West Coast Density: Seattle & Vancouver

Both Seattle (WA) and Vancouver (BC) have plans to make important decisions on density this Fall. In Seattle, city council is preparing to decide how to expand their downtown density-bonus plan, in place for the past two years, to cover the rest of the city. As well as difficult questions about preserving the "human scale" of existing residential neighbourhoods, the main quibble is over the economics of affordable housing. According to the projections they are using, only very large height increases (85ft to 240ft, for example) boost developers profits enough to create an incentive for them to include affordable units. Developers themselves seem to be split on the issue though, with some arguing that the city could demand more affordable units, while others are asking why they should have to meet any affordability requirements at all seeing as their condo towers are already performing a valuable ecological service (adding density).

I've argued before that density has to be coupled with affordability and mixed-use to realize its environmental potential. Developers trying to argue that density is enough miss the fact that lower transportation distance will only arise if a variety of income groups can live and work in the same neighbourhood.

Another question though is whether large developers are the only people we should be turning to to help densify our existing housing stock. Vancouver will be tackling that question, beginning at the end of this month with the first open house on laneway housing in single family areas. Laneway housing (the conversion of garages and coach houses into self-sufficient apartment suits) was a popular item during public consultation for the city's Ecodensity plan. Beyond density, in Vancouver's pricey real estate market allowing homeowners to add rental suits serves a double purpose: it makes home ownership slightly more accessible, and adds a new supply of much needed rental housing to the market.

Whether enough homeowners will add laneway housing (and its close cousin: secondary basement suits) to make any real density difference is uncertain. But the number of illegal suits currently on the market makes it seem likely. While the tall towers proposed for Seattle may make sense in certain areas (near transit hubs for example), Vancouver's engagement with individual homeowners opens up another productive way to retool our current urban form. As with the ReCode Portland program, the question then becomes about how to facilitate densification and green building not just for large new developments but for existing communities as a whole. TreeHugger covers some of the hurdles that these types of construction can face in Canada and links to a short documentary about the experience of two architects working in Toronto.

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More Info on Upcoming Vancouver open house on Lane Way Housing:

Date: Sunday, September 21st

      Time: 12 - 4 pm
      Location: Polish Community Centre

4015 Fraser Street (at E. King Edward Ave)

      Date: Wednesday, September 24th
      Time: 4 - 8 pm
      Location: Hellenic Community Centre
      4500 Arbutus Street (at W. 30th Ave)


For more information:
See EcoDensity Initial Actions - Action C-5: http://www.vancouver-ecodensity.ca/content.php?id=42
Call: 604-871-6302

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

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