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Where — and how — do you want to live

When DH and I began planning our laneway we started by looking around at what was familiar to us.   We had a pretty conventionally designed condo, two beds and two baths,  and we couldn’t get around the idea that we were going to be living in less than half the space we had.  We thought about what we would lose, not what we would gain.

We looked at how other people were downsizing and building laneways, we saw what we liked and what we didn’t like.  And gradually it dawned on us that we shouldn’t just look at how other people live, or how we USED to live, we should look forward, to how we WANTED to live.  We let our imaginations go a little.  We didn’t just want an average house that had been shrunk, we wanted a new plan for us that would lead to a whole new life.  We knew there would be sacrifices (Like “space”.  And “things”.) But in the end we had exactly what we wanted.

There was no way to imagine at the beginning of the journey how it would end. And how it would change our lives.

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Among many other advantages our new life has given us is that we drive less and take transit more often. And we like it. When the car was available down a flight of stairs we used it all the time — whenever we went down town or out for dinner or over to the kids.  Even though transit was right there we didn’t even think about it, we had a car!  Why not use it?

But now we take transit all the time.  I take the 99 Express to work.  It takes a little more time than driving, but I read or knit, and there’s no problem getting a seat because I’m at the end of the line (both ends of the line).  We take transit down town, it’s less than half an hour and we don’t have to worry about parking.  We get down to Granville Island without going through the Hell that is finding parking on a sunny Saturday. If we want to take in a Night Market we can zip out to Richmond or take the Sea Bus to North Vancouver.  All in all Translink is a pretty good system.

So when Translink wanted to expand we were enthusiastically supportive.  Even when the Provincial Government said that the local governments would have to raise their share through a sales tax hike (.5%) we said yes.  But the Provincial Government wanted it put to a referendum; we said yes — but 62% of the region said no.

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I was pretty steamed. Although I could also understand it.  It’s the old problem of trying to see the end of the journey from where you are now (comfortably behind the wheel of your car).

Others were also frustrated.  Peter Ladner in Business in Vancouver pointed out it was a pretty dumb idea in the first place (or as he put it more elegantly “Determining complex funding and planning issues with a single yes-no vote is an abysmal surrender of political leadership.”) Follow the link, he points out other lessons learned through the referendum process. Hard, nasty lessons, but lessons all the same.

But it was a column by Peter McMartin that put all my inchoate rage into a coherent verbal form. Read the whole thing, please, but for me this is the key issue:

The questions pile up. But the most perceptive question was one I heard in a conversation with Gordon Price, director of Simon Fraser University’s City program. To him, the plebiscite asked a question much more philosophical than yea or nay to a transit tax.

“To me,” Price said, “it was an existential question.

“It asked Metro Vancouverites, ‘Who are we?’ ”

Read more: http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Pete+McMartin+real+Vancouver+emerges+from+ruins+plebiscite/11187386/story.html#ixzz3fF1TYKXt

I have to agree with Peter McMartin that Vancouver is currently nothing special.  We’re in a lovely natural setting.  But we’re not living up to our reputation as innovative and free-thinking nature-lovers.  We just can’t imagine our lives without cars.

I want you to do it — to imagine your life with a dependable transit system that can take you all over the Lower Mainland.  Cheaply.  Easily. No congestion. Freeways with smoothly-running traffic from Horseshoe Bay to Hope.   Doing your shopping by hopping on and off the Broadway Skytrain.  Taking the family to the beach or the park on the bus.  No parking problems.  Less pollution.

Or how about this?  Using a service like ZipCar or Car 2 Go in combination with Transit.  Giving up the ownership of a vehicle that sits parked 90% of the time for greater freedom of mobility. Answering the question of Who are we? with “we’re the people with vision, we ARE the future, we embrace change for the better and accept the inevitability of the end of the automotive age. We are part of that change.”

Otherwise those of us who use transit will be forced to use a less reliable form of transportation:

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No place like home (show)

DH and I went down to the Vancouver Home and Design Show to catch up on the trends that are new and exciting in this red-hot renovation and building market.

I remember going to the show twenty years ago or so and it seems to me that it was kiosk after kiosk of handy-dandy  labour-saving devices, pots and pans, with a few decorating and building companies thrown in.  Or maybe that was the PNE.  Anyway, the past few years you’ve been able to talk with a lot of renovation companies, plus get some great ideas about new products that are available.

As usual there were great speakers — including Bryan Baeumler,  Colin McAllister and Justin Ryan, lots of great chefs and designers.

Small was definitely big this year.  There were several retailers showing off various ways to hide beds — not just floor mounted but pieces that looked like regular cabinets but made out into beds.  And Urban Barn tasked the three designers competing for their Next Top Designer with designing a dual-purpose space in just 150 square feet.

I saw a lot I really liked but for me the outstanding exhibition was the NOMAD MicroHome.  The display unit showed how much living and storage you could fit into a 10 foot by 10 foot footprint.  It would be great for an extra bedroom, tucked into your yard.  Or, with the addition of other modules, you could easily make a nice vacation home.  You can even go completely green with the addition of  a Water Generation Plant, a Solar Power Plant, a Rainwater Collection System and a Grey Water Treatment Plant.

And they are pretty good looking, too.

Nomad

While looking at the home I got a feeling of deja vu — and sure enough I wrote about the Nomad last year.  It’s great to see an innovative local company moving ahead.

 

A tale of two houses

Two houses recently sold in our neighbourhood.  One, the one we lovingly referred to as “the crack house”, is certainly scheduled for demolition.  There hasn’t been any maintenance to that property since mullets were in style (the first time).  It is falling to pieces, the yard filled with trash.  Soon the big machines will come and tear it down and replace it with a three-storey faux craftsman with a laneway.  It was inevitable and to a certain extent, planned-for.

We have seen the future and it is huge.

We have seen the future and it is huge.

The other house that sold is our neighbours’.  The couple who lived there spent much time and love taking care of it.  Yes, it drove us crazy to hear their tools fire up early on a week-end morning, but you could see just from looking at the exterior that these people took care of their home.  Now the big question on our minds is:  “Will the new owners leave as is? Reno? Demolish and rebuild?”

On our block we have seen it all.  Perfectly good small houses demolished for behemoths.  Aging bungalows given new life with loving renovations.  And of course, speculators buying the older, more derelict properties to hold on to for future development (while they rot and attract vermin of all species).

Rumour has it that the house next door has been bought by a family who will be moving into it as is; the tenants in the spacious two-bedroom basement suite are not looking for new accommodations yet.  But we won’t truly exhale until the moving trucks pull away, emptied of a household’s goods now placed in their new home. Then we’ll show up with a plate of cookies to welcome them to the new neighbourhood.

But if they want to make changes but don’t want to tear it down, the new owners will be stepping into a quagmire of regulations and rules that is the permit process for renovation in Vancouver.  This story in the Globe and Mail sums it up quite nicely.

Additions to the building code include a host of requirements designed to enhance accessibility for the disabled and to make houses more energy efficient. …..

Groups opposed to it are arguing that it will make renovations prohibitively expensive, adding to affordability problems and increasing the number of demolitions

Luckily the new owners wouldn’t have to do anything to bring the house up to code — the current residents have done all that.  But what if someone bought the “crack house” to preserve that old-fashioned style of house?  They would be screwed.  It would cost twice as much as the house would be worth to bring it up to current codes.  That’s one of the reasons we are losing these old houses.  It’s just too much bother and expense to try to save them.

It’s not “energy efficient” to put a house’s worth of old materials into a landfill.  And the drive to make our condo buildings air-tight contributed to the leaky condo crisis we are still trying to fix.  Personally I feel people should get some dispensation for trying to save an old house, not just one designated as a heritage home, but a place that was built in the ’60s, the ’50s, and the ’40s.  The architecture of those eras deserves to be respected and cherished as much as that of earlier years.

Meantime we will watch and see what changes our neighbourhood will experience in the next few months.

I have been a-wand’ring!

I’ve just been unpacking from a trip to the UK I took with my sister.  I was going to write a few posts from the other side of the pond — at least that was the plan — but I was too busy seeing the sights and hanging out in museum gift shops and eating.

The British have made the daily ritual of eating into a real art.  I know, right?  English food is supposed to be bland and unimaginative.  But it’s not.  It’s really good.

And they manage to fit it all into five meals a day.

We begin at breakfast.  I only had one “full English breakfast”*.  The rest of the time we had muesli or toast.  Or muesli and toast. Plus tea.  I really got hooked on tea in Britain, it’s always good no matter where you get it.  And sometimes it comes with a little pot of hot water for refills.

Mid-morning we took a break from shopping and sight-seeing with “elevenses”.  Tea and a scone or a tea cake (muffin).  that gave you the shot of energy you needed to last until lunch.

scone

Luncheon was a lovely meal that could be a selection of cheeses and sausages, or a prawn sandwich (with RoseMarie sauce), or soup, or any combination thereof.  Sometimes we would have a nice lager-and-lime to quench our thirst. Sandwiches would come on white or brown bread or sometimes a bap (soft bun). But you could also get a black-pudding panini for a change. “Tomato sauce” is just ketchup. “Brown sauce” is like ketchup, but brown. Watch out for the mustard, though, their brown mustard is tasty but mild.  It’s the bright yellow mustard (that looks just like the innocent French’s mustard we slather on hot dogs) that’s the real killer.  It will bring tears to your eyes and a lump to your throat.  It’s very, very hot.

Then, laden with parcels and with our feet worn to nubs we would wend our way back to the home our relatives were graciously sharing with us.  Just in time for tea. That could be small sandwiches, or just scones or biscuits (cookies) or Battenburg cake or just a nice slice of seedy cake.  That way you wouldn’t be starving because dinner would often not be served before 8:30 or 9.

And what a supper that would be!  Wonderful salads, entrees, veggies and sides. More ways to cook potatoes than you can imagine!  Wine!  Cheeses to finish!  And of course, pudding.  “Pudding” refers to dessert, whatever it is, even pudding.

Then we would toddle off to bed.  I needn’t tell you that while I was packing on the pounds (which are measured in 14-pound units called stones) my svelte relatives were managing to maintain their youthful figures. I had to come back before I was charged overweight on my flight home.

I found new foods to enjoy, and not just haggis and black pudding!  Rocket, a green leafy vegetable.  Courgettes turned out to be young zucchini.  Frozen food was very good.  And my cousin, who is quite house bound, could order her groceries online and have them delivered to her door.

I know this isn’t a food blog, and I’ll be writing more about the houses we visited.  Napolean said that an army marches on its stomach.  Our small force certainly lived up to that.

*Fried egg, fried mushrooms, fried tomAHto, fried bread, sausage, bacon, black pudding.

How can we save more of our heritage homes?

Vancouver already has the screwiest housing market in the world.  Hyperbole?  Empty derelict houses are sitting on million-dollar lots in ordinary working-class neighbourhoods.  Huge houses and luxury apartments sit empty most of the year because of absentee investor owners.  Rental vacancy rate of less than 1%.  Housing costs beyond many salaries.

In this story on the city’s effort to save pre-1940 homes, the people who bought a Shaughnessy home for $4.6 million and who have it on the market for $7 million find it too small for their needs.

“They just think the building is not livable,” Liang said. “They are now looking for a larger property.”

Meanwhile city dwellers wring their hands and mourn the loss of heritage houses that originally made the neighbourhood so attractive; demolished so that enormous monster houses can take their place.

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The problem affects neighbourhoods, almost exclusively on the west side, where old discretionary zoning and density rules are encouraging developers to raze smaller homes to build massive buildings.

In the first six months of 2014 there have been nearly 1,000 applications for demolition permits, an increase of 20 per cent over previous years…. Many of those involve pre-1940s buildings that don’t use all of their allowed yard setbacks or building heights.

And there are no easy fixes.

I would have to argue with the statement that the problem is almost exclusive to the west side of the city.  There are plenty of charming old homes in the Grandview and Sunrise areas that are being replaced by much larger structures.

The Vancouver Sun story lists some ways that Vancouver City government is hoping to save more heritage homes.  A planned moratorium on demolition permits for houses in Shaughnessy; a requirement that 90% of the demolished home’s materials be salvaged or recycled.

The moratorium on demolition permits may work in an area like Shaughnessy, but couldn’t be used city-wide.  Who would like to see their property value plummet because any buyer could not replace the over-70 year old structure with a new one (while your neighbour’s more recently built home could be smashed and trucked away to reveal that tender, juicy city lot just ready for redevelopment)?

But if someone were to ask me (and what is a blog for if not to answer questions no one has asked?) I would suggest a more-carrot-and-less-stick approach by the city to encourage the retention of heritage homes.

  • Right now it can take months or longer to designate a house a heritage building. That process should be sped up.
  • There are only four designated heritage areas:  Chinatown, Gastown, Shaughnessy and Yaletown. Any area where most of the buildings are over 70 years old should be designated a heritage area, including Sunrise, Strathcona, Kerrisdale and Kitsilano.
  • Tax breaks from the city would encourage developers to maintain older houses.
  • A relaxation of certain housing regulations would allow some heritage homes to be maintained.

Does anyone else have any ideas?

 

The Vancouver Heritage Foundation Heritage Homes Tour

Last Sunday found us up nice and early in preparation to hitting the road for the Vancouver Heritage Foundation Heritage Homes Tour.

It’s something I’ve been promising myself I’d do, but always put it off.  This year, though, we were able to get it together and June 1 found us up, fed, dressed (with easily removable shoes) and water bottles at hand we headed off to the first house on the tour: Casa Mia.

HeritageCasa

Casa Mia is the fabled house built by the Reifel family.  It sits on Mansion Row on South West Marine Drive and yes, everything you’ve heard about it is true.  There is a ballroom on the basement level with gold-leaf walls and ceiling and a sprung dance floor.  The walls of the playroom were hand painted with Snow White decorations by Disney artists brought in for the job.  The rooms are beautiful, opulent, luxurious.  The bathrooms are incredible. The men’s powder room by the ballroom has black fixtures! The lady’s has gold plated faucets!  As a piece of OTT decorating (and the life that demanded it) it’s a prime example.  One that will probably be changing in the future, as it’s currently being considered for a care home.  This was our only chance to see this building, and thanks to the Vancouver Heritage Foundation, we did.

By the way, kudos squared to the Foundation for the organization of the tour.  The route was good — from Casa Mia though houses 1 to 10, the guide told us what to look for and expect at each home (and where we could find public restrooms along the way), the volunteers were helpful and friendly, the homes were all lovely, and there was even a food truck mid-way through to make sure you didn’t collapse from hunger.

Still, intrepid explorers though we were, we found it almost too overwhelming and skipped one of the three storybook homes on the tour.

We saw this one -- it was terrific.

We saw this one — it was terrific.

I won’t take you on a room by room recap, there’s lots of info at the Vancouver Heritage Foundation site.  Here’s the highlights I took away:

  • It’s easy to think of the lovely west-side homes in Kerrisdale, Shaughnessy and Kitsilano as heritage homes, but there are many gorgeous heritage properties on the east side in transitional neighbourhoods like Strathcona, Grandview, Mount Pleasant and Sunrise that have not always been well maintained but should definitely be preserved and respected.
  • It’s still possible to maintain the charming design of an older home while updating it with energy efficient heating and modern bathrooms and kitchens.
  • People love built-in sound systems.  We have one in the laneway because we didn’t have room for speakers on the walls — but lots of people put them in so they won’t have to have ugly speakers out in the open.
  • Take shoes you can easily remove at each home — they didn’t mind bare feet inside so you could wear sandals — but make sure they are comfortable because you may have to walk a couple of blocks from where you can park
  • Mature gardens are so lovely — everyone had beautiful exterior spaces
  • Everyone was respectful of the age of their home — even when the furnishings were modern the interior design reflected the original finishings

How can we maintain these fine old homes?  How can we keep our city neighbourhoods from becoming homogeneous slabs of suburban architecture?  I’ll be thinking — and writing about this.

Let’s all co-operate, people!

When we lived in our old condo, I used to pass the Heather Place Co-op.  I’ve spoken before of housing co-ops, and what they can mean for people, like I used to be, who can hardly afford any housing in this city, let alone family housing. Heather Place offered 86 families a place to stay in the city, and I was surprised (and curious) to see that there was a new development going in on their property.

Heather

What does that mean for the people living there?

According to the City of Vancouver,

MVHC is undertaking this re-development project as it reflects the goals and objectives set out in Metro Vancouver’s Regional Growth and Affordable Housing Strategies as well as Vancouver’s Housing and Homelessness Strategy. The goal is to provide more rental accommodation in a city and region desperately in need of affordable housing.

  • Currently there are 86 rental units. The re-development project is currently planned to be a 100% rental development.
  • We plan to provide between 200 to 300 rental homes on the site that fit into the neighbourhood.
  • We are being sensitive to local neighbourhood needs such as: aesthetics, trees and green space, changing demographics, traffic/parking and changing transportation habits, and access to amenities.

Right now, of the 86 homes, 26 are rented at rent rates that are geared to income — that means subsidized.  The people who live there pay less than market rates.  But the other suites, although they are not subsidized, pay less — much less — than other suites in the area.  This story in the Vancouver Sun says that the highest rent is $1095 per month — that’s incredibly budget-priced compared to the $2000+ they could expect to pay for a two-bedroom suite in this part of the city.  It’s close to a Sky-Train station going downtown or to the airport; to City Hall; to Vancouver General Hospital; to Broadway and its transit and shopping.  Believe me, I lived there for 13 years — this is one great (and high-priced) neighbourhood. V5Z — one of the most expensive postal codes in the country.

The new development of this area means more rental suites for the city — and that’s good.  If the city can plop another 100 or 200 suites in that neighbourhood it will be great for everyone.  And as the Vancouver Sun article pointed out,

If construction is done in stages, it might be possible for subsidized tenants to stay where they are until they can be moved into completed units

But the non-subsidized suites will definitely be more expensive. About $1600 a month — still reasonable for the neighbourhood, but more than the current tenants are used to paying.

I’m torn (as usual).  I can see the city’s need to inject more rental suites in the neighbourhood — and into the city.  And I’m happy the people who are receiving subsidized housing will continue to do so.  But I do feel bad for the other 60 families who will either have to forgo other luxuries — or basics — to afford to live there or will have to move out of the neighbourhood.  And judging by the rental prices in the rest of the city, they will have to move waaaayyyyyy out of the neighbourhood.

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