Large Scale Infill

Large Scale Infill

Central communities in Ward 8 are facing significant development pressure at a scale and speed that is hard for neighbourhoods to manage. There is an urgency on the part of the City to increase density in the urban core and mature neighbourhoods because our infrastructure deficit from 2009 to 2018 is estimated to be $19 billion. If we want to maintain the level of services we expect and invest in our communities (roads, transit, rec centres), without huge tax increases, we need to shift our growth pattern.

The drive for densification also comes from the need to bring more people back into our urban centre and our mature neighbourhoods. Our population in our mature neighbourhoods has dropped by 73000 people over the last 40 years. This results in school closures, difficulties for small businesses, coffee shops and grocery stores. It makes it harder to pay for, or justify, good transit and other services, creating a vicious cycle that is unsustainable. Changing our growth pattern is urgent, but how we do it matters.

Our neighbourhoods are changing. This presents many challenges, but also an opportunity to create a vision for how we can evolve in ways that work for our communities. We need development that will meet the need for a good social mix, so that we can stay vibrant and resilient, that will add amenities and infrastructure that supports this resilience, and that is viable for those who build our city.

Our zoning bylaws and plans are clearly not working very well anymore. We have invested thousands of hours, significant City resources, and significant time and investment on the part of City administration and community, to try to get these plans right and almost immediately the exception becomes the rule. This has created a deep lack of trust and cynicism in our communities, because we can’t count on the plans being honoured. It also means there is also no real parameters, predictability or stability for those who build in our city.  And it makes it very difficult to plan effectively. We end up reacting, instead of planning. 

There are at least three things we need to address if we are going to shift the conversation...

First, we need to engage community before decision making and consistently through the process. We need to build relationships and seek out local knowledge, the people who understand the ecosystem of our neighbourhoods. This local understanding is very valuable to the planning and development process and can enhance the quality and viability of projects, but it needs to be an early part of the conversation, and continue through the process. Any additional time spent early in the engagement process, tends to pay dividends in terms of time and money later on. The new Public Engagement policy is an exciting opportunity to do this work. I have confidence that with leadership from Council, and senior administration, that we can shift this culture. However, we also need partners in industry to join us in our engagement efforts. And, more effective engagement, by itself, won’t address all the pressures.

Secondly, key pieces of the puzzle are missing. We need a clear picture of the parameters of development. Too often, we are told innovation and compromises aren’t possible, because “the numbers don’t work.” And frequently, we also see projects consulted on, and approved, that never get built, because “the numbers didn’t work.” We also see situations where after a lengthy process, we start over again, for the same reason. But administration, and community never know what the numbers are. We need the data. In order to understand the numbers, we need to start looking at the proformas, (the documents real estate developers use to analyze the viability of a project) and/or similar market metrics. There is precedence for this in other cities, and it can help create a more rigorous, transparent, collaborative and effective planning process. Knowing what makes a project viable or not, can help a community and administration come to the table and negotiate more effectively. It can provide more stability and predictability for the developer too. Knowing how or why something isn’t working, makes it possible to come up with more creative solutions and find more innovative ways of meeting common goals. The silos we are operating in right now, don’t work for anyone. 

Design is also missing from most of our zoning requirements. We all know buildings that are attractive, human scale, and that generate “sticky streets” where people mingle and visit and build community. And we all know buildings that create social isolation. These buildings can be big or small. Scale isn't the main issue, what makes the difference is design. We can design for social connection. The number of social interactions we have is influenced by the width of hallways and the frontage on our streets. Shadows can be overpowering or relatively minor depending on how we design buildings. Wind can dramatically impact liveability near a building, or be mitigated by design. The Edmonton Design Committee is now in place and looking at projects downtown, but in Ward 8 the opportunity to have this committee look at our projects is the exception, not the rule. Design isn't just about taste and aesthetics, we can apply data driven design principles to our development projects. The larger the scale, the more important it is that we get the design right. 

We also need more rigorous metrics to track the issues we are trying to resolve. Currently, we are only calculating density based on housing unit per hectare. This shortcut predisposes us to prioritize smaller units in high density buildings as they help us meet our metrics much more easily.  It's not a direct line, but it's bound to influence our built form. It also makes sense in terms of increasing our residential tax base, but it doesn’t adequately address where people actually live. Often what we measure is what we get. People move, so it’s hard to use simple population statistics as a metric, however, the built form does influence us more than we seem to think. Measuring the number of bedrooms might be a way to get closer to the reality, in terms of lining up housing density with population density, and we probably need other metrics as well to complete the picture.  

Third, we need to be planning for a good social mix and resilient communities. Right now, in large scale development, we are building almost exclusively one and two bedroom condos. Our policies around family oriented housing require ground level access to the outside, and we consider an average of 2.25 to be “family oriented.” The Municipal Development Plan states that 25% of large-scale infill in mature neighbourhoods should be family oriented housing, but right now we are lucky to get 3% three bedrooms and most often two bedrooms are the only "family oriented" units built. These don’t meet the needs of many families. Many developers state that there is no market for this, but this isn't true. I suspect that part of the problem is they base their market data on pre-sales. Families with children, aren’t going to buy a year out, it’s not economically feasible. However, market research by the City, in 2013, demonstrated a significant demand for family-oriented apartment units, if they met a few basic criteria, the first being three bedrooms.

We can’t dictate where people choose to live, but design will drive demographics. If we want to curb our outward growth (which we need to for economic and environmental sustainability), then we have to get a lot more creative about how we accommodate more diverse family types. Unlike the rest of the country, we are in a baby boom. We are one of the youngest cities in the country, and Millennials are starting to have kids. They want to stay somewhere central and are willing to live in apartments and other types of multifamily housing. These types of units would also be attractive to multi-generational families, and groups of friends who want to live more cooperatively. Families are also looking for other families, there needs to be a critical mass. If the school is on the verge of closing, and there aren’t any other families in a building, they are far less likely to choose that housing option.

Social mix also includes providing options for seniors to age in place. We need to be setting criteria around accessible units, so that seniors, and those with limited mobility, have more options for housing in the neighbourhoods they call home. Downsizing, also frees up existing housing stock for families.

Finally, high quality, integrated affordable housing make it possible for more people to have stability and participate in the community. There is a significant need in Edmonton for more diverse market housing and there is also a need for more affordable housing, subsidies and permanent supportive housing. Our inclusionary zoning practices are not currently addressing the need for non-market housing across the city. We need to build this housing as a part of larger multi-family development, especially in the context of Transit Oriented Development (TOD). Too often we are seeing payments in lieu instead of investment in actual housing. There is an appetite for finding creative solutions emerging through collaboration between developers, housing organizations and the City, but our policies are still catching up.

The complex challenges around large-scale infill in Edmonton are a symptom of the growing pains a City experiences when it evolves from a big, small-city to a small, big-city. We can learn from other jurisdictions and even anticipate some of the issues. With thoughtful, ongoing engagement, more robust metrics, market data and high design standards, we can create a more reliable and predictable process for community, developers and City administration, and build projects that enhance our existing communities.