September 29, 2017

Ralph Segal on Densifying RS-1- revisited

Worth bring forward: Ralph Segal’s comment on “Special Density – A Vision“:
I’ll look forward to seeing (Vision Vancouver candidate) Diego Cardona’s six-home proposal on a single family (RS-1) lot. And whether it has any similarity to the four-unit idea for a 33-foot-wide lot I showed Neal Lamontagne last year which he then posted on Price Tags in April, 2016.

Be sure to peruse the 23 comments from some savvy folks such as Michael Mortensen, Frank Ducote, Thomas Beyer, jolson which are just as relevant today as they were last year.  (Click here and scroll down.)
Of course, the number of units in that modest idea can easily be increased to Diego’s six homes by adding one more on top of each of the two structures shown, with just a few more feet of height added to today’s RS-1 height limit.
The key to any number of variations on this theme is to avoid getting hung up on density (FSR) as a number, increased from present 0.6 FSR to 1.5, 1.75 … take your pick … and then test it to arrive at an optimum but liberal maximum, recognizing the over-arching objective of delivering more housing supply.
And recognize that parking provision on site can and should reduced – no more than two spaces on a 33-foot lot (possibly three with a bit of a squeeze). Finally, anticipate and facilitate within the new zoning schedule the ability to strata title.

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  1. In my Burnaby neighbourhood, I believe the standard lot is quite a bit bigger at 50×130, with enormous front and rear yards, and space for up to a four-car garage. Almost every house has laneway access.
    Half the neighbourhood is within 10 minutes walk of Skytrain, and probably all of it is within 5-7 minutes walk of a bus stop. My wife and I own two cars, but we only drive one. My mother-in-law, who lives with us, walks to (free!) English classes and takes the bus shopping.
    The neighbourhood park is popular: kids and dog owners congregate there every evening when the weather is nice, while teens hang out and shoot baskets. This past summer, groups of cyclists started roaming the streets, as did groups of kids.
    Densification along these general lines could work wonders. You could easily put four units on a lot and still have green space. Put in a handful of pocket parks and reserve some land for walkways through the middles of the over-long blocks. Do it right and I think the character of the neighbourhood would be enhanced. I stayed briefly somewhere like that in Germany last year, where houses surrounded and opened on to a combination of shared and private green space, and it was delightful.
    I do want to underline one thing that MB said in the linked discussion, about ageing in place. Mine is a neighbourhood of bungalows, a major advantage for the elderly. Though a handful move into nearby condos around Brentwood or Hastings, many people do choose to stay here once the kids move out or the husband dies. Intelligent densification could make this more practical.
    A week or so ago, an older woman in a nearby neighbourhood was written up in the local paper. She looks after her mother, who is in her 90s, and wants to build a laneway house to help look after her. Burnaby does not allow laneway houses. A councillor told the paper that council is in no rush. She specifically pointed to Surrey, where laneway houses have led to serious problems around parking (Clayton Heights?).
    First, this is yet one more example that there really is a conflict between housing people and housing cars – and housing cars usually wins. Second, I think reveals a deep-seated bias. Never mind that there is lots of parking space on the neighbourhood streets (I realize people don’t like navigating parked cars, but see point 1). Never mind the city’s investment in greenway up Willingdon that I expect will help take bike use from nascent to normal. This is not the neighbourhood it used to be. We have good transit access (the woman in the paper is also within walking distance of Skytrain), it’s only getting better, and with increased density it will get better still. We should be planning for success, not planning for stagnation or failure.

  2. Across the street from 29th Ave Station there was a new Van Spec mohawk being built – got to dry-in stage and stopped – maybe 100K into the project. It has turned into a land assembly that will tear down what’s there; one of the houses was built just 7 or 8 years ago. To create some townhouses. Across from a Skytrain station?! There should be at least 40 storey towers going up here. What’s with all the bucolic single detatched around a Skytrain station? There are houses in this area that could be knocked down with a sledge hammer. This is not the highest best use of land thanks to zoning ideology. There are pathetic stick-built townhouses popping up that will never come close to meeting demand. They too will be torn down after limited use. There’s no sense of urgency. It’s licking around the edges of housing without throttling down. Brentwood is serious; so is Edmonds and Metrotown, Surrey – omg, or along the Canada Line. Other places are just licking around the edges. I’ve always liked one of Bosa’s earliest projects – the one beside Patterson Station – not a tower, but big, and built like a tank, with expansive balconies. A resident there that I bumped into once said she’d only leave feet first. It has no aesthetics unless you’re partial to beton brut, but that place will be standing long after any earthquake.

  3. The RS1 land remaining after deducting the footprint of the detached house and lane house from the overall lot area is tens of km2 when all lots are added up. That’s just for Vancouver. It’s obvious that the supply is constrained by zoning, and that the single highest cost of the SDH is not the house, but the land.
    Ralph’s idea is an admirable if long overdue next step. However, we need to plan father into the future. I suggest that the step after that would be to remove the strata designation in favour of freehold subdivided lots under simple management contracts with the neighbours.
    There are a number of other urban design possibilities that could inform the future. That could include the assembly of just two lots at the end of an average block and subdividing them crosswise into 7 rowhouse lots between 5.3 and 6 metres wide. Allow rental suites, and you move from 6 housing units to 14, and this will add a additional income to 7 family budgets. Recycle materials from the previous houses and you could be eligible for a bonus flat or two over the end unit garages under agreement with the city.
    An urban design focus like this on planning reveals a wide range of possibilities before you even graduate to low-rises and beyond.
    I believe these are just a tiny collection of the local considerations we will need as an underpopulated nation that will continue to struggle with low fertility and the costs of an ageing population without an increase in the current immigration rate. The costs of decarbonizing the economy and addressing climate adaptation will also beset our cities soon.
    The feds may require cities to increase densities and rejig the building codes for energy efficiency to be eligible for more generous federal transit and housing funds to accommodate more people. Their arrival will, over a generation or two, create a larger domestic market which would increase healthier forms of economic growth and tax revenues, which in turn will help fund making our cities more efficacious.
    RS1 zoning needs to be abolished for the simple reason it freezes great swaths of the land supply which cannot grow given our geography.

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