Affluent areas plagued by abandoned mansions, suspicious fires, brazen break-ins and disappearing populations – but there’s a solution
The residential streets of Vancouver’s leafy West Side will be a little scarier than usual these next two days, as neighbourhood kids dress up as ghouls, monsters and Donald Trump for their annual trick-or-treat outings.
But in some affluent areas, it’s starting to be scary year-round, with an increasing sense of entire streets and blocks left empty of residents. This hollowing-out is not only stripping the character and community out of these neighbourhoods, but also contributing to a significant rise in opportunistic crime, with two shocking stories making headlines in recent weeks.
One was the massive fire that tore apart an empty Shaughnessy mansion, which police describe as “suspicious” as investigators found it was started at multiple points throughout the luxury home. The other was a brazen break-in at an occupied Shaughnessy house, at which the owner was showering when a burglar broke in and stole several items. Pretty easy to do when there are virtually no neighbours around to report suspicious activity.
According to the Metro story on the break-in, these are just two of the rocketing numbers of house-related crimes in the West Side’s toniest neighbourhoods. It cites police statistics that say Dunbar, Point Grey, Arbutus Ridge, Shaughnessy, South Cambie, Kerrisdale, Oakridge and Killarney all saw more than a 30% increase in break and enters between 2013 and 2014 – with easily the highest rise in Shaughessy, at a massive 128%. That’s compared with a 20% rise in West End and Downtown and 21% in Strathcona.
The rising crime figures correlate reasonably closely with 2016 Census data that reveals most of these neighbourhoods saw a reduction in the number of residents since the 2011 Census. While Vancouver’s overall population increased, the interactive map pictured below from local data analyst Jens von Bergmann shows how many West Side ’hoods lost people in that five year period, with Shaughnessy’s population disappearing by 6.9%.
It’s a sorry state of affairs, not just for the sense of community that is lost but also because Vancouver’s population is growing overall, and there is an increasingly desperate need for housing. So why is it happening?
The overwhelming public perception is that multimillion-dollar homes are left empty by overseas owners parking their money in Vancouver. That’s certainly true for a certain proportion of these houses, and certain streets and blocks in particular.
But another reason for population decline is empty-nesters hanging onto their large homes after adult children move out. One of the reasons for that is a lack of available and acceptable smaller homes to downsize into, according to urban planner and architect Michael Geller. This has led to Vancouver’s empty bedrooms phenomenon, which could be even more severe than its empty homes problem.
Both problems can be solved with one answer – densification. Increased supply of smaller, more affordable homes throughout these increasingly problematic neighbourhoods. This would give empty-nesters somewhere to move to, and young families a chance to buy into the West Side with a smaller starter home. It would also help with the issue of absentee owners of empty mansions, as large homes sold would gradually get transformed into multi-unit developments.
I can already hear the local NIMBYs gasp in horror at my suggestion. And I get it – protecting the character of neighbourhoods full of gorgeous heritage homes is important. But that character is surely lost if the homes are beautiful but abandoned, those leafy streets deserted, residential blocks utterly void of children trick-or-treating at Halloween. A neighbourhood’s character comes from its people and sense of community.
Take the West End, for example. Once all single-family homes, there are now just a few pockets of heritage houses, with some revered mansions protected by the City. The rest is made up of high- and low-rise condo buildings, resulting in much higher population density. The result? A thriving, vibrant community full of all types of people, at all income levels – singles, families, local-born, immigrants, everyone.
This approach might be a little too radical for the West Side. But pervasive gentle densification throughout these neighbourhoods – along with many, many more mid- to high-rises being built on the major arterials such as Granville, Oak, Arbutus, Macdonald, King Edward, West 4th Avenue, 41st, 49th and Broadway – would result in a hugely increased supply of smaller homes, and a much more efficient use of all that land.
The City should consider much more radical rezoning and densification in order to take these beloved West Side neighbourhoods into the 21st century, and fill them up with children once more. If it fails to do this, the future is scary indeed.