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Changing Forms

I shared in a previous blog post some additional context around the need for a Zoning Bylaw Renewal, as well as some of the concerns around engagement — you can read it here.

Summertime image taken of the river valley of the high level bridge with the high level street car crossing

I have heard from many Edmontonians that are feeling very real anxiety about the potential changes coming if the new draft Zoning Bylaw were to pass.

People are concerned that the character — the look and feel of their neighbourhood — is going to change if the housing form options change. Your concerns are valid and this can feel really personal when change involves your home.

However, different built forms in neighbourhoods — whether mature or developed — are already happening. Rezoning decisions based on our current bylaw are often being overturned by the Subdivision and Development Appeal Board (SDAB), making the case that this really isn’t a relevant document for the way that Edmontonians are already living. I view this proposed bylaw as catching us up with that reality, while still preparing us for the future.

We are also unlikely to see this come to fruition as a rapid change (although an increase in lagging housing starts here in Edmonton would be a great sign for our economy). This kind of change, whether we’re talking about broad upzoning or the City Plan, takes place over decades — or longer.

Outside of all this, we are not facing a free-for-all with no development oversight. Even with permitted use, any development must still go through the development process, with approval necessary from a Development Officer. Decisions on land use can still be appealed to the Subdivision and Development Appeal Board (SDAB). Developers still need to have available funds and labour for construction. None of these factors are changing. So what kind of change is possible in your neighbourhood? I’ll start by linking to the Proposed Zone Equivalencies and the Proposed Upzoning Map. Once you have an idea of what the different potential zones around you may be, you can review the Residential Zones Scenario Modelling to see what the different permitted housing built forms might look like, setbacks included. My hope is that those of you concerned about an eight storey building popping up next door to your home will notice that the proposed modelling for the majority of residential (RS) does not actually permit heights greater than three storeys, or 10.5m. That being said, there’s been some concern around how District Planning may dramatically increase the residential building size around “nodes and corridors”. I want to be clear that district planning merely provides policy direction to guide future rezoning applications and does not include plans for automatic upzoning. Changes based on that policy direction will still require developers to submit a rezoning application, and that process will remain the same as it is today. The proposed bylaw also addresses what I believe is one of the biggest issues with build form restrictions in Edmonton — the inability to upsize or downsize your housing within your own neighbourhood. Life circumstances change, and leaving your neighbourhood can mean finding a new grocery store, finding a new way to work, finding new childcare, finding new neighbours — which is all really disruptive. By increasing the different types of housing available within neighbourhoods, existing residents will have options that don’t currently exist. In terms of the small-scale commercial activities that are proposed for residential neighbourhoods, those are not quite as intensive as some of the concerns I’ve heard. These businesses would only be permitted on lots adjacent to existing commercial zoning, and each establishment will have a maximum floor area of 300m2. More flexibility exists within the medium to large-scale residential zoning, but the parameters are still stringent enough to maintain the general intent of the area as a residential neighbourhood. In short, what the proposed bylaw is seeking to do is provide a level of appropriate optionality in Edmonton neighbourhoods — whether it be housing variety or small-scale commercial amenities like grocery stores and childcare — where that optionality does not currently exist.

Two young boys look at a map on a board of downtown Edmonton

I should be clear about what a Zoning Bylaw is — and what it isn’t. In its most basic form, it is simply a document that outlines the classification of land within a municipality. Each classification will have permitted uses for the land, where they can go, and a general outline of what structures should look and feel like. Zoning is generally invisible to most of us, usually until we visit a city that looks and feels different to our own, and recognize the impact that different zoning rules can have on a community. The overarching principle that governs zoning and use decisions is known as the “highest and best use of the land”; the most reasonable, probable, and legal use of the land, which is physically possible, appropriately supported, financially feasible, and results in the highest value. When we make land use/zoning decisions as a Council, our decisions are based on what are called “land use considerations”: impact on the surrounding properties and environment, building size/proximity, distance to transit, roadway access and transportation, servicing and utilities. In other words, factors that are only about the use of the land. What we explicitly cannot consider in land use/zoning decisions are any considerations of the user of the land; tax implications, whether it will be rented or owned, occupant family size, the character or morality of the applicant. We’ve heard a lot about how this bylaw draft doesn’t go far enough — there needs to be more environmental stewardship baked-in, more clauses to consider affordable housing and the housing needs of families. But I would argue that these considerations are focused on the user and would be much more appropriately placed within adjacent bylaws and city policies. And while I don’t believe that affordable housing should be the driver here, I will mention that there is data that shows broad upzoning can make a market impact on affordability — particularly with rent increases. Even in markets where values increase (two skinnies out of a single detached home, as an example), there is a demonstrated positive effect on whole-of-market affordability with the movement of people through the housing market.

Are developers coming out too far ahead with these proposed changes? Are we getting too little in return?

I’m not sure that I can provide a better reply to that critique than this tweet thread from Dr. Robert Summers, the Academic Director of the UofA Sustainability Council and Director of the School of Urban and Regional Planning:

To his point, removing the restrictions that prevent building any multi-family residential built forms on 50% of the residential land in the city is not only necessary to accommodate the growth predicted, but it's as beneficial to Edmontonians as it is to infill developers.

In terms of the City’s ability to properly plan for the future, a few folks have brought up Blatchford in correspondence to my office — the City can’t even get Blatchford done, so why are we expecting different results from this initiative?

To me, Blatchford showcases exactly why staying out of the weeds with this bylaw is important. Time and again, Council has been told that the lack of success in Blatchford is because we were too prescriptive*. Public versus private arguments aside, the structure of these residential zones gives individual property owners optionality. It does not restrict built form to one type of housing, but allows individual owners to assess what is the optimal land use in the context of their neighbourhood.

* This is a criticism often lobbed by external parties, however a report discussed as recently as last Friday has different, positive perspective on the progress of the development and is worth its own discussion — a story for another day.

Multifamily row housing in the Edmonton Blatchford neighbourhood

I mentioned this is my last post, but it's worth restating that any Zoning Bylaw will remain flexible and changeable. I’ve also heard the slippery slope argument that “once it’s given away, it can’t be taken back”. If it's not working for Edmontonians, it can be changed, and changed again, just as the existing bylaw was. Amendments should be expected, and they will come with input through our Public Hearing process. Lastly, I have heard the request for a delay on this vote. While I will always retain an open mind going into any Public Hearing, I have yet to hear a convincing argument on what purpose a delay will serve. Most of the proposed changes requested, while important, are ones that I don’t believe belong in a land use document, as mentioned above. Delaying until district plans are finalized is not necessary because the district plans will not induce automatic upzoning. I will end with a point that I made last week during an interview on CBC Radio — good neighbourhoods are not made through planning departments, built forms, or land use; they are made by strong communities and the people who live there. Good neighbourhoods are built from good neighbours.


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