Kits Point: 1000 Cypress St. vs. Senakw
How restrictive Vancouver’s zoning is: you can't replace an old apartment building with a new one
An eight-unit, two-storey rental apartment building at 1000 Cypress Street in Kits Point, built in 1972, has reached the end of its useful life. Instead of being replaced with a new apartment building of the same size, it’s being replaced with three single-detached houses.
This is city policy: the land here is zoned RT-9, which is a downzoned (more restrictive) version of residential RS zoning. What this means: if you already had an apartment building there, then you can keep it, but when it’s time to replace it, you can’t replace it with a new apartment building. By right, you can only build single-detached houses.
In theory you could try to get the city to rezone the land for a new apartment building, but it doesn’t make much sense to go through the slow, expensive, and uncertain rezoning process to build a small apartment building. (Ginger Gosnell-Myers: “It’s easier to elect a new pope than to approve a small rental apartment building in the city of Vancouver.”)
Zoning restrictions are like pushing down on a balloon. The people who want to live there don’t disappear, they get pushed somewhere else.
You can see that zoning restrictions are suppressing a truly huge amount of demand by walking just five minutes south on Chestnut Street. You come to the Senakw project, across the Burrard Bridge from downtown. On this relatively small parcel of land, the plan is to build high-rises up to 59 storeys high, with 6000 rental apartments, 20% below-market.
The only reason this can happen is that the project is on Squamish land, so it’s not subject to the city’s zoning restrictions.
The juxtaposition is startling. It’s obvious that if the city allowed more housing - say a three-storey apartment building, 1.4 FSR, at 1000 Cypress, or anywhere in the neighbourhood - then that’s what people would build. Or a four-storey building. Or a six-storey building. The reason they don’t - the reason we have such a terrible shortage of housing - is that the city doesn’t allow it.
One of the most obvious ways to address Vancouver’s housing shortage is that we should let people build more desperately needed housing.
What happened after 1972:
More on 1000 Cypress Street
BC Assessment. The existing building was built in 1972, so it’s 50 years old. It looks like it’s at the end of its useful life: the building is valued at $10,000, while the land is assessed at $14.8 million. The site is 99x144 feet, i.e. three 33x144-foot lots.
If you look at Jens von Bergmann’s Vancouver Assessment Map, you can see that newer single-detached houses in the neighbourhood on a 33-foot lot, but without the ocean view, are assessed at $6 million, with $4 million in land value. Adjacent 33-foot lots on Ogden Avenue, with the ocean view, are assessed at $6 million in land value, suggesting that a new single-detached house with the ocean view would sell for about $8 million.
City website showing the current plan for three single-detached houses: https://www.shapeyourcity.ca/1000-cypress-st
More on Senakw
Squamish Nation planning 6,000 new homes next to Burrard Bridge. Kenneth Chan in the Daily Hive, November 2019.
Squamish Nation’s planned development on traditional land in Vancouver doubles in size, includes 11 towers. Frances Bula in the Globe and Mail, November 2019, with some additional commentary on her blog.
Squamish Nation approves 6,000-home Senakw development in Vancouver. Kenneth Chan, December 2019.
How a Canadian Indigenous group could outwit NIMBYs. The Economist, March 2021.
Squamish Senakw, City of Vancouver strike service deal for 11-tower, 6,000-unit development. Derrick Penner in the Vancouver Sun, May 2022.
Senakw project: The unique Squamish Nation and City of Vancouver partnership outlined in agreement. Kenneth Chan, August 2022.
Kits Point Residents Association takes the city to court over Sen̓áḵw services agreement. David Carrigg in the Vancouver Sun, October 2022.
Nice article. Continuing on your point with the Squamish lands, one of my hypotheses is that the Indigenous people could actually end up being the solution to this mess over the ultra-long term.
Like, because the Indigenous people can develop what they want (other than potential restrictions around hooking up utilities), they have a competitive advantage when it comes to developing Vancouver real estate. That advantage should allow them to get outsized profits relative to other developers.
Those profits should allow them to buy land, integrate it with their other land, and continue development. Effectively, they have a flywheel that over the course of a century or two, should let them re-acquire massive swaths of Vancouver.
It's pretty unlikely to happen because there are going to be many people involved in making the decisions about what to do with the profits, and it would be difficult implement a long term plan for prosperity when most people would rather just buy toys today. But it amuses me that it theoretically *could* happen.
I'm sorry you didn't get elected. You're the closest person I've ever seen to being my doppleganger. (Similar style of writing, similar jobs, similar interests, similar perspectives on most issues, same somewhat unusual CS/math degree from UBC + CS master's degree, similar focus on analytics, similar decision to be involved in politics.) So, I think it's unfortunate that you weren't elected.
This is a great article!