When Tim Bider’s sister comes to visit him and his family in their laneway house steps from Toronto’s Roncesvalles Ave., she’s struck by something you wouldn’t expect from a woman who lives on a dairy farm.
“She finds it eerily quiet,” says Bider, a film production designer, who in 1990 took possession with a partner of a former blacksmith’s shop to create two live-work studios.
That tranquility is not unusual for these idiosyncratic dwellings tucked away here and there on the city’s 2,400 publicly owned alleyways covering 250 kilometres.
Alex Sharpe, an entrepreneur and developer, reports the same phenomenon. He and his family live in a two-bedroom converted garage a stone’s throw from Jones Ave., in Riverdale, behind a triplex he rents out.
“We’re on a pretty busy street, but we have the buffer of the front house.”
Dwellings built along the city’s laneways are not a new phenomenon. The alleyways have accommodated houses and businesses since the 19th century.
Architects Terence Elslander and Jeffery Stinson published a study of Toronto laneway housing in 2003, including a detailed look at the quadrant bounded by Dufferin, Bathurst, Bloor and Queen Sts. At the time, they counted some 50 laneway dwellings of different types and 60 empty, severed lots in an area that had 5,112 residential street lots.
Given those numbers and after setting criteria for lot size, access to utilities and city services, the study estimated a potential for more than 6,000 lane homes.
Currently, Ontario is promoting second units in houses and accessory structures through its Planning Act. The province wants municipalities to indicate by March 31, 2017 how they will comply.
Securing approvals to live on a lane, however, continues arduous. Brigitte Shim, a laneway house pioneer and advocate, talked about her own experience during a recent meeting at the Evergreen Brick Works.
Shim said the city planner and neighbours failed to appreciate her and architect husband Howard Sutcliffe’s vision for their Leslieville laneway home in the early 1990s. But an appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board won them the right to build their “small oasis in the middle of the city.” It ultimately also won a Governor General’s medal for architecture.
Bider, though not an architect, is a designer who was attracted by the possibilities of the unique 19th-century structure on the back part of a Roncesvalles commercial property.
“Tim had to be a visionary,” says Bider’s wife, Janine Lacoste. “It wasn’t popular to live in laneways then, and the building wasn’t like this at all.”
In retrospect, though, Bider concedes, “I wouldn’t do it now. It’s just too big to deal with.”
He was able to buy what was then a glass-blowing studio because the owner of the property, which included the Roncesvalles Ave. storefront, was spooked by the 1989 real estate slump and was willing to sever his lot.
The process took eight months and thousands of dollars to install a new sewer hookup and water line up the lane.
Over the years, Bider has also secured two changes of use from the city, including for residential-only occupancy, and wanted to add a third-floor room with green roofs and deck. A neighbour’s objection made it a two-year process that involved another trip to the OMB to secure the permits.
On the other hand, Alex Sharpe, who bought his Jones Ave.-area house and garage in 2011, secured the necessary approvals and permits to legalize the residential use and rebuild his garage in record time.
Already experienced in navigating City Hall, Sharpe contacted neighbours and worked with architect Craig Race to create a design offering maximum privacy for neighbours and lots of light in the house.
It also likely helped that they were eliminating the stripper’s pole and huge hot tub, vestiges of the garage’s sketchy past, and converting it from a crowded three-bedroom bunker on one floor to an elegantly simple two-bedroom, two-storey dwelling.
Sharpe’s former garage represents an easier route to lane-house ownership: a secondary suite on an undivided property with a street address for mail and garbage collection, access for firefighting and water, sewage and utilities connections through the main dwelling.
Sharpe and architect Race call these secondary units “laneway suites,” and they have begun a campaign to make them easier to build in the face of Toronto’s prohibition of “a house behind a house” on one lot and the city’s restrictive approach to laneway homes, endorsed by council back in 2006.
Allied with Evergreen, an environmental charity promoting sustainable cities, and two Toronto city councillors, Mary-Margaret McMahon and Ana Bailão, Sharpe and Race’s Lanescape consultancy is collecting feedback from Torontonians on laneway housing in an online survey and at three public meetings held in late 2016.
Sharpe, who rents out the three apartments in his main house on Jones, believes this laneway-suite formula with potential rental income is “a great way to access home ownership and begin to buy a property in the city. Other people deserve to have the right to live in this way, in my opinion.”
Forging new ways in an old blacksmith’s shop
Who would think owning a narrow passage between two buildings could have such big implications.
But that sliver of land means Tim Bider, his wife Janine Lacoste, and their daughters, Pascale, 19, and Renée-Claude, 17, can live in their 3,000-square-foot laneway house, with two kitchens, two sets of stairs, two bathrooms and three bedrooms, tucked away behind a commercial building on Roncesvalles Ave.
The strip gives their home a street address for mail and garbage collection, as well as access to hydro and gas. Without it, the property could not have been severed, and Bider, a film production designer, could not have bought it.
He estimates his costs over the years at about $500,000 to make a home out of the building that at various times housed a blacksmith shop, mechanic’s business and glass-blowing studio.
But, given what the family enjoys, that’s a modest sum in today’s Toronto.
The space is flexible: once divided into two, live-work studios, it can become two apartments again when the girls take off, and when Bider and Lacoste decide to downsize.
The kids have enjoyed their unusual quarters. “Our friends always thought our house was so cool,” Renée-Claude says. “They loved the green roofs.”
The finishes are practical: concrete on the ground floor where the bedrooms are all located; light hardwood on the second and third floors; a wood burning fireplace with concrete mantel and hearth, large windows and skylights filling the house with light, and the summertime green roofs.
Bider has salvaged treasures: an enamel cast-iron kitchen sink with drainboard, rescued curbside in Riverdale. A retro floor lamp with laced fiberglass shade and a raft of duck decoys on the dining area sideboard come from his collections.
The laneway was their backyard, where they rode bikes, skipped rope and played hockey. Proximity to Roncesvalles, with its shops and amenities, meant the girls quickly became independent as they grew.
The area was rough around the edges when they moved in, but the family has few negative laneway incidents to report after more than 25 years.
“It’s the best neighbourhood,” says Lacoste, after a Sunday walk in nearby High Park.
At home in the garage
How many people buy a house, and then move into the garage?
Alex Sharpe did, with his wife Lia and toddler, Hilija, who is almost 2.
And if Sharpe and his partners in Lanescape, a laneway housing advocacy group, have their way, many more Torontonians will be able to do just that.
Sharpe’s 1,800-square-foot garage-turned-dwelling sits at the back of a house he bought in 2011 on Jones Ave.
The large house, with three units, is rented out to generate income. And the garage, formerly a sketchy residence with stripper pole and hot tub, has been transformed into a legal, two-storey modern dwelling with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, an open-concept living area and two alcoves for Alex and Lia both to work at home.
The ground floor has polished concrete floors with radiant heat; large sliding doors allow for lots of light; a floating stairway and dramatic cedar-clad beam, treated with the Japanese burnt-wood finishing technique, define the ground-floor space. The cedar is repeated on the home’s exterior.
Alex has added some neat details: grey-toned laminate flooring used as a wall treatment, and an assemblage of vintage metal chairs suspended as sculpture.
An entrepreneur and a developer, Alex works in his office alcove just inside the main door. Lia, a nurse who now works part-time as a consultant, sits at a tiny antique desk upstairs in a nook.
“I love it, because I love small things and small spaces,” she says. “It’s literally at the top of the stairs.” She also enjoys the best view from that vantage.
They all enjoy the lane, called Crystal Arts Square, where Hilija can explore and they meet their neighbours.
What is atypical about the Jones Ave. lot for Toronto is the generous 33-foot width. It allows for a private drive, giving easy access to the garage house.
The conversion or construction of a secondary dwelling, with no severance and with services coming from the main house, is exactly the solution Lanescape is advocating to help alleviate Toronto’s housing affordability crisis.
It’s already proved a success in Vancouver, where homeowners can simply go online and see if they can build a secondary suite for rental or family on their property.
Our editors found this article on this site using Google and regenerated it for our readers.
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