Millions of people in North American cities have home-based businesses, but we’re restricted from using our homes as production, distribution or employment centres, and in most cases, we’re even forbidden to put up a sign.
The “Tin Town” district in the city of Courtenay, B.C., on Vancouver Island, is an exception to this rule. I recently attended a social gathering in a solid, well-appointed upstairs apartment on Rosewall Crescent, in an area zoned “Industrial” on Courtenay’s land use map. Nearby, one can find the Freakin’ Coffee Shop, the All in One Party Shop, the Sirius Beauty Dog Spa, the Soap Exchange Refill Centre, Klitsa Signs, Stand Up Paddle Boarding, Gemini Dance Studios, a marriage counsellor, and a handul of art and design studios that may dabble in sculpture and metal work. In several cases, people live in the same aluminum-clad unit where they do business, or in an adjacent unit.
The success of this development, now in its second decade, shows that some people (at least in Courtenay) are willing, or happy, to live alongside an unpredictable mix of production and distribution activities. It’s like the Hollywood version of the Old West, where blacksmiths, wagon-fixers and printers work in the gaps between residential hotels and rooming houses.
The theory of how cities can create live-work options has been elaborated in detail — for example, by the Live/Work Institute of Oakland, California — but B.C. municipalities, developers and consumers don’t seem interested. I have found a single suburban online reference to “live/work” in Fraseropolis: the City of White Rock approved six live-work units in 2000 (see appendix 6 in the linked file), each with a modest 250 square feet of permitted arts studio or professional space and (judging from Google Images) no commercial signage.
The City of Vancouver has permitted the construction of a considerable stock of live-work units for working artists, many in the Gastown and Main/Kingsway districts. But these spaces, often located in old industrial buildings, are also highly desirable among affluent trendsters who can out-bid the starving artists for whom the space is supposedly intended.
“In the live-work category, the City of Vancouver, since 1987, has approved 1,900 units — 66% of those built in the mid-to-late 1990s. 89% were approved as stratified units. Although no recent data exists to indicate whether or not artists are actually using these spaces, staff are aware that many units are not being occupied by artists.”
The above quote is from a 2011 City of Vancouver staff report [link unavailable] on the live-work issue as it affects artists. The report, based on consultations with artists, resulted in the creation of a live-work studio program for artists, with a small number of city-owned paces leased out through an application process.. The documents suggest that live-work space is a niche market that is difficult for developers to get right, and it’s expensive to build.
And, I would add, if live-work development is done on a Tin Town scale, it will bring trucks into residential areas (see Fraseropolis for November 24, 2011) and create competition for residential parking spaces. I’m learning from my neighbourhood association work that many homeowners, especially those in detached homes, are zealously territorial about “their” on-street parking spaces; I have to conclude that this is a key driver in preventing mixed land use in Fraseropolis and across the continent.
If we’re going to reduce our carbon footprint, create jobs closer to home, etc., it’s clear that we have to tighten up our cities and get serious about mixed-use development. Tin Town seems to show that a jumble of industrial, commercial and residential uses can function, and even generate strong neighbourhood pride; even with the obstacles noted above, it’s strange that we don’t see more such examples.