A visit to Union St.

The resumption of Spring in Vancouver found me biking down to Union St. to grab some delicious Portuguese sweet bread from Union Market (near Hawks Ave). Highly recommended! Union Market is one of these old store fronts that popped up along an otherwise residential street prior to the advent of zoning. It was grandparented into the neighbourhood’s current RT-3 zoning through allowing:

“Dwelling Units, up to a maximum of two, in conjunction with a neighbourhood grocery store existing as of July 29, 1980, subject to the provisions of section 11.16 of this By-law.”

For anyone in love with these little corner grocery stores (and there are a lot of us), it’s striking and bizarre that we don’t allow them in residential zones anymore. But Union Market isn’t actually a corner store. Why? Because this beautiful old townhouse complex right next to Union Market occupies the corner.

A4CBD0F6-E221-4503-8872-51DABC8B9321

To those of us who love townhouses, it’s striking that this form of housing is also forbidden from the majority of residential zones in Vancouver. Here it’s grandparented in with RT-3 zoning to preserve the pre-1920s cityscape of Strathcona. It’s even got heritage designation. It’s clearly a valued streetscape. So why isn’t this form of housing allowed on other residential streets?

Just down the street I passed another old store front. This one is also heritage (if you squint, you can see the marker near the door). But it’s no longer being used as a store. It’s been turned over to residential use. The whole lot was redesigned to support three different residential units about twenty years ago (1999). One in the back (along the laneway), and two up front. (UPDATE: as noted by an observant twitter user, the storefront portion seems to be AirBnB‘d, so it retains an ironic (?) commercial use…)

9D634A3B-EB8A-414F-A7A0-3D07B77F9998

The history of this lot is fascinating, as revealed in a staff recommendation to City Council from 1999 supporting variance from existing RT-3 zoning to enable its renovation:

Heritage Value: The site at 658 Union Street is listed in the “B” category on the Vancouver Heritage Register and is noted as being an “unique example of [an] early multiple structure”. Three distinct structures were built on the site between 1893 and 1913:

· middle dwelling: the earliest structure was a one-and-a-half storey dwelling built in 1893 and situated in the middle of the lot; only the foundations and wall fragments remain;
· rear dwelling: the next was a one-and-a-half storey end-gable frontier-style structure erected sometime between 1901 – 1912, along the rear property line; and
· grocery store: the final addition was made in 1913, after street levelling activities in Strathcona were complete; it is a two-storey clapboard-sided grocery store with tin cornice, which abuts the Union Street edge of the property.

The latter two extant buildings are representative of architectural and historical themes unique to Strathcona including: Strathcona’s working class heritage; urban change/street levelling activities and community response; and vitality of neighbourhood through grocers and other home-based business.

Of note: the valuable “working class heritage” of Strathcona is precisely what was zoned out of single-use residential neighbourhoods of all sorts (RS, RT, and RM) in subsequent years. And supporting the renovation of the old store front required all sorts of variances from the RT-3 zoning currently in place. The administrative staff helpfully catalogued all the variations proposed:

Screenshot_2019-03-18 656-660 Union St - Designation Heritage Revitalization Agreement

That’s a lot of variance! It also demonstrates nicely just how many restrictions around development are currently in place in zoning by-laws. And this, of course, is simply to restore the “working class heritage” of the lot. Were there objections?

Oh yes:

As part of the Development Application review process, a sign was placed on the site and 47 surrounding neighbouring property owners were notified. Eight neighbours responded. Four support the project in its entirely, including the immediate neighbours to the west. The four others support the conservation component of the proposal, but have the following principal concerns:

· the proposed site coverage leaves little useable outdoor space at grade;
· the building length next to the east property line is excessive;
· entries, decks and coach house configuration would significantly detract from the privacy of the property to the east;
· the extent of proposed changes to the existing rear structure is excessive;
· the configuration of the front unit lends itself to conversion to an illegal secondary suite;
· the current difficulty of finding parking on the street will be exacerbated; and

· the proposed development is too dense relative to the single family dwellings typical of this block.

Strikingly, the neighbourhood association supported the retention (with some caveats) and the half of respondents supported the project in its entirety, with the remainder supporting parts. The most pertinent objections came from the property to the East of the lot. A variety of alterations were made accordingly. But the basics of the renovation remained, and ultimately the lot provided room for three units, subsequently stratified, and now assessed as worth $832k, $868k, and $1,100k.

That’s a lot for twenty year old dwellings, and probably well beyond “working class” territory. But most of the value, as always in Vancouver, is in the land. What do we get in allowing three households to split the cost of the land rather than one? Well, the single structure beat-up house next door (to the West, partially obscured by the tree above)  is assessed at $1,568k. Even taking into account a bit of land lift, each of the three twenty year old units created remains far cheaper than the nearly hundred-and-twenty year old unit (likely in need of some repairs?) next door.

What about that persnickety neighbour to the East? Well… about that… some dozen years after the old store front building was re-done, the lot to the East was entirely re-developed through a lot assembly with the adjoining house. Now the redevelopment of the two lots support and serve as their own heritage infill case study.

Screenshot_2019-03-18 11 03 2010-Union-st -pdf pdf

It’s pretty fancy! What’s striking is that the two lots together now support SEVEN different dwelling units, centred around an interior courtyard.

Screenshot_2019-03-18 11 03 2010-Union-st -pdf pdf(1)

And how much are these new (2013) units? They’re assessed from $523k all the way up to $1,259k (I’m assuming for the big laneway house at the back). In other words, none of these practically brand new units reach the price of the run-down old house on the lot two down. Why? Because they’re sharing land costs. Here’s what the four lots in question look like from the back, via Google Maps satellite view:

Screenshot_2019-03-18 Google Maps

Even though there’s been uplift in the land value with the permission of extra density on the two redeveloped lots, the uplift still doesn’t come anywhere near cancelling out the benefits of sharing. From left to right for the lots centred above, beginning with the partially shaded lot containing the old car covered in vegetation, here are the assessed land values for the lots:

  • one lot with one dwelling*: $1.523 million = $1,523k/unit
  • one lot with three dwellings: $2.291 million = $764k/unit
  • two lots with seven dwellings: $3.878 million = $554k/unit

Despite the benefits of sharing land, none of the ultimate unit prices (ranging from $523k to $1,259k) seem likely to provide stable and affordable housing for the working class households of today. For that, we’ll need more purpose-built rental and social housing. But both of these things become more viable when land costs can be shared across units. Maybe the best way to insure that the working class heritage of Vancouver continues on into the future is to enable and support purpose-built rental and social housing everywhere – especially in the places this kind of housing has historically been excluded. Vancouver’s re-legalization of duplexes on RS zones and moves forward on Making Room are probably good steps along the way.

 

*- It’s actually unclear how many dwellings are contained in the dwelling with the car in the backyard because we don’t know whether it’s been subdivided to contain one (or more) suites. Legally there is only one dwelling available to be owned.

 

 

 

 

 

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