Changing infill’s impact on neighbours begins with communication

It’s a familiar sight in many core and mature neighbourhoods: older houses in disrepair are demolished and in their places rise new houses, duplexes, or even two “skinny homes,” dividing what was once one lot. The desire to live closer to major parks, employment hubs and entertainment districts drives much of the demand in these areas.

City Director Livia Balone
Development director Livia Balone with proposed signage for renewal projects Photo: Jon Taves

In many cases, this is a welcome change. New housing options bring more families to populate schools, increase demand for local businesses, and make more efficient use of infrastructure like drainage, transit, libraries and emergency services. However, for some residents, particularly those directly next to infill properties, the new developments have been soured by construction delays, noise and occasionally property damage.

The City of Edmonton is midway through an overhaul of how it approaches infill regulations, processes, and importantly, communication.“We want to make sure it’s a good process for everybody: for the neighbouring properties, the builder, for us,” explained Livia Balone, the City’s director of development & zoning services. “We need to be responsive to these issues in order for infill to be successful. We don’t want to turn a blind eye.”

The City launched its “Evolving Infill Roapmap” in fall 2014 after consultation with 30 representatives from industry and the public. The group identified eight priority actions of the 23 covered by the plan. Those already completed include a “Good Neighbour Guide,” a dedicated infill staff team, and relaxation of rules concerning lot subdivision and garage and garden suites. A two-year pilot for an infill advisory group also launched in December 2015.

The City hopes that with time and implementation of these new strategies, the negative impacts of infill in mature and established neighbourhoods will diminish.

Education in the industry

Balone attributes much of these difficulties to inexperienced builders. Her development compliance team is proposing that an applicant sign a form at the outset of their project that acknowledges their understanding of the needed permits and considerations.

Edmontons Infill Roadmap
The first 23 actions of the Infill Roadmap are scheduled to be completed in 2016 Image courtesy of CoE

“For a few of [the builders], this is not their regular job,” she said. “They are building to sell, and they are not necessarily in the industry and know all the regulations. Part of what we want to do is educate and let them know what they need to do.”

Balone said she hopes accountability will increase with higher fines for permit violations, and clear, required signage for demolition and construction that publicizes the builder and applicants’ contact information, should neighbours have concerns. These changes are being proposed for 2016.

Brian Woolger, whose company Baum & Woolger Homes specializes in infill development, noted that openness with neighbours is important. Signage with contact information is already part of his company’s practice.

“Communication is key. Most [neighbours] are pretty reasonable if you just go over there, introduce yourself and tell them what’s going on,” he said.

Balone said that in the City’s study of best practices in other jurisdictions, this was the norm.

“If you go to any of of the cities that have been doing infill for a very long time, and you speak to the builders there, [communication] is just part of their business. They need to go speak to the neighbours well before the job even happens, and they continue those conversations throughout the process,” she said.

For the homebuilders, clear expectations and open communication from the City will go a long way in improving a construction environment with unique complications.

“There’s inherently more risk to building infill,” said architect Tai Ziola, president of Infill Development Edmonton Association (IDEA) and co-founder of Newstudio Architecture. “There’s more scrutiny, just by virtue of there being [existing] neighbours, than there is to build a house in the suburbs where there’s a very neat and tidy plan.”

Revitalizing mature neighbourhoods

The City’s “The Way We Grow” strategic plan sets a target of 25 per cent of new housing units to be in established or mature neighbourhoods. However, that number has been continuously below that, at 14 per cent.

In addition to a more streamlined approval process, Ziola said she believes the City needs to be more flexible in the type of development it allows in older neighbourhoods if it hopes to reach that mark.

“We talk about infill developers like they are these big, bad evil people who want to screw over a community by making a ton of money. In a lot of cases it’s a couple or a family, and they buy a lot and want to renew the house,” she said. “But that process is fraught with uncertainty. […] Maybe you’re going to be required to take out your basement suite to get the permit to pass, and then your plan doesn’t make financial sense anymore.”

Ziola said the community should change how it approaches the question of revitalization, noting that most new neighbourhoods are denser than the ones just outside the central core. Over the last 40 years, Edmonton’s mature neighbourhoods have dropped in population by 73,000. 

Infill duplexes can change the look of older streets, but add needed density Photo: Jon Taves

“There are so many reasons we should be looking to densify, revitalize and improve our neighbourhoods through infill,” she said. “All these neighbourhoods we’re saddled with right now are all built for the nuclear family in 1960. That’s not Edmonton anymore. It’s not very inclusive of people who have different family setups, older people or single parents. We need to get so much more creative with the housing options that we’re building.”

There is a noticeable appetite for this shift among the public, added Woolger.

“A lot of people are starting to switch the trend from having a new suburban home to being near the river valley or close to the university,” he said. “That provides a safer investment; rental values are always there.”

But infill projects, especially those that add density, continue to be met with resistance in many neighbourhoods, with opponents citing infrastructure capacity and construction impacts.

Neighbourhood’s character multi-faceted

During city council’s executive committee meeting on Dec. 7, concerns for a neighbourhood’s character was consistently brought up by members of the public as an argument against infill. Mayor Don Iveson asked many of the panelists how they would define the term — the answers varied widely.

Balone said she sees this as an important, albeit difficult, question to answer. A major portion of the completed Infill Roadmap will be the Mature Neighbourhood Overlay (MNO) review. The MNO, which was implemented in 2001 to guard against suburban-style front garage homes, restricts things like height and lot splitting. Character of a neighbourhood will be at the heart of this discussion going forward.

“What does character really mean to people? Because people talked about lot sizes. Some people mentioned how much the community volunteers for things, how many block parties, how the houses look. It was really a range, and maybe character is a little bit about everything,” Balone said.

For Ziola, the focus on character can be a difficult obstacle for designers and builders to overcome.

“Actually I think we should just give up on trying to define character,” she said. “Are we [defining it] to make everything new that we put in look exactly like what was there before? Because if that’s the case then you don’t have evolution of a neighbourhood.”

Allowing this broad objection opens the door to architectural controls, Ziola said. This is not the mandate of the zoning bylaw.

“There are other ways to talk about quality. Let’s find a way to regulate that in a way that doesn’t slip into areas of style. Wouldn’t something be a better fit if we don’t have it already?” she said.

“We shouldn’t be so concerned about whether we’re matching what was built 50 years ago; we need what we’re building to match what we want to see 50 years from now.”