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Illustration of a street in Vancouver where a proposal is under consideration to narrow the street in order to create more affordable housing lots.
Illustration of a street in Vancouver where a proposal is under consideration to narrow the street in order to create more affordable housing lots.

CITY LIMITS

For homeowners, skinny-street strategy is thin on logic Add to ...

Annemarie Falk knew something was up when a neighbour told her there was a picture of her house in the newspaper.

She had bought her Kitsilano home in February, and in July was in the middle of finally moving in.

There, beside a news story about winning ideas for affordable housing in Vancouver, was her little blue house.

In fact, there were two pictures of it. The first showed her house as it appears today: blue shingles, white trim, a small window in a steep gable, and a red brick chimney.

In the second photo, the house was identical, with one major difference: Dr. Falk had a new neighbour to the east, and no longer occupied the corner lot. An entirely new house had been Photoshopped in beside hers – a taller and bulkier beige stucco house that would not be completely out of place in the neighbourhood. It now occupied the corner lot. The street had been narrowed and most of the boulevard eradicated.

“I thought, really? You’ve got to be kidding,” she told me in an interview this week.

This was not a snapshot from the future, nor an actual development proposal, but Submission #23 in the City of Vancouver’s re:Think Housing competition. It is one of three winning entries chosen by the Mayor’s Task Force on Affordable Housing.

Winners were announced in several categories at the end of July.

This proposal won marks for its ingenious use of vacant public land. By vacant public land I mean “street.” And by “street” I mean a flat piece of pavement or asphalt that people in vehicles (including bicycles) travel upon to get from place to place. You know, like, work and stuff.

The scheme goes like this: if you took every “appropriate” 66-foot wide north-south street and narrowed it to 33 feet in certain blocks, you could create more than 6,800 new lots. If, on each of those new lots, you built just one two-unit home and one laneway house, you will have created more than 20,000 new units of affordable housing. Boom. Just like that.

And that’s the conservative scheme. The more ambitious version shows the new, “reclaimed” lots holding as many as 12 units.

Dr. Falk, it turns out, bought a corner lot so as not to be hemmed in on both sides. She wanted the added breathing room, and the morning sun.

She also limited her search to areas zoned specifically for single family homes. She did so because she doesn’t want to live next door to a duplex, a triplex, or row houses or apartments.

“My first reaction was shock. Can they do this?” she said. “I thought a street was a street. I had no idea it could be built up.”

Dr. Falk is well aware of the NIMBY label others might apply to her, which is why she dug deeper than a single newspaper article before coming to a conclusion. Her opposition is measured: Going down the list of community benefits the proposal claims will materialize, she has counterpoints to each.

The proposal claims that increasing density would re-populate neighbourhoods and thus keep businesses alive and schools full. Dr. Falk, a mother of two, says her local school is so overstuffed it has limited enrolment to children in the catchment area.

On the claim that narrower streets would calm traffic in the neighbourhood, she suggests the opposite will be true as the population increases and parking disappears.

Another benefit suggested by the proposal is that seniors and empty-nesters will have more housing choices in their neighbourhoods as they look to downsize.

As a family physician of 17 years, with many clients in Kerrisdale and Dunbar, Dr. Falk says she can speak with some authority on the subject of seniors. “I can say that most seniors want to stay in their own homes until the end,” she said.

And then there is the obvious question about affordability. “Affordable to whom?” she asks. Dr. Falk’s 90-year old house was listed for $1.88-million when she bought in February. Chances are the brand-new stucco mirage next door would fetch a far higher price, especially on a corner lot.

Former Vancouver director of planning Brent Toderian is blunt on the issue of affordability when it comes to this proposal. “This would not generate the kind of units that would make a dent in our affordability challenge.” But he says, like laneway housing, this is part of the solution.

I predict the “skinny streets experiment” will be tried in some limited form. A one-off perhaps, on an eastside block where the city can buy the corner lots and eliminate the obvious concerns.

In time, it will become a stop on a city-sponsored bike-tour of affordable housing that no one can actually afford.

 

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