Teeny, tiny apartments, now illegal in London, could finally be coming to the city, just like in Toronto and Vancouver where white-hot housing prices have shrunk living spaces for many.
The city’s first so-called “micro-suite” building is being pitched for the historic Woodfield neighbourhood but first the project will have to clear some planning and heritage hurdles.
The proposal by Marigold Homes Inc., owned by the Lansink family, calls for the demolition of a vacant duplex building at 467-469 Dufferin Avenue that heritage activists say may be a treasure of London’s military and labour union past.
Ben Lansink, a veteran London real estate appraiser and Woodfield resident, said he plans to apply for a demolition permit in the next few weeks to make way for the construction of new 3 ½ -storey, 12-unit apartment building.
What makes the development groundbreaking is that the 12 suites would only measure about 452 square feet. That’s below the city’s current minimum for a one-bedroom apartment that is 505 square feet.
Microsuites are gaining ground in bigger cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, some as small as 290 square feet. They are popular with young singles in those cities where average rents can soar to $2,000 a month and vacancy rates are close to zero.
But Lansink said the market for microsuites is already here in London and it is time for city planners to catch up.
“The official plan says we want more density, less urban sprawl. This fits like a glove. Why would the city have an official plan that is so short-sighted you can’t do anything innovative and creative?”
Lansink bought the Dufferin duplex in an estate sale in October 2014. Since then it has been vacant and the utilities have been disconnected. Lansink said the building is “awful looking” and the immediate neighbours support its removal because it is dilapidated and beyond repair.
Lansink said he has hired prominent London architect John Nicholson and William Pol of Fanshawe College to design a new building that fits in with the historic neighborhood.
There would be no parking spaces on the property but there would be a storage building for bicycles.
Lansink said the suites would rent for less than $800 a month and would be ideal for young professionals who don’t own cars.
But it will be up to city council to loosen the existing rules.
City planner Micheal Tomazincic said Lansink’s proposal would be breaking new ground and require an official plan and zoning bylaw amendment and a formal definition of microsuite.
He said the department may not be opposed to the concept of microsuites: “If they think there’s a market, that’s their prerogative, I would be happy to adopt that use as part of the zoning bylaw.”
But Tomazincic said there may be specific concerns with the size and location of Lansink’s proposal.
“It’s not the microsuites that’s the concern, it’s how many are going into that site. We are concerned about the level of intensity,” he said. “Right now the official plan contemplates lower-density development for that site. “
Granting the demolition permit will encounter resistance from heritage activists in the neighborhood.
Gil Warren of the Woodfield Community Association has done his own research, including trips to the National Archives in Ottawa.
He said the building may have been part of the original British military base located in what is now Victoria Park. He said the city later bought the site and moved many of the buildings around the city.
Warren said he has been not able to confirm the Dufferin duplex belonged to the British military but the features of the original structure indicate it could date to the 1840s and it is similar to barracks buildings at Fork York in Toronto.
Warren said the building also has a rich labour history. He said city directories show 467 Dufferin was the first office of the London and District Labour Council and was the also the birthplace of the Industrial Banner, Canada’s leading labour newspaper in that period.
He said the London Public Library also has roots there along with a labour party that was an ancestor of the NDP.
“That whole house is the history of London. It’s been there for everything,” said Warren.
He said the duplex has been “deliberately neglected” in recent years but could still be restored for another use.
“It’s plain and simple but it’s not ugly.”
Lansink agrees the building was moved to the site but he said his research shows no evidence it is a former military building and he dismisses the labour roots as “rumour.” He said even if the historic claims prove to be true, it doesn’t mean the building could be saved.
“You want me to restore it? Good luck with that. That’s not the business I’m in.”
Tomazincic said Lansink’s rezoning application will likely be heard by city council’s planning and environment committee in November.
Any demolition permit would also have to be reviewed by the local advisory committee on heritage but city council would make the final decision.