Small is beautiful in Vancouver’s hot new housing

Saturday, March 27th, 2004

Diana McMeekin

There’s a sense that something different is coming to Vancouver‘s housing market. Skyrocketing prices in land, development charges, construction costs, etc. are leading to considerably higher consumer costs for housing.

There is nothing new in this lament, it is just a fact of life and we should get used to it because the indicators are not showing a slowdown.

The hot housing I am now hearing about is a number of very small projects that in the past might not have been viable, and although I say this is news, it is really a re-emergent housing form from long ago that is popping up in a number of locations. This kind of development is classic in-fill housing on an intimate scale of 50-foot-wide lots that are left over from the major consolidations of a decade or two ago.

You might call these lots “the holdouts,” for that is how they have escaped the consolidation of the ’70s and ’80s.

In the old days, downtown Vancouver was largely subdivided into 25-foot-wide parcels that were usually 120 feet deep, and there was a height restriction. As the City of Vancouver revisited the planning of the downtown core they revised the restrictions allowing for additional densification, and the consolidation of lots. In layman’s terms, this is how we ended up with developers purchasing a number of blocks of 25-foot lots, and adding the height together to allow for a single tower with a base podium and some air or space between towers.

During the process of buying up consolidations, a few property owners said no to offers, perhaps because they wanted more for their property and sometimes because it simply did not suit their business or personal plans.

These are what became known as “the holdouts” and they have been skipped over by developers seeking to build towers because the single or double lot is too small, and the height restriction is limited to the old 70 feet or so.

Enter the imaginative builder/developer who realizes that not everyone wants to live in a tower with 150 neighbours. Some people love the vibrant downtown location, but they would rather live in a more intimate building.

They understand that they might not get a panoramic view of the water or mountains, but they are happy to exchange this for a well proportioned, well finished boutique-sized building where they know and like their neighbours.

Wherever you look in downtown Vancouver, Gastown, Yaletown, the West End and Kitsilano, you will see these terrific additions springing up.

Richard Henry, a respected residential architect with a growing reputation, describes these sites as “the missing teeth,” and how right he is. They are the gaps in the block. Each of these buildings can provide a wonderful addition and variety, contrasting against either older highrise buildings or new, sparkling towers.

The locations of all these potential new buildings are too numerous to mention but here are a few to look for:

– On Richards Street (picture above) is a wonderful building with design concept by Richard Henry Architect for Townline Homes. This building is not yet for sale, but it will be located right opposite the splendid Emery Barnes Park. Insiders tell me that the 12 homes will range in size from 1100 to 1300 square feet.

Visit for more information and beat their door down to get on the interest list.

– When you visit the Townline website, you might want some information on several other interesting buildings in the downtown core that they have in the planning stages. Locations to look for include both rehab and new construction on Homer Street, Seymour Street and Beatty Street. This is a company to watch because they will probably do a very good job of interior design and also make a great contribution to the streetscape.

– James Schouw, the merchant developer who never rushes his buildings, is nearing completion on his 20-unit project at 499 Drake (at Richards). Rumour has it that it is sold out, but the sign says call 604-767-4501, and another phase is on the way.

– On the corner of Nicola and Comox in the West End is a small site built by Trasolini Chetner Construction. Nearing completion, it looks like four rental townhomes with good character style. Window signage says call: 604-224-6062.

– Also in the West End, I have heard of another site at the corner of Nicola and Harwood, just one short block from Pacific Avenue and English Bay. A great location and a wonderful opportunity for a small jewel-like apartment building or a limited number of townhomes. No information available yet.

– In Kitsilano, at Arbutus and York is another small development of 10 townhomes designed by Hywel Jones Architect in a great location. They are taking shape fast.

Information can be found at

– A couple of days ago I saw Hans von Tiesenhausen, the respected builder and owner of Pantheon Developments Ltd. Pantheon is constructing six townhomes at Maple and First Avenue in Kits. The sign says 1462-1628 square feet. Call Joel Chamish at 604-726-1939.

As I said, the list is considerable. Take a walk in your neighbourhood to see what is going on. This type of housing is very exciting. It adds greatly to the sense of community because it is human in scale. In recent times, Vancouver has been the poster child of the highrise “point” tower and view corridor protection.

I believe that our new calling card will be a series of attractive small buildings built to suit small sites and a discerning market. The “missing teeth” replaced. The smile to the street restored.

Diana McMeekin is President of Artemis Marketing Group Inc., a Vancouver based consulting company to both Canadian and International development companies. Diana is also a member of the Urban Development Institute and a regularly featured speaker at housing industry events. You can reach Diana via e-mail at: [email protected]

© The Vancouver Sun 2004

Comments are closed.