Regulating beauty, taste in development

Review of Floor Area Ratio report fills council chambers

During a review of a report on building size limits, Oak Bay architect Franc D’Ambrosio kept the mood light, for what could have been an emotionally-charged follow up to community concerns over so-called “monster homes.”

“Has anyone seen the movie Being John Malkovich?” D’Ambrosio said to a packed house during a committee of the whole meeting Monday night (Dec. 3). “In that building, the subject of that movie, the owner cleverly inserted a level 13-and-a-half, to get an extra floor. … from the outside, the building appeared the same as if it didn’t have that additional floor. That’s what jumped to mind when I started thinking about how the bylaws work.”

D’Ambrosio’s synopsis of the Spike Jonze flick exemplified how quantitative regulations on floor area ratios and density are being used to regulate qualitative and difficult-to-regulate aspects of residential development.

“I’m pro-regulation,” D’Ambrosio said. “Maximums and minimums have to be set relative to development, but they also have to be acknowledged as very crude, hatchet sculpting … whereas the effect on neighbours and the populous in general, the experience of the street, is a surgical process. It’s very, very small scale. It’s very personal and very emotional. … What bothers people about change is change itself, but also the nature of the impact of that change on the outside.”

The gross floor area regulations review, prepared by director of building and planning, Roy Thomassen, provided an overview of the current size restrictions and presented six potential options to consider. The review follows concerns brought forward by Thomassen, and later residents’ group Oak Bay Watch, who argued bylaw changes made in 2007 set the stage for large homes to be built on small lots, jeopardizing the streetscape.

According to the review, since 2007, variance applications (see sidebar on page A9) have increased by 500 per cent with an approximately 96 per cent approval rate – a stat that has members of Oak Bay Watch up in arms.

“This method of fixed area would work well if one was developing a new municipality and residential zones all had the same lot size for the zone created,” Thomassen said.

“This is not the case for Oak Bay, which has a variety of lot sizes for their respective zones.

“It just continues to make sense to relate the house size to lot size. When you move away from that to a fixed limit, you introduce conceptual problems that are impossible to fix, unless all of the lots in the zone are around the same size, which they’re not for Oak Bay.”

Oak Bay resident and architect John Armitage suggested entertaining the idea of having two sets of rules for construction, one that applies to homes built before a certain date and another for newer homes.

“The bylaws are written to accommodate the legacy of historical structures we have,” Armitage said. “At other times during the discussion, it’s all about new houses and the ability to design something that maximizes what’s possible, because what we’re facing is the teardown scenario. … In some ways, we need to have bylaws that address the anomalies inherent in the charm and character of older properties.”

Zebra Design’s  owner Russ Collins came to the mike with another angle: potentially bringing back the .4 to 1 ratio and imposing a limit on second-floor square footage.

“I’m wondering if we consider that the 25 per cent actually pushes people to go with a building that’s larger looking on a piece of property because you’re forced into a smaller square footage on the main floor, so then you maximize your square footage on the second floor, which means your massing seems to be quite a bit larger,” Collins said.

Coun. Cairine Green reminded her fellow councillors and the crowd of two recommendations currently before the environment committee: the first being that each application for a new home build or a major renovation is subject to an environmental assessment, and the other being that a waste management plan be prepared prior to the demolition of older homes.

The sentiment that council has been insensitive to development issues, she said, is unfortunate, and misguided.

“At the moment, I think we have been more on the emotional/political side of this issue than we have been on the planning side of this issue. I think it’s very difficult to deal with these issues in isolation. These are crude tools and what we’re trying to do with them is regulate taste and design.”

The discussion covered accessory buildings and attached garages – for which there are both additional allowances – and will continue at a future committee of the whole meeting, though no date has been set.

“This is a huge discussion and I think we’ve just begun,” Coun. Michelle Kirby added.

The bylaw

The zoning bylaw, written in 1986, was amended in 1990, 1993 and 2007. Prior to 1990, floor area ratio, density attained by dividing the gross floor area of the building by the area of the lot, was set at a ratio of .5 to 1, or half of the total lot size. In 1990, the ratio was lowered to .4 to 1 and in 1993, conditional augmentation of density was granted relative to depth of below-ground basement floor area for homes built to Jan. 1 of that year.

In 2007, a floor area review committee, after two years debate, decided to eliminate the .4 to 1 ratio in the zoning bylaw and replace it with fixed maximum gross floor area restrictions. The fixed gross area was removed from the definition of density, allowing council to vary the maximum allowable floor areas through a development permit application.