West Van’s growing fear of density

It was the kind of residents meeting only West Vancouver could inspire. Last year, about 300 settled into the plush seats of the hillside Kay Meek Centre. They listened to speeches presented to a panel of experts about the benefits of coach houses, then took their turn at the mike, setting out their concerns in well-modulated voices: coach houses would overshadow neighbouring homes. Far from solving the quandary of affordability — germane even here at the apex of the housing chain — they would make properties more expensive. Most damning: they would change forever and for the worse the character and charms of this cherished enclave.

But when one blazer-wearing type went over the top, saying he had moved to West Vancouver to get away from “social housing” (skating over the difference between 1,200-square-footers and, say, Brazilian favelas) and that introducing such shacks would make the municipality look as downmarket as (shudder) North Van, some in the crowd booed. Too far.

Faced with such overfunctioning voters, the district’s planners and councillors must offer change with plenty of qualifications and sensible limits. (Two years ago a single objection to a coach house pilot project in Horseshoe Bay was enough to force planners away from approval.)

Still, a shift is in the air. Like every municipality around it, West Van is being asked to consider how it will help the region take in a million people by 2041. According to Metro Vancouver’s plan, the district should grow to 60,000. Yet in a corner of the province that is growing rapidly, it has actually managed to shrink. In 2001, its population was estimated at 43,600; in the 2011 census, 42,694.

As supply struggles to accommodate, West Van residents are quietly telling city staff they would appreciate options beyond either lavish estates or apartments in restricted zones along Marine Drive. Thus coach houses — that way of squeezing in a little more accommodation without going so far as allowing apartment buildings or even duplexes or rowhomes. And done in a West Van way. “We’re hoping to introduce these in a manner that’s a little more sensitive” than in other cities, says diplomatic senior community planner Stephen Mikicich.

The proposed rules, set out in November and of course pending still more consultation, are finicky and precise. Coach houses — not laneway houses, not granny suites — can’t look like full two-storey homes: they need to match the main house in design and material — Mini-Me mansions. Inspectors will spot-check that garages aren’t converted to living space. And they won’t be allowed on every lot. “Here,” says Mikicich, “maybe it will be 10 to 50 percent of a block that is eligible.”

It’s a start. In the meantime, a proposal by the Grosvenor Group for two modest condo towers in Ambleside has ground along the much more difficult road of its own public inquisition. Reduced by one floor to six and seven storeys, it just cleared three years of revision and consultation. Nothing before its time.