Garage doors. I hate ’em.
I originally drew this cartoon in April, 1999. The house indicated in Fig. 2 is the ranch style house I lived in while growing up in Dundas, Ont. It had a carport, which my dad couldn’t stand. I was glad to see a critique on garage doors as the lead story in today’s National Post. There’s hope for humanity.
Melissa Leong — National Post
Last week, Carl Zehr drove through a new subdivision in Kitchener and saw a wall of garages.
He looked at the rows of semi-detached homes with double-car garages in front, separated by swatches of concrete and small tufts of grass.
“When you looked at these in multiples, side by side if you were looking [down the street], you saw nothing but garage doors,” said Mr. Zehr, Kitchener’s Mayor.
“There has to be a better way.”
On Monday, the city’s municipal council voted unanimously to ban two-car garages in front of semi-detached homes, beginning in 2007. Mr. Zehr said the new zoning bylaw is not simply about ridding communities of what urban planners and architects call “snout houses.”
“It’s about quality of life, eyes on the street and making sure that people could interact in their front yards,” Mr. Zehr said.
Kitchener is the latest example of Canadian municipalities launching attacks on the garage in an effort to create more livable, sustainable communities.
Avi Friedman, an architect, planner and professor at McGill University, said more towns and cities are taking their inspiration from places such as Bois-Franc in Montreal, Garrison Woods in Calgary and Cornell in Markham. They have attractive streetscapes with trees and porches, and few front-facing garages.
“When you build garages, what you get is not only an unpleasing building that looks at times like a car wash, you also create a situation by which a large segment of the sidewalk is paved — not leaving room for trees,” Mr. Friedman said.
“The street is, therefore, very dull. Developing something like this is an anti-social statement.”
Valerie Shuttleworth, director of planning and urban design in Markham said the town was one of the first in Greater Toronto to wage war on the garage.
In the mid-’90s, the town set limits on the size of garages and began developing communities with lanes to access detached garages behind houses.
She said she didn’t get to know her neighbours until she moved to an area without front-facing garages.
Going back to suburban development in the 1920s, garages or sheds were found at the back of the home, planning experts say.
As society increased its reliance on cars, the garage began to creep around to the front of the home.
As more households required multiple vehicles, the garage grew to two, three and four-doors. And as land values rose, people wanted to maximize space by building on top of and around the garage.
“What consumers wanted was the convenience of having a garage attached. They wanted to increase the size of the outdoor space at the back of the house for their enjoyment,” Douglas Stewart, president of the Waterloo Region Home Builders’ Association, said.
“It’s convenient, it’s efficient and it improves the overall urban design,” he said of front-facing garages.
With increasing restrictions on garages, some builders and real estate agents lament the reduction of choice for the consumer.
“If builders are coming forward with houses and designs, it’s because they’ve got a demand out there that they’re trying to meet,” said John Kenward of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association.
“It’s all very well for somebody to stand back and say, ‘Frankly, I don’t like the look of it,’ but … I think the customer has to have a say in this at the end of the day.”
Eastforest Homes Ltd. built 52 semi-detached homes with double garages in a Kitchener subdivision, which was the cause of concern for the city.
But Dave Steinbach, a real estate agent with Peak Realty in Kitchener, said the houses sold “like crazy.”
They cost about $217,000 each. A single detached home with a two-car garage in the same neighbourhood starts at $295,000, he said.
“Today everybody’s a two-car family,” he said. “The city tends to think you use your driveway for a car and the garage for a car. But unless you build a shed in your backyard, where do you put the lawnmower and the kids’ bikes?”
Kitchener tightened garage rules for single-family homes in 2000 (the width of a garage is limited to 70% of the home’s frontage) but did not include semi-detached homes until now.
As municipalities become stricter on what can be built, the building industry has had to modify how it designs homes.
Garages are being pushed back into the house; municipal planning departments need to be consulted on colour schemes for homes.
“They’ve turned the construction market upside down,” Mr. Steinbach said. “All these restrictions add to the final cost of the house.”
Restrictions are the result of municipalities learning to manage the pressures of growth and urbanization or communities being proactive in their planning, design experts say.
“If the Mayor of the community doesn’t think of himself as the chief urban designer of the city then no improvement is possible. It has to be led by the top echelons,” said Toronto-based architect Peter A. Gabor.
“You would be astonished at the range of measures that are controlling development all across the region. Council gets very inventive.”
But planning experts argue that if the goal is to create a better public realm, kicking massive, front-facing garages to the curb is a timid first step.
To reduce the focus on the car, local officials need to develop more compact communities, better public transit and live-work-play areas, Ms. Shuttleworth said. She added that Markham is planning a major employment centre near its Cornell community.
“This issue of the garage is really a symbol or a sign of a much deeper underlying problem,” said Ken Greenberg, a Toronto-based urban designer.
“At the rate Southern Ontario is growing, we have to find new paradigms of handling that…. I think there’s a huge pent-up desire in the public for alternatives to the conventional form of low-density sprawl.”