Vancouver holds a special place in most urbanists’ heart – a sort of supercharged version of Portland, with its stunning skyline and bold embrace of density and transit. In addition to the glassy forest of skyscrapers, it also passed a law enabling laneway housing under former mayor Sam Sullivan’s EcoDensity initiative. Sullivan was pretty controversial, but he never even came up for a second vote after Peter Ladner launched a party coup and then went on to lose the election anyway. As a result, it doesn’t look like the laneway housing rules have been revised, which is a shame, since as Vancouver architect Graham Barron (who has an excellent blog on development in Vancouver) writes, there are some problems:
The objective of the infill design guideline is to encourage the retention of existing buildings, but the guideline’s own side yard setback makes this nearly impossible. In practice, this means that the vast majority of developers of these lots demolish the existing building and construct a new duplex. (Many of these new duplexes look like character buildings, but in fact are built slab-on-grade, i.e. without basements, and without attics, much like the cheap Vancouver Specials that preceded them). This is the first irony.
The second irony is that many of the two-family zones in the City are meant to be heritage-friendly zones, which promote the preservation of character and heritage houses. Since it is largely impossible to build infill, and very costly to renovate or expand an older building, most developers will demolish the existing house, and then design the new duplex in a faux heritage style in order to get a density bonus that allows for greater floorspace. Result: character is being replaced with faux character.
The final irony is that these new duplexes are then required to have a two-car garage on the lane, a parking requirement that is meant to reduce crowding on the street. (Never mind that many duplex owners park on the street anyway, and use their garage for storage.) This required garage ends up being about the same size as the infill laneway house that the design guidelines originally prevented.
Even though Vancouver is, I believe, the only city in North America to allow any sort of laneway infill, I think it’s a very promising form. The District of Columbia, in particular could, desperately use it – strong demand has hit up against the limit of the Height Act downtown, and now that downtown is nearly built up to the absolute limit that Congress will allow, the gentrification line has hit the streetcar suburbs filled with rowhomes. Here people commonly see two options: don’t allow any more development, or allow the prewar rowhomes to be knocked down and replaced with mid- or high-rises.
But there is another option: Allow development in the alleyways! DC has tons of alleys, and in my neighborhood, Trinidad, some of the alleys are so wide that they show up as unmarked streets on Google Maps. In any other city they would had crammed at least one more row of houses. Most alleys are of course not that large, but any alley that currently has a garage could manage a small two-story house in its place. In Georgetown one alley was blessed by the intervention of Eastbanc, a developer with enough clout to have their way with the city planners, and is now one of the nicest places in Georgetown, but I don’t think any developer has managed to successfully persuade local community groups and city planners to allow that sort of redevelopment anywhere else.
If Washington and other cities across the US do some day deign to loosen their grip on development and allow laneway housing, they would do well to learn lessons from Vancouver – be flexible about where you allow the buildings, and for god’s sake, don’t mandate parking!
(By the way, here’s another good blog about development in Vancouver, this one by developer Michael Geller.)