An Engaged Resident’s Thoughts on Life In Cook Street Village

The hub of Fairfield’s Cook Street Village is a tree-lined five-block promenade of boutiques, eateries and, yes, coffee shops. A compelling blend of trendy and earthy, it’s the hangout spot for a historic neighbourhood in the midst of change. YAM asked David Lennam, one of the village’s engaged residents, to give us a view to village life.

By David Lennam, with Nicole Chaland

David Lennam and Nicole Chaland’s converted barn is just steps from Cook Street Village, but acts as a quietly secluded refuge from the city. PHOTO: DAVID LENNAM. 

Nicole told me she always dreamed of living in a barn. But when I suggested we should open this story with that line her face did not return a generous look.

“Don’t start it like that,” she said. “It’s hokey.”

But it’s true. She wanted to live in a barn. I wanted to live in a barn. We live in a barn. A converted little barn, just over 900 sq. ft., in the heart of the Cook Street Village.

And it’s that Village, and Fairfield, and the way of life we found living here, both of us, for years actually, that made us want to buy this red barn with the old hay hook still sticking out, and be part of a leafy little corner of Victoria that seemed a bit stuck in time.

But we’ll begin this story another way.

A neighbour recently remarked that he loves living in an urban environment where his children can see the stars.

Our barn sits back against one of those all-too-rare laneways, devoid of streetlights, porch lights or the glare of commercial signage. Look up on a clear night and the constellations seem so close you could crane a neck and be one among them.

It’s rare to live within walking distance of everything a city can offer and still see the stars. It’s one of the things that makes Cook Street Village special.

Nicole likes to say, “A good measure of quality of life is whether or not you can sleep with the window open.” It’s something a friend named Irwin Henderson mentioned and it got them talking about how all the new condo developments seem to be built right to the property line, not leaving room for trees to grow or people to hang out.

“When 100-year-old Douglas firs are replaced with condos, it means you don’t wake up to the sound of birdsong anymore. You wake up to the sound of traffic and garbage trucks.”

But that kind of talk, out of context, is for selfish NIMBYs and privileged elites.

Noise pollution, light pollution, safety — they’re concerns when a city grows and densifies. How you best manage it determines whether a neighbourhood, or the whole town, is great or merely just OK.

The Cook Street Village is great. Right now.

Our barn dates to the latter part of the 19th century, though there’s no determining its year of construction. I like to tell people that Robert Service once bedded down here, just like everyone who lives in Vancouver’s West End claims to reside in the same apartment where swashbuckling Errol Flynn died.

The city’s drawings for our barn are minimal, consisting of a rectangle with two lines not quite bisecting it into thirds. Three horse stalls. Whose horses we’ve no idea because our barn predates the other house on the lot, a cute and cozy 1908 “doll’s house.”

And that’s why we moved here. Because this property consisted of two separate homes. Both exceedingly modest, but together the sort of arrangement Victoria is wanting to move towards: garden suites, laneway housing, house-plexes.

My mother, who was aging into Alzheimer’s, needed our care. Neither Nicole nor I knew what that would entail, but we embarked on a seven-year journey of discovery — Mum in the little doll’s house in front, us in the barn in the back. We shared a garden, a dog and the assurance that Cook Street Village would share in the care plan.

We wanted to give Mum the most possible amount of freedom, without worry. The only way that independence was possible was to have the Village keep an eye on her. With her illness, there’s simply nowhere else in the city she could have walked around freely.

The Village became like one of those purpose-built dementia villages the Dutch have — and Langley is getting. It was where she walked every day, at first to shop and then, when those abilities left her, just to be. The neighbourhood would look out for her if she got lost. And she did. But she was always found and returned. Half a dozen of the businesses kept dog biscuits, and Mum, with her little terrier, Molly, pulling her along, would get dragged in for treats. The business owners got to know Mum and care about her, and that made us feel she was safe out there, even though she could no longer spell her name or tell anyone her address. Complete strangers brought her home (with the dog) when she couldn’t remember how to get back.

Isn’t that the sort of place in which we all want to live?

 

Razing — and Raising — the Barn

We call our modest barn The Carriage House, with an emphasis on the “The,” given it’s the only one on the block — one of a very few existing anywhere in Victoria — and because we like to acknowledge its unique personality.

The building itself has been horse barn, garage for a Buick, storage shed, home and who knows what else in 130-plus years. When Nicole and I bought it in 2010, the structure had been converted into a cramped two-bedroom/two-bathroom apartment, beds on the ground floor, kitchen and living room upstairs. Nicole immediately saw the potential for an open-concept, ultra-green, condo-sized space. A space for modern urban efficient living.

Sledgehammers and crowbars were handed out to friends and, in a weekend, the barn was gutted, torn back to some planks and beams. Within two months, and numerous on-the-fly alterations, the interior was reassembled. Kitchen, dining, living in one airy space down, one large bedroom and bath up.

We made an effort to do it sustainably: the kitchen countertops are wood from old bowling lanes in Nanaimo, the floors extra-long recycled planks made from glulam (a structural composite made from dimensional lumber that’s glued together), the original kitchen table, all nine feet of it, was milled from beams in the old Walmart. Zero VOC paint. Extra insulation to reduce heating.

“The truth is,” admits Nicole, “I always dreamed of living in a converted barn, I just never thought it was possible. I love the rustic feeling of a farmhouse, and the lifestyle of small-house living appeals to me. I like shopping each day for food. Fewer countertops means fewer places to clean and collect clutter. I think there are a lot of people who can’t imagine living so efficiently, but when you can walk two minutes to buy fresh bread or salamis, you don’t need a lot of room for food storage. When that same walk takes you to village life with ample sidewalk patios and public space, where you’re bound to bump into friends and neighbours, the street becomes your living room.”

It’s all a bit European.

Quiet streets where no two houses look the same. Streets named after dubious characters (Trutch, Sutlej) where the locals understand that we have the power to change those symbols of a sorry colonial past. Grassy boulevards. A canopy of mature trees. A sense that, whatever is happening elsewhere, all is calm here.

I know, I know, we’re describing Cook Street Village like it’s some sort of urban nirvana. But in the most Buddhist sense of the highest state one can attain — one of enlightenment where personal suffering goes away — the Village certainly punches above its weight. It has a vibe that’s at once funky and weird and chic and cool.

The chief amenity of this corner of Victoria is every realtor’s favourite closing line: location. Two hundred acres of Beacon Hill Park, with enough blooms to make Butchart blush, is across the street. The stroll of Dallas Road and the beach, 10 minutes at an ambling clip. Downtown, a 15-minute stroll.

 

A Change is Gonna Come …Vision of a Village

The City of Victoria has embarked on a 25-year neighbourhood plan that will “incentivize” new developments. Their approach seems narrowly focused on expensive condos without serious study on how that would impact residents or businesses.

Take our place, for instance. A laneway house. One of a handful. The City sees it as a non-conforming secondary suite.

Nicole says it’s the type of housing — small, efficient, ground-oriented multi-family housing — that should be encouraged, especially if we want to accommodate more people without sacrificing the way that people look out for each other.

“It was a fluke finding it, and this type of housing is technically not allowed,” she says. “There’s a real fear that there’ll be no one left here like us.”

Many dread the wrecking ball of change will leave torn-down houses like grave markers to a forgotten Fairfield, but the city has recently agreed to collaborate with the neighbourhood on co-creating a gentle density program for infill housing and a vision for a much safer and slower Cook Street Village.

As Nicole puts it, “It’s very important to most everyone that lives in Cook Street Village that we have a sharp distinction between downtown and the Village.”

This is done by having a greener, more natural environment, more trees, more grass and a less aggressive built environment.

Cook Street Village is, in planning-speak, a “complete neighbourhood.” That just means you can safely and easily walk to get your daily goods and services. For residents, there’s a butcher, baker, post office, notary public, dentist, liquor store and several places to buy groceries. All the things you need in a day. It means we can have smaller kitchens since we don’t need to store a week’s worth of food and we can leave the car at home and shop on foot or on bike.

Visitors love it too because it’s the place in the city you can enjoy ‘patio culture.’ Everyone loves eating outside at sidewalk cafés, but the options are surprisingly few in Victoria. Except in Cook Street Village. There’s outdoor seating at three coffee shops, a pub and four restaurants — and that’s in a compact two-block strip.

If there was a portal we could gaze into and see the Village 10, 20, 50 years from now, it could be a national demonstration site for affordability, sustainability, friendliness, neighbourliness and culture, held strong by local independent businesses.

But we do have to look at its evolution through a lens of what we currently have … perhaps one little barn at a time.


 

Inside David and Nicole’s Cook Street Village Home and Lifestyle

It’s all local artists in this barn. Lyle Schultz’s Prey 1 has a place of prominence in the kitchen. PHOTO: JEFFREY BOSDET.

David at work downstairs. PHOTO: JEFFREY BOSDET.

Paintings by Nicole decorate the stairs next to her office nook. PHOTO: JEFFREY BOSDET.

Close inspection will reveal a Participation Award of Excellence. PHOTO: JEFFREY BOSDET.

The original hay hook remains. PHOTO JEFFREY BOSDET.

David and Molly the dog on one of their several-times-a-day walks through the Village. PHOTO: NICOLE CHALAND.

Cook Street Village. PHOTO: JO-ANN LORO. 

 

The Importance of Placemaking In Victoria

It’s not common knowledge, but most of the square footage of our community is owned jointly by the people who live here, says Lorne Daniel of the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network. “We co-own all parks, streets and boulevards. It’s not some government that’s responsible for this park, corner or street. It’s ours, so what do we want this street to look like?”

Daniel is explaining placemaking, a process through which people work together to shape and create public spaces. One idea is to revamp two or three blocks of Cook Street into a sort of shared street that gives pedestrians priority over cars and gets rid of designated crosswalks in favour of a system that allows people to criss-cross the street all over the place. Hard curbs would be removed; all sides of the street would be equally accessible by foot or mobility scooter.

“It would take cars an extra minute, at most, to get through the Village, but we’re designing it for a community and not as a thoroughfare to get people to Dallas Road,” he says.

Daniel is taking part in public neighbourhood walks around Cook Street Village and area, co-organized with the Cook Street Village Residents Network to show what assets exist and how they can be used for everyone.

“With these walks,” he says, “we’ve found the best community planning happens with people walking side-by-side in the space you’re talking about. Getting people out of meeting rooms … into the real space so we really look at things like trees and the height of buildings in relation to the trees.”

Collaboration, he says, goes a long way toward creating spaces people want to live in, even if that means changing the way it looks and operates.

“We tend to accept a status quo — this is the way this street has been for the last 20 years and this is the way it’s always going to be. [But] Cook Street Village used to be a low, marshy natural area and has evolved, in a relatively short time, into what it is today.” 

For info on the walks, visit csvrn.com.

 This article is from the May/June 2018 issue of YAM.