November 3, 2006

A fork in the lane

Last night, Brent Toderian, the City’s new Director of Planning, explained at an SFU City Program ‘conversation,’ why he chose to come to Vancouver.  It was the opportunity, said the ex-Calgarian, to help a city that was already heading in the right direction to really take off, to build on the successes already achieved in order to tackle the issues – affordability, homelessness – that confront it today.
While civic optimism is compulsary for planning directors, it contrasts with the gloom and despair one hears from commentators in bigger cities.  Examples: Elizabeth Farrelly in the Sydney Morning Herald (How could Sydney get it so wrong?) and Christopher Hume in the Toronto Star (Why T.O. isn’t on road to better future).  Wrote Hume:

There was an excellent example several weeks ago when the city refused to change its policy against laneway housing. The argument was that lanes are unsafe because they’re too narrow for fire trucks and garbage trucks. … It’s exactly this kind of thinking that keeps Toronto from realizing its potential, and, if not changed, will lead to its decline.

This backward step on laneway housing by Toronto (you can read the staff report here) must be a particularly bitter loss for the city’s design professionals , as The Globe and Mail reported:

The vision of revitalizing Toronto’s 311 kilometres of back alleys with tiny, cheap homes that has tantalized architects and city planners appears to have been extinguished by city officials’ concerns about the costs of utility servicing and garbage pickup.
A 2003 report by two Toronto architects financed by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. touched off a wave of excitement in the media and among architects and urban designers. It pointed to hundreds of potential sites for nifty new laneway dwellings, to replace ramshackle garages and abandoned industrial sheds in the alleys that crisscross the city.
The report by Jeffery Stinson and Terence Van Elslander included designs for four styles of compact homes that would not encroach on neighbours, and called for a loosening of city regulations so that building in laneways would entail a less arduous bureaucratic process.

Ironically, the City  had even given an urban design award in 2003 to architects, academics and students for their studio on ‘laneway architecture and urbanism.’  Said one juror:

Long overdue. This design studio recognizes and explores the unique opportunity the existing laneway network provides as a resource for the City, defining a new and important built form and open space framework within the existing fabric of Toronto.
Stinson house    Toronto lane housing

These examples from Toronto were used most recently at the “Affordable Housing by Design” conference, cohosted by the Vancouver City Planning Commission, Smart Growth B.C. and the City Program, as an example of an achievable housing choice.  In fact, laneway housing is seen as one of the most viable opportunities for the Mayor’s EcoDensity Initiative. 
As it happens, CMHC is funding a study in Vancouver – “Livable Lanes” – by Joaquin Karakas, a planning analyst at Holland Barrs.   The City has an infill housing strategy that has resulted in many examples in Mt. Pleasant and Kitsilano.  And it has introduced a new zoning schedule – RT-10 – that allows for small-lot infill, which likewise allows for laneway housing in Kensington-Cedar Cottage.  Presumably, the Mayor’s Ecodensity Policy will encourage this form across the city.
Brent Toderian acknowledged how different the dialogue is in Vancouver, among politicians, staff, developers and the community, founded on the willingness to work together, to try new ideas, and, as he would say, ‘constructive candour.’  That contrast with other cities – and the success of both the Mayor’s policy and Toderian’s abilities – will be evident if laneway housing becomes a reality throughout Vancouver.

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