Canadian Contractor

John Bleasby   

Abandoned house lost in Vancouver zoning maze for 13 years

Canadian Contractor

Frustrated owner says to City, “Why don’t YOU buy it?”

A Vancouver home abandoned for 13 years stands today as a stunning example of what can go wrong with zoning and land usage in Canada’s urban centres.

(top): The Strathcona neighborhood of Vancouver originated as an area of sheds and poorly constructed wood homes around a mill.
(bottom): Today, many have been restored and improved beyond their original condition. However, zoning restrictions persist as frustrations.

Zoning regulations to retain original character are out of date
The most recent owner of a house in Strathcona, one of Vancouver’s oldest neighborhoods, has been struggling for three years to restore the heritage building and build an infill house behind. She’s up against zoning specific to the area that requires homes be maintained as single-room accommodation, a ruling meant to offer low-cost accommodation for low income residents, along the lines of single-room occupancy hotels and rooming houses.

The Strathcona neighborhood near west end Vancouver originated as a collection of small buildings and shacks surrounding a mill site. Today, it is an eclectic mix of houses, apartment buildings and rooming houses. Many of the older homes have been beautifully restored.

Sandra Botnen purchased the house for $1.1 million three years ago knowing the restrictive zoning requirements. She intended to restore the 1905 building home in keeping with its heritage and rent out rooms to artists at $800 per month, in keeping with the single-room zoning. However, her plans to add a new building at the rear ran into major problems. The rear laneway would, according to the City planning department, have to be widened throughout its right of way length, ie. across several other properties, in order to assure rear access for all. However, Botnen said that widening the laneway would restrict the size of any new building that could be built.


Homeowner frustration peaks as Vancouver is lost in a time warp
So Botnen remains stuck as City officials ponder of what they have described as “very complex” project. Her frustrations have led her to challenge the City to the purchase the property from her. “I said, ‘Why don’t you buy it and you guys try to figure out all of your mandates to see if you can do something? ‘” she told local media. “Here’s what you get in return: a fire hazard, a crime magnet, an eyesore in the community. It’s a lose, lose, lose.’” Meanwhile, Year 14 of abandonment approaches.

Vancouver zoning regulations are a frustrating maze. “They can’t get out of their own way,” says Casey Edge.

“This is another example of Vancouver’s restrictive zoning and byzantine processes undermining both private property rights and affordable redevelopment,” Casey Edge, Executive Director of the Victoria Residential Builders Association told Canadian Contractor. “Vancouver’s sky-high prices are a reflection of their inefficient, regulatory challenges.” Edge references  a study by the Fraser Institute that says Vancouver’s bottlenecked zoning process adds on average $78,000 to the cost of every Vancouver unit. The study also claims that approvals for housing proposals take 10 times longer in Vancouver than in Langley, BC, another Lower Mainland municipality. “They can’t get out of their own way,” says Edge.

This project should be greeted with enthusiasm and support
Increasing the density in Canada’s urban centres, “gentle intensification” as some call it, has been largely greeted as a positive by most municipalities. In fact, infill and laneway homes along the lines Botnen is proposing would be widely applauded and welcomed elsewhere. It’s a compromise that usually meets the concerns of existing residents who are always aroused when there is talk of a high rise going up on their street.

Bizarre as it may be, a nearby Vancouver property containing nothing more than the remnants of a burnt down home in Vancouver’s tony  Kitsilano neighborhood will have a much better chance of redevelopment than Botnen’s restoration and infill project. The lot is currently listed at $3.9 million. The listing agent told local media that the property has excellent chance of selling at the asking price due its prime location and the relatively large size. He believes the new owners will have the option of either a new 4500 square foot dream home or possibly a row of townhouses.

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