Neighbourhood character is a bit like art. We know it when we see it, but it can be difficult to describe. Or create.
Discussions about changes to neighbourhood character have been going on in West Vancouver for decades, with many different groups looking into it. Last August, West Van council created a new citizen group, fittingly called the Neighbourhood Character Working Group, to make recommendations that will preserve and enhance neighbourhood character for the residents of the District.
I, along with eight other dedicated and caring volunteer residents (plus councillor Peter Lambur, and two staff) sit on the working group. What started as a group of concerned citizens with little in common other than that we care about our community has matured into a focussed team working on a common set of challenges. First, as we found our feet, we developed a vision for our work, wrote a definition of success (primarily that our recommendations actually bear fruit, rather than collect dust), and developed a work plan to guide our efforts. We studied previous efforts on this file to see what worked, what didn’t, and why – so we could learn how to increase our group’s chance of success.
We collected numerous examples of what we consider good and bad character. Over time and with much discussion, we have managed to whittle a very wide array of concerns down to a working list of five issues.
We think that, managed correctly, these five issues can provide us the levers we need to influence development in West Vancouver. “Influence” is a key word here – it is our intention to suggest incremental changes that will help encourage the results the community wants, and discourage the things we don’t want. Our feeling is that approach is more likely to gain acceptance and bear fruit than a too-ambitious and too-rigid agenda.
Here are the five issues, with a brief description of each:
1. Size. Many of the older parts of West Van have relatively (by today’s standards) small houses for their lot sizes. With the high value of land today, buyers of these properties usually wish to maximize value by building to the maximum size permitted. New home styles, and to some degree District rules, encourage houses that emphasize their bulk, and they often look out of place next to the older homes that residents are used to.
2. Landscaping. West Van is known for being a “green” city (in the old sense of green) with lots of hedges, gardens, and a general abundance of year-round greenness. For a variety of reasons, many newer homes use much less soft landscaping and they stand out all the more for that difference.
3. Hard surfaces. The use of fences, walls, retaining walls, and extensive paving can present a harsh streetscape to neighbours and can have a negative impact on drainage, affecting downhill neighbours.
4. Neighbour consideration. Sometimes development can affect privacy and views of existing neighbours, often in ways that could have been easily addressed with a conversation before building starts. We might be able to encourage neighbourliness by encouraging conversations.
5. Housing diversity. Many people feel that West Vancouver could be a more complete, interesting, dynamic and resilient community if it had more housing options – places to accommodate both downsizing seniors and the “missing middle” that might bring some kids back to our streets and shoppers to local businesses. Current regulations do not always encourage this kind of housing, even though the OCP calls for it.
Recently, the Neighbourhood Character Working Group held a series of public information meetings, discussions with residents, and a survey to ask the public if we have in fact identified the right issues the community cares about, if we have described those issues correctly, and if we have missed any issues not captured in our list. So far the feedback has been very encouraging.
Over the next few months we will formulate some specific recommendations, then in the fall we hope to go back to the public again, this time to test our suggestions. If all goes well, we should be able to incorporate feedback from the public consultations and get a final report to council in early 2020. I encourage readers to do a couple of things. First, if you haven’t already, please sign up for westvancouverITE and fill out the Neighbourhood Character survey (go to westvancouverite.ca and you will see it under “Join the Conversation” on the home page.)
The survey provides lots of room for comments and suggestions. Second, volunteer for a committee or working group of the West Van council. You will meet really smart and caring people, and have a chance to contribute to this wonderful community. And you may discover that some issues that look simple on the surface are not so straightforward after all.
Tom Dodd is a member of the Neighbourhood Character Working Group