Real estate owners and home buyers who specifically selected a seasoned urban neighbourhood with very diverse housing styles watch in horror as, apparently at random, home after home is transformed into subdivision-style, highly similar, fake-stone and beige-stucco houses with front yard parking. That's considered progress by those doing it, and destruction of beloved neighbourhoods by those who live there.
The question that is ignored is, "Who's really in charge of coordinating each neighbourhood transformation?"
Too often, this battle is labelled as "old fashioned" versus "new," but when these "new" homes are rehashes of 20th-Century plans which were outdated back then, "new" may not be new enough. Integrated main-floor garages and steep stairs to climb above rooms with 13-foot ceilings, reduce choices if mobility becomes an issue at any stage of life. On the other hand, many owners of the "older" homes have been significantly or entirely modernized, assisted by the government's extensive upgrade-grant programs. Renovations may include several universal-design features which can transform these moderate-sized homes into true 21st-Century houses.
The United-Nations-sanctioned global trend to aging in place, instead of moving into an institution, is being ignored by most "parachute-in, up-size, and go" in-fill builders. Municipal governments talk about housing "aging populations," and ignore the fact that, one lot at a time, existing neighbourhoods are being stripped of one-floor homes. Replacement homes and townhomes are not deliberately being planned or designed for decades of active, involved aging in place. That is, with universal design features including wider halls, walk-in showers, roughed-in elevators, and main-floor bedroom-ensuite combos.
Yes, this is about what buyers want, but they want what they are marketed into wanting. Universal design features make living better at all ages and stages of life. So, why do municipalities' actions seem to encourage a move back to 20th-Century housing and car-centric community layouts which were not great design even then? Isn't it a mix of housing styles what keeps neighbourhoods diverse and interesting?
Reinventing The Wheel Current municipal zoning and planning systems demand that property owners must individually "reinvent the wheel" if they want to have their voice heard when undertaking an improvement to their residential or recreational property which exceeds current site-specific regulations. This is also true if they want to object to a neighbour's plans.
If an owner intends to build a deck, construct an addition, or make any change to the buildings (including size or location) or to land use that exceeds existing land-use standards set out in zoning bylaws, the municipal system requires preparation of plans and presentation of the case for these site-specific zoning bylaw changes or variances.
Long-time property owners are discovering that they may have less flexibility improving their own property, than new owners who make a business of flipping or renovating for profit. "Pop-up" developers, with teams of full-time professionals, adeptly work this system in their quest to achieve the greatest expansion of zoning standards they can. Their repeated goal is approval to build the tallest, largest-volume, front-parking erections possible.
The most common reason builders give for up-sizing gross square footage from bylaw building size limits of 60 percent lot coverage to from 69 to over 75 percent is "everyone else is doing it." Each property is different, and zoning bylaws are site specific, but the "everyone else" argument - that didn't work with your parents - seems to work with municipalities.
Neighbours who don't want these up-sized buildings on the property abutting or near theirs have the right to be heard by the municipal Committee of Adjustment. These property owners may have the use and enjoyment of their property interrupted or permanently affected by variances the builder receives approval for: loss of sunlight, removal of trees, blocked views, two- or three-storey towering blank walls, more density, more cars…the list of interferences goes on.
The greatest challenge for adjacent neighbours can be the apathy of the rest of the street. Do they understand that although variances are not labelled as precedent-setting, past approvals are the main argument—"me too"—for new applications? A coordinated response from a block of owners makes a significant impact in presentations.
The "starting from scratch" research and learning required by individual property owners goes on hundreds and hundreds of times a year. Yet, there is little material to make their efforts more effective beyond generic broad, vague statements. Municipalities don't produce step-by-step guides, case studies, or easily-accessible records of hundreds of past cases.
When an owner intent on significant construction has a professional contractor or designer making the case for them, the playing field is no longer level. If the residential or cottage property is bought by a real estate developer or construction firm intent on quickly up-sizing existing housing, imbalances involved may turn a complicated process into unfair advantages for the non-resident owner with a short-term focus on profit.
When one side employs a full-time team of professionals, all knowledgeable in real estate development and related fields, the level playing field becomes a slippery slope. Established property owners are wildly outmatched by build-and-go owners who are, or who hire, contractors, lawyers, planners, architects, contractors, or real estate agents. The system repeatedly pits full-time, big-budget, multiple-venture experts against one owner or a few, probably working in their spare time, with no budget, and a huge learning curve for this one-time experience. If the expert-laden side loses, they go to a higher court and have the decision reversed. In Ontario, that's the Ontario Municipal Board where individual consumers are even more outmatched.
The haphazard redesign of established neighbourhoods is a response to overheated real estate markets. There is profit to be made in buying a small house, tearing all or part of it down, and building the biggest dwelling approved. When real estate markets slow and not all up-sized homes quickly sell for big dollars, there will be time to think about the neighbourhood impact. Will that be too late?
Why don't we always consider the overall neighbourhood as a living environment for present and future generations? How does the random rebuilding of our established neighbourhoods help more than the profit-takers? Before these neighbourhoods have been eviscerated, shouldn't we investigate how to improve established successful communities, so we provide the range of housing necessary to facilitate aging in place, universal design, and other 21st-Century trends?
Copyright© 2013 Realty Times®. All Rights Reserved
Copyright © 2013 Realty Times®. All Rights Reserved