Character Home Zoning Review (City Council 2-May-2017, Tues): Conditional retention zoning urgently needed – Elizabeth Murphy


On May 2, 2017 (Tuesday), Vancouver City Council is set to hear a report back from staff on public consultation regarding the Character Home Zoning Review — a very important topic for housing policy. Here we reprint, with permission, a letter from Elizabeth Murphy (private sector project manager and a former Property Development Officer for the City of Vancouver’s and for BC Housing) on this topic. (Bolding is ours, for emphasis.)

In the letter, she makes many points, including…

  • A prediction that staff proposals in this report will result in more demolitions, more monster houses, and the loss of affordable rentals.
  • The report misinterprets public feedback from consultation on character home retention.
  • Council should urgently implement character home conditional retention zoning under the Kitsilano model as a priority action to make Vancouver a more sustainable, liveable and affordable city.

The staff report is “Character Home Zoning Review – Report Back and Directions” (download PDF). At the meeting, Gil Kelley (General Manager of Planning, Urban Design and Sustainability) and Tanis Knowles Yarnell (Planner, City-Wide and Regional Planning) are expected to present this “administrative Report.” The agenda suggests that the public will have no opportunity to speak to Council at this time.+++++++

April 29, 2017

Mayor Robertson and Councillors
City of Vancouver
453 West 12th Avenue
Vancouver, B.C.
V5Y 1V4

Dear Mayor Robertson and Councillors,

Re: Character Home Zoning Review – Report Back and Directions

Thank you for your continued consideration of the Character Home Zoning Review. However, this report to council raises a number of issues of concern regarding both process and content.


This report is being presented at a Standing Committee of Council on Policy and Strategic Priorities. Normally, when a report is brought forward to this committee speakers are allowed. In this case it is unclear if or why there are no speakers allowed.

The City Clerk’s office indicate that it is because the report doesn’t make recommendations, however, the report is clearly setting direction for further considerations of the program for consultation and includes directions based on a number of false assumptions.

Content: It is urgent to implement a conditional character retention Kitsilano zoning model now.

Upon preliminary review of the report, my main concern so far is that staff propose not going ahead with a conditional character retention-type zoning now and will just be monitoring demolitions over the next two years. There may be nothing much left in two years. The incentives will not work without a reduced outright floor space ratio (FSR) and two conditional approval streams, one for character retention and one for non-character lots. This is the conditional character retention Kitsilano model. Without this, any incentives will not work on their own.

We know this is the case because current policy already allows relaxations and incentives for heritage retention. However, where this is optional, it usually results in demolition. On the other hand, in zones such as RT7 and RT8 in Kitsilano, where it is a conditional character retention model, we typically see retention-based renovations. This is without loss of land values compared to land values in other parts of Kitsilano that allow outright demolitions in RS zoning. There is no need to study this issue further as we already know the results.

The 15% property purchase tax is recently having little effect in moderating demolitions as the spring market heats up with multiple bids and continuing demolitions. Only zoning and building code changes to promote renovation rather than demolition will moderate this to a more sustainable level. We need these changes now.

Misinterpretation of public feedback.

The report has misinterpreted the public feedback on downzoning. The public concern was mainly about no conditional increase to a low outright FSR on non-character lots that would not have allowed enough FSR on a standard lot to build a reasonable sized new house. It was generally not against the conditional character retention Kitsilano model. In fact there was very strong support for character retention options.

I found this to also be the case at the practitioners workshop, which I attended. Our table and others were supportive of an overall conditional based zoning with a low outright FSR, as long as the non-character lots also had a conditional stream to add some FSR as well as a conditional stream for character retention with incentives on character lots.

The current proposals will result in more demolitions from new monster houses and potentially new strata development with a loss of affordable rentals.

Character retention options should include more secondary suites.

The incentives proposed are only what a developer would likely take on rather than a homeowner. They are proposing strata infill and multi-family conversion dwellings (MCDs) that allow conversion of exiting character houses into multiple units that could be strata to be sold separately. That may be OK for some, but would require full upgrading of the existing house to code.

The less onerous option of allowing two secondary suites under the secondary suite rental program is not being considered. This is something a homeowner is more likely to do as a mortgage helper to make home ownership more affordable, while also providing more rentals, and should be considered as part of any initial incentives for retention.

It should be noted that it is possible to have more than one secondary suite, meaning secondary to the main house unit rather than just the “second unit”. Typically in the past, houses have been converted to be a secondary suite in the basement and on the top floor, with the main unit on the main floor.

Also, there was a recent previous motion to council to refer long time existing suites in RT or RM zones to the secondary suite program to make them safe for tenants, rather than the current administrative practice of shutting the rental units down. Currently it is not allowed to have two secondary suites or a secondary suite with a duplex as an incentive for retention in RT or RM zones, even though this has been common practice for decades. This proposal was referred to be part of this process as a quick start action.

Proceeding with conditional character retention zoning now would not preclude future upzoning later.

There are a number of housing initiatives under the housing reset that are under consideration. These are potentially big changes to zoning for new strata housing types that need significantly more time for consideration, study, consultation and implementation. They should not delay the character home zoning review implementation which has been in process now for a number of years. Time is of the essence or there will not be any character houses left.

If the conditional character retention Kitsilano zoning model is implemented, an ongoing process for considering alternative housing types can still be considered as part of an ongoing process.

Further I would point out that under CityPlan Community Visions planning process a number of new housing types have been identified with options of how to implement them. The city could use the implementation process that was established under CityPlan to consider new housing types in the context of each neighbourhood rather than on a city-wide basis that may not be appropriately applied in a cookie-cutter type of approach.

However, implementing character home conditional retention zoning under the Kitsilano model is urgently needed now as the priority action to make Vancouver a more sustainable, liveable and affordable city.

Elizabeth Murphy

Council Committee Meeting Wed. May 3, 2017


Elizabeth Murphy is a private sector project manager and a former Property Development Officer for the City of Vancouver’s Housing & Properties Department and for BC Housing. Website:

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