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A newly built laneway house in West Vancouver, BC, June 21-2010.

Lyle Stafford for The Globe and Mail/lyle stafford The Globe and Mail

Laneway homes were supposed to be Vancouver's answer to creating affordable housing and making room for new residents in old single-family neighbourhoods.

But the ornate mini-McMansions going up on some lots - complete with balconies, gables and pitched roofs almost as high as the main house - are startling residents.

"Originally my thoughts were quite positive about them," said Oliver Gilbert, a Dunbar resident who works in banking.

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"I thought it would make sense for people who have a relative they wanted to house.

"But the ones that I've seen go up near us are changing the character of the neighbourhood.

"They are quite a bit taller than garages - some of them look almost two storeys."

Peter Selnar, a retired architect and design consultant who is Mr. Gilbert's neighbour, has started a campaign to alert council and local residents to the size of some of the new houses, which have been replacing garages and gardens under a citywide policy approved last year. Under the policy, the houses can be rented but cannot be sold separately from the main house.

"When people see the photos, they say, 'Gee, this isn't what I bought into,' " he said.

Complaints like that have Vancouver's planning director acknowledging that some rules might have to be adjusted to reduce the impact of the larger versions of the laneway house.

"We don't want to overreact," said Brent Toderian, adding that the majority of the 89 laneway houses the city has approved so far are not generating any complaints. "But there are a couple we would look at as the basis for making some tweaks. We are seeing complaint letters particularly associated with units on some of the smaller lots."

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Mr. Toderian said he had promised to report to council after the first 100 applications came in, which should happen easily by this fall. He expects to make some amendments, possibly to the height, roof pitch and window location.

He said he doesn't expect new guidelines that restrict them to one storey, instead of the current 1½ storeys, which is what some people are asking for.

The city has received complaints about three houses in particular on West 46th Avenue, West 21st Avenue and West Eighth Avenue, while Mr. Selnar has compiled a list of about half a dozen notably large laneway houses.

One, on the 3500 block of West 21st Avenue, is a site where the owners, Ron and Monica Orieux, are building a new main house as well as the elaborate laneway house.

The property, advertised for sale at $2.83-million, is typical of the list that Mr. Selnar has compiled, where almost all of his examples include laneway houses that are part of complete-lot redevelopments that include fairly large principal houses.

Despite the complaints, however, builders say their laneway houses are proving mainly popular.

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One of the owners of Zagross Construction, building a large new house and mini-Dutch barn of a laneway house on the 4100 block of West 16th Avenue, said she has had a lot of interest from neighbours and passersby. "The more we progress, the more visitors we have, so I am planning to have an open house in a month to show it," said the Zagross owner, who identified herself only as K. Bagheri.

Ms. Bagheri said people should think about the positives of the laneway houses.

"Laneways have always been pretty much messy," she said. "Now they are going to be much more beautiful and cleaner."

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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