The Jeffs Residences is a grand old Queen Anne house built around 1907, and it sits on a corner lot at Salsbury Drive and Charles Street, in a leafy historic enclave east of Vancouver’s Commercial Drive.
The house has been carved up into seven condo units and to the north is a row of 13 townhomes. Developer James Evans restored and redeveloped the property a decade ago, and went on to redevelop several more within a five-block radius. They are all near transit, shopping and schools, and affordable enough for locals. The Jeffs Residences, which includes 13 three-bedroom units, and consists of mostly families, is Mr. Evans’s personal favourite.
“At the time we built these, if you were looking for a three-bedroom house, your options were essentially a new half-duplex, like those across the street, and those were running around $800,000 at the time. I thought, ‘If we could do the same thing here but make them a little bit smaller, and make the site more efficient because obviously it’s a bit denser, then we could bring them out for about $150,000 less a door than a comparable half duplex.’
“And that’s what we did.”
He refers to his multifamily projects as “stealth densification,” a way of introducing the highly livable “missing middle” density that people crave while sensitively preserving character of neighbourhoods.
The city has the same idea with its new “missing middle” multiplex proposal to streamline zoning, increase allowable floor space, and allow up to six units on a larger residential lot and up to four on a standard 33-foot lot. But ironically, his form of stealth density will become difficult to deliver if the city’s policy goes through, he says.
Staff presented their recommendations to council last week and the proposal was approved for the next phase, a public hearing in September, followed by a vote. New permit applications would be accepted as early as October. But as is, Mr. Evans says, the proposal disincentivizes the retention of old character houses, which won’t be eligible for the higher density of a multiplex.
As well, he’d obtained his stealth density for his projects using a Heritage Revitalization Agreement, which, he says, the city would not allow on his next project at nearby Napier Street and Semlin Drive. Instead, he was limited by character retention incentives, which allowed only seven units on the 99-foot-wide corner lot, including a duplex in the main home and five infill units. If he’d obtained an HRA, he says he could have built 14 units, but an HRA wasn’t in the cards for reasons he’s never understood. Mr. Evans is chair of the city’s heritage commission.
“Two things frustrate me,” he says. “First, as currently written, we won’t be able to do this again. And secondly, why hasn’t the city looked at successful examples of projects that have been done?
“There seems to be this amnesia about successful examples of missing middle type housing, where you have a mix of different unit types, all within the context of the lot geometry in the city,” he says. “There’s been no review, no conversation about it. We’re just going to start again.”
Currently, if a developer retains a character house, they are permitted 3,422 sq. ft. on a standard 33-foot-wide lot. If they build a multiplex, they can go up to 4,026 sq. ft.
“There will be no incentive to keep something like this,” he says of Brookhouse. “Because your density is capped and you have to go through a separate [permit] process, whereas with a multiplex, you bulldoze everything and you build 1.0 FSR [floor space ratio]. Why would you do character retention if you have to cap your density?”
The city responded that it’s true character retention projects would continue to be allowed at 0.85 FSR, without a charge. As well, they would not get the extra square footage of a multiplex. That said, the city said in an email response that the 0.85 FSR is still more than what’s permitted for a new single-detached house. If someone were to build a new house, without units, they’d have to downsize, from 0.7 to 0.6 FSR, under the new proposal. That could incentivize a developer to keep the character house, especially with the larger laneway house that would be allowed.
The city also said HRAs remain “an important tool to enable the restoration, protection and conservation of heritage houses,” and do not conflict with the missing middle proposals.
Others have concerns that the city’s neighbourhood character could get lost, especially on the less expensive east side.
Macdonald Commercial Real Estate managing director Tony Letvinchuk, who’s in favour of the proposal, hopes the Vancouver Special doesn’t become a target of redevelopment. Instead, the Vancouver Special could easily be “plumped up” to accommodate four units with another in the backyard, for example, he says.
And then there’s the affordability piece, which could be greater, says Small Housing B.C. founder Jake Fry, who builds laneway housing. The proposal offers extra density and a break on fees in exchange for providing a below-market rental unit.
“Within the larger lots, there’s an opportunity to do one unit below-market and then you are forgiven city fees, but the problem is they aren’t adding enough density or living space, so that’s the least financially viable option,” Mr. Fry says. “And yet the very thing this program could deliver better than a high-rise, or even free land, is to give it enough of a bonus – density, or whatever it might be – so that it became the most financially viable option.
“They’re missing the biggest win. If it didn’t work, no harm, and if it did – they would have the most cost-effective units built at no expense to the public.”
In order to add density and protect existing character – and prevent wasteful demolitions – Mr. Evans proposes the proposal give character buildings the same density as multiplexing, and allow the same square footage and number of units.
“The policy they are proposing will be a bunch of ‘identikit’ homes that will start rolling out and we will gradually lose old homes like this one,” he says, standing at Parker Street and Victoria Drive, in front of Brookhouse Residences, which he built five years ago.
Without the small but meaningful change to the new policy, it will be the end of the era for these heritage projects, he says, and he has many examples of how it can be done.
At Brookhouse, he took another large heritage house on a 66-foot lot and turned it into 10 strata units, including six condos in the restored house and four new three-storey row houses, with garages, to the rear. A courtyard separates the main house from the row houses. The boarded up, vacant house had formerly been zoned as a two-family residence, but with a Heritage Revitalization Agreement, Mr. Evans restored the property and had it designated as a heritage property in exchange for a rezoning. He built the Jeffs Residence using an HRA as well.
Mr. Evans lives in the neighbourhood and is proud that there’s been little turnover in his projects, that he’s delivered desirable family housing.
“You shouldn’t be planning buildings, you should be planning neighbourhoods,” he says.
He cites the variety of housing in the area. There’s a former church on Salsbury that’s now loft apartment units, with row houses, similar to one of his own projects. Across from that, there’s a historic brick apartment building.
On Victoria, there are some of the city’s most extravagant examples of Queen Anne houses, hearkening back to the time in Vancouver’s history when wealthy people lived in Grandview before they moved to Shaughnessy. Grandview, as the name suggests, had the great mountain views.
“We have one chance to get this right, because this feels like one of those seminal lurches that we make in Vancouver once every decade. Twenty years ago, it was basement suites … then it was carriage houses … now we have moved to next logical stage.
“I support it, not because I’m a developer, but because I’d like a place for my kids to live, and we can’t put all people in highrises on the Broadway corridor. So we need to balance it so we can retain some of what you see around here, in the form of all the old houses and still allow people to build new product.
“That’s my only concern on this thing, is to treat [character] equally and provide incentives for people to do what you see here.”