Residential infill has many benefits. But why is it so complicated to implement?
By Gene Kosowan | February 11, 2010
Here’s a bold, new recipe for real estate success: Take one piece of land in an older neighbourhood, add one dwelling, then serve fresh to one or more happy urban families. What could be simpler?
In a phrase, many things are simpler, says engineer and property developer Tegan Martin-Drysdale. She’s the co-owner of RedBrick Real Estate Services, a company that specializes in creating infill – developments built on land in established neighbourhoods.
Construction was supposed to have started on RedBrick’s first project, Stadium Apartments, a 34-suite complex in Parkdale, in July. But, even before the sod could be turned, the company had to wait months for approvals on permits concerning development, footing and foundation and the actual building of the apartment itself. RedBrick’s proposal was bounced around between city departments several times: A transportation officer wanted changes to provide for a garbage enclosure, which once rectified, impacted reactions from another department concentrating on parking, resulting in yet another departmental concern about landscaping.
“We get our own design team together and come up with solutions to problems with everybody there, but we could not get the city together in the same room,” she says.
“Some rules can be relaxed by development officers, but many cannot and you have to engage with the local community and neighbours. It becomes a much lengthier process that affects the timeline of a project. Infill is the hardest development to do in the city.”
“The only thing development officers can do is apply the zoning bylaws,” says Scott Mackie, the manager of the City’s Current Planning Branch. “They cannot create rules. They rely on sections of zoning bylaws, and there are a number of sections that deal with mature areas of the city.”
Although Mackie hopes for greater flexibility with bylaws concerning infill in the future, he maintains the City still has to listen to concerns from citizens about how such projects affect their neighbourhoods.
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“Quite often, we see a lot of anxiety in a lot of communities over infill,” he says, citing an example of one neighbourhood group that wanted to ban future construction of homes with front-end garages in Edmonton altogether, deeming them “undesirable.” The City struck a compromise, allowing such homes to be built only in districts where similar structures were already dominant features. Ironically, Martin-Drysdale’s consultations with the community league were much easier. Only one small concern, about waste disposal, was easily fixed in the blueprints.
Regardless of residential trepidation and developer frustration, filling in vacant lots with residential housing before expanding outwards isn’t purely a local notion. The Environment Protection Agency in the United States recently pointed out such a plan helps to increase housing options, revitalize neighbourhoods, boost property tax bases, cut down on intrusion upon rural lands, decrease infrastructure costs and conserve natural resources. The United Nations’ 2012 position paper, Challenges and way forward in the urban sector, argued that densifying existing districts could create vibrancy and authentic cultural identities in areas that host such undertakings.
Edmonton’s own municipal development plan, The Way We Live, passed by City Council in 2010, included infill strategies to revitalize more than 100 mature neighbourhoods established before 1970. With the city’s population expected to rise by 500,000 in 30 years, it’s expected that infill will account for 25 per cent of future construction to cut down on urban sprawl. In particular, Policy C551, also passed in 2009, stressed residential infill as a priority for the City to achieve environmental and economic sustainability as well as improved quality of development. Taking into account the character of mature neighbourhoods, including those with heritage buildings, the city’s residential infill guidelines say that building designs of infill properties should be compatible with adjacent housing and the context of the areas.
Theoretically, these stipulations spell opportunity for a small-scale development firm like RedBrick, although Martin-Drysdale says elements of the civic environment still have to change.
“The city recognizes that changes need to happen and that bylaws need to allow for more infill and more creative ways to do it,” she says. “But then there’s that disconnect between the policy work and the actual bylaws where they sit now, as well as the people at the counters and on the front lines. They’re sticking to the rules and the rules are very stringent in terms of how you deal with an infill project. With infill, you’re dealing with unique projects that can’t be replicated over and over again, so every project has different challenges, making it hard to apply one set of rules to every infill project in the city.”
To that end, Martin-Drysdale started an organization in July called the Infill Development in Edmonton Association (IDEA) to advocate for such development in the city and create opportunities for collaboration between all stakeholders involved. She also hopes to educate people on the merits and complications surrounding infill and strike a conversation with community members with divergent opinions on the subject.
Similarly, in November, the City launched its Evolving Infill project, designed to foster understanding about infill and identify options to support such endeavours throughout the city. A fact-finding mission, which included two public forums and distribution of an online feedback form available on the city’s website concluded in January. Once project workers sift through the public input, the City hopes to create an action plan based on those findings as early as March of this year.
“The work itself that we’re supporting is just a way of engaging communities about infill and understanding where the apprehensions lie and what we can do to advance infill development,” says Mackie. “Part of the feedback we get from that initiative will be used to look at ways to amend the zoning bylaws to try to remove some of these barriers.”
For her part, Martin-Drysdale is satisfied that at least infill is getting more public attention.
“I feel that during this last election, there was a lot of talk about infill, and it was more top-of-mind for voters and residents,” she says. “Candidates were hearing a lot of questions on doorsteps about the topic, so that raised their level of education, because they had to answer questions about infill. Cities have to be smarter about growth and infrastructure.”