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Architect takes up city’s new mini-suites policy

August 10th, 2009 · 8 Comments

It will be interesting to see, in five years, how much new housing is created by some of the city’s “gentle densification” policies, as they call them: laneway houses and lock-off suites inside condos.

As other media reported last month, almost two dozen people lined up to apply to build laneway houses as soon as the city’s policy was approved. It will take a little longer to see how enthusiastic the development community is about the idea of lock-off suites, those mini-apartments inside apartments that development consultant Michael Geller invented when he was planning the new housing zones around SFU.

But at least one architect, Oliver Lang, has picked up on the idea, as you can read in my story here. And, as I note in the story, ParkLane down at East Fraser Lands has also put in a provision in its zoning to allow lock-off suites. That could mean quite a few in that massive development, once it finally gets going.

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  • Not Running for Mayor

    If I’m not mistaken Wesgroup/Parklane were more asked to include a percentage of lock off suites by the city. My understanding is they weren’t looking at them before the city brought them up. Perhaps someone at Wesgroup can speak on the issue.

  • Not Running for Mayor

    I should’ve mentioned that these negotiations took place months ago, well before the current policy.

  • Darcy McGee

    Twitch City inches one more step towards reality.

  • John Kuharchuk

    Lock off suites have been offered by resort developers in places like Whistler for decades. Hardly a new concept, just unknown in the urban environment.

  • Norm Shearing

    The original idea for including lock-off suites at East Fraserlands came from my friend Michael Geller and his work at SFU as Frances mentioned. He probably came to it by looking at two bedroom timeshare units where the second bedroom can be rented seperately by the timeshare owner in the event only one bedroom is needed for their stay. Based on Michael’s work we approached the City with the idea and it was meet with a lukwarm reception at best. This was in 2005.

    The big hurdles for us were not having the units included in our total unit count and not having them requiring additional parking. The City originally wanted both and as anyone who has looked into providing this type of unit knows the economics are marginal at best. When additional requirements and regulations are layered on the likelihood of getting them built slips away quickly.

    The City final aggreed to both points and we secured the inclusion of these units shortly after council’s unanimous approval of our Official Development Plan in 2006. While the City agreed to them in concept they wanted to restrict the number to a total equal to 10% of our market units and to restrict the use to only a limited area of the development. The rational was they wanted to study traffic patterns and impacts. In the end staff agreed to a greater percentage largely, I believe, because Brent Toderian saw the potential. An increased percentage and wide area locations were included in our phase one rezoning in 2008.

    Lock-off suites are an important component to finding creative ways to providing alternative forms of housing. The real challenge is getting them built at a square foot cost that is attractive to purchasers. Yes, the suite potentially generates income but you have to buy and mortgage it and for a lot of folks they can’t make the numbers work. I have heard anecdotally there wasn’t a big uptake on them out at UBC mainly for this reason.

    Parklane, however, was the first developer, I know of in Vancouver ,to build a townhouse version of the lock-off unit at our Block Project in Mount Plesant . The people who purchased them were attracted because of the flexibility they provided. (Much more market analysis needs to be done to determine the level of demand.)

    Long answer to Not Running for Mayor’s comment.

    Short answer; we have been at this for a long time.

  • Frances Bula

    Oh, more history I didn’t know. Thanks for the info, Norm. I am curious as to how you could put them in the Block when they weren’t legal yet? I didn’t even think of asking about projects under construction as I assumed that no one had permission to do them til the bylaw was passed in July or whenever it was. Was yours a special relaxation in advance of the anticipated change?

    Let me know so I can rationalize my story inmy own mind by saying Oliver’s project is the first one initiated since the lock-off suites were officially allowed by policy.

  • Norm Shearing

    The units at the Block were included to address the City’s “no net loss” of rental housing captured under their Rate of Change Bylaw. There were rental units on the property prior to our application for redevelopment.

    We had been in discussions with Housing on the lock-off suite for East Fraserlands and we suggested they might be a good option for capturing our obligation to provide replacement rental units within the Block development and they agreed.

    The fact the City permited them prior to the City formally allowing them elsewhere is not unusual. The Director of Planning can use his discretion to permit uses that may typically not be allowable within a given zoning district. By doing this it allows staff to evaluate a host of planning and engineering issues prior to either introducing a change to an existing bylaw , crafting an entirely new one, or not …which is very sensible. At the Block I am sure they applied the same logic.

  • Good discussion. The seed for the idea was planted in the 70’s when I worked for CMHC. A developer built a hotel, called the Parklane Hotel, and it got an NHA insured mortgage. There was a question in the House of Commons as to why CMHC was insuring loans on a HOTEL! I was asked to review the plans, and on first blush it looked like an apartment building, until I looked carefully and realized that most of the bedrooms had their own doors to the corridor. That’s how it could be reconfigured…

    30 years later the students at SFU were complaining that they would not be able to afford to live at UniverCity. When I asked where they were living, many said they were in basement suites…

    I connected the dots and also having had experience with lock-off suites at resorts, proposed the ‘secondary suites’ at SFU. I’m delighted the city has taken up the idea. Time will tell how popular it is, since there are extra costs…for firewalls, extra electrical service, venting, etc. But we’ll see.