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Building (left) with empty lot next to it located on the corner of Main Street and Union Street in Vancouver, British Columbia, Tuesday, March 26, 2013. (RAFAL GERSZAK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Building (left) with empty lot next to it located on the corner of Main Street and Union Street in Vancouver, British Columbia, Tuesday, March 26, 2013. (RAFAL GERSZAK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

housing

Tiny plots of land hold the promise of big change in gritty neighbourhoods Add to ...

The little lots that are predicted to transform Vancouver’s gritty Downtown Eastside and Chinatown are invisible to many.

But they’re everywhere and they’re the future of those neighbourhoods, say architects who are working on small, unusual projects that are aimed at bringing a new look and new people into the area while respecting what’s already there.

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Unlike other parts of the city, there are few big sites available here for major developments.

Instead, tiny plots are the only real openings for those looking to build in these historic districts.

“That’s what’s left down here,” said Gair Williamson, whose building near Oppenheimer Park was approved by the city’s development permit board Monday over the protests of some complaining about gentrification. “The days of the large-scale intervention is gone.”

Besides the 29-unit project at 555 East Cordova Street, Mr. Williamson is working on a second development at 245 East Georgia Street with a lot that is only 25 feet wide – significantly less than the standard 33-foot lot for a single-family house in Vancouver.

That nine-storey building, squeezed between the Keefer Bakery and a modern office, will have 40 miniature apartments of between 320 and 380 square feet that will be permanent rentals.

It’s just down the street from a second project by Panther Group, also on a 25-foot lot, that will also be nine storeys but with 26 units.

And a few blocks away, the Port Capital Group is building a third nine-storey building on a site that is only 50 feet wide.

There are likely more coming. Mr. Williamson said the small sites next to the Jimi Hendrix shrine on Union Street near the viaducts are being eyed by several young developers.

Nick Bray, an architect with Christopher Bozyk Architects working on the 150 Cordova Street site, said it’s obvious that this is how development will unroll.

“You’ll see more.”

All of the project designers are being asked by the city to come up with a look that reflects the neighbourhood but isn’t hokey imitation heritage.

They’re modern, but they have big plate-glass windows on the ground floors for retail, like the early 20th-century buildings in the area typically have, along proportions and colours that match the neighbours.

In return, the city is giving developers leeway on parking and setbacks, in order to help make the buildings work on such small sites.

But beyond the architecture, many of the projects are also aimed at fitting into the neighbourhood socially.

Mr. Williamson, who has designed other interesting projects in the area from the Paris Annex on Hastings to the Keefer Hotel in Chinatown, aims to do more than just build buildings.

“We have a desire to improve the social action in this area. We’re not catering to people trying to move to a trendy place,” said Mr. Williamson.

The project at 555 East Cordova Street, being done for the Boffo Group in collaboration with the humanitarian organization Community Building Group, will include five units of subsidized housing along with the 24 low-cost condo units.

That replicates in miniature the kind of mix of social and market housing that Vancouver aimed for in the megaprojects developed on its former industrial lands downtown.

Mr. Williamson said the projects also help do something the city used to try to achieve using a more cumbersome, two-step process with developers: bring new life to the area.

“They would get [fees from developers], ‘You pay us, so we can revitalize,’” said Mr. Williamson. Then the city would use the money for community projects.

This way, he said, the projects themselves bring life into the area.

The city’s general manager, Brian Jackson, has been talking to those developers about one more thing they could do to contribute to the neighbourhoods: find a way to bring in affordable retail.

Mr. Williamson said that next step is inevitable to bring the Downtown Eastside and Chinatown back to being the bustling places with small businesses that they once were.

“It’s the next stone in the foundation.”

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