2014-10-21: Where dense doesn’t mean stupid

Kensington-Cedar Cottage: Where dense doesn’t mean stupid
By Pete McMartin, Vancouver Sun columnist
October 21, 2014

Last year on Halloween, 125 children came by John Buckberrough’s house trick-or-treating.

To Buckberrough, who lives in the East Vancouver neighbourhood of Kensington-Cedar Cottage, the kids tramping up his front stoop were more than just cute. They were an auspicious sign of his neighbourhood’s vitality.

The area has become a draw for young families. The local elementary school is proof of that — it now boasts a healthy enrolment. To anyone who has watched with dismay the dwindling numbers of kids trick-or-treating on Halloween — as I have in my own neighbourhood — Kensington-Cedar Cottage feels blessed and rejuvenated.

It didn’t happen by chance.

It happened through densification, and Kensington-Cedar Cottage was one of the few neighbourhoods in the city to embrace it.

It was one of two pilot neighbourhoods involved in CityPlan, the now defunct planning process initiated by the City of Vancouver exactly 20 years ago this month.

It was meant to be a collaborative and consultative design process between neighbourhood residents and city planners — “a relationship of peers,” Buckberrough called it, rather than the top-down process that now dominates, and, according to a half-dozen disenchanted neighbourhoods, bedevils city planning.

CityPlan’s aim was to determine how the city’s neighbourhoods could best accommodate a growing population. In other words: How will they densify?

Kensington-Cedar Cottage and Dunbar, the other pilot neighbourhood, were to be the templates for all the other neighbourhoods in the city.

It didn’t work out that way: CityPlan had its detractors and was eventually abandoned by subsequent administrations.

But beginning in 1992, Kensington-Cedar Cottage went through a 10-year design process to accommodate densification on its own terms. During part of that process, Buckberrough acted as chair of the neighbourhood’s CityPlan committee.

(Dunbar went the other way, and fought densification fiercely, presaging what would be the pattern for most neighbourhoods today.)

“The neighbourhood was dead or dying,” Buckberrough said. “The local Safeway was closing. We needed a new library, and the shopping areas along Kingsway were tired-looking. So we had to kickstart the area. And we thought the best way to revitalize the neighbourhood was to get more people in it.”

Before CityPlan, it had been a neighbourhood of single-family residences, many of which had seen better days. But under CityPlan, roughly two blocks parallel on either side of Kingsway and Knight Street were rezoned RT10, allowing development of strata housing. Infrastructure improvements followed — new sidewalks and street lighting, tree plantings, landscaped medians, traffic circles, bikeways, redevelopment of parks.

The result: Developers began assembling lots, and well-designed townhomes and lane houses began appearing. Across the street from Buckberrough’s house — a tiny, 1,100-sq.-ft. cottage built in 1911 — there is now a handsome seven-unit strata built in the neo-Craftsman style.

“The two single-family homes that used to be there housed four adults and one child. They now house 25 people, 11 of them children.”

On a walk through the neighbourhood, Buckberrough pointed out an attractive new fourplex being built on a 50-by-122-foot lot — it fit seamlessly into the streetscape of small homes. Walking down an alley, we looked at another complex of four small detached homes built on a single lot — again, all of them in the neo-Craftsman style, and each with their own small landscaped yard.

Densification, however, doesn’t necessarily translate into affordability.

The neighbourhood long ago broke the million-dollar barrier for some properties. He figures his own property, a half-lot, is worth nine times what he originally paid for it. We looked at a 10-unit townhome complex a block off Kingsway, and the smallest in the complex — a 630-sq.-ft., one-bedroom unit — was selling for $389,000. It was seven years old, and the real estate agent selling it told me it had probably appreciated 25 per cent from its original listing. (And it might just be me being preconditioned by the bizarre state of the Vancouver real estate market, but $389,000 for a small one-bedroom townhome actually sounded affordable.)

Buckberrough admits that affordability remains a problem. But it has, he said, offered buyers a variety of housing that is less expensive than if their only choice was a single-family residence. Densification didn’t solve the affordability problem for Kensington-Cedar Cottage — nothing can, except the market itself — but it did demonstrate how densification can remake a neighbourhood for the good, and how it can be achieved by a government that listens.

“As a taxpayer,” Buckberrough wrote in a critique of CityPlan, “I think that municipal government has the most impact on the individual: Are the streets clean and safe? Are the schools functioning well? Are people ‘house proud’? Does the garbage get picked up? All I want is perceived value for money, and I feel CityPlan delivered it in spades.”



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