Now, a draft version of a Vancouver-wide plan, released Tuesday, contemplates allowing three-storey townhouses and “multiplexes” throughout these neighbourhoods.
This direction doesn’t come out of the blue, but follows on years of signals from city hall. And even if council approves this “broad-strokes” plan this year, decisions about actual zoning changes could be years away. Vancouver won’t become Manhattan overnight.
But the new plan’s “multiplex areas” mark Vancouver’s latest step toward a move that has become a rallying cry for some urban planners: the abolition of so-called “single-family zoning.”
There is a great deal to digest in the 150-page draft citywide plan, which considers Vancouver’s next 30 years of transportation, economy, ecology, child care, culture, watersheds, food systems and more. But housing will inevitably garner a lot of public attention, especially the moves contemplated for neighbourhoods that have seen comparatively little physical change in most of the century since the last time Vancouver completed and implemented a citywide plan in the 1920s. (Vancouver’s older pre-1920s residential neighbourhoods, like Strathcona and Mount Pleasant, contain a wider diversity of housing types sharing the same city blocks.)
Notably, the zoning map in this week’s draft plan leaves no area of Vancouver reserved for only detached houses and duplexes; neighbourhoods currently dominated by sprawling, multimillion-dollar houses with big front yards are designated as “multiplex areas.” The plan contemplates up to three-storey townhouse developments on side streets in these neighbourhoods, or up to six storeys for rental or social housing in certain areas along arterial streets. (Denser development is anticipated in other areas).
North American urban planners and academics often discuss “single-family zoning,” but that is something of a misnomer in Vancouver. Basement suites were legalized across Vancouver in 2004, city hall allowed laneway homes in 2009 and, in 2018, Vancouver’s previous Vision-majority council changed zoning to allow duplexes in almost all of these areas.
Most of these Vancouver neighbourhoods can have three or four homes on a single lot now, but they’re still the city’s least dense residential areas, and some have recorded population decreases over recent years as housing costs soared.
Each of those changes over the last two decades — legalizing basement suites, laneway homes and duplexes — was fiercely fought by some members of the public. It seems likely the city’s new vision for “multiplex areas” could face similar opposition.
In a call with reporters Tuesday, Vancouver’s director of planning Theresa O’Donnell said: “This plan certainly signals that change is possible everywhere.
“The concept that all of those neighbourhoods would be available to add density is a message that we want to send, and it’s not unlike the ones that we’re seeing across the United States where house prices are also skyrocketing and getting out of reach for most young families,” said O’Donnell, who worked for the City of Dallas before coming to Vancouver in 2019.
There is a lively debate in urban planning circlers about what to do with the low-density residential neighbourhoods that take up a lot of urban land in many North American cities.
The headline of a 2019 article in the Journal of the American Planning Association states plainly: “It’s time to end single-family zoning.” In the article, three UCLA urban planning professors argue this kind of zoning is “inequitable, inefficient and environmentally unsustainable,” and “lets a small number of people amass disproportionate property wealth” while forcing
“others to pay more for housing than they should.”
Many factors contribute to housing unaffordability in North American cities, the authors write, and ending low-density zoning will not, on its own, solve “every urban problem.”
But, they write: “The fact that cities can erect other barriers to housing is no excuse for leaving the biggest barrier intact. People sometimes commit violence with knives, but that is not an argument against gun control.”
Vancouver’s low-density neighbourhoods were not always bastions of exclusivity and privilege. Until relatively recently, renting or even owning homes in Vancouver’s residential neighbourhoods was attainable for working class families, many of whom still live there today. But the market has changed so dramatically in the last generation or so that very few of those who didn’t already have a foot in the door of the property market can hope to own or, increasingly, rent a house. That’s one reason the city wants to enable more affordable — if not necessarily cheap — “missing middle” options like townhouses.
The city is seeking public feedback on all aspects of the plan at vancouverplan.com/getinvolved, and a final version is expected to go to council for a decision in June.
This citywide planning effort was initiated in November 2018 by the very first motion approved by Vancouver’s current council, shortly after their inauguration. Council’s decision on the plan in June will likely be one of the final decisions of their four-year term.
If council approves the plan, it will likely fall to the next council to make decisions about implementation and bringing the plan into effect.
Those who want to serve on council next term — both incumbents and new candidates — should have plenty to say about this plan between now and the October election.
The City's Zoning and Development Bylaw - along with the Land Use and Development Policies and Guidelines - help shape Vancouver, and make our communities more liveable.
Building permits and regulations are enforced by the City of Vancouver to ensure safety and livability for you, your neighbours, and future property owners and residents.
To keep Vancouver safe and liveable, the City:
In Vancouver, urban planning focuses on liveability.
That means creating a city of neighbourhoods where people can work, play, and shop.
It also means creating urban environments where residents feel supported and engaged, and can enjoy a vibrant street life and their fellow residents.
In building our liveable, sustainable city, the City:
One Familly Dwelling District:
The intent is to maintain the single-family residential character of the RS-1 District, but also to permit conditionally one-family dwellings with secondary suites. Emphasis is placed on encouraging neighbourly development by preserving outdoor space and views. Neighbourhood amenity is enhanced through the maintenance of healthy trees and planting which reflects the established streetscape.
The intent is to preserve and maintain the single-family residential character of the RS-3 and RS-3A Districts in a manner compatible with the existing amenity and design of development, and to encourage new development that is similar in character to existing development in this District. Emphasis is placed on encouraging neighbourly development by preserving outdoor space and views and by ensuring that the bulk and size of new development is similar to existing development. Neighbourhood amenity is enhanced through the maintenance of healthy trees and planting which reflects the established streetscape. The RS-3 District permits a higher non-discretionary density than the RS-3A District.
The intent is primarily to maintain the single-family residential character of the District, to conditionally permit, in some instances, the conversion of large homes to contain additional accommodation, and some two-family dwellings and to accommodate retention of an existing residential building where creation of a new lot is otherwise approvable.
The intent is to maintain the existing single-family residential character of the RS-5 District by encouraging new development that is compatible with the form and design of existing development, and by encouraging the retention and renovation of existing development but also to permit conditionally one-family dwellings with secondary suites. Emphasis is placed on design compatibility with the established streetscape. Neighbourhood amenity is intended to be enhanced through the maintenance and addition of healthy trees and plants.
The intent is to maintain the single-family residential character of the District, to encourage a good standard of building design, materials, and landscape development while allowing design diversity in new development and to encourage retention of existing housing stock. Neighbourhood amenity is enhanced through the maintenance of healthy trees and planting which reflects the established landscape.
The intent is to maintain the single-family residential character of the RS-7 District and, on typical smaller lots, to conditionally permit two-family dwellings and multiple conversion dwellings and, on larger lots, to conditionally permit multiple-family dwellings and infill. Neighbourhood amenity is enhanced through external design regulations.
Two Familly Dwelling District:
The intent is primarily to permit side-by-side two-family dwellings.
The intent is to permit two-family dwellings and to conditionally permit, in some instances, low density multiple-family housing.
The intent is to encourage the retention of neighbourhood and streetscape character, particularly through the retention, renovation and restoration of existing character buildings. Redevelopment is encouraged on sites with existing buildings of style and form which are inconsistent with the area’s pre-1920 architecture. Emphasis is placed on the external design of additions to existing buildings and new buildings to encourage the preservation of the historic architectural character of the area. Floor area incentives are included to achieve the creation of affordable housing and the rehabilitation of original buildings which are important to the neighbourhood’s character.
RT-4, RT-4A, RT-4N, RT-4AN, RT-5, RT-5A, RT-5N, RT-5AN
The intent is to encourage the retention of existing residential structures and to encourage and maintain a family emphasis. The RT-4, RT4N, RT-5 and RT-5N Districts emphasis is placed on the external design of all new buildings and additions being compatible with the historical character of the area, and on being neighbourly in scale and placement. In the RT-4A, RT-4AN, RT-5A and RT-5AN Districts this emphasis is limited to certain uses or, in RT-5A and RT-5AN Districts, to development seeking density relaxations.
RT-6 (Mount Pleasant)
The intent is to encourage the retention, renovation and restoration of existing residential buildings which maintain an architectural style and building form consistent with the area. Redevelopment is encouraged on sites with smaller buildings or buildings of architectural style and form which are inconsistent with the area. Emphasis is placed on requiring the external design of buildings and additions to buildings to follow the proportions, rhythm and details of architectural features of the area.
The intent is to encourage the retention and renovation of existing buildings which maintain an architectural style and building form consistent with the historical character of the area. Redevelopment will be encouraged on sites where existing buildings are smaller, or do not contribute to this character. For renovations and additions, emphasis is placed on maintaining existing external architectural character; for new development, on compatibility in external character. In all cases, neighbourly building scale and placement is emphasized.
RT-9 (Kitsilano Point)
The intent is to encourage new development with a diversity of character and neighbourly building scale and placement. The retention and renovation of existing buildings is also permitted on sites where buildings have historical or architectural merit.
The intent is to encourage development of multiple small houses and duplexes on large lots and assembled sites, while continuing to permit lower intensity development on smaller sites. Siting and massing is intended to be compatible with, but not the same as, pre-existing single family development. Retention of older character buildings and high quality architectural design of all new development are encouraged.
The intent of this schedule is to allow a variety of housing options by encouraging development of multiple small houses and duplexes on larger lots and assembled sites, while continuing to permit lower intensity development on smaller sites, such as one-family dwellings with or without a secondary suite and/or a laneway house. Siting and massing are intended to be compatible with, but not the same as, pre-existing single family development. Laneway houses, secondary suites, and lock-off units are permitted, within limits, to provide flexible housing choices. Retention of character buildings and high quality architectural design of new development is encouraged.
Multiple Dwelling District:
The intent is to encourage development of courtyard rowhouses on larger sites while continuing to permit lower intensity development on smaller sites. Siting and massing is intended to be compatible with, but not the same as, pre-existing single family development. High quality architectural design of all new development is encouraged.
The intent is to permit low to medium density residential development, including low-rise apartment buildings, and to secure a higher quality of parking, open space and daylight access through floor area bonus incentives.
The intent is to permit medium density residential development, including high-rise apartment buildings, and to secure a higher quality of parking, open space and daylight access through floor area bonus incentives.
The intent is to permit medium density residential development, including a variety of multiple dwelling types, to encourage the retention of existing buildings and good design, and to achieve a number of community and social objectives through permitted increases in floor area. The RM-4N District requires evidence of noise mitigation for residential development.
RM-5, RM-5A, RM-5B, RM-5C, RM-5D
The intent is to permit a variety of residential developments and some compatible retail, office, service and institutional uses. Emphasis is placed on achieving development which is compatible with neighbouring development with respect to streetscape character, open spaces, view retention, sunlight access and privacy. The RM-5A, RM-5B, RM-5C and RM-5D Districts permit greater densities than RM-5.
The additional intent of the RM-5 District is to require developments suited to families with children. The additional intent of the RM-5C District is to permit a greater range of uses. The RM-5D District supports the development of social housing.
RM-6 (West End)
The intent is to permit high density residential development and some compatible retail, cultural, recreational, service and institutional uses. Emphasis is placed on achieving development which recognizes the formal character of Georgia Street and is compatible with the West End residential character along Alberni Street.