British Columbia

City and builder tussle over tiny lot in East Vancouver

A company that paid $220,000 for a sliver of land in East Vancouver has been told it can't build a portable office pod on the property because the property does not have a main house.

A Vancouver company is in a dispute with city officials over a tiny office pod it is building on a tiny lot

The half-built office pod at the tiny 1916 William Street lot in East Vancouver has been ordered removed by the city. (Karin Larsen/CBC)

A tiny lot in East Vancouver is at the centre of a larger tussle between city officials and the company that recently purchased the sliver of land. 

At just 9 feet wide by 60 feet deep, 1916 William Street is a quirky anomaly amid surrounding lots that are seven times the size. 

But quirky is what convinced Lanefab — builders of Vancouver's first laneway house over a decade ago — to buy the little lot in June for $220,000, $69,000 below the asking price.

"I thought it was kind of intriguing just because we've always been interested in small spaces and odd sorts of things," said Lanefab co-owner Bryn Davidson.

After closing, the company put up a nice fence, secured an electrical permit and began construction on a portable office pod. But in short order, they were served notice the structure had to come down because zoning doesn't allow for an office pod unless there's a house on the lot.

"The city ... said that we are not allowed an accessory building if we don't have a primary building. They actually sent a letter to our lawyer asking us to remove that building in the next 60 days," said Davidson. 

"I'm a bit frustrated that they're going to these efforts to harass us over a hundred square foot building on a tiny lot."

The City of Vancouver planning department says the 1916 William Street lot cannot be developed unless it is consolidated with one of the properties on either side. (Karin Larsen/CBC)

The City of Vancouver told CBC the office pod has to go because it was built without permits.

"There is an inspection order to remove the structure or apply for permits," said a spokesperson. 

The spokesman also said the city's planning department had determined no development can be considered at 1916 William Street unless the site is consolidated with one of the properties on either side, something Davidson said is news to him.

"Vancouver's planning department has always been hostile to small lot development. They're always trying to push everything toward consolidation," he said. 

As a vocal advocate for more diverse building options — things like tiny homes and multiplexes on traditional single-family lots — this isn't Davidson's first clash with bureaucrats and city building codes.

"There's so much more we could do for housing if we could just tinker with the zoning rules," he said.

"You look around the world and there's so many interesting examples of different types of housing. But in Vancouver, we're just stuck in this sort of suburban mentality of side yards and gable roofs and whatever."

A prototype emergency shelter designed by Lanefab, builders of Vancouver's first laneway house. (Submitted by Bryn Davidson)

Davidson has also challenged conventional thinking around emergency housing by building prototype tiny house emergency shelters. After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he was motivated to work on the designs as a solution to tent encampments like the one in Strathcona Park.

"We built those and we were trying to get the city to approve them based on the idea that something that is less than 100 square feet doesn't require a building permit," he said. 

William Street is now ground zero for those arguments about small size and zoning inflexibility.

As for the future of the half-built office pod, Davidson is weighing his next move.

"Either we will sell the office to somebody and move it, or we will pick it up and put it on a trailer at which point it becomes a vehicle rather than a building," he said. 

On Friday, the city announced it is launching a new Policy Enquiry Process for "compelling development proposals" which might offer an expedited route around red tape. 

Davidson said he is cautiously optimistic the program could make building something on his tiny lot possible.

"Though probably not everything that I want," he said.

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