February 10, 2017
A city block full of inspiration
By ANNE McMULLIN
Row housing could address problems in Vancouver’s housing market
Taking a stroll down the 1800-block of West 1st Avenue in Vancouver, you might think you’ve made a “wrong left turn at Albuquerque” as Bugs Bunny says, and landed in Paris or London by mistake.
This Vancouver streetscape is reminiscent of picturesque European streets that feature low-rise heritage row houses with retail stores at street level and residential apartments above. It is a unique, one-off “village” in Vancouver that almost didn’t happen.
Constructed in the mid-1980s, the project was a whimsical plan by a chartered-accountant-turned-developer to recreate Toronto’s iconic Yorkville district in Vancouver.
“I loved the English row housing style (of Yorkville),” says Bill Inman, then a partner in The Bills Group of developers, now in sales and corporate development for Radiance Energy Corporation. On a visit to Toronto, he took some pictures in Yorkville and brought them back to Vancouver, using them to convince landowners along commercially zoned West 1st Avenue to assemble as one development parcel.
He and an architect friend created a plan they called “Yorkville Mews.” It comprised two-bedroom concrete units from 1,280 to 1,320 square feet above, with retail below, blending commercial and residential strata lots.
The proposal was presented to the city and approved within six to eight weeks. But then it was delayed by a bank bankruptcy, resulting from the 1980s recession, and took about 11 to 12 months to build, just too late for Expo ’86. “The project was 100 per cent financed by the bank,” says Inman. “We had no more funds, a hole in the ground, a foundation poured and water filling up that hole.”
He quickly sold a few units to notables including Allen Ainsworth (of the lumber company) and Linda Meinhardt (of the fine food store). But that wouldn’t finance the entire construction. “I then met my father for lunch,” Inman says. “He introduced me to a guy who said: ‘What do you need?’ I replied, ‘One million and a sponsor.’ On the strength of a handshake, I got the cheque.” And so the project got built.
After seeing Inman’s finished project, Gordon Price, who was a Vancouver city councilor when the project came up for approval, hoped it might “inspire new development of low-rise with interesting streetscapes.” He believes Vancouver, which has historically favoured single-family housing over medium-density homes, needs more of this “village-style” housing mix on a large scale. It would address the “missing middle” in Vancouver real estate, he says. Right now, home-seekers have a limited choice of condos or single-family homes with little in between. “This would make some difference to affordability,” says Price, who is now a fellow at the Centre for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University.
Looking back, Inman claims he didn’t make much money off the project, but while living there in his “bachelor pad,” he did meet his wife, a Realtor. He also went on to work at Intrawest Corp., perfecting his “village style” of developments. Intrawest, of course, is the well-known developer of the Whistler-Blackcomb village resort.
Anne McMullin is president and CEO of the Urban Development Institute, an association of the real estate development industry, which supports more than 220,000 B.C. jobs plus billions of dollars in economic activity. Through municipal fees and contributions, the industry funds the construction of daycare centres, social housing, parks, public art, museums, schools and community centres throughout B.C.