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Vancouver’s downtown townhouses: Neighbourly or not?

September 2nd, 2009 · 16 Comments

Like many a Vancouver wanderer, I’ve always admired the house styles of other cities, particularly the brownstones in New York or the Plateau houses in Montreal, which create house fronts and steps right on the street.

Vancouver’s townhouses are an effort to replicate the idea behind those styles. Recently, I came across an interesting piece of research about whether they actually do promote the kind of street chumminess that they promise so visually. I wrote about it here in Vancouver magazine, but would be curious to know what all of you, my knowledgeable and opinionated crowd, think of them.

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  • Joe Just Joe

    The theory is that people that buy townhouses tend to be the type that want to know their neighbours, while those that don’t want to know their neighbours tend to favour apartments. This is obviously a generalization but there is truth in it.
    There are obviously enough people that fit into each category, I for one welcome that there are choices. I know I’d make someone a lousy neighbour as after a long day at work the last thing I want to do is talk about how someone elses kids are doing in school and getting talked into buying tickets for their school play. So I live holed up in my condo where I don’t upset anyone. Don’t worry I’m not as miserable as I sound.

  • Stacy

    I can’t speak to the townhouses downtown but we have lived in a Kitsilano rowhouse style co-op for the past seven years and even if you take out the co-op aspect the style of our home has definitely encouraged us to be more neighborly.

    In the summer almost everyone is out front in the evenings sitting on their front steps or watering the gardens as we keep a eye on the kids playing on the sidewalk.

    We’ve had building renos this summer and since our front areas weren’t as accessible I really noticed how we saw our neighbors a lot less and how I missed those leisurely evenings shooting the breeze with them.

  • Bill Lee

    Do the townhouse people ever open their curtains? Do they look at the street or just the TV.

    Much social contact is done through the common bond of the street children, at local schools, the malt shop, playing in the street. But the downtown condos are somewhat childless, (yes we know Elsie Roy is bursting, but no one mentioned that like King George High 80 percent don’t finish the year at that school, having moved on), so there is less contact with neighbours.

    I’m finding that neighbours do notice others, with lots of gossip details about what is in their garbage, when they come home, go out, etc. but don’t share it in the neighbourhood or the street.
    Kids no longer play as much in the street, are encouraged to stay in and now have addictive video games and videos in the house, and don’t want to come out to play stickball in the lane or out front.

    Some of the distance would be from the ethnic (race, language) differences and others from age and class.

    And a former closeness might be a myth, or a temporary product of a baby boom.

    The worst of these fake front Georgians (VI?) is that off Burrard and First by Seaforth Park with the ups and downs trying to imitate Eastern Canada street styles.

    A rose might look nice, but some have no scent.

  • Speaking as one of the ‘opinionated crowd’ I don’t think the design has much to do with neighbourliness or lack thereof. Over 30 years I lived in two different apartment buildings (West-End and False Creek) and they both had, what I regarded as, a very strong sense of community with a great deal of genuine neighbourliness.

    I like the overall look the townhouses give to many of the streets where they are located. But I usually don’t like the ‘knock-off’ designs. And I can’t imagine myself being able to relax on a tiny balcony just a sidewalk width from the likes of Homer, or Richards St,

    I’ve never had an up close look but I get a very good impression from what I’ve seen of Arbutus Walk, which of course, is not downtown.

  • I am a fan of the townhouse form. It offers another housing choice and adds to the visual interest along the street. But the problem, as I see it, is that the outdoor space attached to most of these units is far too small to be of any real value as anything other than a ‘separation space’.

    This would be fine if the units had another outdoor space in the rear, but they generally do not. Instead, they connect to an interior corridor which is the primary means of entry and exit for the unit. (That’s how you get to the parking.)

    Can building design affect neighbourliness? Yes to a certain degree. But often, dogs, children and homeowner associations are a better catalyst.

    I like to tell the story of my friend, a prominent real estate lawyer, who decided one day to trim the hedge separating his single family home from the one next door. As he was about to move onto his neighbour’s property, his wife suggested that he might want to speak to the neighbour to make sure it was alright. So he telephoned him.

    “You can do whatever you want” said the neighbour. I moved out 14 months ago.”

  • gmgw

    I walk by the townhouses on Homer, Richards, and Seymour almost every working day (the streets vary, obviously), and less frequently by those on Hornby and other downtown streets. I find myself wondering, more often than not, who would want to live in them. Why would anyone in their right mind choose to live at the noisy and fume-choked street level with so little that’s culturally stimulating in the immediate area? I’m sorry, but Homer Street is not the East Village, and a bodega would of more interest and use to me than is Chintz & Co.. Were I forced to live in the Yaletown area, I would want to be as high up in one of the towers as I needed to be, if only to gain a soul-stirring view that would make me forget the bland and boring streetscape(s) below. I place a very high value on views and always have. Obviously not everyone feels the same way.

    The pedestal-and-tower look, another gift to his adopted city from that Grand Vizier of mediocrity, Mr. Larry “How Can We Miss You When You Won’t Go Away” Beasley, has become yet another entry in the long list of Vancouver architectural clichés. Vancouver architecture has long since become imitative rather than innovative. In my naiveté, I once blamed local architects for their copycat tendencies. Eventually I learned it was Planning who not only encouraged but directed those architects to adhere to a commonality of design. Planning’s approach seems to be: 1) Every ten years or so, come up with a new urban design concept, then spend the next decade or so endlessly replicating it. Hence the townhouses.

    It is risible in the extreme to compare the Yaletown townhouses with their forebears in other, far greater cities: Montreal, New York, London, et. al. The stoop and front steps of the average New York brownstone are much larger and, as such, of more practical use. The history of usage is instructive. As the wealthy families moved out of brownstones to newer, more upscale neighbourhoods, less affluent, immigrant families moved in. This in turn gave rise in an almost organic fashion to the use of those stoops as neighbourhood gathering places and, if you will, observation posts, where in warm weather the building’s residents could sit and watch the goings-on on their block, helping to create a sense of community. Ironically, of course, the reverse is now taking place in New York, and block after block of run-down, once-elegant brownstones are being restored for their new owners, once more from the affluent classes.

    Vancouver’s pathetic imitations have no such history, of course. Those in Yaletown, it appears, were never designed to encourage their residents to bond with anything but their multimedia systems. Despite their close physical proximity to the sidewalk, the Yaletown townhouses give nothing back to the streets on which they perch. Can you imagine the residents of Homer or Richards ever organizing a block party? The Yaletown townhouses epitomize 21st century inner-city culture– insular, isolated structures that completely fail to deliver on their weak promise of creating a more human-scaled community than do the towers looming above. You’ll find a stronger sense of collective identity, commonality, and community in the average trailer park.

  • flowmass

    I don’t think you can design ‘ neighborliness’ – whatever that is. Remember the old saying: “Strong fences make good neighbors.” It’s hype promoted by the marketing departments of the real estate developers. Nothing wrong with that. Market or be marketed, I say.
    Of course some of the architecture here is a joke, but that’s how we’ve evolved.
    Now, can someone tell me where and when the first Vancouver Special was constructed? There should be plaque on it and it should receive heritage designation.

  • the issue here is lifestyle and it does not matter whether you live in a house or an apartment or a townhouse.
    The era of great neighbour socialization is dead.
    And that is a sociological phenomenon not a housing one.

  • gmgw

    It was Robert Frost who cited the phrase: “*Good* fences make good neighbours” in his poem “Mending Wall” The phrase is often mistakenly cited as an aphorism that was coined by Frost and one that reflected his own beliefs, but in fact Frost was quoting a phrase uttered by his (evidently) somewhat disagreeable neighbour, who was justifying the erection of a fence between their properties, a fence Frost saw no particular need for. Frost, in fact, gently mocks his neighbour’s territoriality.

    Not to be picky about your misquote of the phrase, but there is a difference. “Strong” fences has militaristic overtones that even Frost’s neighbour would, I think, have found distasteful. As Frost himself muses: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…”

    The full text of Frost’s poem and discussions of it can be found on numerous websites. Here’s one:

  • SV

    George-possibly, but there are exceptions. My neighbourhood, Strathcona,is full of “neighbour socialization”.

  • Bill Lee said…”Kids no longer play as much in the street, are encouraged to stay in and now have addictive video games and videos in the house, and don’t want to come out to play stickball in the lane or out front”..

    yeah that,but if they did play out on the streets it wouldn’t be long before some complained about the noise 😉

  • flowmass


    Thanks, I didn’t know it was Robert Frost. I guess I need more culture. Last Christmas my girlfriend took me to see Hamlet’s Messiah. I really enjoyed it.
    Seriously, gmgw makes a good point about the average trailer park having more sense of community than the Yaletown town homes. Most of the ‘communities’ where I have seen and felt a sense of community was where average working families lived. Expecting IT millionaires, speculators and fast buck artists to develop a sense of community is a bit of stretch.

  • G. deAuxerre

    The deductive processes that some of the posters here go through is deeply flawed, and one smells much post-modern finger-pointing. Bitchin’ about feet of clay is a dead give-away for envy in this City.

    Rather than pick a party to blame, and end your logic there, just ask yourself, what would be the alternative in that space? SFDs? Next to a 30-storey tower? No. Strip park? Dysfunctional. Retail at grade? Market demands only so much of that and many knee-jerk requirements for mixed-use because mixed just sounds better than single use, results in costly, unused or underutilized commercial space.

    The space we’re talking about is the first few floors of a high rise – not the first couple of a 4-storey bldg in an older city. The space is a few feet away from a busy streetscape with many strangers passing by, on foot, on motorbike and car and truck. Observe the porches of SFDs on arterials with similar traffic counts; people are inside – the sounds, smells and air quality is better.

    The benefit to the townhouse form is almost exclusively for the eyes of the pedestrian. For flâneurs.

    Don’t lose sight of the big picture; footprint. There are 250 households living in that highrise, on a piece of land that could host maybe a dozen SFDs or a couple dozen townhouses.

    And housing form – or location – does not dictate decent personal character; for every townhomer who has friends and family not living nearby and who happily socializes with them in and out – in lieu of a block party – there’s a miserable sob on a quiet, leafy street east of main, huddled by his picture window, bitchin’ about everything that happens on the block. Yes, you know that guy. Odds are that one or two of the posters here will become him.

    I’ve lived in many forms of housing, and the quality of the relationship of someone in close proximity can change the moment someone moves out and in. By far, its almost entirely a result of personality, lifestyle and behaviour rather than built form.

  • No, the Vancouver town house version doesn’t really cut it, does it?

    The neighbourly stoop has been effectively subsumed by the pro-forma.

    Yaletown is a horror story, unless you are in the clouds.

    But so is FCN and I fear NEFC is about to go the same bland way: the “High Level Review” is not promising.

    There are alternatives . . . but of course change is perceived as threatening.

    Liveable downtown town houses are possible. Montreal has them. I am more familiar with those in Paddington, however. The secret of their neighbourliness appears to be the elevated stoop: i.e. a habitable half basement that elevates the stoop and the living room windows stepped back from the street. A lower level area way for basement ventilation.

    Yaletown/ street dwellings suffer from the overwhelming presence of traffic bedlam and looming towers and brutalising sense of neigbourly human scale.

    FCN is a little different but equally unliveable for a sentient human being, overcome by the threatening Brobdingnagian scale.

    Supposedly, podium towers, in FCN, are the preferred typology: that is row houses appended to a tower, with of course the lack of privacy at ground zero.

    Towers with views seem to be the marketing strategy even though at build-out few views survive. Still in a variegated building typology there is a place for the tower.

    However the tower is best conceived as a composite with live/work, and stoops over basement suites at ground zero that are, of necessity, oriented introspectively around an enclosed courtyard atrium, for privacy.

    Vancouver’s design/planning/development fraternity must undergo epiphany, though, before Vancouver can live up to the myth.

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    I will be presenting Place Roy in Montreal as one of five venerable Canadian neighborhoods or “quartiers” at this year’s Canadian Institute of Planner’s conference. Added to the five I presented last year, I can say that the resulting neighborhood quality you get from building “real” house rows has very little in common with what results from the “fake” houses at the base of the podium-and-tower condos.
    Architecture is not the only contributing factor. Streets with high traffic volume are known to be problematic. The relentless grid of our orthogonal town plans, even when truncated by the irregular geographical footprint of the downtown peninsula, seems to be a barrier to walking. Just too boring to go out and walk without a target on the near horizon. Near Place Roy there is a street just 600-feet long, and Place Roy itself (a square) helps to “interrupt” the linearity of the 8 streets that it touches.
    The design of the fronting street is also a contributing factor. We seem to design streets for vehicular carrying capacity, ignoring that they must also serve pedestrians and fronting uses. When those uses become high-denstiy residential by decree, you’d think there would be a 180-degree turn in design philosophy. But I don’t see any evidence of that yet.
    The architecture does matter. Not only are Michael Geller’s points on cue: real town houses have rear sides, no internal corridors, and no underground parking. For the non-architecturally trained, this means that the sun can shine in the parlour in the morning, and in the kitchen in the afternoon. Units on corridors are single orientation, and without the possibility of thru-ventilation even airing the house out is problematic.
    Some houses at Place Roy have a detached garage on the other side of a rear courtyard, and a rear lane. I found lane houses on the rear lane, as well as one artisanal shop, but these things are the exceptions not the rule.
    The ratio of the height of the streetwall to the width of the street does not exceed human-scale proportions. And, there most surely are not towers blocking the sky, or casting long, dark shadows about.
    However, what looms as a significant difference is the land title. Place Roy houses are fee-simple, not strata. When you buy the house, you can use it all or rent one or two levels as a mortgage helper. The neighbors can do what they please with their houses, rooftops, front doors, siding, and landscape treatments.
    Interspaced among the rows, one can also find three story apartments and new houses. The livability on the apartment buildings, front and rear, the photography will show is far inferior from the traditional neighbors. The new houses look like they are at the top of the market, showing all the traditional features, but crisp and modern.
    Among the less luxurious units, one of my favorites is “house bleu”, a four-plex fronting the square with four front doors painted a gaudy shade of light blue. The gambit I will present is whether one would rather inhabit a 700-square-foot unit in “house bleu”, fronting the square, or a same-size unit in a condo?
    I think different people will answer differently. However, the feeling of the square in front is made much more friendly for “house bleu” being there, instead of a podium-and-tower.

  • In Gastown, there has been a bit of a variation on the townhouse theme emerging over the past few years. Some new condos have ground level loft apartments with high ceilings and front windows. The front doors open right onto the sidewalk with no stoop (ie. the Koret building, although most of these are used commercially, and a couple of more traditional townhouse buildings on Alexander). Either that, or they open into a gated-off courtyard, with ubiquitous cobbles and perennial planters and lots of empty, unused space.

    These exclusive courtyards are distinctly Beasleyesque in design, and their staid lack of homeliness or esthetic appeal is matched by their lack of utility. I see corn, tomatoes, herbs and flowers, maybe a basketball hoop, a communal barbeque – neighbours with a reason to get their hands dirty and chat about something other than their poodles’ last turd. But the stratas probably have strict rules against any exterior changes.

    Most of these concrete “gardens” are located along the wide BC Electric line that cuts diagonally across the grid. Before the Van Horne was built, you could walk this line from the Alexander Café (now a pumping station) to the Duck Ponds (International Village/Tinseltown) uninterrupted. I used to think these expansive unused spaces would be a perfect place for Vancouver to have farmer’s markets, festivals, etc. with shops and stoops and cafes opening along the angular sides of the old buildings. No cars, but maybe a street tram running through…

    Now virtually every block and alley is gated off. The iron bars stretch across the expansive right-of-way between buildings, with combo locks and intercoms on every gate. There is rarely anyone sitting in these open spaces enjoying the sun, let alone barbequing, or chatting with their neighbours over a gin and tonic while the kids play stickball (kids? stickball? in Vancouver?).

    These courtyards are designed to keep people out, not bring them together. On one side, they say “Keep Out!” to the addicts in the always-busy alley. On the other side they say, “I’m exclusive!” in the always-empty courtyard. Segregation is alive and well and living in Gastown’s gated communities.