We Like Commercial Drive the Way It Is
One thing that makes Commercial Drive an interesting and desirable place is the unique make up of the area. Consider the people in the census tract that forms the heart of Commercial Drive, the area between 1st Avenue and Venables, between Clark Drive and Nanaimo Street. The 2006 census showed this area to be almost 70% rented dwellings, compared to 35% of the dwellings in Greater Vancouver. The people living there tend to be younger, with almost twice as many in their late 20s (13%, compared to 7% in Greater Vancouver), living in one person households (47%, compared to 28% in Greater Vancouver) and almost 5 times as many of them are employed in the visual and performing arts, communications and the humanities (10%, compared to 2% in Greater Vancouver). These young, artistic people, many of them single and renters, help to create the uniqueness and the appeal of Commercial Drive.
Last summer a special meeting of the Grandview Woodland Local Area Council on the planning process in Grandview was attended by hundreds of people. The speaker that got the largest response from the audience was Garth Mullins. Garth passionately spoke about the destruction of the Grandview he loves through increasing land values, higher rents and the city’s plan to introduce significant new density:
“For me I can see allowing no further density without there being social justice involved in that density. The city is undergoing a process of social cleansing right now. My generation, my cohort, is being moved out of this community now… People I know, people I loved for a long time are moving to other places, they can’t afford it… Right now you have gentrification going on… Someone like me I might have dreamed of getting married at Astorino’s and taking my kids… to the Little Nest… and maybe they can’t ever live here. Well, I don’t want that… We already have that social mix of poor and middle class… of everybody the city aspires to elsewhere. We already have a sustainable community with a good balance of cultures and heritage… This is the model—don’t come here to fix it, export it to other places!
Before I was born the city fathers said let’s not have giant flyways and freeways going through the city. They fought that. Every other big city in North America has them and hates them. In a few years people are going to realize packing themselves into giant glass and chrome towers in the sky is the same thing, and they’re going to hate them too. So don’t fall for the trend… We’ve seen the model, it does not work… the social housing never materializes, so before any more density, let’s see social justice.”
One important observation that Jane Jacobs made was that communities that retain some of their older buildings assist in providing relatively inexpensive rents. New buildings and those using concrete construction are expensive to build and any new rentals are going to be expensive. This radically changes the neighbourhood, especially if less expensive older buildings with individual debt-free landlords are torn down and replaced by new buildings with large mortgages and professional landlords.
The plan currently proposed by the city, besides introducing more towers to the area, leaves untouched the area east of Commercial Drive that is zoned for duplexes. The new duplex units are going for about $700,000 for 1,200 square feet each, that’s $1.4 million for a 2, 400 square foot building on a normal lot. But if an older house with 3 or 4 rental units is torn down to do this, the impact on the environment and the neighbourhood is significant. While the rents may double, the number of people housed on the site can be halved.
In the 1950s the city allowed owners in Grandview to convert their houses into 3, 4, 5, or even 6 legal suites called Multiple Conversions. Many of the older homes had basements and attics as well as two floors in between. Some houses were allowed to add 15 feet to the back of the house, enough room to expand the suites on each floor or add bachelor suites. These Multiple Conversion houses provided a range of rental suites at a range of prices, from large 3-bedroom garden suites at the ground level, to 1 or 2 bedroom main floor and upstairs suites, to bachelor suites in the attic with a view. Allowing these homes a special heritage designation, with a heritage home building code would ensure relatively lower costs to create these new very ecologically green suites.
After two or three decades owners often have their mortgages paid off and are be less concerned about rent increases and high rents. In some cases tenants have been known to care for an aging owner in return for reduced rent, or for negotiating eventual ownership of the house.
These types of creative solutions to our local housing problems should be investigated and facilitated by the city. They can make an important contribution to retaining what makes Grandview such a desirable area, and to avoiding some of the things that might radically alter the neighbourhood we love to live in.