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The micro-condo comes to Vancouver

January 26th, 2010 · 47 Comments

A big splash yesterday as Gastown developer Jon Stovell and ITC Construction announced the arrival of micro-lofts to the city, at 270 square feet and renting for an average of $725. My story in the Globe is here, though it’s only the beginning of the saga.

I’m curious to know whether this could happen with other Downtown Eastside hotels that can’t get the permission or won’t pay the fee to demolish or convert, but want to upscale a little. Would the city also allow them to create micro-lofts? I talked to Wendy Pedersen from the Carnegie Community Action Project after my deadline yesterday and she said there are three other hotels sitting empty, the way the Burns Block (Stovell’s project) was before he took it over and decided to do the micro-lofts.

You’ll notice in my story that no new developments would be allowed to build condos of this size — only existing buildings that are being renovated. And presumably only existing buildings that had small rooms already. I can’t imagine the city would allow a developer to take a regular apartment building with 50 units and make them all smaller to squish in 75.

Lots of thorny questions here to consider.

Categories: Uncategorized

  • WW

    Are these becoming strata condo units? From the news story I heard last night, it sounded like the city allowed the small units only as purpose built, rental stock (the lack of which is a big concern these days).

  • Chris

    Do the micro-lofts still need to provide a minimum number of parking spots?

  • WW…These are not strata units…they are being proposed as rental.

    My personal view is that they offer another housing option, both for those who have choice, and those who don’t. I support the size, noting it is slightly larger than the 260 sq.ft. minimum we established for the mini-suites within suites at SFU.

    For those of you who wonder whether these suites are too small, and question what standards should apply, I would refer you to the Parker Morris standards, prepared in the UK in 1961, that were the first really comprehensive residential space standards. They established minimum sizes based on furniture layouts and daily functions.

    I would add that the key to the successful design of smaller spaces is not just to shrink a larger space, but to rethink its layout. As former City Councillor Kim Capri pointed out two years ago, when smaller suites were being considered for the homeless, there are lessons to be learned from the design of cruise ship cabins.

    While many people vilified her for suggesting this, she was absolutely right. Lessons can also be gained from the design of travel trailers and mini-vans which also make very good use of space.

  • Denis

    we used to live on our boat in False Creek and paid the city for a occupation permit. When we sold, our next place was a batchelor suite in the west end, which we figured was huge. If people accept the small space, go for it. Most anything beats the slum landlord hotels in the town. But the rent seems a bit steep for the space.

  • Frances, WW’s question points out that your headline is a bit misleading. At the moment, the ‘Micro Condo’ is not coming to Vancouver. They are Micro Rentals…but hopefully the Micro Condo will be coming soon.

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    People live in their cars, but do we really want to draw lessons from that?

    I worry that a micro suite with a window opening onto Hastings Street or any other of our arterials as presently designed would not meet my criteria for livability.

    If the city of London is your back yard, then 270 s.f. may be a real good thing. If you are up at SFU doing courses, maybe you’re real address when you are not in class is the Library, the Pub, and the Gymn.

    In Vancouver, where I sense we are failing to meet the need to innovate is not with “doing more with less”, both land and space are plentiful, but rather with getting the urban planning basics right.

  • Maybe the problem is not the minimum size space people live in, but the maximum? Perhaps we should be debating a bylaw that sets an upper limit? There’s certainly a lot of half-empty houses around. Oops, did I just suggest that the size of your bank acct should not enable you to waste precious urban living space and drive up affordability for the plebes? What was I thinking? :-O

  • Chris, I appreciate your question is somewhat rhetorical…but as noted below, we are having this debate….

    I know a lot of people in Dunbar and Point Grey who would like to move out of their half empty houses, but stay in their neighbourhood. One of the problems is that the zoning prevents new townhouse and apartments from being built in their neighbourhood so they can move.

    But you are right, the size of houses has increased quite significantly over the past 5 decades, and that is why there are debates happening in Surrey and elsewhere over the maximum permitted size of houses.

    If you want to see smaller houses, then let me build on smaller lots…townhouses on 16 foot lots, and houses on 25 feet in Vancouver, 33 feet in the burbs….

    we need to speak up, because larger lots lead to larger houses. As for smaller houses and apartments, they are not for everyone, but let’s offer the choice.

  • Appreciate your response Michael. I know it’s a bit anti-thetical to our current values, but I guess I’m not so much suggesting size restrictions as occupancy restrictions. Rather than the maximum occupancy rules we see in place for obvious safety reasons in public spaces, is it that unreasonable to suggest minimum occupancies for big houses? I realize this brings a host of other issues into play regarding freedom of choice, the challenges of moving when your house is your major financial instrument for savings/investment, etc, but at what point do we limit individual ‘excess’ (to be lazy and use a politically-charged word) for the greater good. Certainly no one has huge problems with upper limits to highway speeds. At what ratio of square footage per person are we moving from the just rewards of hard work and sacrifice and into a place where the hoarding of space for ego satisfaction is a costly extravagance our society can ill-afford?

  • Bill Lee

    Size of housing? Lets use the 1950s Shanghai method and all large houses have to share families, a minimum 2 persons for each 3 x 4 metre room.
    Suddenly, Point Grey gets the density it needs to be lively and support for public places to ‘get out of the house’ Surrey is denuded of people as everyone wants to live in Point Grey and streetcars appear by magic.

    I see a calculation on the lively story that “These so-called micro-lofts are expensive per square foot. For comparison, an apartment in the West End, on the Park, with a view of the ocean is $1.88 per square foot (1,200 rent divided by 635 square feet). These micro-lofts are $2.77 per square foot ($750 divided by 270).”
    So, disregarding height, location, amenities and a host of other things, these are, or can be seen as expensive.

    What were the floor plans on the Brad Holmes thingies in Gastown, where ceiling height and “loft platforms’ increased usuable floor area?

  • Bill, the oftentimes squalid 10 by 10 rooms in an SRO building with a shared bathroom rent for $375 to $425 a month…that’s twice what the average rent is in the West End.

    I am told that most renters are more interested in the end price than the rent per square foot…so that is why these units will be attractive.

    Ironically, although this rent is high on a $per square foot basis, I know that ITC the contractor agreed to effectively ‘donate’ its normal builder’s profit to the project in order to make it economically viable.

    Peter Rezansoff, the president told me that he’s had some good years and wanted to contribute to a project that could make lower rent suites available to people wanting to live in this area.

    I’m quite confident the project will turn out to be a success, and don’t see it contributing to the gentrification of the area, as some are predicting. On the contrary, it will help achieve a more balanced socio-economic mix.

  • “Bill, the oftentimes squalid 10 by 10 rooms in an SRO building with a shared bathroom rent for $375 to $425 a month…that’s twice what the average rent is in the West End”

    Let me clarify, on a rent per square foot basis.

  • Jon

    We have hundreds or rental units in this area offered through our site I can tell you that we get many inquiries from people who want to live downtown and just have a fixed budget of $600 – $800 a month. We have been unable to accommodate them. I know they will rent these, they are very nicely designed and the calls are already coming in. Jon Stovell (the developer of the Micro-Lofts).

  • Higgins

    “I support the size, noting it is slightly larger than the 260 sq.ft. minimum we established for the mini-suites within suites at SFU.”

    Michael Geller, with this statement you’ve managed to achieve a new low of your own self.
    Your home, walk-in closet (with custom made shoes condo) is probably bigger in size. Shame. Architect… your minimum was established by greed and not by acceptable comforts. And we wonder why the state of affairs is in such a bad shape in our city.

  • Stephanie

    “Achieving a more balanced socio-economic mix” in an overwhelmingly poor neighbourhood *is* gentrification. The sophistry, it burns.

    And this, good Lord: “I am told that most renters are more interested in the end price than the rent per square foot” – yes, inasmuch as they are interested in whether they will be able to feed themselves after the rent is paid. More cake, Mr. Geller?

  • landlord

    I don’t know what planet Chris Keam has been living on but on Earth the size of your bank account is all that matters.

  • “on Earth the size of your bank account is all that matters.”

    Well, I’m not averse to having more than enough, but I hope people will judge me by how many people show up for my funeral, not how many show up for the reading of my will.

  • jon

    It is not gentrification but accommodation. Are people who make just 25K a year also supposed to be unwelcome in this neighbourhood?

  • “Achieving a more balanced socio-economic mix” in an overwhelmingly poor neighbourhood *is* gentrification. The sophistry, it burns.

    Stephanie, you are wrong.

    Gentrification: The restoration and upgrading of deteriorated urban property by middle-class or affluent people, often resulting in displacement of lower-income people.

    The last five words are very important. And I do not believe that having a broader mix necessarily results in the displacement of lower income people. The fact is, we have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in social housing for low income people in the DTES and they are not going away. But by having a broader mix, we can have a healthier and more vibrant community, with jobs, active storefronts and a better street life.

    Over to you….

  • “Shame. Architect… your minimum was established by greed and not by acceptable comforts.”

    Higgins, I don’t know why you equate smaller suites to ‘greed’. The goal at SFU was to create self-contained units that would rent for the same price that students and others were paying for shared accommodation.

    The rental suite also allowed apartment buyers to purchase suites that were larger than that they might otherwise afford, by renting out a portion.

    Now please tell me why this is ‘greed’?

    May I suggest you talk to some of the people who managed to rent a brand new, fully equipped apartment for the price of a shared basement suite before making such an inappropriate allegation.

    As for my closet, it is quite large, with a window, in a very large house. However, I often lived in rooms that shared a bathroom and kitchen with many others; and subsequently in a one bedroom apartment that I shared with another man (since the living room had a door). I subsequently lived in an older 430 sq.ft. one bedroom apartment, and was very happy to move into a very small, but brand new studio suite in the Plaza International Hotel apartments.

    So I have experienced many different modest housing solutions, and that is why I believe a brand new 270 sq. ft. self contained suite with a murphy bed and new appliances that rents for 60% of the cost of the average 1 bedroom apartment is a good idea.

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    That is the “cake” you are passing “over to you”, right Michael?

    Let me bite.

    Aren’t rents in SRO’s targeted to take ALL the welfare check? In Skid Row rent is not 1/3 of your income, it’s made to be the whole thing, or do I have it wrong?

    Stephane, my definition of “gentrification” is when the poor folks are “moved out” to make room for the new, and usually not-poor “replacements”.

    Geller hits me right on the nose with his “resulting in displacement of lower-income people”. That’s the litmus test for me too. Are people being displaced? Or, is the result we are after the “intensification” of an under-used area of the city?

    Yep, keep your watch dog fed.

    Stephanie, your “overwhelmingly poor neighbourhood”… what would you do? Why is keeping the status quo not “ghettoization”?

    I don’t really care how many “invested hundreds of millions of dollars in social housing for low income people in the DTES and they are not going away…” there have been.

    What I care about is whether or not we have housed the homeless.

    Is the switch “on”, or is it “off”?

    A colleague of mine at the fledgling Canandian Council for Urbanism won my friendship when he stated as matter of fact, “the way to deal with homelessness, Lewis, is to build housing.”

    Pass me another piece-o-cake… Is that clear enough for everybody?

    If we had a plan that guaranteed:

    (1) That new construction would not exceed historic precedent;

    (2) That 33 units of social housing would be built for every 66 units of market housing;

    Would that work for those who like me worry about gentrification?

  • grounded

    While I appreciate that there’s a popular belief that “on Earth the size of your bank account is all that matters” (many thanks to Gordon Gecko?) another set of numbers might be marginally more important. Specifically, the set of numbers that establishes “a safe operating space for humanity” ( It seems our efforts to build our bank accounts and quality of life while greatly increasing the number of inhabitants demanding their own piece of the pie has put us in a bit of trouble with the very biophysical systems, a.k.a. ecological accounts, that are critical to our and other species’ health and well-being. While these nine systems have generously provided us with the conditions and resources to make and trade things, shelter and nourish ourselves, process our wastes and shop ‘til we drop, we are in debt. Forecasts suggest greater debt in the future due to increasing wealth and population globally. More troubling is that it’s a structural debt. We cannot address this debt without addressing the structural issues of how we use resources and produce wastes. How we live is profoundly important in this regard. Generally, a bigger home = more withdrawals. Smaller home = fewer withdrawals. Car use = more withdrawals. Bike, transit, walking = fewer withdrawals.

    So, while I don’t think max house sizes or minimum occupancies should be a priority for the city, this article posted by Clr Anton ( suggests that compact fluorescents, cloth shopping bags and Priuses aren’t going to get us out of debt either. They might make us feel good for a bit but all they amount to is a marginally lower interest rate. Inflation (i.e. when one system is compromised, others are impacted, increasing risk) is a whole other problem and strong motivator for reducing our debt. Fortunately, land use is one of the places where many of these accounts (e.g. fresh water, climate, nitrogen, phosphorus) merge so how we build and live in our communities has important implications for paying down or growing our debt.

    However, this leads to a gripe related to paying down our city’s debt. When the Ecodensity policy was introduced the city trumpeted reducing the city’s ecological footprint as a primary motive. We were told that we would need four Earths if everyone lived as us Vancouverites do. But when the policy was approved we were left without a commitment to monitor and report our progress in reducing our footprint. Why? Are we to just trust that our footprint will go down now that more LEED Silver mixed-use towers and laneway houses are going up? If reducing our eco-footprint is so important why don’t we have a target in place? What other programs are in place to help us pay it down? The connections have not been made by the past or present councils as far as I can see. Instead it appears that all the footprint talk was a convenient way to justify further intensification, which due to higher performance standards increases the cost of new housing (e.g. SEFC). So, if the city is concerned about our ecological debt a more concerted effort to manage, communicate and reduce our footprint is needed. One option might be to develop neighbourhood footprints so that some healthy competition is created. Kelowna does this with water usage. BC Hydro offers something similar for some of its customers. Reporting could be done on an annual basis, through a council report, online and with tax bills. Another option might be to phone Calgary or Edmonton. They’ve both developed plans to reduce and report back on theirs.

  • Stephanie

    Certainly the gentrifying effects of development in the DTES will be mitigated by the presence of a significant quantity of non-market housing stock.

    But back to specifics: I think it’s kind of funny that we’re using the Burns Block as an example of something that supposedly isn’t gentrification, on account of the fact that the residents were thrown out with a half-hour’s notice due to what were, for the DTES, trivial bylaw infractions, the building was told at a tidy profit, it is being renovated, and the previous residents and members of their socioeconomic class will, of course, not be able to live in the renovated building.

    Or, in Mr. Geller’s words: “[t]he restoration and upgrading of deteriorated urban property by middle-class or affluent people, often resulting in displacement of lower-income people.” (I was on site when the tenants were evicted by the City, by the way.)

    I am not speaking to whether this kind of redevelopment is bad for the neighbourhood. What I am saying is that trying to pretend that gentrification is not gentrification because the word “gentrification” has a bad rap is, in fact, sophistry.

    More on ghettoization and whatnot later…

  • Gassy Jack’s Ghost

    $750 is in my price range, but I can’t imagine how intolerable life would become if I had to share 275 square feet with my 9 year old son on a daily basis! Our hockey bags would have to double as couches and beds. Every day would be lights out at the 9 o’clock gun. A playfight would destroy the place in under a minute. Entertaining guests and sleepovers would become problematic in more ways than one…

    Oh wait, I forgot, working/middle class life in urban Vancouver is now only for singles, DINKs and empty nesters. The urban design legacy of the post-Expo era is rapidly crescendoing into: working/middle class people with children need not apply.

    And no, Lewis, I don’t think it would work.

    33% social and 67% market just ingrains the gap between rich and poor, and institutionalizes the dearth of middle classes. All those tiny social housing units will house poor singles, and all those slightly larger high-end condos will house rich ones. There will be no buffer in between, no integration, no demographic mix. The key question that Andrew, the author of the “Empty Condo” report last year, framed as a result of his study was: what kind of city do want in the future?

    Well, to take another example: every year my son’s school in Mount Pleasant has been losing families to eastern neighbourhoods or other municipalities due to quickly escalating rents in the area. What was, only five years ago, a relatively affordable family neighbourhood has rapidly become out of reach. A two-bedroom rental in a low-end three-story walk-up is at least $1500 per month now. The area’s rapid densification and resulting smaller, more “affordable” units – most of the old houses around City Hall have been carved into 4 or 5 strata units and resold at $3-500,000 a pop – may be adding population density, but it isn’t adding a realistic and affordable alternative for working class, low income, or even middle class families.

    And neither are micro suites. They serve a niche, for sure, and I’m not at all against them in old SROs. But do they help create a diverse, liveable city with all strata of society? Hardly.

    The affordability crisis isn’t necessarily creating ghettoization, but without any attempt to create a middle-income balance in a 33/67 split, you would be creating the perfect scenario for a good, old-fashioned class war.

    Just ask Michael Geller’s old friend, Wendy Pederson at the CCAP. She’s already declared, “War on all the condo owners!”

  • GJG. You are right…we should not have large gaps between the very rich and the very poor, which is one reason why I opposed ‘core needy’ housing as part of the Bayshore development. However, I do think that small suites, and coops and new condominium units in the DTES will appeal to that ‘middle’ group.

    I just returned from the corner of Hastings and Main and I don’t think many developers will be targeting high income households in new buildings in the surrounding neighbourhood.

    Your post also raises an interesting issue…how to encourage the construction of more family housing…especially three bedroom rental and ownership units in neighbourhoods where we would like to increase the number of families. This is a subject worthy of a fuller discussion. I am preparing an article right now for another ‘publication’ exploring how we might encourage more such units. I will let you know when it’s finished. If any Fabula readers have suggestions, please let me know.

  • Higgins

    Lewis, Stephanie, GJG – good comments.
    Sure thing Michael. Everything you say; and pigs can fly…

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    We had examples some 15 or 20 years ago in South East False Creek of co-ops that remained family housing and at rates that did not reflect what was going on all around them. But I am out of my depth speaking to that.

    My sense, Ghost, is that if there were an “intensification” plan for the DTES that reserved actual square footage in the assisted/affordable/and market categories, that could work. However, it would be a first in North America as far as I know.

    That kind of approach, and something like co-op land title might get us family-oriented housing for $750 per month, which is a bachelor suite rent in Mount Pleasant.

    The DTES Monitoring Report was showing the numbers in the DTES to be the “inverse” of the city-wide population: 66-33% DTES; 33-66% city wide. The 66% would break down half market, half affordable (and we’d need some kind of “trick” to make that happen).

    Let’s wait to see what Stephanie has for us next.

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    Correction: family oriented co-ops in South False Creek.

  • Gassy Jack’s Ghost

    Well, I’m no design expert, but it seems people can live comfortably and economically without high-end toilets and faucets, granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, slate floors, steam baths, etc. Isn’t that where the prices/profit margins really start to get inflated? Parking stalls are another luxury that many could live without, and the Cambie corridor obviously provides an opportunity to tone things down on both these counts.

    Yes, Lewis, co-ops seem to me to also have been extremely successful in providing family housing in urban areas – 4 Corners in Gastown is another good example – but precious few have been built in the last two decades as you note. Row houses in England also provide plenty of affordable housing for families and still increase density in former single family dwelling areas around urban cores, though perhaps not within it.

    Perhaps the biggest change, however, needs to come from a clear political will: a willingness to address the question of “what kind of city do we want in the future,” rather than only, “how can we attract the highest level of investment?” or “how can we maximize density?”

    If we plan on densifying the Cambie corridor (and other areas) without also considering families or middle incomes, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. Without council following through with a clear direction for planning, developers are going to keep going for the high-end, singles-orientated buildings that appear to have altered the city demographics dramatically over the past two decades, and contributed greatly to the crisis in affordability.

    That’s my two bits.

  • Joe Just Joe

    How about a 3 story rowhouse with a locked off basement suite containing a 2bd unit, and the upper 2 floors containing 3bds. The upfront price of a 5bd unit might seem bad, but if you end up renting out the top unit it should become affordable for a lot of people, as you require the upper unit for yourself you then have the lower unit to rent out, for those that need the space you always have the option of using all the space. This is all possible on 16ft if the city allowed. There would only be space for a single car so there would need to be some flexibility from the city.

  • Otis Krayola

    Four Sisters.

    Four Corners was the ‘bank’.

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    Ghost, you don’t have to be a fancy designer… But if Joe gets his way, you just may just become a property owner with a deluxe rental suite as a “mortgage helper”.

    My urban design plan would be built of just such units, and the charrette process would interface with local banks and credit unions to ensure they would be ready to help that kind of a property qualify for a mortgage. My formula is “rent paid today + suite rental income = mortgage”. Furthermore, the lenders have to be savvy about the fact that rental incomes can have months when the property is vacant. The downpayment is a sticky-wicket. But, someone might pipe in on that.

    However, you’re making a lot of sense and Joe is picking up on it, as has Geller in the past, and even Brent Toderian. He has mentioned the Tax Increment Financing scheme they applied to East Calgary (I don’t have the neighborhood name quite right), and “raised his eyebrows” when we discussed the quirk in Vancouver history that the 16-foot unit—that Joe, Geller and myself are advocating—is ruled out in the Vancouver Charter (I haven’t seen the exact text).

    Add to that the fact that we are still planning one site at a time (i.e. without “urban” or “neighborhood scale” design tools) and we have lots of things to talk about. Including the dawning possibility that we are going to give away the Craddle of our City to tower developers. More on that later.

    So, Joe, the hang up with the 16-foot unit (let’s get technical: it’s a quarter-chain or 16.5-feet) is land title: making it “free-hold” in Canada-wide terms and “fee-simple” in local parlance. Can you imagine building co-ops 16.5-feet-wide one at a time? Or two to a 33-foot lot? Can we make a co-op out of a single 33-foot lot? Does a co-op need to occupy a contiguous piece of land, or could we “assemble” five or six 33-foot sites scattered in the same block or street in a single co-op title? Any real estate or legal eagles out there that can comment on this?

    Design wise, we can fit 8 800-foot units (or 16 400-foot singles) and 5 cars with room left over for both a rear yard and a roof deck in a 33×122-foot lot. And, we can add a floor to Joe’s scheme and make it 3.5 storeys high above street level, resulting in good human-scale and a very animated street space.

    The “animation” is a function of having suites with front doors on the street. You go from the sidewalk to your door, turn the key and you’re in. Your windows and your front doors are the “eyes on the street” that Jane Jacobs talked about, that all the planners rave about right up until the time the gotta do a neighbourhood plan, and then its back to towers and elevators and underground parking ramps and doors. Some “urban” design.

    Of course, both social housing and luxury town homes fit in this building type and they can form the centre of the neighbourhood as well as shape the periphery. Fronting an urban room, like Oppenheimer Park, they fit in with the historic stock (wood frame 3.5 storey houses) and they help define the park space with “continuous streetwall enclosure”. The units face two ways (dual aspect), so that when things get too loud on the street, you can live in the back rooms for a while. Access to daylight, cross ventilation and fresh air are all far superior to any condo you can point to. Did I mention delivering human-scale to the neighbourhood? And humans to the street?

    Joe’s locked off basement unit has a street-side patio in our version, and access to the rear garden. The upstairs unit gets the roof deck and the garage on the lane.

    That may not fly in the so-called DTES because in Chinatown and most of the other four neighbourhoods that comprise the DTES, the lots are 25 foot wide. However, we can do fee-simple at 25 feet, and slipping in an accessible unit in that footprint is made easier than at 16.5-feet where wheel chairs really don’t fit.

    The real story in our historic neighbourhoods is that most blocks were platted with a rear lane. That turns out to be a huge advantage, and not just because you may fit a lane-side house or two per block. The lanes provide access and that frees up the urban planners to create truly walkable neighbourhoods.

    The density, by the way, is the equivalent of what you get in a 20-storey condo tower. Simpson and I showed how you can achieve 65 units per acre (160 per hectare), and Ghost, that intensification along Vancouvers 10 north-south arterials alone would provide enough housing to double the existing population with city limits on lots now available for redevelopment.

    Since we are interested in driving home the point that Canadian Urbanism must be made up of several moving parts, all working together all at the same time, proposing an urban design plan for Vancouver’s five most venerable neighbourhoods should be part and parcel of proposing a transit implementation.

    The idea is that transit implementation might be paid for in part by the tax increment delivered by new construction (we have to be conservative in this calculation since in this urban footprint we will have just 33% of the units paying full municipal tax), Furthermore, we will rely on the presence of transit on Hastings Street to attract new people to invest in our 5 original neighbourhoods.

    A Hastings Streetcar running from Stanley Park to New Brighton Park behind the PNE is the transit I have in mind. You hop on this thing, say at Gore and Hastings, and 5 minutes later you can be on Hornby Street. There would be fibre optics in the ground stretching from Harbour Center all the way to Templeton Street. Any business locating in that corridor would have access to the under-water cable that connects Harbour Center to Seattle at the fastest possible data transfer rate. Very cool.

    But lets close on an economic stimulus note. The real difference between the 16.5-foot house rows that Joe is talking about, and the 15-storey towers coming to Chinatown, is that the house rows can be built by small construction firms and financed by local banks, while the towers require large developers and typically off-shore financing.

    Now, does this turn the tables on who’s micro & local, and who is macro and global?

  • Lewis N. Villegas


    “My urban design plan” is really “ours”. Along with a Toronto based urban designer and transportation engineer, we are proposing to present an intensification plan for the DTES at this year’s Canadian Institute of Planning conference in Montreal. It will be one of four “Canadian Quartiers” that we will use to show canadian-brand urbanism at its best.

  • Gassy Jack’s Ghost

    Lewis, this is certainly an exciting plan, and sounds a lot more like the city that I (and I suspect most Vancouverites, if they knew there was a viable alternative to towers towers towers) would like to see emerge over the next two decades.

    There are a couple door-on-the-street townhouses in Gastown along Alexander Street. One is an old ship’s chandlery converted, and on the next block east, across from Four Sisters (thanks Otis), Merrick designed one from the ground up. Both are higher end, but of course need not be. These don’t have basement suites or rear access, as they back onto the railyards and are at the water table, though. I doubt any of the units in either building are over 16 feet wide.

    As fond as I am of bashing Brent Toderian, I do recall him talking about “human scale” row houses as a good alternative sometime last year. But as you suggest, the talk is one thing, and the reality of the HAHR towers proposal is quite another, and it really baffles me how Toderian, Ray Louie, Jim Green and other influential people have arrived at the conclusion that towers are the magic pill to revitalizing the DTES neighbourhoods. It’s already a high-density area! Are they really that ignorant, or is there something else at play?

    As for transportation, well, I heard a story last week about the 12 kilometre Broadway skytrain costing 3 billion yet servicing so little, compared to many many many more kms of street cars winding through the downtown neighbourhoods and around False Creek and west to UBC, servicing a huge portion of the inner city and costing half as much to build. Again, if Vancouverites knew the alternatives, I’m sure we’d all delight at this prospect. Why our Premier insists on throwing money away on Skytrain is anyone’s guess, but at least our mayor appears to be on board with this.

    Is there any link to your plan or presentation, or will there be an opportunity to air it here in Vancouver sometime? I’ve read so many DTES reports that all recommend this kind of direction, but when it comes to the actual planning and by-law amendments, all we end up with is “more condos and towers.”

  • Stephanie

    Lewis, that sounds totally amazing. So, does your expertise about how to make urban spaces that work extend to issues like income mix? I’ve been doing some reading about it lately and I’m curious to hear what you have to say.

    I know there’s at least one scattered co-op in Vancouver, by the way – the East Vancouver Housing Co-op. They have a website, here:

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    Its good to hear back encouraging words. Proves that if you can get to just plain common sense folks not only get it, they will often add to it. And guess who has the best ideas about place? Yep. Them that live there everyday.

    No plans, links or websites yet. Next year CIP comes to Vancouver and I have already mentioned to my team that we should propose to do the DTES intensification plan all over again here in Vancouver. I also make a habit of showing the work from the national conference at the BC Land Summit, or provincial planning conference. Depending on interest, some sessions could be open to the public, I suppose.

    Ghost, there are a number of “row houses” built out of wood sprinkled through Vancouver. Two or three are in the footprint of the original Hastings Townsite, the blocks sourth of Powell on either side of Victoria. That place is a gem of a neighborhood, heavily impacted by the CPR in 1886, a decade or two after Hastings Townsite was up and running. Another one is on the east side of Clarke Street. If you come out of the back street of the Cedar Cottage (Schooner) Pub towards Clarke, its there in front of you across the street on the right. Still another one survives a block or so up from Clarke just south of First Avenue. And there are three or four, including a 1970’s job, in Strathcona near that little corner store, around Hawks (sorry I am not being too specific).

    However, the amazing thing is that at the time these were built they were very clearly worker’s housing, probably for singles, and … well, bit of a fire trap for being built of wood not brick (think the famous London Fire of 1666—our buildings are not too far from what was razed to the ground two centuries before, across the ocean).

    What Geller and the rest of us are advocating is building like this, but in brick, block, concrete, etc. And, having each 16.5 foot building stand alone, even if it is a part of a row, as a property that is not “strata title”. If Stephanie is right, and we can have “scattered co-ops”, then we may have a way to make it past the problem of the down payment, and we can have one tier of housing consisting of the “what I am paying in rent now+rental income” mortgages.

    On income mix, what we know is that it is possible to do. Furthermore, from Chicago, from San Francisco Bay Area (Suisun City), what we hear is that the goal is to mix income levels, even people on subsidy, in buildings that look exactly alike as top-end product. But keep Mayor Campbell’s quote in mind: it won’t work in tower condos.

    And if we can achieve equivalent densities and compatible character with house rows at 3.5 storeys above the street (with a high water table, maybe 3.5 is all we get in some areas), then are condos really desirable for families? And, flexible enough for cora-area neighborhoods? Never mind historic preservation.

    However, to have income mix there has to be income. And the missing pillar in the DTES all along has been the ability to attract jobs. Without that it is hard to do recovery successfully, and let’s face it, its hard to do neighborhood successfully as well.

    The small-scale of the house row should translate into small scale construction firms bidding and getting the work (large developers can still participate). And my gut feeling is that many small firms will be able to tap into the neighborhoods labour force in a way that the big firms cannot.

    As for transportation, take your son on the False Creek tram, Ghost, for what has been described to me already as a Rolls Royce ride (i think its free). Then, buy a couple of rolls in the Granville Ilsand market, some sliced ham and a drink, and create a lunch for yourselves as if you were in Venice (certainly the pidgeons are pretty much the same), then head back on the tram.

    That’s the promise of our future transportation.

    Surface rail costs some 7x less than skytrain, solves crime problems along its path (rather than generate them), it takes car trips off the road, and reduces the amount of R.O.W. (right-of-way) available for traffic. Thus, a Hastings Streetcar could be used to redesign Hastings so that we could cross on foot without having to walk to the corner, or taking our life in our hands each time we try it.

    It is the stimulus component of surface LRT, or the “bang for the neighborhood” aspect that we have not really studied in Canada, and that my group will be digging into by studying Toronto Streetcar neighborhoods. All our gut instincts are that if you can match a streetcar line with a walkable neighborhood design, that’s dynamite.

    In the historic areas of Vancouver, every block was designed to be walkable. That’s why it is so important to understand where the “Craddle of our City” lies (i.e. in areas platted before the CPR), and to intensify in a manner that is both compatible and magnifies or augments what is already there in these places, rather than heading in the other direction.

    The Director of Planning, at the end of the day, is but one person in a very hot seat. The best we can do is show that there is positive, very positive in this blog string, support and ideas for going forward.

    Now, the towers being approved really suggest that we may be too late. Maybe the deal has been cooked already.

    My group was not going to present the DTES intensification plan until next year. We’ve moved it up based on my concern that the wedge-shaped tower at Woodwards really does symbolize the “thin end of the wedge”.

    That would be a shame, because in terms of “good” urbanism, the five neighborhoods that comprise the DTES hold lessons unlike any I’ve seen any other place in Canada west of Winnipeg’s superb Market Square warehouse or Exchange District. You would have to go to Tornoto’s Cabbage Town to find an equal; to Montreal’s 19th century neighborhoods that are still intact; and in a structural kind of way, right back to the Quebec Citadel. Those original places in our city really are that good.

    We could relearn here, in the cradle of our city, how to build place and make community in a way that has not been seen in Canada for a long, long time.

  • Gassy Jack’s Ghost

    Hi Lewis, thanks again for your insights. I went searching for a link last night and one took me back to the Form Shift discussion on the Bulablog last May, which turned into a thread discussing this row house idea in quite a bit of detail (worth looking at, Stephanie, if you’re interested in this). That’s where Toderian made the comment about “ground-oriented, human scaled, “gentle density”” being a preferred method of densifying. (And yet, at that same time the HAHR open houses were going on!) Again, I wonder why, when he clearly knows better, is he still pushing for these awful towers in the HA?

    Also, he and others like you and Geller acknowledged the stumbling block in the Charter to developing row houses. So, almost a year later, has there been any movement on this? Has Toderian or anyone at the City tried to amend the restriction? Are they pushing forward with HAHR and Cambie corridor planning without addressing what everyone acknowledges is a key problem for good urban planning in the future? (I’m going to post these two issues in the Chinatown thread too).

  • Joe Just Joe

    I should clarify my position a little. I’m definately in support of the style row houses I described, but I’m not anti high-rises or mid-rises either. I beleive there needs to be an ever adjusting balance between many different styles. Personally I’d love to see row houses down what are currently residential arterials like 41st, oak, cambie, 1st ave etc.
    My understanding is Art Cowie had managed to get a non-strata rowhouses project thru the system but I never heard details, can anyone on here confrim or deny?

  • JJJ, the issue preventing the development of Fee Simple Street oriented row housing relates to the legal status of the party wall, and ensuring it remains as long as necessary to support the units. There is a fuller explanation on my blog dated November 28, 2009.

    Art Cowie got around this by building two separate walls. However, Parklane Homes has built a fee simple row house project in Langley with a different approach to the legal agreements. This is described further on my blog.

    I agree this could be an excellent solution for many arterials, although the overall density, while higher than single family housing, tends to remain relatively low. Therefore, stacked townhouses, 4 storey apartments and other mid-rise forms may be more appropriate.

  • Andrea C.

    As usual, the calibre of discussion from all sides is terrific. I haven’t felt this intimidated since I was in BC Youth Parliament long ago (I know, what a nerd).
    I both love and hate these microcondos.
    Love: It’s about time high-quality, efficient and self-contained “micro” dwellings were offered as a rental option in this city. People who make snarky comments on the Vancouver Sun site such as “this isn’t China” need to give it a rest. There are hundreds of people living in much smaller units in the DTES, and that doesn’t seem to bother these glib commentators a bit. On the other hand, there are thousands of others renting shoddy, substandard and outdated accomodations in this town at inflated prices because anything better is simply out of reach.
    That would be the working poor, condemned to making the lowest wages in the entire country, while paying a punitive amount to the taxman. The middle class ain’t got troubles like these, so I’ll cry for them another day.
    Which brings me to hate: this project is ethically cursed, as it replaces badly needed seniors housing in the area. The owner who let the building slide into an unliveable condition should be held accountable by the city (I know, dream on). Why, then, this building for microcondos? Refurbishing the seniors housing should have been priority number one.
    More hate: the developers are clearly not interested in setting a positive precedent, nor are they taking local residents into account. Technically, I could afford the $750/month rent they’re fishing for, but when I hear the developer enthusing about what a great housing opportunity this would be for college co-eds and business people living out of a suitcase on a expense account , I can think of only one response: “Oh, scr*w you”.

  • jon

    Andrea C you have it wrong. We never referenced either college co-eds or business people living out of a suitcase in anything we said. We rent to many local residents in our other properties. We just have not been able to meet the demands of the ones who want to pay $700 – $800.

  • Andrea C.

    Since it will only take a second to respond to the above post….

    Vancouver Sun 25 January 2010
    Darah Hansen

    “First Look Inside Vancouver ‘micro-lofts'”

    VANCOUVER — The city’s smallest rental suites were unveiled Monday at a media event held in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

    Located in the century-old Burns Block building at 18 West Hastings St., the 270-square-foot so-called “micro-lofts” are expected to fetch an average of $750 a month, and, according to a company press release, attract “students, people in transition and those looking to work and live in the heart of the downtown area.”

    Here’s the source:

    The second paragraph quotes “a company press release”. Whose company could that be?
    All I did was put a little honest thought into what that “students and transients” thing could mean, especially since they were the first and second items on the wish-list for prospective renters.

    And Mr. Developer told me I got it all wrong 🙁

    Oh, well, back to my Japanese historical soaps – they’re gonna raid another castle soon..

  • Bill Lee

    And how many 15 jo rooms to you see in the J-soaps?

  • Stephanie

    Andrea, well done. Anyone commenting here should know well enough that disagreeing will work out fine, but insulting everyone’s intelligence will get you slapped well and truly down. Not an auspicious debut, Mr. Stovell.

  • Jon

    Andrea C.

    I though you were aspiring to the high caliber of discussion that proceeded you on this blog. Then you went on to cast all your negative comments in terms of hate and then more hate. Easy words to use, but hard to justify.


    “students” not equal to “college co-eds”
    “people in transition” not equal to “business people living out of a suitcase”

  • Andrea C.


    Hah – good one! Only the grand poobahs of Japan (past and present) rate a whole 15 jo room. Now, a 15 jo won ru-mu… there are literally a million of those.
    Japanese proverb: ” Why have a 1000 tatami house when all you need to sleep is one tatami?” (or something along that line).

  • Andrea C.

    Thanks, Stephanie. Your posts higher up gave me the inspiration to add my opinion, and I’m glad I did.