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Heritage Restoration: Filling the Missing Middle with James Evans

In light of Icon Marketing’s heritage restoration project, Century House, we interviewed Vancouver developer, James Evans to discuss increasing Vancouver's housing density through heritage conversions. Century House is a collaboration with Domus Homes and Formwerks Architecture, where a century’s old corner store is being converted into four beautiful homes and retail space. While Evans is not affiliated with Century House, he is the mastermind behind many other projects in Vancouver that incorporate existing buildings with new development. He advocates for increasing neighbourhood density without significantly altering the fabric of it by repurposing heritage buildings.

Using his own heritage restoration project, Jeffs Residences, Evans first illustrates to us what increasing housing density through heritage looks like in practice:

“Jeffs Residences, on Charles Street just off Commercial Drive] was a large old house that was built in the 1900’s, it happened to be sitting on a large site that was quite under utilized relative to what you could build on the site … Under the zoning on the site you could have demolished everything and built 10 duplexes. But I looked at it and I thought that first, there was this grand old house that had been kind of butchered but still retained the essential fabric and form of the original house, and there was an opportunity here with this under utilized site. I thought maybe there was an opportunity to add some different forms of housing through a Heritage Revitalization Agreement which was a policy tool the City had to encourage Heritage Retention”

After negotiations with the City of Vancouver, Evans arrived at a plan to build 20 units on the site consisting of a mix of housing types. The project consisted of one and two bedroom condos and three bedroom townhomes.

Vancouver's Missing Middle Housing
Jeffs Residences

What is a Heritage Revitalization Agreement with the City of Vancouver?

According to the City of Vancouver’s website, a Heritage Revitalization Agreement (HRA) is a mutually beneficial policy tool that the City can employ with a property owner to encourage the retention and preservation of heritage. In exchange for the owner agreeing to restore and protect heritage assets and incorporate them into the redevelopment of a property, the City will agree to relax certain density, form of development, and siting regulations.

Vancouver's Missing Middle Housing
Jeffs Residences Pre-Construction (Photo: James Evans)

By entering into an HRA with the City of Vancouver, Evans was granted a density bonus as well as siting and height relaxations in exchange for the retention and restoration of the heritage structure. This resulted in Evans being able to build 20 units, which is double the amount of he could have built otherwise. Evans explained that they were able to position the project in a way to “meet the needs of an underserved demographic in the City of Vancouver, that being the provision of 'missing middle housing'.”

What is Missing Middle Housing?

Missing Middle housing refers to house-scale buildings with multiple units in walkable neighbourhoods. It provides alternative forms of housing without significantly altering the fabric of the neighbourhood. It serves buyers for which detached single family homes and apartment buildings are either unaffordable or do not fit their lifestyle. In Evans' case, he was able to achieve missing middle housing by creating townhouses and condominiums that are rare in an area of mainly single family homes. Furthermore, Jeffs Residences was built on the same lot as the heritage house, providing increased density that was carefully weaved into the fabric of the surrounding neighbourhood.

How is Increasing Density Through Heritage Good for the City and Its Residents?

According to Evans, increasing housing density through heritage conversions checks a lot of boxes:

  1. Provides missing middle housing by adding “stealth density” in neighbourhoods
  2. Stealth density involves finding ways to increase the supply of housing in an area without really affecting the fabric of the neighbourhood.
  3. Provides for retention and restoration of a heritage house
  4. This meets Vancouver’s heritage and green objectives, as it is much more environmentally sustainable to fix up an old house than it is to knock it down and build a new one.
  5. Provides for a market that is not well served right now
  6. When a neighbourhood mainly consists of single family homes or duplexes, there are many buyers who either can’t afford those forms of housing or for which it is not suitable. Evans cites young families as one demographic that is currently being underserved.
Vancouver's Missing Middle Housing
Vancouver's Missing Middle Housing

Jeffs Residences Ariel View: Pre-construction (Left) and Post-construction (Right)

How is Increasing Density Through Heritage Good for Investors?

From Evans perspective as an investor and developer:

“The policy tools that the City of Vancouver provided [for Jeffs Residence], was essentially a density bonus in exchange for the retention of the heritage. It was designed in a way to make you indifferent between retaining the house and knocking it down and building duplexes, and in the case of the Jeffs project that policy has worked and met those objectives, so from the perspective of an investor you’re financially indifferent between one or the other, and from a personal perspective I like saving old things because I am an old thing.”

Future of Heritage Conversions in Vancouver

Evans notes that in further initiatives to encourage heritage retention and increase housing density, Vancouver has brought in zoning specific policies to move away from HRAs in neighbourhoods that have traditionally been zoned for single family dwellings. According to Evans, the reason for this shift is that HRAs for smaller sites are cumbersome, as they are a lot more work and require Vancouver city council ratification. These new zoning policies, similar to HRAs, essentially give owners a density bonus if they restore a heritage building. If owners choose to knock down a home, they get penalized in the form of reduced density. However, if you keep the structure the City of Vancouver will increase the density and allow for a multifamily conversion. This shift in zoning policy has made it easier and more enticing for owners of smaller sites to convert their house into multiple units or add a small infill like a laneway house. However, Evans says that this shift has taken away from the opportunities for larger projects, or “compromise redevelopments” like Jeffs Residences.

Like Jeffs Residences, Century House is also providing middle housing to Vancouver’s Norquay neighbourhood  

While Century House was originally initiated under a HRA, the project was finally given the green light after a rezoning approval. This rezoning has allowed for the retention and restoration of a century’s old grocery store and the addition of three townhomes on the lot. Century House will provide the East Vancouver neighbourhood of Norquay with four additional housing units and a retail space, all within the same footprint of the original lot. Century House is reimagining a piece of Vancouver’s history that may otherwise have been demolished. Through preserving heritage, we are providing alternative housing options to residents while not altering the fabric of the neighbourhood, but enhancing it.

Vancouver's Missing Middle Housing

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