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REAL ESTATE

Edmonton looks to rejig its infill strategy

Westgate Manor is an innovative multifamily infill apartment block made from recycled shipping containers.

Senior city planner says technical reports reveal 'clear mismatch between supply and demand in infill development'

Edmonton's Evolving Infill project enters its final stages next week as public engagement commences following the release of a set of technical reports in December.

The reports, which include a municipal tools review and a market housing-and-affordability study, are in draft format, but their content will provide a knowledge base for public discussion that will shape the next iteration of the city's infill road map. The new road map will ultimately support Edmonton's ongoing goal, set in 2010, that 25 per cent of new housing should be located within mature areas and transit centres, to alleviate the challenges associated with suburban development.

"Our city is at a stage which demands more from a planning perspective," says Edmonton's senior city planner, Hani Quan. "We're Canada's fastest-growing major city and likely to hit a population of one million before previous projections. We're also Canada's youngest major city with continued inward migration. We're currently in a critical period of transition from a big small town to a small big city."

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Mr. Quan says the reports "expose two challenges for infill development," which urgently need to be addressed.

"There's a clear mismatch between supply and demand in infill development and that exists alongside the challenge of making infill affordable to Edmontonians," he explains. "This isn't really news to us, but having that information statistically presented means we can move forward with meaningful public discussion rather than simply exchanging opinions."

Ritchie Market is an example of how neighbourhood businesses are advancing revitalization efforts.

According to the market housing-and-affordability study, 24 per cent of new housing units in 2016 were added in mature areas. The vast majority of these were high density, multiresidential units, which currently account for 42 per cent of infill inventory. But these are the very types of housing that are now in least demand, while the type with the highest demand – single family homes – makes up only 30 per cent of current infill inventory.

The fallout of the imbalance in supply and demand is clear in absorption data, also cited in the report. Between May, 2015, and May, 2017, unabsorbed units in Edmonton increased just 2 per cent for single-detached homes, compared to 366 per cent for apartments. Inventory levels for single-detached homes in Edmonton are sitting comfortably below the five-year average while inventory levels for apartments are at an all-time high.

The report continues that this is coupled with the challenge that most infill single-family homes are unaffordable to the average middle-class Edmonton family.

"As we continue to welcome more people into our neighbourhoods, and at record rates, it's unreasonable, from both an affordability and a sustainability perspective, for us to expect that a starter home for a typical family can continue to be a two-storey, single-detached home," Mr. Quan says.

"The [market housing-and-affordability] study indicates that there is consumer interest in a more dense product like townhouses, duplexes and semi-detached homes in mature neighbourhoods, provided they're affordable," he continues. "Our challenge is to try to create the conditions for developers to bring these kinds of products to the market in certain parts of the city. Our approach to infill has to accommodate creativity and innovation so that we can adapt our housing stock, which is currently not diverse enough, to align with our long-term sustainability goals.

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"Unfortunately, when investors get nervous, they look at what works and what makes sense," he says. "Historically in Edmonton, we've only demonstrated that single-family homes work."

The Crawford Block, built in 1912, was transformed into micro-apartment suites while retaining the building’s structure and heritage.

To shift the needle, Mr. Quan and his team have undertaken a municipal tools review, which examines the policies, financial incentives, advocacy tools, partnerships and successes of administrations across North America and Europe. The draft document makes 34 hypothetical suggestions to encourage medium- to high-density infill development.

"The tools review is very much a starting point for us to look at what else we could be doing to achieve the diversity we know our city needs. Traditionally, we've tended to favour things like zoning bylaw changes and process and administrative changes, because those can be much quicker to implement," says Mr. Quan, "but it's also interesting to look at other, potentially more radical, options."

Mr. Quan says the "most radical" review suggested in the document would be an urban growth boundary; a land use planning line which has proved controversial in places such as Portland, Ore.

"An urban growth boundary is essentially the antithesis of what we've been doing," he says. "It's the hard stop but, in reality, it's probably not going to happen in Edmonton. It would be very difficult to implement and we have to consider whether we want to spend our efforts on an uphill battle or whether we want to go for changes that will be quicker, easier and more cost effective to implement."

Among the more likely changes on the horizon in Edmonton is a shift toward more "form-based" code, rather than "use-based" code, to foster more predictable built results and increase the quality of the public realm.

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"Trying to define what physical character is can be a slippery task and hard to regulate, but it's very possible that we will dive into this one. The zoning bylaw team is already starting to scope their zoning bylaw renewal project and they're looking at where form-based code might make sense in Edmonton's residential areas," he explains. "We're saying infill development can't stay the same, but homeowners are saying that it can't be too different. Increasing form-based code would help define what change looks like."

An energy-efficient garden suite a 124th Street resident built in her backyard.

While specific infill targets have only been in place since 2010, infill as a topic has been on the city's agenda for at least 20 years, though Mr. Quan admits that progress in bricks and mortar has been slow and, "we still don't have a perfect or near-perfect example of a project that's complete yet." However, he says, the groundwork has been laid for future success.

"During the implementation of the last infill road map, we made an enormous effort to improve construction practices to ensure we're on top of issues which you just don't see when it's greenfield," he says. "Building in the context of an existing neighbourhood is a very different ball game and we're trying to make sure that the bar is raised for infill construction."

Mr. Quan says he's confident that diversity and affordability will soon feature in the city's infill streetscape.

"There's always going to be a weird transition period with infill development where you have buildings that look out of place. But if we can get the urban design right and create conditions for innovation, hopefully, over time, diversity will become common. We'd love to see seniors living in garden suites next to families living in duplexes with basement suites housing students," he says. "We know that more people in our neighbourhoods adds up to more vibrant streets, adds up to more local businesses, more local schools, parks, rec facilities, less social isolation, less poverty, less crime. And, ultimately, we want to be able to say we did a good job welcoming more people into our neighbourhoods."

Evolving Infill's public engagement events launch Jan. 17 at City Hall and continue throughout February and March.

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