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Laneway housing of a different kind to come to Vancouver’s West End?

November 22nd, 2013 · 40 Comments

Council approved the West End overall plan Wednesday. There was lots of interesting information to mine in that report — the plan for where new towers will go (on the fringes, away from the interior where residents have objected strongly to any new development), the spending plan for new or refurbished community facilities, the little fact that parking has been put back on the main West End streets during rush hours because the space isn’t needed any more for commuters.

But I was intrigued most by the plan to try to add some density in the interior of the neighbourhood by allowing laneway housing — this time, mini-apartment buildings or stacked townhouses — in behind existing towers or low-rise buildings. Can hardly wait to see the first one of those. I wrote my story focusing on that aspect.


Laneway housing has proven to be hugely popular in Vancouver’s single-family neighbourhoods in the past few years.

Now the city wants to try the same idea in its oldest downtown neighbourhood, the already dense West End – but with a twist.

Instead of individual residences, the West End would get mini-apartment buildings and stacked townhouses ranging from 3 1/2 to six storeys facing the lanes on available space at the back of existing lots.

That’s one of the more striking ideas in a massive city report going to council on Wednesday that outlines a plan for adding new residents, business space and community services to the area, which became Vancouver’s first dense downtown community in the 1960s and 1970s.

“The lanes in this area are the widest in the city. It was really apparent we can make them greener and there is an opportunity for infill,” said Vancouver’s general manager of planning, Brian Jackson.

Those laneway buildings could accommodate up to 2,000 of the 10,000 new people anticipated in the next 30 years. The city will require that 50 per cent of the new units be geared to families, with two or more bedrooms.

Like almost every new building proposal or plan for density that has come to the city in the past five years of Vision Vancouver rule on council, the idea has fierce opponents and quiet supporters.

It was in the West End that the first anti-development activist group sprang up four years ago, followed by many others in neighbourhoods around the city. Back then, the issue was two controversial towers proposed under the Vision council’s ambitious policy to give developers incentives to build rental apartments instead of condos.

The opposition forced council to slow down and put a planning process in motion.

That group, West End Neighbours, is encouraging its supporters to oppose the plan that includes the laneway proposal, the result of three years of work, and ask for more time before it is approved.

But relatively few people from that neighbourhood have participated in recent general protests or delegations to council meetings organized by other groups objecting to plans and development proposals in their own neighbourhoods.

Filmmaker Aerlyn Weissman, who has gone to some of the city’s information meetings, said she is dubious about the whole plan, including the laneway housing.

“The alleys are already pretty intensely used – emergency vehicles, parking, garbage trucks. How are we going to infill the alleys and have access to all of the services?” Ms. Weissman said. She also said the idea was sprung on people only in the last few months of consultations, which she said has been a bad pattern for city planners in recent years.

But Christine Ackermann, president of the West End Residents Assocation, said residents and the city have been discussing infill laneway housing for years.

She said the new housing would be a valuable addition, especially because it would have room for families.

In addition to the laneway housing, the West End plan proposes limiting new towers mainly to the Burrard and Georgia corridors marking the border between the West End and the rest of downtown.

It also spells out heights and densities that would be allowed in various zones, how much money would be spent for a new library, pool, community centre and parks, and where new housing would not be allowed.

Unlike the rest of Vancouver, the area would not be permitted under the plan to have condos above businesses in the busy commercial strips. It would largely prohibit new development, except for the infill, from the interior of the neighbourhood.

Mr. Jackson said it was important not to allow a lot of development in the interior because it would endanger the huge amount of low-cost rental if property owners ripped down older buildings to put up taller ones.

Ms. Ackermann said she believes many people support the plan because the city has “made the right choice” by limiting development in the core.

Whether those people will come out on Wednesday in support, she is not sure.


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