Vancouver sets the standard for housing atop stores

If sprawl is going to be reined in, many more residents will have to find housing in existing city neighborhoods — places that are often mistakenly assumed to be already fully developed. One municipality that has orchestrated a sizable population increase in its existing neighborhoods, setting an example for cities throughout North America, is Van-couver, British Columbia. From 1991 to 2001, the population of the 44-square-mile city rose by 75,000, or 16 percent, partly because developers constructed hundreds of four-story mixed residential and retail buildings on land that used to have only one-story gas stations, fast-food outlets, and convenience stores. The emerging four-story pattern of development is visible on thoroughfares throughout the 546,000-population city — nowhere more so than in Kitsilano, a section of Vancouver that was built during the trolley-car era of the early 20th century. On major streets in Kitsilano, southwest of downtown, a developer typically acquires one or more single-story buildings and the adjoining surface parking. After razing the buildings, the developer excavates the entire site and constructs two or three levels of underground parking. On the ground floor above the parking, the developer builds commercial space, to be occupied by shops, cafes, and restaurants whose doors open onto the sidewalks. Above the business space are three floors of rental apartments or for-sale condominium units (referred to in Canada as “strata units”). An approximately 70-by-100-foot lot in Kitsilano, for example, went from having a single-floor convenience store and a parking area to having more than a dozen balconied apartments above a popular cafe. At first, housing of this sort proved popular with singles, couples, and families without children. Now, an increasing number of parents with children are also beginning to occupy such units, much to the surprise of Vancouver planners. “The buyer wants urbanism,” says Patrick Condon, who holds the James Taylor Chair in Landscape and Livable Environments at the University of British Columbia. When residents walk out of their apartments, they find a lively street scene offering outdoor cafes, small food markets, and other amenities, including frequent transit service. (Electric buses long ago replaced the trolleys.) People who live in the surrounding, lower-density residential blocks benefit as well, since they are within walking distance of an increasingly well-provisioned retail corridor. Experiment after experiment Densification of this sort could be a useful strategy for many cities where real estate is expensive and where housing is in great demand. Vancouver developers have experimented with a variety of ways of laying out the upper-story housing. A decade ago, developers often lacked confidence that people would want to live close to the street. Consequently, the floors above the ground-floor retail sometimes were stepped back — away from the lights, sounds, and activity of a commercial thoroughfare. Since then, it’s become common to have mixed-use buildings rise straight up from the sidewalk. “What you see,” says Condon, “is the gradual reassertion of the love affair with the street.” Initially, apartments were built with their entrances on shared hallways in the interior of the building. More recently, some developers have built central courtyards rather than hallways. The courtyards have increased the appeal of the units, giving each household a door directly to the outdoors, like that of a townhouse. The courtyard also allows the units to have additional windows, natural light, and natural ventilation. Some recent buildings offer a mix of one- and two-story units. On the rear alley, ground-floor units may have gardens or decks, their privacy protected by fences. The underground parking — some reserved for residents, some for customers of the first-floor businesses — is usually entered from the alley. Condon says a 900-square-foot, two-bedroom unit sells for roughly $250,000 Canadian — about $300 a square foot. “The City has moved from requiring two [parking] spaces per dwelling unit to one-to-one, on a case-by-case basis,” Condon notes. Elimination of one parking space per unit reduces the cost of a dwelling by $20,000, he says. “It also makes sure the spaces are used. Often people live without any car at all.” Larry Beasley, director of current planning, notes that in some housing in the downtown core, Vancouver is experimenting with allowing builders to enclose some of the individual parking spaces in basement garages. A walled garage space offers more versatility, he says. It could be used as a woodworking or hobby shop, or as a storage room or for other purposes. Metropolitan Vancouver, with just over two million inhabitants, grew more than 2 percent a year during the 1990s. It has become the most expensive metropolitan housing market in Canada, slightly more costly than metropolitan Toronto. High-rise and townhouse development in the downtown core is the city government’s most conspicuous way of housing the growing population (see Dec. 2003 New Urban News). But Condon contends that neighborhood commercial corridors — eroded for many years by automobile-oriented development — can and should play a large role in future growth. “Now,” he says, “the land is too valuable for a tire shop or a Dairy Queen.” Regulatory prodding Until 1989, Vancouver’s zoning discouraged developers from creating housing above commercial space. The housing crisis of the late 1980s — when immigration from Hong Kong and other parts of Asia ran especially strong — prompted the city to revise its zoning. On portions of Vancouver’s travel corridors — but not their entire length — the City now requires developers of new four-story buildings to provide ground-floor commercial space, even if they have to rent it for free. The resulting abundance of neighborhood commercial space has had the unanticipated benefit of encouraging diversity in business enterprises. In Kitsilano, a shopper can find a retailer who specializes in selling organic pies, for instance, or women’s books. Independently owned stores and niche businesses have proliferated. Usually buildings on commercial corridors are allowed to rise no higher than 45 feet or four stories, to avoid being out of scale with the neighborhood. The City increasingly regulates the buildings’ shapes. Chris Robertson, a city planner, notes that recently the City has begun requiring the buildings to be set back two extra feet from the street, creating additional sidewalk space for activities such as outdoor dining. The City also encourages overhangs that shield pedestrians from the rain. One questionable mandate recently imposed in many neighborhood commercial zones is an eight-foot setback for the fourth floor. Intended to prevent the streets from feeling overwhelmed by buildings, it may conflict with the desire to make the street feel like an “outdoor room.” The reduced fourth floor also means that less housing can ultimately be built in the neighborhood corridors. To protect the views and privacy of people in single-family homes behind the four-story buildings, the City has taken steps toward controlling the lighting and the appearance of the buildings’ rears, and toward requiring the upper stories to be further recessed from the rear property line. Even with all the regulations, neighborhood commercial corridors can still produce more than 14,000 housing units in coming years, Robertson says. They are, he says “our major housing capacity area.” Another planner, Patricia St. Michel, says the City is considering establishing a transition zone between some of the commercial-corridor four-story buildings and the nearby lower-density residential streets. Small rowhouses organized around shared courtyards may be one kind of development appropriate for transition zones, St. Michel says. Such units would be more compact and would cost less than detached houses, so they could appeal to young people and to retired people who are ready to downsize. St. Michel says this expansion of housing options would make it easier for people “to live in a neighborhood at every stage of their lives.”
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