— Downtown Edmonton Community League Update —

Designing Density

It’s time we plan for a better future

Maybe you grew up playing with Lego. Or maybe you enjoyed – or more likely became frustrated with – designing cities using SimCity. Both teach us that good building requires good planning.

This fall, Edmonton City Council approved two significant tower developments—one in Oliver and one Downtown. In Oliver, council approved a 23-storey tower on two lots where single detached homes currently sit. And in Downtown, council approved a surface parking lot to be rezoned from allowing a density ratio (called the floor to area ratio, or FAR) of 8-10 to 17. The decision nearly doubled the allowed size of the two proposed towers.

The Oliver Community League and Downtown Edmonton Community League recently told council we’re concerned about its trend of approving tower developments with increased densities, and without consideration for market demand, the effect on surrounding land prices and the diversity of built form.

Why do our community leagues take issue now, after years of being generally supportive of tower developments? Because the applications being proposed are much denser than before and this has a real and lasting effect on the overall real estate market. We feel our communities are reaching a point where we need better city planning in order to build a healthy city.

Many of the rezoning applications being proposed are between 50 to 100 per cent denser than what currently exists. These proposals require more thought and reflection as a city on the effects on the neighbourhood and other redevelopments across Edmonton. Many projects are at stake when we don’t question excessive density bonusing at specific sites.

Land development in Edmonton is significantly regulated. It’s regulated by the city administration, through City Council, through development officers and through the Subdivision and Development Appeal Board. You can build what you want on your land as long as it adheres to the rules – called zoning. The city provides a suite of standard zoning. If you want to build something that doesn’t fit in one of those zones, however, you have the option to write your own – a ‘direct control’ zone.

In the last decade, most rezonings in Oliver and Downtown have been direct control. These direct control zones have often allowed developers to build far more height and more density than previously allowed. In some cases, the resulting towers don’t adhere to Edmonton’s own rules and guidelines, let alone good urban-planning and design principles.

For example: Council approved a direct-control zone for a development at Jasper Avenue and 114 Street. The zoning allows for a 45-storey tower with 273 units and a floor to area ratio of 12.4. The increase in density is vastly different than the single-storey commercial buildings in the area, and enables the developer to sell many more units from this parcel of land. And yet, the developer successfully argued they were not able to provide three-bedroom units to the community to house families or an underground parkade.

Theoretically, each zoning application must stand on its own. City Council is not required to make decisions based on precedence or past decisions. This leads to the belief that their decisions do not affect the land development market. But they do.

Allowing a developer to develop a tower with more density than neighbouring properties through a direct-control zone sets cascading reactions in motion. Land prices climb as landowners presume development opportunities are ever increasing with each approved upzoning. Land prices may not be a significant hurdle for a large tower development, but they can make developments in the “missing middle” form – row-homes, townhouses, low-rises and courtyard apartments – near impossible or overly expensive.

A community league must advocate not only for its current residents but also future residents. What will the next generation of Downtown and Oliver experience living in the core? What are the cumulative effects of haphazard approvals that don’t consider allocation of public amenities, like green space and recreation? That don’t examine impacts to sunlight penetration and wind tunneling? That don’t respect market forces on affordability and land speculation?

In Oliver, single-storey development and surface parking lots dominate Jasper and 104 avenues. Meanwhile, Downtown has surface parking lots covering almost entire blocks. While densification of our city is crucial, our two communities have many plots of land available for development. If this land is underutilized it makes our home less enjoyable, healthy and safe.

Planning our neighbourhoods properly requires understanding how many people we want to accommodate, and creating a framework to ensure a diversity of housing can be provided. Downtown has the award-winning Capital City Downtown Plan, which is due for renewal in a few years. But Oliver hasn’t seen an update to the Area Redevelopment Plan since 1995, well before the closure of the City Centre Airport that restricted building heights.

The City of Edmonton is currently renewing our Municipal Development Plan – “the City Plan” – and will look to shape our city to sustainably accommodate two million people. It’s likely that the populations of Downtown and Oliver will more than double within the coming generation. It’s going to take a lot of effort – and planning – to make sure we create vibrant urban communities. We need diverse and affordable housing choices, access to active and public transportation, and access to amenities like parks, libraries, local coffee shops and grocery stores.