Opinion: Resorting to New Ways of Sharing Space

Michael Geller
August 15, 2014

This column, by Vancouver-based architect, planner, real estate consultant and property developer Michael Geller, originally appeared in REW.ca's sister publication the Vancouver Courier . To read the original article, click here, and for more local Vancouver news and opinion, go to www.vancourier.com

Many years ago, my then 82-year-old father and I took a cruise around the Black Sea. Each day he enjoyed an array of activities and made new friends. He could walk everywhere there was no need to drive and no dishes to wash or other housekeeping chores.

As we were disembarking, he turned to me and said, "I think I could get used to living like this all year round."

I think about my late father's statement whenever I stay at a resort. As I enjoy the extensive nearby facilities, activities, dining and shopping, I often wonder what it would be like to live like this all the time.

While some wealthy individuals can live year round on cruise ships or in sunny resorts, most of us do not have these options.

However, we often seek neighbourhoods and housing forms offering the features that make cruising and resort living so attractive.

We seek "village-like" environments where we feel safe with friends and strangers alike. We want to be close to community facilities where we can enjoy yoga and bridge classes. We like the idea of occasionally sharing meals and not having to drive everywhere. We would like someone else to take care of us and do the things we prefer not to do like picking up, cleaning or weeding the garden.

Many seniors are now moving into "lifestyle" retirement communities that offer these attributes. They own or rent self-contained suites, but enjoy meals in communal and private dining rooms. They participate in planned outings, cultural, sports and recreation activities.

They and their families have a greater sense of security and peace of mind.

At the other end of the age spectrum, students and twenty-somethings enjoy university residences or other shared living arrangements.

At the end of the day there is always someone to have a meal with, see a movie or head out for an evening on the town.

Unfortunately, most of us past our student days but not yet ready for a retirement home have very limited options when it comes to these kinds of friendlier, communal living arrangements.

Verdant at SFU Univercity is one of the few local neighbourhoods designed to appeal to families who want to live close together

The few exceptions are those living in older market or government-subsidized housing cooperatives, or newer co-housing developments.

However, I think this is about to change.

Retirement community operators will tell you that while many seniors are still reluctant to move into their complexes, their children are often the opposite. They are attracted to carefree living environments and wonder how soon they can move in.

Many "empty nesters" would gladly sell their larger single family houses if they could move into well-designed smaller homes in a nearby clustered single-family or multi-family complex. They like the idea of what architect Ross Chapin calls "pocket neighbourhoods" which cluster a number of smaller houses together, close to amenities, but not on busy streets.

Sadly, this type of housing is generally not being built in Vancouver because zoning bylaws prevent it.

We cannot have small townhouse complexes mixed in with single family homes. We cannot even have duplexes or small lot houses mixed in with large lot houses. With few exceptions, new apartments are kept away in downtown locations or along busy streets.

While many empty nesters have happily moved into apartments, others say they are not yet ready for apartment living. They worry about the loss of indoor and outdoor space, and the potential of being somewhat isolated.

In Antwerp, Belgium, a 24-storey apartment building has recently been designed to address these concerns and help residents make friends.

Individual apartments are grouped into mini-communities opening onto communal balconies and winter gardens. Residents also share an inner courtyard and dining room for those times when they may not want to eat alone in their apartment. There is a bike-repair facility, roof terrace and other amenities. I suspect many Vancouver residents would find this appealing.

As aging baby boomers seek alternative housing choices, I am hopeful it will become easier for planners to convince neighbourhoods and politicians to make the necessary zoning changes to permit these friendlier forms of housing throughout the city.

After all, most of us will never live on cruise ships or resorts.

Michael Geller
Michael is an architect, planner, real estate consultant and developer with more than four decades of experience in the public, private and institutional sectors. Some of his notable projects include the redevelopment of the South Shore False Creek, Bayshore in Coal Harbour and UniverCity at SFU. He is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University and is an affiliate of the UBC Masters in Urban Design program. Michael is a well-known commentator on real estate and housing and an adviser to the City of Vancouver's Affordable Housing Task Force. He is also a past president of UDI Pacific and UDI Canada, and has been honoured as a Fellow of the Canadian Institute of Planners and a Life Member of the Architectural Institute of BC.