Urban Monsters

New West has always remained somewhat of a hidden gem, until lately. Seems the word has gotten out to those interested in building new homes, and the word is that New West has reasonably priced lots (relative to other areas) and their building codes are far more lax than anywhere else. There are some absolutely beautiful homes being built, in keeping with the style of the neighbourhood. My problem is with the character destroyers or 'urban monsters' that are being erected.

This is a guest post by Remo Pistor. Remo grew up in South Burnaby.  He moved to the West End of New West in 2003.  He’s passionate about the community he lives in and is interested in seeing New West have successful growth in areas such as small business and development while staying true to its heritage and character of its neighbourhoods.  Remo is an IT Manager for a small software development company, the tech guy behind his girlfriend’s fashion blog www.prairiegirlinthecity.com and all around tech wizard.  You can find Remo on twitter @remop

Edinburgh St. character homes. Photo: Remo Pistor.
Edinburgh St. character homes. Photo: Remo Pistor.

I bought a house in New West about 8 years ago, just as the housing prices were starting to rise and just before the market ballooned and went crazy.  I bought in the West End of New Westminster which I always describe to people as a mini Queens Park; a quaint, quiet neighbourhood with large lots and a lot of old character homes.  Even now you can find a nice house with a large yard for around $600,000.

In spite of City council being as progressive as a community of Amish, there are lots of positives to living in New West and I have really enjoyed living here.  You’re 30 minutes from everything, and you don’t need to cross a bridge or tunnel to get to Vancouver.  The neighbourhoods have lots of character, they’re quiet, and there are lots of parks and community areas.

I felt New West has always remained somewhat of a hidden gem, until lately.  Seems the word has gotten out to those interested in building new homes, and the word is that New West has reasonably priced lots (relative to other areas) and their building codes are far more lax than anywhere else.

Vancouver Special, coming up. Photo: Remo Pistor.
Vancouver Special, coming up. Photo: Remo Pistor.

Now I don’t want you to get me wrong; I’m not against new houses being built.  There are some absolutely beautiful homes being built, in keeping with the style of the neighbourhood. My problem is with the character destroyers or urban monsters that are being erected.  They have foundations wide and deep enough to support a small condo high-rise and even though you are legally allowed only one rental suite the basement has 2 entrances.  The giant wood cube structure built on top are built to their maximum allowable height with flat roofs and every window boxed out to avoid violating the maximum square footage bylaw.  They make no consideration for the character of the neighbourhood or their neighbours.

In my case, the house next to me, although it was built not long before I bought my house, it was built to maximize every last square inch.  On top of being a giant ugly box that destroys the character of the neighbourhood, it was built so close to the property line and so tall that even at the peak of summer it casts a shadow covering a quarter of my backyard.  In the winter my “lawn” has enough moss growing in it that I could keep the local craft stores supplied through to the next season.

What bugs me is that all the while that this destruction of our neighbourhoods is happening, the city does nothing to curb it (bad pun not intended).  Compounding the situation is an Official Community Plan that is disjointed and poorly put together.  In section 2.6 Heritage and Neighbourhood Character, New West identifies the importance of its heritage but really that’s it.  It states that residents and community need to be involved in the conservation of New West’s history and heritage buildings.  But, once again the city falls short in doing anything about the most important part, and that’s making sure there’s a policy that addresses new developments and construction staying true to the neighbourhood’s character.

In contrast, in Burnaby, they have a strong Official Community Plan that’s succinct and covers all aspects of the city.  In section 4.0 Residential, goal number three is: “To maintain and improve neighbourhood liveability and stability.”

It states in goal 3 that, “Residential neighbourhoods are important sub-units of the City. They serve as ‘building blocks’ creating a community through their diverse and distinctive characteristics.”  It goes on to state in the final point that, “Future plans for residential development, as they relate to residential neighborhoods, need to recognize the following… new development should respect the character of the neighborhood and protect those aspects that make each area unique.”

Why New Westminster is unable to take the same approach to protect the character of their neighbourhoods, which they so prominently display on their website, is beyond me.
At the end of the day, I don’t mind you building a large new house; I hope to be able to do the same one day, just have a little respect for your neighbours and your neighbourhood.
In the mean time, another house on my block has been knocked down and replaced with another Vancouver Special.

Remo Pistor

Remo Pistor is a really valued member of the Tenth to the Fraser community. Interested in joining our pool of writers? Please see these submission guidelines.

17 comments

  1. We used to live in Victory Heights, and it was the same situation – cute 50's bungalows juxtapositioned with pink stucco monstrosities.

    The city probably didn't adopt a more coherent community plan because one wasn't necessary. And now that one is, it might be years in the making, and the damage will already be done.

    Unfortunately, for the builder of a new home, small is rarely viewed as beautiful.

  2. Awesome post, Remo! I agree so wholeheartedly. I think the photo you’ve got is where two houses once stood – we looked at that property to buy if it’s the one I’m thinking of. And while our plan would have been to knock down one, we actually considered saving the one house and just moving it to allow for more yard. I think it’s partly because people still equate a big house with success and status. Personally, I want an efficient house that blends in. As George Carlin said (and I’m paraphrasing) a big house just means more stuff and soon enough you’ll outgrow it.

    Great post!

    1. The house is actually on the 1600 block of Edinburgh St. If you go to Google street views you can see what was there before.

      The whole thing is, I don't mind large houses, just design them to be in keeping with the style of the neighbourhood. There are some really beautiful giant new houses in the neighbourhood but they're designed with peaked roofs and dormers.

      Thanks for the positive comment.

      1. I second that thought about the new builds in our 'hood that are designed to suit the surrounding homes. There are a number of them that I really admire, including some that are big enough to be called a monster home if they weren't so darn pretty! There are even some duplexes I like, down on Nanaimo close to 12th St.

  3. So happy to be the first to comment !
    This is a great piece showing how our development happy mayor and council are ruining neighborhoods with these unsustainable monster houses that have a backyards the size of a snooker table.
    The same thing is happening elsewhere like Surrey and Richmond.

    I would take issue with New West being 'lax' on the building codes. The building code is the BC building code, and no matter if you are in Spusim or NW the code applies. The city regulates zoning.
    The only thing I consider the city Lax on is bylaw enforcement. As you picture shows these developers have no regard for the neighbors, city streets, sidewalks or the garbage they leave to blow down the street while they get the job done, and unless someone complains, the city don't care 🙁

    The illegal suite issue is another sack of potatoes the mayor is on record stating we need (you-tube). There is one of these monster houses in view from one of my windows. After it was constructed, and they had final permits etc, a crew came back, and cut in another door. These plans are being accepted by the building department, and you would have to be incompetent to not realize 3rd or even 4 suite conversions. There was even an MLS listing for a newly built 2600 sqft house with 2 suites , one obviously being illegal. The easy way to control this would to restrict kitchens. But then again a crew could show up to fix that too.

    And where do the people who rent these illegal suites park ? The one down the street has 7 cars parking in the driveway and along the frontage of 2 neighboring properties. No one on my street is impressed with the 900k dollar prize house parking situation.

    They call the rental suites mortgage helpers.
    I call them unsightly cheap junk boxes that cost a fortune to keep 4000sqft warm.

    And the BC building code calls itself "Sustainable", meaning 50 year life expectancy. My house is 60 years young and built like a tank, these new houses are built out of pressed chip board called "engineered" wood.
    My house is assessed at 70k, these new particle board and plastic wonders are assessed at 350k+

    Go Figure.

    N.W.

    1. Sorry Norman, you were #3 (comments were held for moderation while I was out and about, so I didn't get to them right away).

      A number of houses on our street have mortgage helpers, including us. Our house is a 1949ish bungalow that has had more recent additions at the back that give us an upstairs and the basement suite. It's possible to have a rented basement suite without ruining the character of the neighbourhood. It's more the practice of building to the maximum allowable square footage that I see is the problem. I have also seen a few houses that have the two kitchens. One is the rental, and one is usually called a "nanny suite" or "in-law suite" (but I bet some people rent both).

      I think basement suites are a smart idea to densify in neighbourhoods where we want to preserve heritage character. Of course, for that to be true, the zoning bylaws have to ensure that new construction respects the neighbouhood's character!

      For argument's sake, however, I would point out that at least some of these monster homes are intended for multigenerational dwelling. One of my neighbours has four generations living together in a monster home (great-grandma, grandma, mother & son). While I don't like the look of their house, I have to admit that it's very practical for them. It's also likely less wasteful to have all the family members living under one (huge) roof rather than to have each nuclear family unit live in their own home. Just sayin'

      1. Shucks ! Well, your just not allowed to go out and about anymore ! jk

        I have no problem with legal suite's that have been inspected by the City and are up to snuff. ONE suite is acceptable to accommodate the need for low income shelter. Its these houses DESIGNED to be easily converted into multiples AFTER final inspections that bother me.

        I think you hit the nail on the head with density, when the multi-generational family moves, and a new owners are looking to maximize the potential of the structure you can bet on rentals to soften the financial burden.

        And I agree it totally makes sense through economies of scale and efficiency to create honeycomb housing for the masses.

        Just NIMBY !

        N.W.

    2. Thanks for your comments, Norman. I was pretty nervous about writing an article that I knew would be viewed by so many people, and in my community, at that! I wasn't sure if people would like my writing style or if this was an issue that people would even care about. I'm glad to see that others are passionate about this as well.

      From what I read (and could understand) each municipality can pass bylaws to amend the building codes to better fit their city, but I could be totally wrong on this. I don't pretend to be an expert on zoning, building codes or bylaws; A lot of times it's hard just finding the information, let alone understanding it.

      Briana, I agree with you. I also have a suite as well in my 70ish year old house. And I understand you're argument about the multi-generational house, but why can't they also just respect the character of the neighbourhood? In some cases I think people need to concede that if the bylaws prevent you from building a giant box then maybe that's not the area you should be looking to build.

      1. Ok, you've got me there. I agree with you that even the houses planned for multigenerational living should be prettied up to match the neighbourhood!

      2. Reply to Remo,
        I don't think you can 'bylaw' a change to the BC building code, it's provincial. The city does have a Building Bylaw, but it pertains to regulation of construction, not the standards of construction. Ex.

        6.1 This bylaw applies to the design, construction and occupancy of new buildings and structures, and the alteration, reconstruction, demolition, removal, relocation and occupancy of existing buildings and structures.

        It's in the city's website in the City Hall tab under Bylaws, look for the Building Bylaw 6897, the also have a plumbing bylaw, and a few others here and there… Its a good resource. You have to purchase the BC building code, It's around 150 buxs, and thick as a metro phone book.

        Mainly, it's to stop people from undertaking work themselves, Imagine if you bought a place and the person didn't go by code, and next thing you know you have problems. It often happens with people building patio deck's that collapse under the weight of there party guests ! Its the cities way of trying to give an assurance that construction standards where met for future buyers, insurance etc.

        In actuality your house isn't really your to do with as you please unless you have the permit to do so!

        N.W.

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  5. My parents' neighbourhood (north burnaby) has gone through the same thing. I don't know anything about bylaws being enforced when there is a group of building companies all run by the same family. Big, stucco palaces, one of which is tall enough next to my parents' house that they no longer have a city view. Now it's a pink stucco wall they see. (it has been 20 years at least since this happened and I am still angry, though my folks are more enh about it)

    Good for you for calling attention to it.

    Does having two doors to the basement necessarily imply two suites? Because my thinking would be that would be your best chance of getting into the basement without disturbing your tenant. But maybe I'm naive.

  6. I'm slightly worried about what's going on vis a vis the building of these monster houses in neighbourhoods like the west end and even in Sapperton. Perhaps its a "cultural thing" that's spreading over from Surrey. With Sapperton, if you build a monster house (and there's been a couple built in the last few months just up from the Brewery District) there isn't the street space to provide the parking for the amount of cars or other vehicles that these multifamily units are going to need. We saw this thing happen in Vancouver prior to the take over of Hong Kong by the Chinese. Nice bungalow houses along various streets like Granville etc along with side streets, knocked down and huge monstrosities put up. Just because people could.

    And of course we have the butting of heads in Surrey down around Panaroma Ridge, which more and more appears to be a cultural thing. Clearly with New West being one of the last bastions of reasonable real estate, those cultural headaches and clashes are headed our way.
    Just because I can paint my house flourescent pink, doesn't mean I'm going to. We have our neighbours to consider, and are considerate of them.

  7. I heard a development in the West end was quashed at the last council meeting. Don't know the exact details but it had something to do with a proposed structure that was going to tower over the local houses by a story, destroying existing residents views. Apparently some people really got worked up, glad to hear council listened to the citizens rather then the developers for a change !

    N.W.

    1. Actually, the "concerned neighbours" just allowed for a monster home to be built!! Because the developer was asking for a rezoning to two small lots, with one new home at about 1,742 square feet (also retaining the original home that exists on the property now), the rezoning means the new home would have to go through the Advisory Planning Commission (design review).____Now, without the rezoning, there is NO design review, the existing house doesn't need to be saved, AND the one new home can be built to over 3,484 square feet!! The height is a moot point because both zones (NR-1 existing and NR-5 proposed) have the same height restrictions. And the developer even dropped the height of the new house because of public meetings. It's all in the council minutes online for September 20th. No one builds ranchers anymore in New west. Just sayin'….

      1. Thank you. It really is all about zoning because it is zoning that drives increased densification through the 'creation' of affordable housing stock (or the creation of more affordable housing stock, as the NW case may be). Municipal city councils are responsible for all city-zonings and for any changes to said zonings; the provincial BC Building Code is not a factor in that process. You know, personally, I think things were better and more straightforward when the standard for residential zoning was RS-1. That was before, for whatever the reasons or motives, City Hall got inspired to create some of the 'newer' zonings of the last 10 years.

        The obvious immediate neighbourhood impacts of the newer zonings are things like street parking and aesthetics, but the spill-over consequences do affect other 'per capita' things like *cumulative city traffic volumes, *access to amenities, *strain on existing infrastructure or requirement of additional supporting infrastructure, *neighbourhood school populations (need for portable classrooms, etc.), *air quality, *green space, and more.

        Do you remember when the towers at the Quay were first proposed? Resident tax-payers were told that the added density of the multiple high-rise living units would help subsidize local taxes and shore up some of our struggling local businesses. The cost of the added infrastructure needed to support the new Quay residences was never mentioned and to this day, Columbia Street continues to undergo "revitalizing", and while I am not unhappy about the development of the Quay, I have to say, I've only ever had my taxes go up, … go figure!!

        That aside, the point of the post, and thank you Remo for putting this out there, is that we live in New Westminster and whether we were born here or were drawn to this place, we love it, we love what it is. So, …To all Builders and to the folk at City Hall who approve all building applications or variances: As you embark on your wonderful plans to make our city yours, build 'new' if you must but please, have a little respect for your neighbours and also for the existing character of the neighbourhood, regardless of what the newer zonings 'allow' for.

      2. Interesting,
        So what I gather out of the facts then, is that council SHOULD have allowed the re-zoning, and the developer to build that 1750sqft house , because now what will happen, is the old house will (likely) be torn down and a huger house built because the lot size is bigger then the NR5, and the residents of the area and council will be powerless to do anything about it now because its within NR1

        Makes sense to me….

        So then council didn't think it through properly to retain control and have actually failed the "concerned neighbours". I doubt the neighbours have the insight into these things that we might have, all they wanted was to retain views and streetscapes, not give the developer NR1 cartes blanches revenge for a failed rezoning attempt !

        N.W.

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