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neighbourhood watch

To get a glimpse of the future of Vancouver's residential land squeeze, take a look at what is unfolding in the Norquay Village neighbourhood, where city planners are keen to rezone single-family properties.

To supporters, the mass rezoning will be a prudent way to encourage developers to construct row houses and townhouses in a city where land values have soared. Creating more housing options for families is the goal. The rezoning in Norquay on the city's east side is intended to spur multiunit projects on single-family lots. After all, living in high-rise condos on busy main roads may be fine for many couples or those who are single, but families need better and lower-priced choices for ownership on quieter streets, city planners say.

For commuters driving along six lanes of traffic on the southern stretch of Kingsway Avenue, it would be easy to blink and miss Norquay. The city adopted the name Norquay Village for the area in 2005, though long-time residents still think of their neighbourhood's heart as Renfrew-Collingwood.

The area is home to the Mandarin immersion program at John Norquay Elementary School on Slocan Street. Landmarks along Kingsway include Purdy's chocolate factory, Harvey's furniture store, Beefway butcher shop, McGavin's bread outlet and the historic 2400 Motel. The sprawling motel site, owned by the City of Vancouver, is targeted in the long term for two towers – one proposed for 12 storeys and the other 16 – in a residential and commercial development. Less than a kilometre away at 2711 Kingsway, the Skyway Tower condo project is under construction.

But for now, the buzz in Norquay is over the impact of rezoning on side streets. If developers end up assembling adjacent lots, watch for a new era of higher-density living on residential streets. City planners are seeking to spark multifamily housing developments, noting that mass rezoning will save developers roughly six months of cutting through red tape.

"It's really about adding to the diversity of the housing stock in the city to meet the diversity of the housing needs of its citizens, whether it's people already here and want to stay here or people who want to move here," said Matt Shillito, assistant director of planning for the City of Vancouver. "We hope that it might be applicable in other suitable locations in the city. That doesn't mean that all the single-family parts of the city would change, but areas close to shopping, services, transit and community facilities are logical places to put these new housing types."

Constructing more dwellings within a limited space is the name of the game in Vancouver, so spare a thought for the vanishing patches of grass on single-family lots. Some residents such as Rita Achtemichuk say the City of Vancouver has a vested interest in increasing density to boost its tax base. Critics say Norquay's rezoning is designed to entice builders to buy older homes, most of which still have large lawns. It isn't easy protecting greenery amid urban pressures.

"The planned rezoning is not a tweak. It is a revolution," said Joseph Jones, a community activist and blogger. "Why should the geographic heart of East Vancouver be subjected to housing density which is currently unacceptable elsewhere in Vancouver?"

City planners, however, are supporting the development of row houses and stacked townhouses. The key requirement is for a builder to assemble at least two single-family lots that are located side-by-side, and then go through the process of a development permit application. This new category for row houses and townhouses will be called RM-7 zoning. The row houses will have the added benefit of property ownership, compared with strata title on townhouses. The townhouses will have elements that will appeal to families, notably individual entrances instead of the common lobby found in high-rise condos or mid-rise apartment buildings.

In another rezoning proposal, duplexes will be allowed to have secondary suites. In some cases, where there are two or three single-family lots with a small home on each property, multiple dwellings are envisaged on the combined lots. There are various permutations in this new category called RT-11, including duplexes with laneway houses.

Next up could be rezoning of single-family neighbourhoods elsewhere in Vancouver, said Lewis Villegas, an urban design consultant. But he urges city planners to take a closer look at their proposal for Norquay because row houses will work in some cases but spoil the quaint flavour of streetscapes in others.

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