Monday, December 15, 2014

My 2014 Christmas Card (or for some of you) Chanukah Card

This year's card was inspired by my travels during 2014. I visited all these places except Singapore. (However, I wanted to use the Singapore idea so I stuck it in anyway!)
I hope some of you can join me on February 2nd and April 1st for further conversations about international housing and other great ideas for Vancouver from around the world. HAPPY HOLIDAYS

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Opinion: Affordable housing, Hawaiian style Vancouver Courier December 10, 2014

Whenever travelling to other places, I enjoy observing how they are addressing the various housing issues facing Vancouver. During a recent visit to Hawaii, I did not have to look far to learn about housing issues in that U.S. state since they were all over the front page of the local newspaper.Like Vancouver, many places in Hawaii are struggling with housing affordability and homelessness.
Yes, homelessness, even in Waikiki.
One way Honolulu is trying to address these issues is to allow higher density micro-apartments, as small as 250 square feet, with limited parking. It is noteworthy that similar proposals in Vancouver have attracted considerable attention and debate. Currently, our city bylaws require rental units to not be less than 320 square feet and units for sale to not be less than 398 square feet.

However, a number of projects have received relaxations to permit smaller suite sizes. In 1993, VLC Properties, the company created by the late Jack Poole to develop affordable rental housing on city-owned lands using union pension funds, developed 600 Drake St. Sixty-four percent of the units were less than 320 square feet. (One city alderman compared these suites to coffins.) However, in the subsequent 21 years, the building has been very popular and achieved full occupancy.
An example of a lock-off suite approved and built at UniverCity
In 2009, the city approved the concept of “lock-off” suites within apartments in certain zones.
Lock-offs in existing suites can be as small as 205 square feet and 280 square feet in new units. Although this concept has proven to be popular at SFU’s UniverCity where they were marketed as “mortgage helpers in the sky,” only a limited number have been built in Vancouver, generally as a lower level in townhouse developments.

A highly publicized rental project in Vancouver is the renovated Burns Block in the Downtown Eastside. Furnished suites averaging 270 square feet rented very quickly and the developer, Reliance Properties now wants to build micro-suites for sale as part of its redevelopment of the Jim Pattison Toyota site. My personal view is that micro-suites can offer a viable housing choice, both for rent and for sale, especially when designed with built-in furniture and storage. However, to address the concerns of municipal officials, it may be appropriate to limit the size of projects, or the number of micro-apartments in a large project, until the concept has been proven.

Another hot topic in Hawaii is under what conditions to allow “Ohana units” or accessory dwelling units. In Vancouver they are better known as secondary suites or laneway houses. In the past, Ohana units had to be attached to the main house and could only be rented to relatives of people living in the main house. They also required two parking stalls. Under a new proposal, they may be rented to anyone, be attached or detached from the main house, and require just one parking space.

In comparison, although Vancouver allows basement suites attached to the main house, new grade-level secondary suites cannot be attached to the main house. They must be separate structures.
Furthermore, they do not require any additional parking space.

While most people in Hawaii favour the proposed regulations, one concern expressed by some opponents is that units may end up not as rental suites, but as illegal vacation rentals. Ironically, I discovered this is happening in Vancouver during a previous Heritage Vancouver Laneway Housing Tour. While the number of laneway houses being rented out nightly or weekly, rather than daily is not known, a few are regularly listed on the Internet.

Another interesting Hawaiian regulation allows a second home to be built and sold on larger lots.
As readers of this column are well aware, I strongly advocate allowing laneway houses or coach houses to be sold in certain situations.

Perhaps it is time for Vancouver to reconsider its regulations and allow a second house to be sold on lots over 8,000 square feet, which is approximately twice the size of a 33 foot wide lot. The second house could be at the rear or as part of a duplex.

While Hawaii can learn much from Vancouver, perhaps we can learn from it, too.

© Vancouver Courier

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Hyatt Regency Maui at Kaanapali

Ka'anapali is a very interesting part of Maui. It was the first resort community development in North America comprising luxurious and grand hotel and condominium properties along the beach and around two golf courses. Major hotel chains include Sheraton, Westin, Marriott and Hyatt.
It's a challenge walking along the lovely oceanfront walkway without being asked to chat about a timeshare unit!
The new Hyatt Timeshare project has its own pool and grounds that are just being finished
While much of the original development is becoming somewhat dated, the Westin, Marriott and Hyatt are all building and actively marketing....very actively marketing... new timeshare developments adjacent to their properties.

The resort community has various retail developments including Whalers Village, a compact, pedestrian oriented outdoor shopping area with restaurants. The two golf courses are Ka'anapali Kai and Royale golf courses, though reasonably well-maintained are over-priced and not that interesting. For some reason, the Kai course does not have any comfort 'stations' on the course. Just port-a-potties.
The Hyatt Regency has over 800 rooms and suites in three 1970s-style towers set within 40 acres of lavish gardens.
The indoor outdoor lobby atrium is grand, like many other Hyatt Regency hotels. The hotel complex has a full-service spa, 5 on-site restaurants and a water park.  We ate at the Japengo and Son'z Maui Swan Court restaurants and both were good. The service was particularly enjoyable, and the wine list, especially in Son'z caters to big spenders. I wonder how many bottles of $500+ wine they really sell? :-)
Our oceanfront room was well laid out with a king bed offering a view of the palm trees and a separate sitting area. The hotel info says it is 451 sq.ft.
An added overlooked the Drums of the Pacific Lu’au traditional Polynesian dance and music production, so we did not need to pay to experience it.
A breakfast buffet is served each morning in the very attractive indoor-outdoor Swan Court restaurant with its swans and waterfalls. It's best to ask for a table away from the kitchen.

We enjoyed the Hyatt but probably would have enjoyed it even more had we not spent four nights at the Fairmont first. The Hyatt was a bit more expensive during the post-Thanksgiving/pre-Christmas period but in reviewing hotel ratings, I note on the Fairmont is rated 5 star and the Hyatt as 4 star. I think this is reflective of the overall standard of amenities. The Fairmont has only suites, not just rooms, and it recently underwent a $70 million renovation. While the Hyatt facilities have been renovated and redecorated since it was built, they could improve the facilities, especially the hotel room bathrooms, if ours was typical.

Although the only photo of a hotel room bathroom on the website looks like this, the typical bathroom looks like this.
There is no separate shower stall, and the tub/toilet area is quite small and seems dark due to the 1970s travertine. (I suspect that the photo on the website is of a renovated bathroom in one of the renovated suites. But it is not likely what you will be getting).  I think the hotel should clarify this, so others won't be disappointed.I would also recommend that they replace the shower curtain with a European-style swinging glass door, and improve the lighting. I have many other suggestions which I will be happy to share.

Overall, the Fairmont Kea Lani and Hyatt Regency are both beautiful properties with much to offer if you are looking for a resort, rather than a condominium unit for your stay. Ka'anipali is a different place than Wailea. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. If you are considering a trip to Maui and are not sure what to expect, drop me a line. I'll be happy to offer further observations.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Fairmont Kea Lani, Wailea, Maui

From our room we could look over the pools to the ocean beyond...and hear morning prayers emitting from the room beside us!
33 years ago today, Sally and I got married. To celebrate we decided to take a last minute getaway to Maui. While we used to come to Hawaii often during Narod days and in the subsequent decades, we stopped coming as the prices for meals and golf became excessive, catering in large part to the Japanese rather than Canadian tourist.

However, while the cost of meals remains excessive by Vancouver standards, we found what seemed like a very reasonable rate at the Fairmont Kea Lani and decided to check in for three nights. We liked it so much we stayed an extra night.
One of the special features of this hotel complex, spread out over 22 acres, is that all the 400+ rooms are in fact suites....and quite the order of 700 sq.ft. There are also some wonderful 2 and 3 bedroom villas that would be ideal for a family or couples sharing. There are three swimming pools including an adults-only pool, two activity pools connected by a 140-foot waterslide, various beach activities.

There are four restaurants, which by Vancouver standards are expensive, but in the overall scheme of things not outrageous. While the price of food is higher, the wine lists offered a wide range of choices and good value in comparison to many Vancouver restaurants.
The three Wailea golf courses are nearby. We played the Old Blue but it is starting to feel a bit tired. It is getting some upgrades and a new clubhouse. The gold and emerald courses may be a better choice.

We had some good food at lunch in Mulligans, a bar next to the Old Blue clubhouse (although the clubhouse moved out last night!) where we also enjoyed a very entertaining magic show by Brenton Keith who performs every Tuesday night. If you are in the area, don't miss it. He was very good.

One of the nice features of the area is a waterfront walkway that connects you to all of the other resorts and condominium developments in the area.
Next door is the Four Seasons that is certainly up to the Four Seasons standard. We had lunch there and the salads, especially the Nicoise were good. But I think the Fairmont is a much nicer property. On the other side of the Fairmont is a very ugly condominium block that should be demolished. But it won't be.
I was impressed with the new Andaz resort which is a new Hyatt brand. It has just under 300 rooms and suites and is intended to compete with the nearby Four Seasons with room rates north of $500. But it has a very beautiful, elegant contemporary design and I was very impressed with the layered infinity pools and lobby that features an elegant sandbox. (I'm sure the cleaning staff aren't too happy with it!)
There are a number of other nearby condominium developments. I was intrigued by this complex that features four-plex units. Vancouver architect Ray Letkeman, who has a delightful place nearby, tells me they sell for millions more than I would expect.
It's hard not to reflect on the fact that it's just an accident of birth that separates those walking along the walkway, and those working in the hot sun weeding the grounds above.
After 4 days in Wailea we're heading off to the Hyatt Regency in Kaanapali for the next four nights. I haven't stayed there before, preferring Westin Hotels in the days when I was working with Westin and Aoki. But we'll see how it compares with the Fairmont, and I'll report back.

In the meanwhile, if you are planning a holiday in Maui, I would definitely check out the Fairmont Kea Lani and have the seafood zarzuela in the Ko restaurant. It was superb!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Vancouver Courier Opinion Another 10 predictions for the next 4 years! November 24, 2014

Last week I offered 10 predictions for the next four years of civic government in Vancouver.
In case you missed my column, I addressed possible changes to the electoral system, the future of the viaducts and Broadway subway, housing affordability and choices, and possible staff changes at City Hall.

Unfortunately, space did not permit me to share all my predictions, so here are ten more for the forthcoming term of office.

1.      There will still be homeless people sleeping on the streets in 2018. While many of today’s homeless will be housed, new homeless people will take their place. Fortunately, the City Manager’s office will realize it is counter-productive to place large concentrations of hard-to-house people in expensive new buildings and homeless people will be increasingly accommodated in scattered apartments throughout the city.

2.     As Vancouver residents forego car ownership in order to afford a roof over their heads, they will take more taxis. They will also increasingly use various alternative transportation services such as London style mini-cabs and Uber’s ‘ride-sharing’ service. To counter their popularity, Metro’s taxi system will be reformed to increase availability and reduce fares. Surrey cabs will no longer have to return empty from the downtown.

3.     Vancouver’s dream of a popular and cost-effective bike-share program will still be a dream four years from now because of the provincial government’s helmet law.

4.     To further protect heritage houses and compensate owners for the corresponding loss in property value, Vancouver will change its zoning bylaws to offer a modest density bonus to those who keep a pre-1940 house, which can be combined with unused density to build laneway houses and back-yard coach houses for sale.

5.     To help fund his goal of planting 150,000 new trees in Vancouver by 2020 as outlined in the Greenest City 2020 Action Plan, Mayor Robertson will announce a tree dedication program that allows residents to contribute towards the cost of planting a tree to commemorate a person or life event. A small plaque will accompany each tree. It will be a very popular program and the Mayor’s goal will be reached by 2018.

6.     Noting the 2014 Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan has resulted in very little new social and market housing in the Downtown Eastside Oppenheimer District, with few new businesses opening up in derelict and vacant storefronts, Brian Jackson, Manager of Planning and Development will recommend changes to the zoning bylaws to encourage new housing developments in the neighbourhood.  Council will also agree to review policing policies to reduce the increasing number of drug dealers openly operating on the streets.

7.     The mayor’s promise to build 1000 childcare spaces and update hundreds more will not be achieved as it is realized the combined effect of provincial and city standards results in costs well in excess of $125,000 for each new childcare space. Courier columnist Mike Howell will remind the mayor this should not be a surprise since his May 2014 story reported that 37 new spaces at the Collingwood Neighbourhood House facility cost $4.6 million.

8.     In response to complaints that too many Vancouver buildings are either grey or dull green, the City planning department will institute an Awards Program in 2015 encouraging  Vancouver architects to ‘brighten up the city’.  The awards will recognize outstanding achievements in the use of colour. By 2018 Vancouver residents will be complaining that the use of colour is becoming quite jarring and architects will be encouraged to return to grey and green.

9.     The City will not offer free parking at certain times, as promised by Kirk LaPointe. Instead it will reprogram parking meters so that evening and Sunday rates are reduced in many locations. The City will also propose that meter parking begin at 7 am, not 9 am with additional monies to be used to fund additional bike lanes. Following a public outcry City staff will agree to delay the start of meter parking until 8 am. The Mayor will thank the Courier for initiating such a valuable discussion.

10.  The Courier Opinion Page will welcome a new columnist to replace Michael Geller.

Next week I’ll write about something completely different.
Twitter: @michaelgeller

Friday, November 21, 2014

Lessons from London: Vancouver Sun November 22, 2014

This Regent’s Park terraced housing is typical of that built around London during the Georgian period.
Geller: Take some lessons from London: Foreign investment: Insights to be gained when comparing housing challenges in U.K. to those of our own

By Michael Geller, Special to The Sun November 21, 2014 3:49 PM

As Vancouver debates measures to deal with the negative impacts of foreign real estate investment and vacant accommodation, it is instructive to see how London has been dealing with similar issues.
The price of housing in London has always been high relative to the rest of England and the world. However, during a recent trip, I learned that over the past decade, costs have increased dramatically as buyers from Asia, the Middle East, Russia and other European countries have priced many Britons out of the market.
One of the most extreme examples is One Hyde Park, which began marketing in 2007 as the most exclusive address in the world. At the time, it was priced at the Canadian equivalent of about $4,500 a square foot. However, over the past seven years, the price has risen to about $12,400 a square foot.
While some buyers are the end users, other properties are being bought purely as investments and not used at all.
Another example is The Shard, Europe’s tallest building. Three two-storey duplexes and seven single-storey apartments on floors 53 to 65 have been priced between $53 million and $88 million each. They are currently on the market and expected to be purchased almost exclusively by offshore buyers.

To address what many consider the negative impacts of foreign buyers, earlier this year a leading right-wing think-tank called on government officials to adopt a scheme similar to one operating in Australia, which restricts sales to overseas buyers unless they add to the existing housing stock.
Such a system would mean that no existing home could be sold to a foreign buyer. Furthermore, new units could only be bought by non-residents if their investment would result in one or more additional properties being built.

It is interesting to compare foreign-owned vacant properties in London and Vancouver.
A U.K. property firm estimated that in 2013, 70 per cent of “new-build” properties in Central London went to foreign investors, while 30 per cent of London’s luxury homes worth more than $1.8 million were bought by non-U.K. residents.

Last year, the U.K. chancellor announced he was closing a loophole that allowed foreign investors to make huge profits on sales of U.K. homes by avoiding any capital gains tax. A 28-per-cent capital gains tax will begin in April 2015. In Canada, foreign investors pay tax on any real estate gains.
The U.K. has also imposed a 15-per-cent “stamp duty rate” or purchase tax for foreign investors who buy through corporate shell companies.

During my recent trip, the newspapers were full of stories about a proposed ‘mansion tax’ being put forward by the opposition Labour Party. It would apply to homes costing $3.6 million or more and add an additional tax payment of $442 per month. However, those earning less than about $74,000 would be allowed to defer payment until they sold or died.

Echoing the position of Vancouver COPE mayoral candidate Meena Wong, the U.K. government and others are advocating that local councils impose higher property taxes on foreign investors who leave homes empty. Last June, London Mayor Boris Johnson added his voice by urging local authorities to “whack up the council tax” on houses that remain empty for more than a year.

However, local authorities can already impose a 50-per-cent tax increase if a property remains vacant after two years, but are not doing so because of the administrative difficulties in determining which properties should be penalized. Some absentee owners are avoiding the council tax surcharge by moving in a table and chair.
As Liam Bailey, global head of research at Knight Frank, eloquently put it: “The problem with measures to tackle empty homes or under-occupied homes, whether sensible or not, fundamentally comes down to practicalities. Namely, how government can actually define and then identify empty homes. The practical implications of the policy are likely to be limited.”

In the U.K., the federal government is very much a part of the conversation. In Vancouver, the federal government has been silent.

Another discussion taking place in Vancouver is how best to increase density in and around single-family neighbourhoods without resorting to highrises.Again, it may be instructive to look at London.
Throughout the city, one finds medium-density ‘zero lot-line’ terraced housing. By ‘zero lot-line,’ I mean each unit extends from one side property line to the other, not unlike most commercial buildings along arterial roads in Vancouver.

Terraced housing was built from the 1600s to the early 20th century throughout London. While some units were very modest, especially during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, others were quite the opposite. A glamorous Georgian end-terrace house in Cornwall Terrace Mews overlooking London’s Regent’s Park sold in 2013 for $145 million, probably the most expensive terrace home sale in history.

One of the defining features of terraced housing is the repetitive, uniform front facade and uniform height. This height can vary from two to five floors. In addition, many properties, especially during the Georgian era, had a lower level accessed from a gated front courtyard.

Today, many of the terraced units continue as single-family properties. However, others, especially larger properties, have become hotels or offices, or been divided into flats providing more modestly priced accommodation. In many instances, elevators have been added. However, other terraced housing still requires residents to climb the stairs.
As Vancouver and surrounding municipalities redevelop, I believe there are many opportunities for terraced housing, especially as a transition between higher density, mixed use arterial development and single-family neighbourhoods behind. It might also be built around parks and community centres.
Depending on the location, the front and rear yard setbacks could vary to fit in with the surrounding neighbourhood character. A lower level might be included as a separate suite for sale, or as a rental unit, not unlike the basement suite in a single-family house.

Vancouver can learn from London’s experience when it comes to both regulating foreign buyers and new forms of housing.

Michael Geller is a Vancouver architect, planner, real estate consultant and developer — and a frequent contributor to Westcoast Homes. He can be reached at