-era houses facing Ridgeway school are nestled tightly together on 25-foot lots, also illegal today.
"We've inherited standards that say somehow these lots are bad. We have perfectly nice people here living perfectly fine lives. What's so evil about that building form?"
Among the first North Vancouverites to investigate infill housing was the city's mayor, then-councillor, Darrell Mussatto.
"This was my backyard," he said, standing in the living room of his 1,100-square-foot, two-bathroom home.
Mussatto and his brother purchased the St. Andrew's Avenue duplex in 1995. The large backyard was originally covered in paving stones and home to a hot tub.
"Then we said 'Mum and Dad are getting on, what are we going to do?' We could have ripped it all down and built a triplex. But the idea is to age in place, fit into the community, and not just put up a monster house - and it helped us save some money."
Using the proceeds of selling their home, Mussatto's parents bought his side of the duplex, and that money helped pay for his infill building. Mussatto's brother built a second floor on his side of the duplex. Between the buildings are three modest yards.
The city would subsequently spend years in public consultation before codifying the rules for infill coach houses. The lengthy process created size and consultation rules and paid dividends in creating a process that has been remarkably free from controversy.
The consequences of shunning density are "longterm," Mussatto said. "They don't hit you right away but they are very difficult to solve unless you start now. The key to the whole thing is there's no silver bullet. It will be a combination of things. Infill works in some areas, that are not single-family ones but aren't high density. Keep the existing building and put an infill one beside it. Change is hard, no doubt about it. But single-family homes just aren't attainable. It's not a reality for most people."
Change proved so hard for one West Vancouver couple looking to downsize that they ultimately abandoned the waterfront community altogether.
"We had a 3,000-squarefoot house built in the '60s," said Rick Gruneau, an SFU professor. "It was massive. We wanted to downsize without leaving the community."
Gruneau and his wife owned a small triangular lot adjacent to their existing home, and began talks with district planners when West Vancouver announced an alternative housing pilot program.
"We got swept up with this romantic idea of building and designing this house," Gruneau said. "And we are adherents that no one needs more than 2,000 square feet or so. Barry Downs came up with a design. We said 'Wow, this is unreal. We love this.' The lot is triangular so he designed a triangular house. He called it Lantern House.
A community working group, district planners and ultimately council signed off on Lantern House as one of three experiments in alternative housing. But the winnowing process that rejected a number of other innovative proposals was lengthy.
In the meantime, Gruneau's neighbours, who were supportive of the project, sold up and moved away. The new neighbours weren't so sure. Council support also softened as time went on, said Gruneau, and following a vote that saw three councillors oppose a process that had taken seven months to develop - with council blessing - he was "so disgusted" that he and his wife decided to call it quits.
"We're not developers, and all of sudden everyone started getting equivocal. We were in pretty deep at that point. . . . So we sold our house and we're building a house on Bowen Island. The irony is this process basically forced us out of West Vancouver."
Gruneau said he and his wife lost about $18,000 in the process, and briefly toyed with the idea of suing the district.
"I am a believer in density. I think it's ecologically sound and you can build proper communities as long as it's well planned. But politics doesn't always take you in the direction that policy ought to. I've got three kids and I don't think any of them will ever be able to live in West Van - and they're North Shore kids, they love it here.
"I still believe in the concept, and not only that, we had a fantastic design."
Design elements of infill housing are key to securing neighbourhood, staff and council support.
Steve McFarlane is a North Vancouver architect with 25 years of practice to his name. He also chairs the city's advisory design panel, which gives advice to council before it deliberates over new projects. His group strives to find a balance between form and function.
"We need to think of ways to densify our cities that take advantage of existing infrastructure. I think coach houses are appropriate. The alternative is to sprawl out to the horizon. All you need to do is take a drive down the valley. We need to look at the region as a whole and see that a change in North Shore policy can have an impact in Port Moody as much as anywhere else. We need more opportunities close to the city core.
"I wouldn't describe it as an esthethic," he said. "But there is a consistent result that comes from a philosophical result. The esthetic outcome is not the driver. . . . We're striving for timelessness, work that has relevance today and we hope has relevance in the future."
From a purely personal perspective, McFarlane says he believes the tendency for developers on the North Shore to echo the styles of the past comes from "a rampant conservatism" among developers gambling a lot of money in front of an often-hostile public approval process.
The market, he said, might be willing to support other buildings.
"The heritage of the future? I would have to side with that perspective whole-heartedly. That's how you move forward. Let's be respectful of heritage, but not enslaved by it. I think that, personally, to mimic historical approaches does a disservice both to the history that you're mimicking and the opportunity that you have at hand to put forward a modern idea. To pretend that it's 1930 and put forward something that looks and feels like that is not where I'm coming from, personally."
But as a panel member, McFarlane's goal is to approve buildings that suit their context in terms of scale and design. "It never comes down to 'this is an ugly building.' That would certainly make our meetings shorter," he said. "The panel is not meant to be a quasi-design police. If they come to the table with a very historical perspective, we can debate if that makes sense in the context and how well that resolves that approach.
"The skills you need to do a good duplex are just the same skills you need to do an outstanding tower or a really clever infill design - understanding the context you're working within, a sensitivity to address that context meaningfully and respectfully and skillfully resolving that with something that everyone can live with for the next 100 years."
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