What’s a ‘building line’ in Vancouver? Here’s a backgrounder.

Above: Map from 18-May-1999 staff report to City Council

The Council agenda for January 31, 2023 has an item under Referral Reports, entitled “1. Zoning and Development By-law Amendments to Schedule E Building Lines (Hastings Street, North Side, from Cassiar Street to Boundary Road).” So watch for that one at a Public Hearing in the near future.

Above: Example of a building line about to be changed at an upcoming Public Hearing (reference).

What is a “building line”?

In Vancouver, there is a definition and history. Basically, “no development may be carried out upon, over or under any part of a site” between the building line and the street or lane. As you travel around the city, in some places you can visually detect an invisible line that requires buildings to be set back a fair distance from the roadway. This is clearly evident on the West side of Arbutus south of 12th Avenue, for example.

Building lines are described in Section 8 (PDF link) of the Zoning and Development By-law (link). Schedule E (PDF link) prescribes exact details. For example, on “Alma Street, west side, north of 12th Avenue to 4th Avenue,” the building line’s distance from the centre line of the street is precisely 40 feet (interestingly, in terms of units, we’re still in the last century). Typically building lines are used for transportation and surface utility purposes, such as for sidewalk widening, road widening, turn bays, cycling facilities, transit facilities, tree planting, or landscaping and green infrastructure.

The use of building lines was recommended in the 1929 “A Plan for the City of Vancouver, including Point Grey, and South Vancouver and a General Plan for the Region,” prepared by Harland Bartholomew and Associates (download the whole digitized copy of the 1930 report, 430 pages, 25 MB, at this link). A building line defines a proposed future property line on private property where the City may seek the long term widening of a street right-of-way for transportation or other public uses. Building lines were established through Vancouver’s Zoning and Development By-law through Council by-law enactments mainly between 1946 and 1956. As with any amendment to the Zoning and Development By-law, changes to building lines require a Public Hearing and decision of Council.

A May 18, 1999 staff report (link to full report – https://council.vancouver.ca/previous_years/990601/tt2.htm) to Vancouver’s Standing Committee on Transportation and Traffic, under then-mayor Philip Owen (see the meeting minutes for some familiar names for civic watchers), estimated that over 5,500 lots in Vancouver had building lines running through them.

From the May 1999 report: “Building lines establish where the legal boundary of a street will be after a planned widening. Except for landscaping, fences, temporary structures and services, development is not normally permitted in the area between the existing property line and the building line. The result of setting back development from the building line is that if the City needs to acquire the building area, only the land will need to be acquired, and the development on the land will not be directly impacted. This greatly reduces both the cost to the City [i.e., taxpayers, citizens, and the public], and the disruption to the property if and when street widening occurs. An adopted building line changes several development procedures. The type of impact varies with the siting of existing buildings, the actions an owner may wish to take, and the zoning.”

Sometimes, the City moves the lines. In July 2021, the previous Council moved the line on Alma Street north of West 4th Avenue, as the designation that stretch had changed from “arterial” to “local” street when a major section of Kitsilano was blocked to through traffic as part of the “Point Grey-Cornwall Active Transportation” project in 2013 in the Vision Vancouver era. It might be interesting to visit that stretch of Alma to see if moving the building line has meant any difference the ground yet.

Update: It would be worth an investigative person looking into how and by whom requests to move building lines have been initiated in actual recent cases, and what the implications are. Any changes in policy have the potential to create winners and losers. In the case a City Council in one year chooses to move the building line, are they thinking several generations ahead? Are they thinking of the long-term public interest? As implied in the 1999 report cited above, a by one Council’s decision to move a building line could have implications eternally into the future, reducing future options for the City, and potentially significantly increasing costs of plans change years or decades in the future.

The appendix to the January 31, 2023 meeting regarding Hastings Street, North Side, from Cassiar Street to Boundary Road contains a backgrounder that might be helpful. We excerpt “Background Information on Building Lines” here, just for reference.

Zoning and Development By-law: Section 8

One thought on “What’s a ‘building line’ in Vancouver? Here’s a backgrounder.

  1. Pingback: Council preview for week of March 6: BIAs, patios, generic boxes going to public hearings, taxes, green building regulations, 601 Beach Crescent, missing DPB agendas, and more | CityHallWatch: Tools to engage in Vancouver city decisions

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