Saving character houses needs incentives and zoning

The City of Vancouver is undertaking a character-house zoning review to consider saving character houses through incentives such as increased size, number of units, and infill. This retains character while accommodating growth in a more sustainable way.

Although this is good in principle, additional options need to be considered. The city is moving away from downzoning, especially on non-character lots. This is a good thing because much public pushback was generated when they went too far by not adequately balancing the economics. But now the city must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Incentives for retention do need a supportive conditional zoning framework for them to work, as is the case in Kitsilano. But the economics must be very carefully balanced so that it is fair to owners, allowing the retention option to provide property values that are roughly equal to – or in some cases greater than – those resulting from the non-character new construction option. This has been achieved in Kitsilano, and the city should learn from past successes.

There is an urgent need for the review. Since city zoning rules were changed in 2009, demolitions increased to over 1,000 a year, with older homes being replaced by much larger and more expensive “monster” houses. On average, home demolitions increased 80% between 2009 and 2015, and by 73% on average for pre-1940 homes.

Most of those demolished homes were livable and structurally sound, many had been substantially upgraded and many had secondary suites. Prime old-growth wood was sent to the chipper, materials were relegated to the dump and few, if any, materials were reused. Many of the new houses, often twice as expensive as the older ones they replaced, are left vacant purely as investments. Hardly a green or sustainable city.

City of Vancouver survey results show that 90% of citizens think the retention of character buildings should be encouraged. 

Some say retention of character houses through incentives is freezing single-family zoning. In fact, it is doing just the opposite. Character zoning is proposed to conditionally allow a variety of additional options to meet current needs through adaptive reuse. This is by far the most sustainable way to accommodate growth, increase rental and ownership options, provide more affordability and mortgage helpers and retain neighbourhood character.

This is not an issue of needing more zoned capacity to meet growth. The city’s consultants and new head planner, Gil Kelley, have confirmed the city already has enough zoned capacity to meet regional growth to 2041 and beyond. We just need to find the right balance for more affordable sustainable housing choices while retaining neighbourhood character.

This can be achieved with a few adjustments to the character options proposed in the review. Although there may be some opportunities for new housing types such as duplexes, row houses, townhouses and low-rise apartments, this can be done through detailed neighbourhood-based planning at a later date.

Much attention is rightly being paid to the plight of millennials and their needs for affordable housing. However, there should be no delusions that new construction of duplexes, townhouses and row houses will fill this gap. Even East Vancouver half-duplexes go for more than $1 million, not much less than an older east-side character house.

However, if we don’t deal with the character-house issue now, the opportunity to expand affordable housing types through conditional zoning for adaptive reuse of character buildings will be lost forever.

Elizabeth Murphy ( is a private-sector project manager and was formerly a property development officer for the City of Vancouver’s housing and properties department and for BC Housing.